When the Ottomans Prevented the Portuguese Empire from Stealing Prophet Muhammad's Tomb

The Ottoman Empire fought many battles defending Muslim lands. They repelled Europe’s attacks on the Muslim world and Arab countries. Among these battles is the one it led against the Portuguese empire.

The Portuguese Empire is one of the largest and longest-lived empires in world history, it existed for almost six centuries, from the capture of Ceuta (Morocco) in 1415, to the handover of Portuguese Macau to China in 1999.

The Portuguese led military campaigns towards the Islamic world with two main objectives:

  1. Fight the Islamic world everywhere and in all possible ways.
  2. Steal the tomb of the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, as stated by Afonso de Albuquerque (Duke of Goa): “The first goal of the rally around the Islamic world, is to storm the Prophet’s Mosque and take the remains of the Prophet Muhammad as a bargaining chip to recover Jerusalem from the Muslims”.

Afonso de Albuquerque (1453-1515) was a Portuguese general, a statesman and an empire builder. He advanced the three-fold Portuguese grand scheme of combating Islam, spreading Christianity, and securing the trade of spices by establishing a Portuguese Asian empire. He was the first European of the Renaissance era to raid the Persian Gulf, and he led the first voyage by a European fleet into the Red Sea. His military and administrative works are generally regarded as among the most vital to building and securing the Portuguese Empire in the Orient, the Middle East.

At the beginning of the Portuguese military campaigns, the Islamic world was represented by three political entities (the Ottoman Empire, the Mamluk state and the Safavid state). The Mamluk state was very weak and unable to defend itself. It was defeated by the Portuguese at the Battle of Dio and descended into a state of political turmoil and economic weakness.

As for the Safavid state, it was in a sectarian dispute with the Mamluks and the Ottoman Empire (Shia vs Sunni). Therefore, It chose to refrain from supporting the Mamluks who controlled the territories where the tomb of the Prophet was located. The Ottoman Empire was the most powerful Muslim entity and tried to help the Mamluks. Sultan Beyazid II sent several ships with military equipment to the Mamluks in 1511, but these were intercepted by Crusader pirates. The Portuguese were able to take control of Bahrain, Muscat, Qurayyat, and Aden in Yemen. They tried to reach the prophet’s tomb but the Ottoman Empire brought down the Mamluks regime in the battle of Marj Dabeq in 1516 and were able to stop them.

The intervention of the Ottomans at this critical time demonstrates their awareness of the seriousness of the situation and the need to dislodge the Mamluks so that the Ottoman Empire can lead the Islamic world instead of being merely a player supporting the Mamluks. After annexing Egypt and the Levant, the Ottoman Empire was in direct confrontation with Portugal. This was the start a long struggle to defend Muslim lands and restore what the Mamluks lost. It was able to defeat the Portuguese, and sent troops by order of Suleiman the Magnificent, who ordered Suleiman Pasha, governor of Egypt to head to Jeddah and then Aden, in 1538: the campaign included 20,000 men and 74 ships that brought Yemen under Ottoman rule and ended the Portuguese threat to the Muslim holy sites.