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Film & TV

What Muslims Can Learn from the Turkish TV Series Ertugrul

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Here’s an in-depth look at what the hit TV-series Dirilis Ertugrul gets right, and also what it gets wrong.

I have recently become addicted to the hit Turkish drama Ertugrul. For those who are unfamiliar with this show, it follows the exploits of a Turkish tribal warrior named Ertugrul during the 13th century when Turkish nomadic tribes were in the process of conquering and settling Anatolia.

The first season shows the title character’s Kayi tribe migrating from pasture lands that can no longer support its herds and livestock to new lands near the Syrian city of Aleppo while the second season shows the Kayi tribe migrating back to Anatolia in advance of a pending Mongol attack [1]. The series provides rich historical detail regarding the religious, cultural, social, political, economic, and military dynamics that eventually led to the conquest of Anatolia by Turkish tribes.

Ertugrul and the Kayi tribe are of particular interest because Ertugrul is the historical figure who fathered Osman, the founder of the Ottoman Empire. The show, therefore, provides a window into many of the ideals and values that helped shape the foundations for one of the most powerful and long-lasting empires the world has ever seen.   

As a Muslim who grew up in America, I was initially attracted to the show because it depicts Muslims and Islamic practices and values in a positive light, and I have spent most of my life watching fictional depictions of Muslims that are the opposite. I also love the attention to historical detail provided by the show’s creators. Despite being a fictional drama, I believe the detailed depiction of Islamic and Turkish values and culture in the show can provide valuable lessons to Muslims because it takes place during a time when Muslims were still powerful and more closely adhered to the original values of Islam.

As such, this discussion will provide an analysis of the ideas and values depicted in Ertugrul with a view towards suggesting what today’s Muslims can learn from its historical depictions.   

What Ertugrul Gets Right

The need for unity

Ertugrul does a wonderful job of highlighting important Islamic values. The primary lesson contemporary Muslims should take away from Ertugrul is how important unity is to the preservation of the Muslim community.

Throughout the show, the Kayi tribe’s many enemies engage in subterfuge meant to divide and weaken the leadership of the tribe and to prevent them from forming alliances with other groups of Muslims such as the ruler of Aleppo or the Seljuk dynasty. Ertugrul must constantly fight against the instincts of his brother and other tribesmen who do not view attacks on other Muslims as a danger to their own survival and who resent Ertugrul for leading Kayi warriors into battle to defend other, non-Kayi Muslims.

As Ertugrul’s ally Wild Demir points out, burying one’s head in sand like an ostrich is not a plan. Similarly, ignoring the slaughter of other Muslims because they are from a different tribe or country will only embolden and strengthen those who seek to divide and conquer Muslims. Just because we may not be related by tribal or even linguistic bonds to other Muslims does not relieve us of our duty to protect each other.

Part of the reason contemporary Muslims are so weak is because we have divided ourselves into separate nations and tribes and focus more on our ethnic, linguistic, or doctrinal differences than our common Islamic bonds in direct contradiction of God’s commands. Though it may seem overly simplistic, the need for unity among Muslims cannot be overstated and is one of the primary Islamic values that must be re-emphasized if today’s Muslims are ever going to regain control over their own lands. This becomes even more obvious when one considers that there is no single Muslim nation with the size and resources to compete with the great powers of the world like the US, China, or Russia.

In order to develop the strength to compete with these powers, Muslims must emphasize the need for unity so that they can create new entities with the same size, power, and resources as the Ottoman Empire once was.   

Ertugrul emphasizes the need for unity throughout the series in different ways. For example, in one scene Ertugrul’s alps come upon alps from the Dodurga tribe who have been captured by the Mongols. Although these alps have fought against Ertugrul and were even hunting him when they were captured, his alps still save them. Their willingness to forget their disagreements with their rivals and still fight to save them is an important lesson for contemporary Muslims who seem to spend more time bickering among each other than working together.

