The Transformation of Muslim Mystical Thought in the Ottoman Empire: The Rise of the Halveti Order, 1350-1650

  • Book Title:
 The Transformation Of Muslim Mystical Thought
  • Book Author:
John Curry
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One-of more poorly understood aspects of the Ottoman Empire has been the flourishing of Sufi mysticism under its auspices. This study tracks the evolution of the Halveti order from its modest origins in medieval Azerbaijan to the emergence of the influential Sa’baniyye, whose range once extended throughout the Empire.

By carefully reconstructing the lives of formerly obscure figures in the history of the order, a complex picture emerges of the connections among Halveti groups, the state, and society. Even more important, since the Sa’baniyye grew out of the towns and villages of the northern Anatolian mountains rather than the major urban centres, this work brings a unique perspective to the lives, work, and worship of Ottoman subjects outside of the major urban centres of the Empire.

Along the way, the study sheds light on less-visible actors, such as women and artisans, and challenges generalizations about the activities and strategies of Ottoman mystics.

Introduction: On the Study of Ottoman – Mystical Traditions

In studying the Ottoman Empire, many scholars have focused heavily on the social, economic, and political history of its various regions, while neglecting the field of religious and cultural history. Specialists in the field, regardless of nationality or ideology, have regarded the Ottoman period as one of cultural and intellectual stagnation, especially in its later years.

Recently, however, scholars have begun to rethink their perceptions about the Ottomans and assess more objectively their important contributions to the religious, intellectual, and cul- tural life of their time. Nevertheless, a lack of critical studies on this aspect of the Ottoman legacy has hampered attempts to present a coherent picture of the Empire’s history.1

The majority of the past six decades of scholarship has targeted political and economic history, seeking to explain the trajectory of the Ottoman enterprise within the realm of secular phenomena. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that this economic and political history cannot, and should not, be com- pletely separated from its religio-cultural background. Studies tackling religious and cultural topics indicate that both intellectual production and everyday religious activity among Ottomans enjoyed an extraordinary dynamism.

In addition, political and economic crises during the Empire’s history often went hand-in- hand with spiritual crises that were equally influential in shaping the course of events.2 This is often obscured by studies of modern mysticism: for example, in a study of mystics in Egypt during the 1980s, Valerie Hoffman noted the generally apolitical form which their mystical expression took.

She concluded that the political power of mystical orders during Ottoman times thus represented an anomaly rather than the norm.3 One of the Ottoman orders to which Hoffman referred was the Halveti (Arabic: Khalwatî), a Sufi order that had appeared in the region of Azerbaijan and northwest Iran in the wake of the Mongol invasions of the seventh/thirteenth century and spread into the Ottoman domains within three centuries of its emergence.

 The Halveti order played an important role in Ottoman politics and society that remains poorly understood. It often took the lead in defending Islamic mysticism, philosophy, and practice from factions that insisted on puritanical interpretations of the Qurʾan and other sacred texts. These debates centered on issues that still divide contemporary Muslim communities, such as conflicts over what constitutes acceptable forms of Muslim belief and practice.4

Furthermore, the order retained a broad public appeal, notably in parts of the Balkans and Asia Minor, which continued well into modern times. This sustained popularity may have derived in part from Halveti efforts to propagate their vision of Islam into regions that did not receive the direct attention of political and religious leaders in the imperial centers.

In contrast, others argue that their growth resulted from a conscious collaborative effort between Halvetis and the Ottoman government from the tenth/sixteenth century onward.5

The Halveti order forces us to reflect on the role of mystical religious institutions in pre-modern Muslim societies like the Ottoman Empire. Traditionally, past research has advanced several answers that act as conventional wisdom on the subject.

The earliest theoretical foundations, laid by the first generation scholars during the Republican period of Turkish history, suggested that Turkish-speaking mystics from the east, having founded institutional centers (tekkes, or lodges) in Asia Minor from the Seljuk period onward, acted as protectors for a population that was increasingly strained by conflicts with Byzantium, the Mongols and others.

They also argued that the Turkic Sufism espoused by such figures as Ahmed Yesevî in Central Asia and Yunus Emre in Anatolia were more influential in Turkish history than other variants.6

Following this lead, subsequent scholarship posited that Sufi orders acted as “colonizers” willing to take doctrinally flexible forms of Islamic belief and practice to the physical and spiritual frontiers of the Muslim world to lay the foundation for their eventual incorporation into the Islamic world.7

However, questions about the extent to which this process actually took place, or whether it was even a consciously articulated goal of the Ottoman rulers still seems open to debate, since tensions between Halveti Sufi leaders and the states to which they were subject clearly exist in historical sources.

