Spiritual Life in Ottoman Turkey
Abdal Hakim Murad
During the first, formative centuries of its existence, the Ottoman state typically grounded its claims to legitimacy in its successful implementation of the gazi tradition of triumphant war against Byzantium. Dwelling in retreats in the mountains of north-western Anatolia, from which they descended gradually to wrest control of the Bithynian plain from their Christian foes, the first Ottomans were typically men of the sword with little time either for a sophisticated contemplative mysticism or for formal scholarship.As the rulers of villagers and nomadic pastoralists with no longstanding institutions of Islamic learning, the early Anatolian Turks practised a distinctive version of Islam nourished in part by their Central Asian roots. Those roots were ultimately shamanistic: before their conversion to Islam the Turkish religious life had centred on the ozan, the shaman who made auguries for his clan, cast spells, and presided over its collective rites. The slow infiltration of Islam among the Turks from the ninth century onwards replaced the ozan with the Muslim figure of the ata, who transmitted a rudimentary form of Sufism to his people. The ata also taught the virtues of the gaza, the war for God, which would inculcate the virtues of self-denial and chivalry, and bring to the sincere gazi the prospectof everlasting reward in Paradise.[i]
This Sufi vision cherished by simple cavalrymen gave the Turks a military prowess whose achievements in some ways recalled the early conquests of Islam. The first Ottoman sultans were urged to continue the fight for the faith by spiritual guides whose fame and sanctity had brought them into the intimate circle of the ruler, thereby adding to his charisma. The most prominent example was Ak Semseddin (d.1459), the physician, mystic poet and Sufi instructor (seyh) who encouraged Mehmed II to conquer Constantinople, and who preached the first Friday sermon at the former cathedral of Aya Sofya.[ii] The power of his spiritual impact, as well as the Islamic sophistication of the ruler, are evident in much of Mehmed’s poetry, as in a lyric poem where the sultan uses the classical Sufi metaphors of spiritual drunkenness to affirm his dependence on his preceptor:
Again, let us away, intoxicated, to the tavern of ruin,Ottoman’s Spirituality | 2 Let us boast of our service to the wine-presser!
Let us watch as he brings from the wine-jar something for the world.
Let us scale Mount Sinai and again commune with God.[iii]
The Conqueror’s refined spiritual literacy was the product of over a century of cultural development in the Ottoman realm. Following the capture of Bursa in 1326 and the subsequent creation of a large Ottoman urban class, the unlettered Turkish nomads who migrated to the cities had been introduced to a more classical Islamic piety by Sufi poets of a didactic and orthodox tendency, who wrote in the vernacular so as to be understood. Among these masses, particularly influential were works such as the Mevlidof Süleyman Çelebi (d.1422), a great anthem for the birthday of the Prophet, which unlike most earlier attempts at creating a Turkish Islamic poetic tradition was much more than the mere translation of a Persian original. Prose works began to appear, chief among which is the Muzekki en-Nufûs of Esrefoglu Rumi of Iznik (d.1469). His declared intention of writing ‘in simple Turkish’ to attract support among ordinary people without a high Islamic education is also evident in his popular collection of mystical poems.[iv]
Thanks to such literary proselytising, and under the sultans’ guidance and patronage, by the time Constantinople had been won for Islam in 1453 the Ottoman state and much of the urban population had committed itself definitively to the orthoprax Hanafi school of law, the orthodox Moturidi theology, and to a variety of Sufi tarikats.
In the complex patterns of post-conquest Ottoman society, three hierarchies came to wield spiritual power over the populace and maintained a stable ascendancy which only began to be broken with the onset of Westernising reform in the mid-nineteenth century.
Firstly, there was the ilmiyye (‘learned’) institution which provided the muftis, judges, schoolteachers and mosque imams for the empire,[v] a single hierarchy which culminated in the supreme office of the seyhülislam, who handed down authoritative doctrine and legal opinion to the entire empire. This ‘official’ Islam, which legitimised and in turn enjoyed the financial patronage of the state, provided the formal religious backbone of Ottoman Muslim society.
