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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 prospect of 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 Mehmeds
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,
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 Conquerors 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 Mevlid of Sleyman elebi
(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-Nufs 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 seyhlislam, 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
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 as ftvvet, 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 ftvvet 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 as ftvvet-nmes, 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 (nzil)
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 (sariat), 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
converted to extreme Shiism at the hands of his fourth successor, Seyh Cneid (d.1460).
Cneids grandson Ismail (d.1524) claimed to be both God Himself and a reincarnation of
Ali.[viii] Under Ismail, whose deputies were mainly Turcoman nomad chieftains from
Anatolia, the formerly Sunni country of < w:st="on">Iran was forcibly converted to Shiism
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) Shii 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 sariat. He describes the forty
stations of the Sufi path, ten under each of the classic heads of Sariat (the Law), Tarikat
(the Way), Hakikat (the Truth), and Marifat (Knowledge). The stations of Tarikat, for
instance, are: repentance (tevbe), aspiration (iradet), dervishhood (dervislik), mortification
(mcahede), service to the brethren (hidmet), fear of God (hawf), hope in Him (mid), 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 founders death in 1389, the first
Naksibendi tekke (dervish lodge) had been established in 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 large-scale 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 be considerable.[xii]
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 Hudi (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
Another Bayrami saint was Dede mer Sikkini of Gynk (d.1475), an austere figure who
revived the early Khurasani tradition of the path of blame (melmatiye), which seeks to
achieve true sincerity by performing actions which, although not sinful, bring public contempt
upon the spiritual wayfarer. The Bayramiye-Melmatiye tarikat persisted through Ottoman
history, and, while sometimes frowned upon by the ulema, spurred other tarikats to introduce
elements of the melmati philosophy.[xv]
The Suhrawardiye was another urban tarikat, founded by Umar al-Suhrawardi (d.1234),
whose classic Arabic manual of Sufism, Awarif al-Maarif was translated into Turkish by
Ahmet Bigwi (d.1458). The main Anatolian branch of this tarikat was the Zeyniye, named
after Zeyneddin Hafi of Khurasan (d.1438), whose two Anatolian missionaries Abdurrahman
Merzifoni and Abdullatif-i Kudsi spread the order throughout the Central Anatolian
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
orders missionary to Anatolia. The important Sabaniye branch of this order was established
by Saban-i Veli of Kastamonu (d.1568), celebrated, along with Rumi, Haci Bektas and Haci
Bayram, as one of the Four Pillars (aktab-i arbaa) 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 Glseniye founded by Ibrahim Glseni (d.1533) was a Halveti sub-branch
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 Karagmrk 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-Rifai 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 Abul-Huda of Aleppo (d.1909), in particular,
was known as one of the spiritual directors of Sultan Abdlhamit 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 lite 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 devrn,
the famous slow turning rite on account of which European travellers styled them the
Whirling Dervishes. Intellectually and aesthetically inspired by the poetry of Rumi, the
Mevlevis produced some of Turkeys finest musicians and calligraphers, and also the Turkish
languages most sophisticated religious poet, Glib Dede of Galata (d.1799), whose brilliant
extended poem Beauty and Love (Hsn 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 Hseyin and other devotional
emphases more usually associated with Shiism became widespread. However, this
devotional Shiism, a characteristic of Turkish piety even outside the tarikats, almost never
stepped over the dividing-line into sectarian Shiism. 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 Shiite am I;
I am the bondsman of Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman,
And I travel upon the path of Ali, Gods 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 hcrenisins,
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 (bayat) 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 services, 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 dergh. The Companions had visited the Prophets 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 (trbe) 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 elebi 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 (sam), 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 Turkish-folk 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 mftis,
Kemlpasazde (d.1534), had written a fatwa commending the Spanish Sufi Ibn Arabi,[xxvi]
while his near contemporary Taskprzde, 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.
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 their laws 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 (1996),


[i] R. Sesen, Eski Trklerin Dini ve Saman Kelimesi, Tarih Enstits Dergisi, X-XI (1979-
80), 57-90.
[ii] Islam Ansiklopedisi (new edition), II, 299-302.
[iii] K.E. nsel, Ftihin siirleri (Ankara, 1946), 62.
[iv] Trk Dili ve Edebiyat Ansiklopedisi, III, 116-7.
[v] R.C. Repp, The Mfti of Istanbul (London, 1986).
[vi] Encyclopedia of Islam (second edition), II, 966-9.
[vii] Islam Ansiklopedisi (new edition), V, 61-2.
[viii] Tourkhan Gandje (ed.), Il Canzioniere di Sah Ismail Hatai (Naples, 1959), 155.
[ix] E. Glassen, Schah Ismail I. und die Theologien seiner Zeit. Der Islam XLVIII (1972).
[x] Y.N. ztrk, Tarih boyunca Bektasilik (Istanbul, 1990).
[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. Glpinarl, Melmilik ve Melmiler (Istanbul, 1931).
[xvi] M. Kara, Bursada 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, Bursada, 18-19.
[xx] I.H. Uzunarsili, Osmanl Devletinin Saray Teskilat (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, 1994).
[xxii] A. Glpinarli, Mevlndan sonra Mevlevlik (Istanbul, 1953), 227.
[xxiii] Kara, Bursada, 43-7.
[xxiv] M. B. Tanman, Settings for the Veneration of Saints. Pp. 130-71 of Lifchez, op. cit.
[xxv] W. Feldman, Musical Genres and Zikir of the Sunni Tarikats of Istanbul. Pp. 187-202
of Lifchez, op. cit.
[xxvi] M. Sara, Seyhlislam Kemal Pasazade: Hayai, 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.