Building Confessional Identities in the Ottoman Empire (16th-18th centuries)

Journée d’études organisée par Cesare Santus (EFR) dans le cadre du programme Normes et pratiques du religieux entre Orient et Occident (IXe-XIXe siècle)

École française de Rome, 6 février 2017

Programme consultable ici.

The collaboration between political and religious authorities, directed at imposing religious uniformity and at establishing denominational boundaries in the course of Early Modern times, has traditionally been investigated within the interpretative framework of ‘Confessionalization’ – a concept originally developped and applied only to the European (and especially German) case. Nonetheless, recent historiography has begun to investigate the conditions that shaped the construction of a Sunni Islamic orthodoxy between the late Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, by considering the possibility of applying the historiographical paradigm of Confessionalization also to the Ottoman Empire. In following and broadening this approach, the aim of this workshop is to carry on in a comparative way a reflection upon the progressive construction of confessional identities within the communities of the Ottoman Empire. Such a process was almost always determined by the confrontation or clash with a rival religious group (Sunni vs. Shiite Muslims, Orthodox vs. Catholic Christians, Sephardic vs. charismatic and mystic Jewish movements) or with the members of the other communities. A special attention will be placed on the two-folded nature of this process (top-down and bottom-up) as well on the possible comparisons and on the interweaving relationship between the Catholic and the Ottoman ‘Confessionalization’.



Building Confessional Identities in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire: General Introduction

Cesare Santus, École française de Rome

In what sense the “Confession-building” theory and the broader historical framework of “Confessionalization” may be useful in understanding the religious and social changes of the early modern Ottoman Empire? If an Ottoman Confessionalization actually existed, what were the similarities and the differences with the European one? Which were the common features and which the particularities of the confessional processes underwent by each religious community? These are the questions at the core of this workshop. Before trying to answer, however, it is necessary to discuss and clarify the terms of the question. In order to do this, my introduction will address three points: 1) the origin and development of the historiographical debate around the terms of “Confession-building”, “Confessionalization” and “confessional culture”; 2) the recent proposal for an “Ottoman Confessionalization”, analyzing the appreciation and criticism this thesis has received and the issues it raised; and 3) the need of a comparative and connected approach. In order to substantiate this latter claim, I will conclude with a concrete case study, concerning the relationship between şeyhülislam Feyzullah Efendi and the Armenian Church at the beginning of the 18th century.

Conceptualizing the ‘People of the Sunna and the Community’ (ehl-i sunnet ve cema’at) an Its Detractors in Ottoman Catechetical Works, 1540s-1630s

Tijana Krstić, Central European University, Budapest

This paper will examine how popular catechetical (ilm-i hal) texts in Ottoman Turkish from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries sought to define ‘people of the Sunna and the Community” as well as those who do not belong to it. Where possible, the paper will compare and contrast these portrayals in the ilm-i hal literature, which was targeting wider, general audiences, with similar categories in contemporary fetvas and heresiographical literature in order to provisionally chart out various individual and group concepts of “Sunniness” and its boundaries (but also of various non-Sunni groups), as well as how they changed over time.  The larger question that the presentation will try to address is whether we could speak of an Ottoman Sunni confession and in what terms.

Reckoning with confessional ambiguity in the confessional age: Alid loyalty and Sufism in the Ottoman Empire during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries

Derin Terzioglu, Bogazici University, Istanbul

It is generally accepted that the ideological rivalry with the Shiitizing Safavid state, on the one hand, and the creation of a Sunni Hanefi learned hierarchy in service of the Ottoman state, on the other hand, considerably limited the scope of confessional ambiguity in the central lands of the Ottoman Empire starting in the sixteenth century. To date, nevertheless, few have examined how the process of confession-building worked on the ground, how Ottoman Muslims of different social, political and religious affiliations and convictions maneuvered their way in this seemingly more polarized environment, variously adopting and adjusting to, or circumventing, subverting or otherwise modifying the officially-promoted confessional line. This paper takes a preliminary step in this direction by examining how the parameters of acceptable expressions of Alid loyalty were negotiated by different practitioners of Sufism and how their performances were judged and evaluated by their contemporaries during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We shall see that the new restrictions that were placed on Alid loyalty during the sixteenth century posed challenges not only to the antinomian dervish groups but also to members of the seemingly more mainstream Sufi brotherhoods such as the Mevlevis, Halvetis and Nakshbandis. We shall also see that the Sufis, whatever their confessional tendencies, were not just at the receiving end of the policies of Sunnitization, but also helped determine the tenor of confessional identity in the core lands of the Ottoman Empire in their own right.

