"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Monday, November 8, 2010

Ottoman Decline & Rise of the West; A New Messiah for the Jews

Notes and reflections on Peace Be Upon You: The Story of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Coexistence by Zachary Karabell

After explaining how Islam spread to vast regions in the first thousand years after Muhammad died, the author says Muslims - like Christians - were not a cohesive group.  Muslims in West Africa hardly resembled the Muslim in Mecca or Indonesia.  In fact when Sufism came on the scene it "became a grab bag of Islam and pre-Islamic traditions."  Despite all the talk of "the Muslim world" or the umma, Islam was - and still is - made up of a variety of cultures. 

The author described the Ottoman millet system where, say, a chief rabbi was over his community of Jews and a bishop was over a Christian group for the purpose of self-governing and collecting taxes for the empire.  He said Catholics were often rigid about granting divorces so sometimes Christians would convert to Islam "for the sole purpose of ridding themselves of a troublesome spouse."  Ha, ha!  This millet system seemed to work very well and even garnered praise for keeping rival groups' fighting to a minimum.

The millet system declined later in Ottoman rule as they started copying European models of a centralized government and Turkish nationalism and intolerance for other groups emerged. Nationalism "was hostile to religion [and] rested on a secular view of the world.  [It] would prove far more lethal to groups like the Armenians than the Ottoman ruling class ever was."  (pg. 184)

Ottomans discouraged conversion to Islam.  Conversions brought change and the Ottoman were all about keeping things unchanged and peaceful.  Karabell said they even had people in place over each millet community to make sure people did not convert to Islam. 

The author discusses a Jewish man who came on the scene. Some thought Sabbati Sevi was a great man and he got many followers throughout the empire and in European countries. Others believed he was a madman.   He was a follower of the school of Isaac Luria a mystic rabbi who "developed a secretive reading of the Torah" that explained the creation story as a metaphor for the "fragmentation of the divine."  He "suggested that the divine had been splintered and that the point of human life was to help it reassemble. At some point, an intermediary would appear who would enable both God and man to become whole once again***."  (pg.  189)  Sabbati claimed to be this person, this messiah and he got a number of followers.  In fact thousands of them came to Istanbul as Sevi believed he could march "convinced that waters would part, the sultan would bow, and a new age would begin." Instead the sultan offered him a choice: convert to Islam or die. Sevi reportedly converted "willingly, even cheerfully" to the astonishment and horror of his followers.  A few believed this was part of Sevi's plan while the majority "drifted away, shocked that their messiah had committed an act of apostasy and embraced Islam rather than dying for his faith."  (pg. 190)

Towards the end of this chapter, Karabell shares about the Ottoman empire's decline and how tolerance was the first casualty.  For all the good of the Ottomans, their weakness was "lack of curiosity about the wider world" and this eventually led to their decline.  While other nations were looking around, fighting each other and thus having to improve their technology, the Ottomans, it seemed, were rather content and this lead to their vulnerability as the Western nations started looking outward. 

I thought this part about the rise of the West was interesting. The author says while there are many theories, it "remains one of the great unsolved riddles of the modern world."  But he offers this:  "The countries of Europe had fought one another to a standstill for so long that they had been forced to innovate, and to find new sources of revenue and better technology. European nations were forged in a cauldron of war and hatred, and emerged on the world stage uniquely capable of fighting.  They combined the ruthlessness of all great powers past and present with the means to enforce their will."  (pg. 197)

Hmmm, I'm really not getting a great sense of goodness about my Westernness and European roots from this book!  Seems we are a bunch of divided fighting machines!  :-P

***  While I disagree with the thought of the divine splintering as Luria believed, I do often think of sin as breaking the relationship between God and man and Jesus the Messiah as the one who restores that fellowship.

Any thoughts? Anything catch your attention that you want to expound upon?


Lat said...

You sure all Christians resemble one another? It's true that not all Muslims are 100% alike.That's natural simply because each one of us are different as in race and speaking a unique language.But most of the time they do agree on certain sentiments and sometimes even proving it literally.

