"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Ottoman Conversions

Given the heated atmosphere (to put it mildly) which attends any discussion of Islam today, it is only too easy to fall into simplistic categories when treating religious minorities in Islamic territories, both historic and current. Emerging scholarship, some touched on previously, is helping us to get a better picture of the relations between Jews and Christians on the one hand, and Muslims on the other, in territories under the latter's jurisdiction. Two recent books, both from Stamford University Press, shed welcome light:

Tijana Krstic, Contested Conversions to Islam: Narratives of Religious Change in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire (Stamford University Press, 2011), 280pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
This book explores how Ottoman Muslims and Christians understood the phenomenon of conversion to Islam from the 15th to the 17th centuries, when the Ottoman Empire was at the height of its power and conversions to Islam peaked. Because the Ottomans ruled over a large non-Muslim population and extended greater opportunities to converts than to native-born Muslims, conversion to Islam was a contentious subject for all communities, especially Muslims themselves. By producing narratives about conversion, Ottoman Muslim and Christian authors sought to define the boundaries and membership of their communities while promoting their own religious and political agendas. Krstic argues that the production and circulation of narratives about conversion to Islam was central to the articulation of Ottoman imperial identity and Sunni Muslim "orthodoxy" in the long 16th century.

Placing the evolution of Ottoman attitudes toward conversion and converts in the broader context of Mediterranean-wide religious trends and the Ottoman rivalry with the Habsburgs and Safavids, Contested Conversions to Islam also introduces new sources, such as first-person conversion narratives and Orthodox Christian neomartyologies, to reveal the interplay of individual, (inter)communal, local, and imperial initiatives that influenced the process of conversion.
Chapters 5 and 6 will be of especial interest, focused as they are on Orthodox martyrs and "neomartyrs." I look forward to seeing this reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies.

The second book covering the area is

Amit Bein, Ottoman Ulema, Turkish Republic: Agents of Change and Guardians of Tradition (SUP, 2011), 224pp.

About this book the publisher says:

To better understand the diverse inheritance of Islamic movements in present-day Turkey, we must take a closer look at the religious establishment, the ulema, during the first half of the twentieth century. During the closing years of the Ottoman Empire and the early decades of the Republic of Turkey, the spread of secularist and anti-religious ideas had a major impact on the views and political leanings of the ulema. This book explores the intellectual debates and political movements of the religious establishment during this time.
Bein reveals how competing visions of development influenced debates about reforms in religious education and the modernization of the medreses. He also explores the reactions and changing attitudes of Islamic intellectuals to the religious policies of the secular republic, and provides a better understanding of the changes in the relationship between religion and state. Exposing division within the religious establishment, this book illuminates the ulema's long-lasting legacies still in evidence in Turkey today.

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