Secondly, there was the self-financing but officially sanctioned network of guilds (esnaf). These, which evolved more complex forms in Ottoman society than elsewhere in the Islamic world, grew from informal fraternities of young men, often bachelors known as ahis, who subscribed to the canons known collectively Ottoman’s Spirituality | 3 as fütüvvet, a principle which may lie at the source of the chivalric ideal in the West. Mutually supportive, morally upright, and devoted to the ideal model of fütüvvet that was the caliph Ali (r.a.), these groups had by the fifteenth century evolved into formal guilds which probably included almost all urban craftsmen. The governing documents of these guilds, known asfütüvvet-nâmes, detailed not only the religious and moral duties of the guild members, but also the degrees of rank which stretched from the humble grade of apprentice up to the headship of the guild. Often each apprentice (nâzil) would be allocated a ‘senior on the path’ (yol atasi) and, from among more senior apprentices, two ‘brothers’ (yol kardesleri) to assist and counsel him. The organisation of some vocations was much more hierarchically rigid than others, and the leatherworkers, in particular, came to recognise one universal ‘guide’, the Ahi Baba, whose grand lodge was at the Anatolian town of Kirsehir, and whose authority was often acknowledged by other guilds as well.[vi]
The third spiritual hierarchy in Ottoman Turkey was provided by the Sufi orders (tarikats). Many dozens of these groups appear down the six centuries of Ottoman history; but for our purposes it will suffice to summarise two broad tendencies.The first is represented by the Sufi cults of the tribal hinterlands where the high Islamic teaching of the religious colleges (medreses) had not penetrated. These tarikats grew up around charismatic leaders who were prone to making dramatic claims to mahdistic or messianic status, and whose attitude to the orthodoxy preached by the ulema was, more often than not, somewhat contemptuous. An example was Barak Baba of Tokat, an early fourteenth century dervish whose appearance strongly recalled the Turcoman shamanistic patrimony. He wore only a red loincloth and a turban adorned with two buffalo horns. Wandering the streets with his similarly attired disciples, he would blow a horn, play a drum, and dance. While he beat soundly any of his followers who neglected the canonical prayers, he failed to keep the fast of Ramadan. His beliefs, apparently shared by many others, involved faith in reincarnation, and an extreme devotion to the caliph Ali.[vii]
Such antinomianism drove a range of other movements. One such was the loosely defined Kalendar brotherhood of ragged wanderers, often indifferent to the normative rules of Islamic practice (sari‘at), who gathered in their own lodges (kalendarhanes) where, at least according to the chroniclers, all manner of wickedness took place. The chiliastic beliefs of some of these tarikats did more than simply scandalise the orthodox: they could end in open rebellion against the authorities. The most disastrous from the Ottoman viewpoint was the Safavid tarikat,
which, although founded by the orthodox Safi al-Din Ardabili (d.1334), was suddenly Ottoman’s Spirituality | 4converted to extreme Shi’ism at the hands of his fourth successor, Seyh Cüneid (d.1460). Cüneid’s grandson Isma’il (d.1524) claimed to be both God Himself and a reincarnation of Ali.[viii] Under Isma’il, whose deputies were mainly Turcoman nomad chieftains from Anatolia, the formerly Sunni country of < w:st="on">Iran was
forcibly converted to Shi’ism amid extreme scenes of massacre and religious
persecution which are more reminiscent of sixteenth-century European history than of that of the Middle East.[ix]
Such examples drove the Ottomans to suppress the extreme (ghulat) Shi’i tarikats on their territory. This was partly achieved through the execution or deportation of those of their members who were in rebellion against the state, and partly through the official encouragement of other popular tarikats which contrived to combine a devotion to the figure of ‘Ali with a loyalist attitude to the Ottoman rulers.
