The Ottoman Empire and Sufism
During the seven centuries of its existence the Ottoman State developed a strong, yet distinctive, relationship with Islam. In the service of the state, Islam was a popular political medium that was enormously influential and authoritative among the empire’s Muslim population. In order to justify the use of Islam as a channel for political stability, the empire took great efforts to preserve the religious administration, the class of ulema (which was granted enormous authority), in order that it could serve the wellbeing and stability of the state.
At the same time, other groups within the empire developed interpretations of Islam that were often independent and at odds with state-sanctioned dogma. These were the spiritual fraternities, or tarikats. In contrast to the ulema, the tarikats were theoretically independent of the state, and on the whole they represented diverse social and occasionally political segments of the Ottoman population. Nevertheless it would be a mistake to consider the tarikats and the ulema as incessantly conflicting forces, since membership in both regularly overlapped. Most of the Sufi orders during this period of Ottoman history were clearly orthodox in outlook, namely the Naqshibandis, conformist Melami-Bayramis, Qadiris, Rifa’is and the very influential Khalwatis. Like the ulema class, the power and influence of the tarikats was widespread within the Ottoman Empire. Yet tarikat association encompassed individuals from all social, economic, and political spheres, ranging from the lowest peasant to the palace, whereas members of the ulema tended to be drawn from particular sections of society.
As mentioned above the majority of Ottoman tarikats were supporters of the existing order, including the ulema establishment and its official dogma that was upheld by the state. Nonetheless, there were a number of tarikats whose affiliates espoused radical interpretations of Islam, and who would often turn out to be embittered opponents of the ulema class and, by extension, the state. The central administration spent a great amount of effort to control or eradicate these groups, and at times went as far as executing their leaders. The Ottoman State, which used Sunni Islam to legitimize its power, could hardly tolerate nonconformist departures from official dogma.
In essence the difference between the so-called orthodox and heterodox tarikats lay in their doctrines. While most tarikats (even normative ones) approved of the concept of vahdet-i vucud in one form or another, and had often visibly Shi’i propensities, heterodox groups were generally charged with taking these two concepts to extremes. The notion of pantheism (an immoderate reading of the widely acknowledged notion of vahdet-i vucud) that developed in heterodox Sufi movements also merged with the notions that these groups ascribed to their şeyhs, their spiritual guides.
Before the 13th century Sufis were seen more or less as religious teachers or exemplary ascetics rather than divine intermediaries and wonderworkers. But as the tarikats developed more defined hierarchical structures in the wake of the Mongol invasions, the position of the şeyh (the spiritual master and guide) was advanced to that of a holy man, one who exerted spiritual command as a mediator between man and God, and who possessed Divine grace (keramet). Despite their seemingly otherworldly concerns, the beliefs of these Sufis did on occasion have serious political repercussions. If a certain şeyh was able to amass a considerable following of loyal followers, and if that şeyh’s followers believed that he was indeed the kutb (axis) of the universe, then the status of the Ottoman sultan (or any other secular ruler for that matter) would be in question. The kutb was seen as being the real sovereign of both spiritual and material worlds bestowed with the ability to transform social unrest into revolutionary action.
A şeyh’s spiritual magnetism allowed him to form a single, united movement from very diverse elements and backgrounds. When these tarikat or quasi-tarikat groups crossed the fine line between the spiritual and political realms, the Ottoman state intervened, frightful of the appeal of these movements which often combined assertive messianic themes with programs of social and political reorganization. Many of the early movements (like the Kızılbaş, Celalis and Bedrettinists) presented a significant threat to Ottoman power, especially when they found support from rebellious princes or in neighboring Safavid Persia. One of these movements that were consciously blurring the lines between spiritual and political domains was the Bayrami-Melami tarikat.