In the same way that Ertugrul’s alps were willing to put their differences aside and help their fellow Muslims, contemporary Muslims must also bury their animosities and disagreements so that they can begin to work together to build a better future for themselves.   

Throughout the series, Ertugrul and his men take great care not to kill other Muslims, even when those Muslims are trying to kill them. At one point, Ertugrul fights his cousin Tugmetkin and his men but makes sure not to kill any of them. This also subtlety emphasizes the need for unity since the murder of other Muslims, even in self-defense and even if it is for a good cause, will inevitably fracture the Muslim community. This is particularly true when the other Muslims, such as Tugmetkin, have been deceived into attacking their fellow Muslims. Ertugrul’s restraint against Muslims who are trying to kill him is a testament to his understanding that murdering these men will only strengthen his enemies.

Since the first Muslim civil war, Muslims have been too quick to shed each other’s blood and the consequences of this violence are the deep divisions that continue to separate us today. Violence must be an extreme last resort among Muslims, and it must only be used by governments that have been democratically chosen from among the members of the community against those who have committed grave crimes.

In the same way that Ertugrul’s father would not execute his rival, Kurdoglu, without strong evidence, the state’s monopoly on violence must only be exercised in extreme cases after all the evidence has been fairly reviewed and due process has been given to the accused. Aside from this rare exception, violence among Muslims can never be tolerated. Ertugrul seems to understand this as well.   

How Muslim leaders should conduct themselves

Another extremely important lesson we can learn from Ertugrul relates to how Muslim leaders should conduct themselves. Ertugrul does not seek wealth or power to satisfy his ego. In fact, he must be convinced by his loved ones that he should take over the leadership of the Kayi tribe because he keeps insisting that he prefers hunting over being the ruler. He always prioritizes the welfare of his people and believes that it is his duty to serve them.

Leadership is not a vehicle to wealth and power for Ertugrul, instead, it is a burden and a duty. Since he does not attempt to acquire power in order to enrich himself and views himself as duty-bound to protect not just his Kayi tribe, but all Muslims, Ertugrul is able to attract loyal soldiers who are not interested in wealth either. Instead of wealth and power, Ertugrul and his men are bound together by a common sense of duty that is rooted in their Islamic worldview.

As such, Ertugrul, though clearly the leader of his men, relates to them as a loving brother. He does not use fear or violence to motivate them and he even serves them food on several occasions. His humility, kindness towards his subordinates, sense of duty and justice, and unwavering commitment to protect his fellow Muslims are his greatest strengths and exemplify the ideal Muslim ruler. This is best contrasted by his cousin, Tugmetkin, who is a brave but young and immature member of the Dodurga tribe allied to the Kayis.

Tugmetkin is primarily motivated by ego since he wishes to be seen as a great leader and warrior. Since his primary motivation is rooted in arrogance and ego, he is not an effective leader and must often resort to humiliating his men or harsh corporal punishments to maintain discipline. Tugmetkin is not the only example of poor leadership depicted in Ertugrul. The ruler of Aleppo and many of the leaders of the Kayi and Dodurga tribes are only interested in power so that they can live luxurious lifestyles, accumulate wealth, or satisfy their egos.  

Ertugrul’s leadership qualities and the way in which he treats his people are also important in helping him to turn his Alps into a highly effective fighting force. This is part of the process Ibn Khaldun first described relating to the development of “group feeling” [2] and how this leads to attaining what he terms “royal authority.” According to Ibn Khaldun, “group feeling” refers to the feelings of kinship and loyalty that cause people to work and fight together for their mutual betterment. The term “group feeling” is therefore a shorthand way of describing why and how members of a particular tribe or group develop the military ability to assert political control over their societies by attaining “royal authority.”