Most significant in this category was the Bektashi order of dervishes. Its founder, Haci Bektas, was an immigrant who came to Anatolia from Khurasan at some point in the late thirteenth century. A work reliably attributed to him, the Makalat, shows him to have been a learned Sufi who recognised the necessity of adherence to the sari‘at. He describes the forty ‘stations’ of the Sufi path, ten under each of the classic heads of Sari‘at (the Law), Tarikat (the Way), Hakikat (the Truth), and Ma’rifat (Knowledge). The stations of Tarikat, for instance, are: repentance (tevbe), aspiration (iradet), dervishhood (dervislik), mortification (mücahede), service to the brethren (hidmet), fear of God (hawf), hope in Him (ümid), the special dress code and regalia of the Bektashi way, love for the absent Beloved (muhabbet) and passion upon experiencing Him (ask).[x]
Despite the seemingly mainstream origins of the Bektashis, the process which had subverted the Safavis was soon at work, and subsequent generations of rural Turks introduced the ghulat beliefs which are said to characterise the tarikat to this day. But despite the hostility of the ilmiyye institution, the staunch loyalism of the Bektashis offered the sultans a means of harnessing the Alid piety of the Turcomans in the service of the state. The Janissaries, the slave-infantry which made up the core of the Ottoman army until the early nineteenth century, were usually affiliated to this tarikat.
The second type of Ottoman Sufism is represented by a range of more solidly
orthodox tarikats. Among the most conspicuous of these was the Naksibendiye, founded by Baha’ al-Din Naqshband of Bukhara. Within a century of its founder’s death in 1389, the first Naksibendi tekke (dervish lodge) had been established in Ottoman’s Spirituality | 5 Istanbul by Molla Abdullah Ilahi, an itinerant scholar from the Anatolian town of Simav who had received the Naksibendi initiation from Khwaja ‘Ubaydullah Ahrar in Samarqand. After his return to < w:st="on">Turkey, Molla Ilahi launched a largescale mission among the Turks, calling them to orthodox Islam. His literary legacy in three languages includes works such as the Way of the Seekers (Maslak al-TalibIn), and his famous Travelling-fare of the Lovers (Zad al-Mushtaqin). A ‘second founder’ of the Naksibendi order in < w:st="on">Turkey was Mawlana Khalid Baghdadi (d.1827), a Kurd who brought the Naksibendi-Mujaddidi order from Delhi and worked to ensure its diffusion throughout the empire.[xi] Partly because their staunch orthodoxy recommended them to the ulema, the Naksibendiye were among the most widespread and politically and socially influential Ottoman tarikats. Their impact today on many Turkish religious politicians is said to
Other key tarikats included the Kadiriye, founded by ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani of Baghdad (d.1167). The principal Turkish representative of this order, Haci Bayram Veli of Ankara (d.1430), was a pupil of the ascetic Hamiduddin Aksarayi (d.1412). While he left no literary legacy other than a couple of poems, his sanctity and the profusion of his acolytes established the Bayramiye as a noteworthy tarikat in its own right.[xiii] Two of his deputies, Ak Semseddin, the spiritual guide of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, and Esrefoglu Rumi, have already been mentioned. A later branch of this popular tarikat, the Celvetiye, was founded by Aziz Mahmud Hudâ’i (d.1629), theorist of the incantatory properties of the Divine Names. It was expounded by the prolific Ismail Haqqi of Bursa (d.1724), whose Ruh al-Bayan, a ten-volume commentary on the Koran, is considered one of the major literary monuments of later Sufism.[xiv]
Another Bayrami saint was Dede Ömer Sikkini of Göynük (d.1475), an austere figure who revived the early Khurasani tradition of the ‘path of blame’ (melâmatiye), which seeks to achieve true sincerity by performing actions which, although not sinful, bring public contempt upon the spiritual wayfarer. The Bayramiye-Melâmatiye tarikat persisted through Ottoman history, and, while sometimes frowned upon by the ulema, spurred other tarikats to introduce elements of the melâmati philosophy.[xv]
The Suhrawardiye was another urban tarikat, founded by ‘Umar al-Suhrawardi (d.1234), whose classic Arabic manual of Sufism, ‘Awarif al-Ma’arif was translated into Turkish by Ahmet Bigâwi (d.1458). The main Anatolian branch of this tarikat was the Zeyniye, named after Zeyneddin Hafi of Khurasan (d.1438), whose two Ottoman’s Spirituality | 6
Anatolian missionaries Abdurrahman Merzifoni and Abdullatif-i Kudsi spread the order throughout the Central Anatolian towns.[xvi] One of the most intricate stories in Ottoman Sufism is that of the Halveti tarikat, founded in Tabriz by ‘Umar Khalvati (d.1397), whose disciple Yahya Shirvani (d.1464) became the order’s missionary to Anatolia. The important Sa‘baniye branch of this order was established by Sa‘ban-i Veli of Kastamonu (d.1568), celebrated, along with Rumi, Haci Bektas and Haci Bayram, as one of the Four Pillars (aktab-i arba‘a) of Anatolian Sufism. Like the other ‘Pillars’, he was celebrated for urging the army to show courage, and for bringing Islam to many Christian regions of the empire. In this respect, the Four Pillars can be compared to the Wali Songo, the Nine Saints of Java, who brought about mass conversions to Islam in South-east Asia during the same period.