Structuring Jewish community life and religious traditions in the early modern period: The Confessionalization perspective

 Roni Weinstein, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Confessionalization thesis is fundamental to understanding processes of change in Jewish culture and religious traditions. I would rely on works relating to this thesis in both European (Catholic and Reformed contexts) and in Ottoman areas. As the Jewish collective was dispersed both culturally and geographically, and in order to avoid over-generalization I would direct my discussion to three important foci of Confessionalization within Jewish early-modern communities: [1] the Galilean city of Safed, the arena of religious mystical fermentation; [2] the Jewish-Italian communities, serving as a bridge between east and west; [3] the rising new center of Polish Jewry, with its particular political and religious traditions. The processes of change taking place in these diasporas (alongside others not discussed in my paper) were both particular, yet interconnected in a global turn toward unification and increasing social control.

The Dialectics of Confessional Processes among Ottoman Jews

Yaron Ben-Naeh, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

In my paper I wish to detect confessional processes among Ottoman Jews. Had there been any, when did they occur, what were their characteristics and what are their manifestations? The Jewish community, as a very self-conscious minority group in Ottoman cities, lived with a constant tension between assimilatory tendencies of its members, and the establishment, mainly the rabbis’, wish to keep the borders of Judaism and the Jewish group. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the community is concerned about its relations with other Jews (the Karaites, the former Christian – Maranos from the Iberian peninsula, the Sabbateans and in some way the treatment of slaves who wish to become Jewish).  The concerns versus Islam have two fields – one is the use of the Shari’a courts and the other is on moralistic grounds.

Inter-communal Relations in the Ottoman Empire and Re-Making of the Orthodox Confession in the 18th Century

Elif Bayraktar Tellan, İstanbul Medeniyet Üniversitesi

& Hasan Çolak, Leiden University

History of the Churches in the Ottoman Empire have often attracted the attention of scholars either from the exclusivist perspective of the inner-workings of the Church in question or as part of an often-unilateral theory of millet system dismissing any potential of interaction. Our presentation will challenge these two poles and propose to study the history of the re-making of Orthodox identity not in utter segregation or ahistorical and anachronistic millet system, but as a result of the interaction of the Orthodox Church with outer dynamics such the Catholic missionaries and consequently the Ottoman central administration. We will be particularly focusing on the changes and continuities in the appointment documents (berats) of the Orthodox Patriarchates of Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria in the course of the 18th century. Drawing on the research findings that will form the basis of our forthcoming book, this presentation will bring to the fore the importance of the interactive forces such as proselytization or institutionalization as factors that activate processes of distinctive identity formation. 

Inventing Catholic identities for Arabic-speaking Christians in the Bilâd al-Shâm  (Maronites and Melkites, 17th and 18th centuries)

 Aurélien Girard – CerHic, Université de Reims

With the development of Churches united to Rome in the Ottoman Near-East, Catholics distinguished themselves among Near Eastern Christians by behaviors and discourses. They used history, theology, hagiography etc. to prove themselves to be the true Church against Schismatics and Heretics. Engaged in the controversy, Orthodox Christians too had to define themselves on the same field of polemics. However, the Catholic confessional identity was above all plural, because of the multiplicity of “rites” in the Oriental Catholic Church: Christians Catholic Churches were rivals.

The limits of a Catholic Confessionalization in the Ottoman Empire through the issues of fasting and marriage

Bernard Heyberger, EHESS, Paris

The Catholic Church has been one of the main actors in the struggle against religious ambiguity and in the creation of sectarian borders in the Ottoman Empire, through the introduction of the post-Tridentine disciplining among the Eastern Christians. Nevertheless, this long process of differentiation and empowerment (16th-20th centuries) was never completely achieved, as it can be better understood through the analysis of marriage and fasting, two public rites in which social rules had a direct impact on individual practices, and through which institutions could acquire and display their authority on the very bodies of people. As revealed by the sources, the faithful often eluded these dispositions, since the requirements of the Church collided too directly with general social rules that were shared by a broader population, characterized by a strong heterogeneity. Moreover, the absence of a centralized authority, capable of monitoring all Christians alike, often brought them to turn to different and competing agencies. Thus, diversity of leadership in Catholic denominations fostered diversity in marriage and fasting.


Citer ce billet
Camille Rouxpetel (2017, 1 février). Building Confessional Identities in the Ottoman Empire (16th-18th centuries). Les normes et les pratiques du religieux entre Orient et Occident (IXe-XIXe siècle). Consulté le 19 juin 2024, à l’adresse

Camille Rouxpetel

Camille Rouxpetel Projet ERC EuQu-CRHIA-université de Nantes, ancien Florence Gould Fellow à la Villa I Tatti, the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies et ancien membre scientifique de l'École française de Rome, section Moyen Âge Docteur en histoire de l'Université Paris-Sorbonne

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