Achelois wrote a post on this,right? About how non-muslims were treated and I have to re-read what she said about conversion.Ottomans ruled a vast territory and they chose the safer way of controlling by governing them by using the inhabitants of the land.Of course as rulers they have their rules to be followed.

And interesting to read about the Messiah and his conversion! How the followers were let down,eh?
I guess too much competition,meaning materialism, is no good if that's how Europe began her success to scientific technology and all.Really like your ending para.

Susanne said...

Lat, the author said Muslims and Christians were NOT cohesive groups...very different people within each religion. Maybe I didn't make that clear. :)

Yeah, the Ottoman's did force conversions for their elite military - the Janissaries, I think. But for the most part - at this time anyway - it seems they didn't really encourage conversion to Islam. I know the author said the conversion rate was very small compared to other Islamic dynasties.

Yeah, I thought the part about the Messiah was weird and funny! I can imagine the people were crushed!

Thanks for your feedback!

Quotable Quotes: said...

Good post; you are quite a scholar! Some people would argue the reason the Ottomans did not force non-Muslims to accept Islam was because of the sizable jizya, or poll tax, that non-Muslims paid. It would have been a financial loss for the Turks to lose the jizya if the Christians converted.

Susanne said...

QQ, that's a fair point. The author didn't make it, but I'm glad you brought it up. Thank you!

cancuw said...

as a Turkish (and let's say coming from Ottoman ancestors) woman, i feel like i have to say something about that non-muslim tax thing. Yes it is true that non-muslims had to pay more but they also didn't have to attend to the wars and it was easier to live as a non-muslim in peace. All they had to do was paying more taxes. Also all of the tailors and shoemakers in İstanbul were Jewish. I guess i dont have to say that they were making a big fortune. If you try to understand objectively, during European and Asian empires were all ok with slavery and never let any war slaves without torturing or killing; just forcing to pay more tax means nothing... if you wonder who i am, just check out cancuw.com . Because i'm not even Muslim as you guess. But i'm Turk and a follower of Atatürk. Also i dont like to see such ridiculous articles which considers Ottoman, Turkey and Turks as Arabs and just Muslims. We weree shamans before 8.century, that means we still have a lot of TÖRE coming from our shaman culture, more than islamic lifestyle. Sufism is Turkish Islam we can say. And as Mevlana says; "Whoever you are, you are welcomed.". He also known as in love with Şems, a Persian Sufi. He was literally gay, respecting gays, respecting jewish and christian and muslims. Just please learn that; TURKS ARE COMING FROM THE FAREAST AND NEVER GOT WELL WITH ARABS IN ANY TIME OF THE HISTORY. We just used their mathematical knowledge, that's why arabic alphabet was being used in Ottoman in Schools. But in street, it was Turkish the real language. And we use Latin Alphabet since 1923, as Turkish Laisist Republic.
p.s:no Turk likes Arabs. Just don't dare to treat them like one.

Susanne said...

Cancuw, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this post. I don't think I ever said Ottomans were Arabs or Turks and Arabs were the same. I am well aware that they are not. :)

I think your point about paying the tax is right. This is what my Arab friend has often told me.

I appreciate hearing from a Turk on this issue.

Suroor said...

I read about Sabbati Sevi for the first time on some blog and then on Sarah's (WWR) blog. I don't know about the forced conversion thing because there is also the infamous case of devshirme.

Turks were Arab? Where did you say that; I seem to have missed that sentence??

Susanne said...

Suroor, I don't think I said it, but who knows? :) You probably know there are a lot of Turks in Germany. Samer said he has had a number of them come up to him speaking Turkish because they say he looks like people back home. So I joke that he is my Arab who looks Turkish. :D Well, he has a grandmother (??) who is Turkish so he must get it from her. :)

Sevi was quite a character! Some parts of this book are entertaining. :)