The Egypt-based Gülseniye founded by Ibrahim Gülseni (d.1533) was a Halveti subbranch whose influence in < w:st="on">Turkey came largely via the intellectualised mystical poetry of its founder. Another branch was the Misriye, named for the talented poet Niyazi Misri (d.1694). A further branch, the Cerrahiye, was founded by Nureddin Cerrahi (d.1722), whose lodge in the Karagümrük quarter of Istanbul is today the main conservatory of the traditions and particularly the musical heritage of later Turkish Sufism.[xvii]
The Rifai order, which traced its lineage back to Ahmad al-Rifa’i of Basra (d.1182), came to Anatolia in the fourteenth century, and thence penetrated < w:st="on">Bosnia and the territories of the Volga Tatars. The Rifai seyh Abu’l-Huda of Aleppo (d.1909), in particular, was known as one of the spiritual directors of Sultan Abdülhamit II.[xviii]
The Kazeruniye tarikat, founded by Abu Ishaq al-Kazaruni of Shiraz (d.1034), which arrived in Anatolia in the fourteenth century, was famous for its proselytising zeal among non-Muslims and the enthusiasm with which its members took part in the gaza.[xix]
Better known than all these tarikats was the Mevleviye, founded by Jalal al-Din Rumi (d.1273). This was an élite tarikat, which numbered ulema, senior bureaucrats and even sultans among its members: the early Ottoman rulers and princes wore the woollen Mevlevi (‘Hurasani’) cap,[xx] while the reforming Selim III (1789-1808) was an enthusiastic member and patron of the order. A small number of disciples were authorised to perform the devrân, the famous slow turning rite on account of which European travellers styled them the ‘Whirling Dervishes.’ Intellectually and Ottoman’s Spirituality | 7aesthetically inspired by the poetry of Rumi, the Mevlevis produced some of Turkey’s finest musicians and calligraphers, and also the Turkish language’s most sophisticated religious poet, Gâlib Dede of Galata (d.1799), whose brilliant extended poem Beauty and Love (Hüsn ü Ask) belies the stereotype of Muslim ‘cultural decline’ during that period.[xxi] Another feature of the later Mevlevis, as with many Halvetis, Bayramis, and some others, was a strong devotion to the family of the Prophet, an attitude which some of them pushed beyond the point usually reached in Sunni piety, so that pilgrimages to Karbala, commemorations of the death of Imam Hüseyin and other devotional emphases more usually associated with Shi’ism became widespread.