More recent scholarship has challenged the idea that state and mystical orders worked in lockstep, noting that Ottoman Sufi orders like the Halveti were often at odds with the state. Some have argued that Sufi orders offered an outlet for those who could not find spiritual comfort in literalist readings of Islamic sacred texts and rituals;

 they could even act as safe havens for the propagation of heterodox movements.8 Anthropological variations on this theme, especially in the context of North Africa, have further argued that Sufi leaders provided a religious system that was flexible enough to mix with popular tradition and local custom among uneducated and illiterate majorities.9 These scholarly projects posit instead the existence of religious tension between central, urban-based authorities and their more rural, provincial subjects.

But Ernest Gellner recognized a problem of terminology in attempting to define the category of a “Sufi” in Morocco, and chose to contrast two different groups to the more recognized tradition of scholarly Islam embodied in the ʿulama class:

Under the general category of Sufism, people tend, for instance, to group together genuine mystics and tribal holy men whose connection with mysticism is minimal . . . Roughly speaking: urban Sufi mysticism is an alternative to the legalistic, restrained, arid (as it seems to its critics) Islam of the ʿulama.

Rural and tribal “Sufism” is a substitute for it. In the one case, and alternative is sought for the Islam of the ʿulama because it does not fully satisfy. In the other case, a substitute for it is required because, though its endorsement is desired, it is, in its proper and urban form, locally unavailable, or is unusable in the tribal context.10

While accepting a fundamental contradiction between scholarly Islam (as embodied in the reference to an ʿulama class) and mysticism, Gellner also posited a distinction between urban- and rural-based mysticism that implicitly determined the inferiority of the latter. As a result, his views have generated considerable criticism within the discipline of anthropology recently.11

A related trend in discussions about the emergence of Sufi orders in later eras was to portray them as second-rate heirs to a higher intellectual tradition that appeared during a “golden age” of Islamic intellectual and cultural production that occurred between the third/ninth and seventh/thirteenth centuries.

In contrast to mystics of the formative period, marked by greater intellectual and personal freedom to pursue mystical speculation, the Sufi orders that emerged over the course of the later medieval and early modern period became increasingly enmeshed in dogma and ritual that sapped their creative spirit and turned them into stagnant institutions.

As Trimingham suggested, early Sufism rep- resented a “natural expression of personal religion,” as opposed to the more “orthodox” Islam of the ʿulama, which represented “institutionalized religion based on authority, a one-way master–slave relationship, with its emphasis upon ritual observance and a legalistic morality.”12 These views represent a projection of the good attributes of mysticism back into the distant past, while demeaning its value in more recent eras.13

With the adoption of this Orientalist construction of Sufism’s history, Western and Muslim intellectuals alike came to characterize the orders as being in need of reform, if not abolition.14

In contrast, other scholars have pointed out that Sufi organizations formed one of many potential reference points available to Muslim populations, which could assist in their daily struggle to maintain or improve their lives. In her study of the religious leadership of the Ottoman Empire during the eleventh/ seventeenth and twelfth/eighteenth centuries, Madeline Zilfi argued that Sufi orders like the Halveti in İstanbul were attracting an increasingly broad-based following.15

 As a result, Halveti leaders also rose to positions of authority. A corollary of this was that members of the Halveti could also negotiate with the state on behalf of local communities during political or economic crises which increasingly disrupted the empire, especially in the turbulent years after the latter half of the tenth/sixteenth century.16

With the arrival of modernity, however, the strengthening of the state and the spread of better education and literacy, complemented by challenges from Western-based intellectual currents, caused mysticism to become increasingly marginalized and relegated to the realm of superstition and social backwardness. As one observer suggested:

[T]he delegitimization of Sufism in the Middle East was accelerated by modern conditions and especially by the dominant power of the central state, but was also rooted in a deep and pervasive conflict between Sufism, with its apotheosis of saints and demand for absolute obedience from disciples, and the characteristic Middle Eastern and Islamic values of equality and autonomy.

It is no surprise then to find that Sufis have slowly lost their essential role in Middle Eastern society, and now serve only as mediators in marginal tribal areas, or provide ecstatic performances in impoverished communities, or serve as guides for cultured elites seeking a less demanding, more aesthetic, intellectualized version of Islam. This is where Middle Eastern Sufism is today, and most likely will remain for the foreseeable future.17

This idea posits that the appeal of Sufi leaders has declined precipitously, except in certain rare cases where the orders were able to adapt themselves for survival in new contexts.18 Yet even this observer was forced to qualify his own assertions by contrasting the general situation described here to that of South Asia, where the greater autonomy of the orders under British colonial rule and cultural tendencies toward greater acceptance of hierarchy in the community had allowed Sufism to maintain its position or even gain in strength.

 Even more interestingly, he mentioned Turkey as another exception that does not necessarily fit the pattern of Sufi stagnation in modern times.19

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