In Ertugrul, the Kayi tribe develops superior military abilities because the personal loyalty and feelings of brotherhood its warriors develop towards each other provide exceptional cohesion to its fighting units. The strong “group feeling” of the Kayis allows them to take full advantage of the martial abilities their nomadic lifestyle provides. All the Turkmen tribes in Ertugrul have similar lifestyles, thus all their alps are excellent archers, cavalrymen, scouts, and light infantry. What separates the Kayis from the other tribes such as the Cavdars or Dodurgas is that their “group feeling” is stronger.

This is primarily rooted in the fact that the leaders of the Kayi tribe both in their personal relationships and interactions and in the way they carry out their public leadership roles always strive to be fair, honest, and generous. They treat the members of their tribe and their warriors as family. They share their food and wealth with them and never hoard more than their fair share. Many of the tribe’s warriors refer to Ertugrul’s mother as their own mother. This is because many of them lost their parents fighting the Mongols and were subsequently raised by Ertugrul’s family.

By developing a leadership style that emphasizes fairness, advancement through merit, and trust, Ertugrul allows the Kayis and their allies to develop the sort of “group feeling” that provides them with significant military advantages, and this allows Ertugrul to expand his inner circle by developing alliances with others outside of his tribe based on their similar worldviews and values. By treating his allies and warriors as family, Ertugrul creates a “group feeling” among his supporters that gives them strong feelings of loyalty and trust which, in turn, allows them to fight better together. This is consistent with Ibn Khaldun’s view that “group feeling” can only be attained by developing an ethos based on justice and fairness. 

The need to retain control over the economy and the need for free trade

Ertugrul also correctly highlights that allowing outsiders economic control will eventually lead to conquest. In the first season, the Crusaders trick both the ruler of Aleppo and the Kayis into entering into trade agreements that make them more vulnerable to their machinations.

Though trade, even between rivals, can often be beneficial to both parties, Ertugrul and the Muslim world’s history of colonial exploitation show that allowing outsiders too much control over the means of economic production will eventually undermine the health and strength of the economy and this will eventually lead to conquest and subjugation. Again, the relevant distinction here is control versus healthy trade. As Ertugrul correctly illustrates, the former is to be avoided at all costs.

Though Ertugrul does not deal with the subject of international trade in detail, the history of the Muslim world shows that this can have a positive impact on economic development so long as it is properly managed and does not lead to ceding control over the means of production or undermine them in some way.    

Another lesson Muslims should learn from Ertugrul is the need to promote the free exchange of goods, people, and ideas between the entire Muslim world. Ertugrul depicts a Muslim world that is integrated through interconnected layers of political alliances, trade networks, and religious networks. These connections and the infrastructure that supported them helped to create what was essentially a free trade zone that allowed for the movement of goods, people, and ideas throughout the Islamic world in a manner that helped it to develop a common culture and integrated economy.

The Kayis’ interactions with merchants indicate they are part of a trade network that extends to many far-flung parts of the Muslim world. Though Muslims quickly divided themselves politically, most of the Islamic world has historically been linked through commercial links that were reinforced by the ease with which both people and ideas could travel throughout it. The European conquest of the Muslim world destroyed these links and the dictators that rule the region today have refused to re-create them out of fear that doing so would threaten their power.

If Muslims are ever going to resurrect themselves, they must rebuild these links and they must not limit themselves to only commercial ties. They must also rebuild the social and cultural connections that used to bind Muslims together by creating new multi-national organizations that can allow Muslims to develop bonds with each other based on a wide variety of interests such as sports, hobbies, religion, art, poetry, common professional or commercial interests such as trade associations or associations of lawyers, scientists, teachers, law enforcement officials, etc.

Reinforcing such bonds by promoting tourism between Muslim countries and building linked infrastructure to facilitate this exchange of goods, people, and ideas will be vital to promoting the integration of Muslims. For example, one of the show’s main characters, Ibn Arabi, was born in Andalusia. Despite being born in modern-day Spain, Ibn Arabi is welcomed by the Turkish speaking Kayis in Anatolia and becomes an important spiritual guide for the tribe. He also uses his influence to convince Ertugrul to join a Sufi order. By highlighting this order, the show is illustrating how Muslims from different tribal or ethnic backgrounds used such organizations to create ties to each other that transcended their ethnic or tribal identities.