However, this ‘devotional Shi’ism’, a characteristic of Turkish piety even outside the tarikats, almost never stepped over the dividing-line into ‘sectarian Shi’ism’. As the Mevlevi poet Esrar Dede (d.1797) expressed it:
I am the slave of the lovers of the Prophet,
Neither a Kharijite nor a misled Shi’ite am I;
I am the bondsman of Abu Bakr, ‘Umar and ‘Uthman,
And I travel upon the path of ‘Ali, God’s saint.[xxii]
All these orders, while differing very widely in their rituals, shared some important common functions within Ottoman Turkish society. The silsila, the initiatic chain which linked the living, through the dead masters of the order, to the Prophet himself, was proof of the integration of an Anatolian or Rumelian, however recent his conversion, into the mainstream of Islamic society. The tekke of each tarikat provided both a refuge from the upheavals of the outside world and a consoling context for recalling its transient status. A few Sufis, particularly the kalendars, chose the life of mendicancy, while others became hücrenisins, residing permanently in the lodges; but the great majority remained part of the wider social matrix, following the principle of khalvat dar anjuman - ‘spiritual retreat in the midst of company’. For many Turks, most aspects of life were guided by and interpreted in terms of the teachings of the seyhs, while the initiation (bay‘at) into the order formed an important rite of passage for young people. Through participating in the chants and songs handed down in the lodges, the new generation acquired a familiarity with a large body of Turkish literature; while in the Mevlevi tekkes a knowledge of Persian was also inculcated. The lodges provided, too, opportunities for organising the public virtues required of pious Muslims. Travellers, even of other tarikats, could expect to find refuge within their walls. Special meals were provided for Ramadan and the five ‘candle nights’ (kandil geceleri) of the year. Soup kitchens for the poor, medical Ottoman’s Spirituality | 8services, public scriptoria, hostels for students or other worthy paupers, refuges for dismissed statesmen, mediation for family or tribal disputes: these and other social services were regularly dispensed by the larger dervish lodges.[xxiii]
Not infrequently a tekke would be attached to the tomb of a saint, in which case it was termed a dergâh. The Companions had visited the Prophet’s tomb in the early days of Islam, and following this precedent many mosques have included or been attached to tombs. The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, for instance, where the jurist Ibn Taymiyya worshipped, contains the domed mausoleum of John the Baptist (Yahya).
In < w:st="on">Turkey, this tradition was continued, and contemplative visits (ziyaret) to the graves (türbe) of important saints and holy warriors remain an important part of conservative religious life. The Companion of the Prophet Abu Ayyub el-Ansari has his tomb by the Golden Horn, abutting a courtyard where for centuries new sultans would be invested with the sword of office, often by the Çelebi of the Mevlevi dervishes.[xxiv]
No account of Turkish spirituality would be complete without a mention of the tekkes’ contribution to musical life. Many tarikats, particularly the Mevleviye and Halvetiye, used instrumental music as part of their ceremony (samâ‘), and over the centuries a large and highly sophisticated repertoire was evolved which provided the fertile core of Turkish music generally. Drawing from Byzantine, Islamic and Turkishfolk precedents, Ottoman sacred music in turn influenced the music of the court, the army and the secular music of society at large. The ilahi genre of hymns, often with words by the early dervish Yunus Emre or by Bektashi poets, was set to a rich variety of rhythmic patterns and melodies, helping to popularise Muslim teachings among the population.[xxv]
While the dances and errant doctrines lurking in some tekkes often drew sharp
criticism from the ulema, it is nonetheless true that throughout the Ottoman period the ilmiyye institution looked with favour on most of the tarikats. The best known of all Turkish müftis, Kemâlpasazâde (d.1534), had written a fatwa commending the Spanish Sufi Ibn ‘Arabi,[xxvi] while his near contemporary Tasköprüzâde, author of the definitive biographical dictionary of early Ottoman ulema, heaps praise on those scholars who were also Sufis. The life of formal mosque worship, the moral discipline of the guilds, and the emotional intimacy of the tekkes generally coexisted in a complementary relationship, providing a triple source of nourishment for the Turkish soul.Ottoman’s Spirituality | 9
All the above relates to the Muslim majority population. But it should briefly be recalled that the Ottoman Empire was also home to large Jewish and Christian communities, which, despite some legal handicaps, found that the new dispensation generally allowed them to live and worship in faithful adherence to theirlaws and traditions. The Muslim conquest had preserved the Greek Church from the threat of annihilation by the growing power of the Latin West; as the Grand Duke Loukas Notaras wryly acknowledged on the eve of the conquest: ‘It would be better to see the turban of the Turks reigning over the city than the Latin mitre.’[xxvii] Moreover, it seems that these Muslim and Orthodox worlds overlapped in more than the simple geographical sense. It is probable that many of the spiritual exercises of the Hesychast movement championed by St Gregory Palamas, who had spent a year at the Ottoman court debating with Muslims, were derived from Sufi and Islamic practices.[xxviii] More generally, the Ottoman system seemed to provide an opportunity for Muslims to seek perfection through the exercise of political power, and for Christians to seek perfection by renouncing it in the manner required by the Gospels.
