“Arabic is eloquence, Persian is wittiness, Turkish is abomination, and the rest is filth,” Evliya Celebi, the 17th century Ottoman travel writer, is reported to have remarked. The high regard for Persian was not merely linguistic appreciation, but also speaks to a school of thought, culture, belief system and political contention within the Ottoman society of his era. To be part of the Persianate was to belong to a movement that was progressive and often put you in opposition to state power, according to Aslihan Gurbuzel. Her new book Taming the Messiah: The Formation of an Ottoman Political Public Sphere, 1600-1700 aims to both challenge our understanding of Ottoman political thought and move us away from state-centric approaches.
Before the 17th century, political power in the Ottoman Empire was decentralised, with different regions having more authority over their residents. During the 17th century, however, the authorities in Istanbul acquired more power over the whole empire. This change meant that the Ottoman rulers needed to create more public rituals and political spectacles, in part due to the fact that many people were not happy and there were a number of rebellions.
“As imperial rulers relied increasingly on public engagement for support and legitimacy, the importance of power brokers across society grew exponentially,” writes Gurbuzel. “Preachers, Sufis, and other non-officials came to take a prominent place in what a contemporary observer called ‘the theatre of the city’, a forum of power that experimented with integrating the public into politics as simultaneously audience and actors.”
The key argument Gurbuzel makes is that the 17th century saw the birth of the public sphere in the Ottoman world, which was once largely thought of as something created much later under westernisation and European colonialism in the 19th century. A new political theology took hold among state officials, which saw the state as the vehicle for regulating religious life and included moves to reform religious practices and ideas, to incorporate Shariah into state governance and to remove certain mystical traditions that lead to religious uncertainty. The puritans, as Gurbuzel calls them, faced a strong backlash from scholars, thinkers and Sufi movements, who developed an alternative political theology opposed to the authority of the centralising state-religion.
These intellectual rebels identified strongly with the Persian Sufi tradition, which became the basis of their critique of the statist puritans. “Sufi thought was simultaneously used to justify the sovereignties of nonstate actors, resulting in a theory of multiple sovereignties,” says Gurbuzel. What she means by this is that unlike traditional sovereignty, which sees power and authority as belonging solely to the ruler, the Persianate Sufi movement in the 17th century Ottoman Empire expanded the scope of those who could be considered sovereign to include different public spheres.
Privacy was a key area that the anti-puritans expanded upon. “Privacy, understood as a given community’s right to develop distinctive practices that diverged from publicly sanctioned normativity, was and remained an important ethical and political demand throughout Ottoman early modernity,” argues the author. “The ethical demand for privacy placed important restrictions on the impositions of a uniform and universal public authority justified on a moral and religious basis.” According to Gurbuzel, these debates over privacy and nonconformity were not merely elite debates and they facilitated the creation of a wider political sphere to include all sections of society.
Taming the Messiah… offers a fascinating insight into the intellectual history of the pre-modern Ottoman world, where anxiety, uncertainty, contention and new ideas of the self and the state were born. Thinking about the relationship between state and nonstate actors gives us a better understanding of the way agency was exercised and challenges us to rethink our state-centric approach. Too often we only think about the Ottomans from the perspective of the state and its rulers, with everyone else only existing on the periphery. This volume, though, re-centres nonstate actors and, more importantly, demonstrates the ways that they invented new intellectual trends.
While I have some reservations about the use of the term “puritan” as there is a cultural connotation with ties to English and European Christian movements with their distinct theology, nonetheless the state-religion theology and wanting to cut religious discourse down means that there are grounds for the term’s use in this context. Taming the Messiah… will certainly not tame your intellectual curiosity for Ottoman intellectual history; it is likely to whet your appetite for more 17th century treats. I gained a stronger understanding about how to think about pre-modern political thought; others who read this book will do so as well.