Working Paper 143

Ruling over Ethnic and Religious Differences: a comparative essay on empires

Günther Schlee

Abteilung ‚Integration und Konflikt’

Jahr der Veröffentlichung


Working Paper 143

Social systems do not exist in isolation but as parts of larger systems comprising interactions on various scales up to the global level. They are, however, discernible by the density of internal relationships, which justifies a special focus on them as separate sub-systems of larger units. Apart from studying such sub-systems in their interaction, they can be treated as separate cases and compared with each other. This paper looks at historical materials drawn from a number of empires in both ways: as separate cases with an internal logic of rule and as historically interconnected entities, which derive models of rule from their predecessors. Taking the Moghul Empire in northern India and its Central Asian precursors and models as its starting point, the paper examines relations of sameness and difference among the components of empires. The other examples presented in this paper are the Ottoman Empire and the British in the Sudan. These cases are historically interconnected. The British were part of the ethnic diversity of the Moghul Empire, acting, initially, as Moghul agents. Later, they did the same for Ottomans and their Egyptian offshoots before they managed to assume the leading role themselves. The focus of the paper, however, is not on historical interconnections but on typological comparisons. Recurrent features of the empires under examination include, first, the levelling of ethnic differences among members of the ruling elite, i.e. the amalgamation of the leading strata often by means of individual assimilation, and second, the maintenance and even formalisation and instrumentalisation of ethnic difference between rulers and the ruled and within ruled populations. The aim of the paper is to open comparative perspectives and to raise questions. No final analysis of even one case is attempted.

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