Such an equilibrium proved ill-equipped to survive into the modern age.
(A longer version of this article was first published in the Islamic World Report, 1/iii
[i] R. Sesen, ‘Eski Türklerin Dini ve Saman Kelimesi’, Tarih Enstitüsü Dergisi, X-XI
[ii] Islam Ansiklopedisi (new edition), II, 299-302.
[iii] K.E. Ünsel, Fâtih’in siirleri (Ankara, 1946), 62.
[iv] Türk Dili ve Edebiyatı Ansiklopedisi, III, 116-7.
[v] R.C. Repp, The Müfti of Istanbul (London, 1986).
[vi] Encyclopedia of Islam (second edition), II, 966-9.
[vii] Islam Ansiklopedisi (new edition), V, 61-2.
[viii] Tourkhan Gandjeï (ed.), Il Canzioniere di Sah Isma’il Hata’i (Naples, 1959),
[ix] E. Glassen, ‘Schah Isma’il I. und die Theologien seiner Zeit’. Der Islam XLVIII
[x] Y.N. Öztürk, Tarih boyunca Bektasilik (Istanbul, 1990).Ottoman’s Spirituality | 10
[xi] H. Algar, ‘Devotional Practices of the Khalidi Naqshbandis of Ottoman <
w:st="on">Turkey.’ Pp.209-227 of R. Lifchez (ed.), The Dervish Lodge: Architecture,
Art, and Sufism in Ottoman < w:st="on">Turkey (Berkeley, 1992).
[xii] S. Mardin, ‘The Naksibendi Order in Turkish History’. Pp. 121-42 of R. Tapper
(ed.), Islam in Modern < w:st="on">Turkey (London 1993), 134.
[xiii] F. Bayramoglu. Haci Bayram-i Veli (Ankara, 1983).
[xiv] Encyclopaedia of Islam (second edition), II, 542-3.
[xv] A. Gölpinarlı, Melâmilik ve Melâmiler (Istanbul, 1931).
[xvi] M. Kara, Bursa’da Tarikatlar ve Tekkeler (Bursa, 1990), 26-7.
[xvii] S. Friedlander, ‘A Note on the Khalwatiyyah-Jarrahiyah Order’. Pp. 233-8 of
S.H. Nasr (ed.), Islamic Spirituality: Manifestations (New York, 1991).
[xviii] Encyclopedia of Islam (second edition), VIII, 526.
[xix] A.J. Arberry, ‘The Biography of Shaikh Abu Ishaq al-Kazaruni,’ Oriens III
(1950), 163-81; Kara, Bursa’da, 18-19.
[xx] I.H. Uzunçarsili, Osmanlı Devletinin Saray Teskilatı (Ankara, 1945), 217-8.
[xxi] A. Schimmel, The Triumphal Sun: A Study of the Works of Jalaloddin
Rumi (2nd ed. Albany, 1993); V. Holbrooke, The Unreadable Shore of Love (Austin,
[xxii] A. Gölpinarli, Mevlânâ’dan sonra Mevlevîlik (Istanbul, 1953), 227.
[xxiii] Kara, Bursa’da, 43-7.
[xxiv] M. B. Tanman, ‘Settings for the Veneration of Saints’. Pp. 130-71 of Lifchez, op.
[xxv] W. Feldman, ‘Musical Genres and Zikir of the Sunni Tarikats of Istanbul’. Pp.
187-202 of Lifchez, op. cit.
[xxvi] M. Saraç, Seyhülislam Kemal Pasazade: Hayaiı, Sahsiyeti, Eserleri ve Bazi
siirleri (Istanbul, 1995), 66.
[xxvii] C. Imber, The Ottoman Empire 1300-1481 (Istanbul, 1990), 150.
[xxviii] S. Runciman, The Great Church in Captivity (Cambridge, 1968), 136-8.