The depiction of Sufi brotherhoods that are comprised of members from different parts of the Islamic world can also serve as a guide for the creation of new organizations that can use similar methods to unite Muslims in a way that can overcome their ethnic or linguistic differences. However, since religious associations are not the only way to promote cultural exchange in the modern world, contemporary Muslims should seek to create new international organizations focused on a wide range of interests such as those listed above.

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What Ertugrul Gets Wrong

The marginalization of women and workers does in fact hurt Muslims 

Overall, the values and lessons gleaned from Ertugrul are based on positive depictions of Islamic values and Turkish culture; however, there are also lessons to be learned from some of the shortcomings depicted in the show. The primary lesson in this category relates to the division of power within the Kayi tribe.

Though a meeting of tribal notables called a “headquarters” is held to settle disputes and formulate policy, power is overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of the tribe’s ruler, the Bey, and this power seems to be disproportionately derived from military power. Two classes of people appear to be permanently excluded from power: the workers who manufacture the tribe’s goods or oversee its food production, and its women.  

Headquarter meetings provide a way to get input from the tribe’s notables and matters are usually settled by a vote. These nascent democratic mechanisms help the tribe to formulate intelligent policies and plans. The problem with these meetings is that they exclude all but the most influential members of the tribe. Also, the process used to determine who attends these meetings is unclear but seems to favor men who have proven themselves fighting for the tribe.

The accumulation of power by the tribe’s warriors and the exclusion of the tribe’s workers such as its shepherds and craftsmen from headquarter meetings create an excessive reliance on the tribe’s military class to develop policies. During times of war (such as an impending Mongol attack) it makes sense to defer to the military; however, based on the depictions in Ertugrul, this division of power seems to have been permanent.

Ertugrul depicts the beginning of the Ottoman Empire which eventually collapsed because its military class developed considerably more power than its business class. They then used their political power to allocate far too many resources to the military which undermined the economic foundations of the Empire, particularly once the Ottoman military was no longer able to conquer new territory to exploit. When viewed in this light, the ramifications of the division of power within the Kayi tribe become easier to understand.

As such, when contemporary Muslims look at how power is distributed in the Kayi tribe, they must understand that the tribe’s excessive reliance on its warriors to make decisions without input from the economically productive members of the tribe is an inherent weakness and that this weakness was present throughout the Ottoman Empire and is still present in far too many modern Muslim societies.   

The second class of people routinely excluded from the tribe’s headquarter meetings are its women. The only woman who consistently participates in these meetings is Ertugrul’s mother, Hayme, and her participation does not occur until after her husband’s death. The lack of political power by the tribe’s women reflects the wider marginalization of women within it.

The female characters in Ertugrul are often extremely intelligent and perceptive. They usually have an easier time recognizing who they can trust and who is only serving their own selfish interests than their male counterparts. Despite their clear abilities and talents, aside from Ertugrul’s mother, they are prevented from assuming overt political or military power. Instead, the women in Ertugrul must resort to manipulative tactics in order to have their voices heard. Though the show often depicts these women as being unscrupulous or overly ambitious, their willingness to resort to tricks to accumulate power is a natural consequence of their inability to assume direct power or even routinely participate in headquarter meetings. When one considers the harem intrigue that caused so much damage during the Ottoman era, one must consider the underlying cause of this intrigue which is directly related to the exclusion of women from power.   

Though excluding women from power was routine during Ertugrul’s time, this same dynamic has continued to haunt contemporary Muslims who still marginalize women. The exclusion of women from power despite their obvious talents solely because of their gender is an indictment of Muslim men who often twist the tenets of the Islamic faith to justify their behavior.

