The Ottoman dynasty operated under several basic premises: that the Sultan governed the empire's entire territory, that every male member of the dynastic family was hypothetically eligible to become Sultan, and that only one person at a time could be the Sultan. Such rules were fairly standard for monarchic empires of the time. The certain processes through which men rose to the Sultanate, however, were very specific to the Ottoman Empire. To go into greater detail about these processes, the history of succession between Sultans can be divided into two eras: the period between the reign of Orhan (1323-1362), the first person to inherit the Ottoman sultanate, and the reign of Ahmed I (1603-1617); and the period following Ahmed I's reign.
The succession process during the first period was dominated by violence and intra-familial conflict, in which the various sons of the deceased Sultan fought until only one remained alive and, thus, inherited the throne. This tradition was known as fratricide in the Ottoman Empire, but may have evolved from tanistry, a similar succession procedure that existed in many Turco-Mongolian dynasties predating the Ottomans. Sons of the Sultan were often given provincial territories to govern until the Sultan's death, at which point they would each vie for the throne. Each son had to, according to historian H. Erdem Cipa, “demonstrate that his fortune was superior to the fortunes of his rivals,” a demonstration that often took the form of military accomplishment and ruthlessness. This violence was not considered particularly unexpected or unusual. As Cipa has noted, the Ottoman words for “successor” and “conflict” share the same Arabic root, and indeed, all but one of the successions in this roughly 200-year period involved a resolution by combat. Over time, the combat became increasingly prevalent and recognized, especially after a Jannissary uprising negated Murad II’s attempt to abdicate the throne peacefully to his son, Mehmed II, in 1444. During the eventual reign of Mehmed II (1451-1481), fratricide was legalized as an official practice; during the reign of Bayezid II (1481-1512), fratricide between Bayezid II’s sons occurred before Bayezid II himself died; and after the reign of Murad III (1574-1595), his successor Mehmed III executed 19 relatives in order to claim the throne.
During the second period, the tradition of fratricide was replaced by a simpler and less violent procedure. Starting with the succession from Ahmed I to Mustafa I in 1617, the Ottoman throne was inherited by the eldest male blood relative — not necessarily son — of the Sultan, regardless of how many eligible family members were alive. The change in succession procedure was likely instigated by numerous factors, including fratricide’s decline in popularity among Ottoman elites and Ahmed I’s decision not to kill Mustafa when inheriting the throne from Mehmed III in 1603. With the door opened for a change in policy, a political debate arose between those who supported unrestricted Sultanic privilege and those who supported a stronger, centralized law system that would supersede even the Sultan’s power to an extent. Historian Baki Tezcan has argued that the latter faction — with the help of the influential şeyhülislam
Hocasadeddinzade Esad Efendi — was able to prevail in this instance. The bloodless succession from Ahmed I to Mustafa I in 1617 “provided a reference for the eventual stabilization of the rule of Ottoman succession, the very regulation of which by an outside force was in effect a constitutional check on the dynastic prerogative,” Tezcan has written. The precedent set in 1617 stuck, as the eldest living family member successfully inherited the throne in each of the following 21 successions, with relatively few instances of a son inheriting the throne.