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The Fashioning of a Sunni Orthodoxy and the Entangled Histories of Confession-Building in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire, 15th-17th Centuries

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - OTTOCONFESSION (The Fashioning of a Sunni Orthodoxy and the Entangled Histories of Confession-Building in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire, 15th-17th Centuries)

Reporting period: 2018-09-01 to 2020-02-29

The Fashioning of a Sunni Orthodoxy and the Entangled Histories of Confession-Building in the Ottoman Empire, 15th-17th Centuries
OTTOCONFESSION; Project ID: 648498



How and why did the Ottoman Empire evolve from a fourteenth-century polity where “confessional ambiguity” prevailed into a state concerned with defining and enforcing a “Sunni orthodoxy” by the early sixteenth century? How did the Ottoman notions of “Sunni orthodoxy” subsequently evolve in the late sixteenth and 17th centuries? Recent historiography attributes the growing concern with “orthodoxy” in the Ottoman Empire to the rise of the rival Shii Safavid Empire beginning in the first decade of the sixteenth century. However, the OTTOCONFESSION project is based on the premise that the evolution of Ottoman discourse on Sunni orthodoxy can be understood only in a longer perspective that spans the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries and that it was shaped by religio-political dynamics not only among the Ottoman and Safavid Muslims, but also among Christian communities in the Ottoman Empire and in Europe as well. The project sets out to demonstrate that although the polarization between Sunni and Shii Islam on the one hand, and Catholic and Protestant Christianity on the other, resulted from the dynamics specific to the Turco-Iranian world and Europe, respectively, the subsequent processes of confession- (and in some cases state-) building were related and constitute an entangled history of confessionalization that spanned Europe and the Middle East. The project will investigate the evolution of confessional discourses in the Ottoman Empire (focusing on the “core provinces’ of Rumeli and Anatolia) in both community-specific and entangled, cross-communal perspectives between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries by focusing on a) the agents and strategies; b) textual genres; and c) sites of confessionalization.
The project takes as the point of departure the conviction that the categories of “Islam” and “Christianity” or “East” and “West” have blinded us to the similarities in the experiences of state building and political theologies that could lead to a much profounder understanding of how large parts of the world were connected and influenced each other in the period between 1400 and 1700, beyond trade, warfare, and disease. For example, the notion that “Islam did not have the Reformation” is cited as one of the main reasons for the differing trajectories in the early modern European and Islamic history, while the fact that Sunni-Shii polarization accompanied by Ottoman and Safavid state building projects, respectively, was contemporaneous with Catholic-Protestant split in Europe in the early 1500s is treated as a mere coincidence. The project rethinks these facile dismissals by reconstructing conceptual frameworks shared by Muslims and Christians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and demonstrates how certain shared political and religious concepts, such as confession-building, were appropriated and contested to produce difference as well as a sense of moral community in both early modern Islamicate and Christian polities. The project, thus, demonstrates how religious culture, rather than being an a priori explanation for supposed ontological differences between “Muslim” and “Christian” polities, can be a point of comparison. At the same time, beyond its impact on the study of Muslim-Christian relations in the pre-colonial period, the project has a crucial bearing on the study of Islam in a historical perspective. Deepening our understanding of how Ottomans understood Sunni religious orthodoxy and treating the latter as a historically constructed rather than a timeless phenomenon serves as an important lesson for understanding and deconstructing contemporary debates about “Islamic orthodoxy.”
In the first 18 months of the project, the OTTOCONFESSION team, divided between Budapest (Central European University) and Istanbul (Bogazici University), has uncovered and recorded into an evolving database a variety of polemical, didactic, and catechetical material produced and/or copied) by different Muslim and Christian individuals in the Ottoman Empire, in Ottoman Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Armenian, Armeno-Turkish, Greek, Italian, Latin and various Slavic languages. This material provides rich evidence of both intra- and inter-confessional dynamics, revealing different concepts of orthodoxy (including outright rejection of such concept) within supposedly homogenous communities. The material also reveals the dialogic and inter-textual evolution of Ottoman communities’ confessional projects, as well as of types of literacy, learning, copying, and dissemination practices in a predominantly manuscript culture. Research so far highlights confessional trends, key authors, the popularity of their works and their impact on the evolving notions of “orthodoxy” in each respective community. First publications of the team based on these materials are either in press or in progress. The project’s first major workshop (on “Rethinking Ottoman Sunnitization”) is scheduled for August 2017 and is expected to result in an edited volume that would capture the state-of-the-art on this subject in the growing field of Ottoman legal and religious history.