This is particularly frustrating when compared to how women were treated during the era of the Rashidun. The headquarter meetings depicted in Ertugrul are very similar to the meetings held during the Rashidun era to decide policies; however, during this era women were active participants in these meetings. The Caliph Omar even appointed a woman as the head of the market in Medina, which is roughly analogous to appointing a woman as the head of the department of commerce in modern times. Instead of being allowed to utilize their talents for the betterment of the entire Muslim community, Muslim women have been marginalized and disenfranchised in direct contravention of the precedents established under the Rashidun in a manner that has greatly contributed to the Muslim world’s weakness and stagnation. It is impossible to grow and develop in the modern world while preventing half of the potential labor force from participating to the full extent of their talents.

Though Ertugrul is presented as a wise and brave ruler, in my opinion, his sister-in-law Selcan is the most capable member of the Kayi tribe. She is always the first to diagnose subterfuge, has the sharpest business acumen, is brave, and would make a worthy ruler. The fact that she is automatically excluded from power explains her volatile personality as she must constantly force people to listen to her while Ertugrul can simply speak during a headquarters meeting. Despite being smarter than almost everyone around her, Selcan is constantly ignored or told to keep her opinions to herself. If Selcan were a man, her intelligence would have catapulted her to a position of leadership but since she is a woman she is ignored and marginalized. The fact that her talents are wasted is an indictment of the tribe’s political structure and the Muslim world in general.

The sad truth is that nearly 800 years after the events in Ertugrul, women in the Muslim world are still denied the opportunity to realize their talents and this is one of the main reasons Muslims are so weak and impoverished.

Glorifying war is not the way to promote an Islamic re-birth

Another important lesson Muslims should learn from Ertugrul is that its glorification of violence is no longer appropriate. The first two seasons show the Kayi tribe under direct attack from both Crusaders and Mongols. The tribe’s military actions are all defensive in nature and, as such, are presented in a morally defensible light. However, it is important to remember that not all Ottoman military actions were defensive in nature.

The Ottoman Empire was historically expansionist in its outlook, which means that many of its wars were wars of choice. Instead of relying on simplistic tropes that paint the West (or the Crusaders in Ertugrul) as being motivated only by greed and hatred of Muslims, we must understand how our own actions have contributed to the animosity between Muslims and Christians and we must stop seeking solutions that are only based on war.

In the same way that the political power of the tribe’s warriors likely caused them to place too much emphasis on military solutions, contemporary Muslims have also been too quick to use war to settle their disputes. The excessive reliance on military power has taken away valuable resources from education and scientific development which are the real basis for civilizational power. The truth is that war is evil. It is chaos, death, and destruction. War should never be glorified and must only be entered into as an absolute last resort because nothing good comes of war. All wars do is create widows and orphans and destroy families which, in turn, destroys society.   

In Ertugrul, violence is primarily directed towards Crusaders and Mongols that wish to conquer Muslim territory. The reality is that most violence within the Muslim world is perpetrated by Muslims against other Muslims. If the message of Pan-Islamic unity articulated in Ertugrul is ever going to become a reality, Muslims must learn to emphasize economic and political cooperation as a means to achieving unity amongst ourselves and we must realize that war is not the true path. Again, Ertugrul does not appear to advocate for such violence since the military action from the first two seasons is all defensive in nature, but the glorification of war has often been used to justify fratricidal wars among Muslims or wars of conquest against non-Muslims.

If Muslims are ever going to unite it cannot be through war. It must be through peaceful and voluntary economic and political integration. A union of Muslims based on war and death could only ever lead to tyranny and dictatorship. Only a union of Muslims freely entered into and based on Islamic ideas of unity, equality, justice, and integrity that are implemented by the creation of democratic political institutions that fairly share power among Muslims without allowing any one tribe or group of Muslims to unfairly dominate the others can successfully unite Muslims.  

Instead of turning itself into a militarized state, a union of Muslim nations would be better served by investing in its educational institutions so that Muslims can begin developing their scientific abilities. If contemporary Muslims are ever going to follow Ertugrul’s example and resurrect themselves, it will not be through war but by revitalizing the culture and intellectual climate of the Islamic world so that it can reclaim its historical place as the world’s leader in these fields.

Muslims once invented algebra, gave Aristotle new life and meaning, pioneered the medical sciences, and were the main drivers of culture, technological innovation, and science in the world. We must return to our previous ways of prioritizing intellectual honesty and critical analysis so that we can begin producing a new generation of thinkers that can contribute to humanity’s intellectual development. Glorifying war, though it makes for more exciting television, is not the way to promote the re-birth of the Muslim world.   

Conclusion

Ertugrul is one of my favorite television shows, but it is still just a television show. It can provide valuable lessons for Muslims if they examine its various messages and subplots with a critical eye. If Muslims are ever going to resurrect Islamic civilization, we must do so in a way that accounts for the realities of the modern world while still adhering to the appropriate Islamic values.

We must invest in our educational institutions and fundamentally change our cultural attitudes towards discussing taboo subjects. And we must allow our fellow Muslims to live their personal lives as they see fit without interference so that people can feel free to express themselves and follow their passions without fear. This is the only way to unleash people’s creative energy and this energy is the key to technological innovation and growth. It is impossible to limit artistic, personal, or political expression and still create an environment that is conducive to technological innovation or intellectual growth.

Authoritarian tendencies bleed over into all aspects of society and even if officially limited to certain areas such as political speech, they will affect unrelated academic areas. If Muslims ever hope to re-establish their former power consistent with the themes developed in Ertugrul we must begin by creating an atmosphere that is conducive to technological innovation and strong economic growth as these are necessary precursors to developing the sort of military abilities that will be necessary to prevent further conquests of Muslim lands. Such inclusive and tolerant attitudes will also be key to uniting Muslims.

The Muslim world is so large and diverse that only a culture that embraces diversity and peaceful co-existence can facilitate the union of Muslims. Those Muslims who wish to see the unity of the Muslim community restored must therefore embrace Islamic notions of tolerance and compassion as well as the idea that there is no compulsion in religion. Muslims who seek to impose their religious views on others through force or violence are hypocrites because their views and actions prevent the very unity that will be necessary in order to end the subservience of the Muslim world and the slaughter of innocent Muslims in so many parts of the world.  

This brings us to Ertugrul’s last and most painful lesson. There is no real-life Ertugrul. Instead of waiting for an idealized hero to come save us, Muslims must begin to work together to build the sort of institutions that can unite and strengthen us and that can finally provide the Muslim world with the leadership it so desperately needs. Part of the reason the Muslim world has been so devoid of leadership is that its institutions and culture have proven incapable of producing the sort of selfless and clear-sighted leaders that characterized the early Ottoman period. It is unrealistic to expect rulers to be selfless on their own.

Instead of expecting rulers to voluntarily put the interest of the community ahead of their own personal interests, Muslims must begin to create governments that feature institutional mechanisms that can act as a restraint on the selfish impulses of their rulers. The lesson Muslims must learn from Ertugrul is that if we want our leaders to act like Ertugrul we must create the sort of political institutions and culture that can attract honest people and that can incentivize them to put the needs of the community first.

The only way to counter the inherently selfish nature of human beings is by developing institutional checks on the power of rulers so that they can no longer use their power to accumulate personal wealth. Instead of empowering rulers that seek wealth and comfort, Muslims must focus on finding rulers that prioritize fighting injustice and defending the weak. We can use Ertugrul’s example as a guide, but ultimately, it is up to the people of the Muslim world to begin building the sort of institutions and culture that can force Muslim leaders to finally start prioritizing the needs of their people over their own selfish desires.   


References

[1] The present discussion is primarily based on the first 2.5 seasons of the show.

 

[2] Khaldun, Ibn, Trans by Franz Rosenthal. The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. Princeton University Press. Princeton and Oxford.  1967. At pgs. 107-111.

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