Race, Slavery, and Sainthood in the Early Modern Ottoman World: Some Perspectives

Kadi Sünbül Ali
Kadı Sünbül ‘Ali, as depicted in a c. 1620 Ottoman book of costumes for Western European use, The Habits of the Grand Seignor’s Court, British Museum 1928,0323,0.46.8

Among the circles on Twitter that I follow- and occasionally participate in- in recent weeks the issue of the relationship between ‘the Enlightenment’ and modern notions and practices of racism has emerged as a popular and contentious topic. Now, while I have my own thoughts and theories about the Western European Enlightenment (which was as you can guess from my use of quotation marks a much more complicated affair than either its boosters or detractors tend to make out), what I would like to address here is the question of how race was perceived in a pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment context, specifically, within the Ottoman Empire at a particular time (and among certain groups, not necessarily all, given the sheer diversity of the empire). As such, the example I give here doesn’t necessarily prove anything one way or another about whether or not the Enlightenment ‘invented’ racism or racialized slavery. Rather, what I hope my comments here demonstrate is the complicated ways in which racial, or racial-like, categories, ethnic difference, and practices of slavery (all of which certainly intersected long before the Enlightenment to be sure) interacted. It does not make sense, ultimately, to say that early modern Ottomans were racist, or, for that matter, that they weren’t, or, in terms of slavery, that Ottoman slavery was totally different from slavery in the Americas, or that it was very similar: the reality is, as we historians are (obnoxiously to some!) fond of saying, complicated, and while our modern categories (themselves certainly shaped by, among other things, the Enlightenment(s)) are not totally foreign to early modern Ottoman (or any other) worlds, they must be applied with care if they are to be applied at all. Likewise, while we can often find parallels- unsurprisingly- between Ottoman practices and attitudes and those developing in contemporary Western Europe and the Americas, we ought to be equally sensitive to the differences and divergences.

I’ve taken a single late 17th century encounter, recorded by ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī and translated below along with my commentary, as my main point of departure, a story which I think illustrates well these complexities of racial origin, slavery, and the social limitations and possibilities contained within Ottoman practices of race and slavery, all oriented within a concern for sainthood (a category early modern Ottomans of all confessional varieties would have recognized to some degree or another, incidentally). There are a lot of ways in which we might explore race and slavery in the Ottoman lands: in thinking about race and ethnicity, for instance, we might want to consider the genealogy of ideas about phenotype and human geographical origin in the wider Islamic sphere, a genealogy that we could well trace back to the heritages of the ancient world. In terms of slavery, we might consider the various mechanisms whereby slaves were brought to market in Ottoman cities, the different ways that slaves from different places were perceived and employed, or the interaction of legal norms governing slavery, lived practice, and differing attitudes based on skin color or gender or other characteristics.

Historians have not tackled these issues to the degree that they deserve; Ottoman slavery, while the subject of a handful of monographs and edited volumes, remains poorly understood and overly polemicized. On the question of race and racial identity and prejudice, perhaps the best treatment has come from Baki Tezcan in his article ‘Dispelling the Darkness: The politics of ‘race’ in the early seventeenth century Ottoman Empire in the light of the life and work of Mullah Ali’.’ [1] Mullah ‘Ali, who is almost certainly the ‘kadı’ pictured above, was an Ottoman scholar and jurist of African origin who rose to extreme prominence in the ‘ilmiyye hierarchy, coming close to claiming the highest rank in the scholarly system, that of shaykh al-Islam, the personal patronage-based politics of the Ottoman elite intervening. While he was subject to some degree of insult and prejudice due to the color of his skin- his detractors drawing upon a venerable genealogy of notions within the Islamic world about the supposed inferiority of Africans- Tezcan argues that these insults and prejudice (which Mullah ‘Ali, also following a long genealogy within Islam, combated in writing) were mostly strategic, his opponents not being motivated by racial prejudice but instead deploying it because it was available. This suggests that something like ‘racism’ was culturally available to Ottomans, but with the stress on ‘available’: it was not systematic in any meaningful sense, and it need not bar a well-connected scholar with black skin from rising to the heights of power. That said, Mullah ‘Ali’s story primarily concerns the situation of the rarefied elite of the Ottoman world. What of race and slavery at the level of more ordinary people?

The story that I’d like to focus on in order to approach some aspects of slavery and race at the non-elite level [2] is one that I’ve shared before, but for a different purpose: The Hermit of Ya’bad and His Marvelous Coffee and Good Counsel. There is a great deal going on this little story, with insights about matters from how sacred space was performed in the Ottoman world to the role of coffee culture and its penetration even into the rural Palestinian countryside. But here we will focus on Shaykh Zā’id – the subject of the account – and his relationships with others. We begin with ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s initial encounter, during his passage through northern Palestine during the late 17th century:

And it reached us in that village [of Ya’bad] that there was close by a black [freed] slave from among the divinely drawn (majādhīb) lovers of God, whose name was Shaykh Zā’id, in a cave there at the foot of a small mountain. And it was reported to us that the cave used to not be there, but one day he was present on the mountain and the cave appeared for him. So we went to visit him, and we entered into his cave. It is a small cave, with lots of niches all around the walls, none of which open to the outside. And he was inside sitting on the ground, and he had a small mortar made of wood with which he ground coffee beans, and a small iron coffee roaster. No one who visited him leaves without him giving them coffee to drink. And he makes the coffee from anything that he has on hand, from wheat, barley, from scraps [of coffee?], and chickpeas—but no one who visits him drinks it without it being excellent coffee! And it was related to us that if he needs firewood, he will, with little effort, pluck out a great tree and break it down with his own hand, bring the wood back, and place it in his cave.

Much of this first half of the story need not concern us here, but two things stand out: first, note that Shaykh Zā’id is introduced as a black slave, and that I have added ‘freed’ in brackets, as it is not in the original. ‘Black’ and ‘slave,’ while they did not necessarily go together in the Ottoman imagination, elite and ordinary, tended not to be too far apart conceptually. We know from other sources that many enslaved Africans, perhaps in the millions, were sold in the Ottoman lands, with Cairo as the primary point of sale, and that a sort of racial or, better, ethnic hierarchy existed in terms of work expectations. [3] Black slaves tended to used for manual labor jobs, often in agricultural settings- this was, as we will see, precisely the case for Shaykh Zā’id. So far we can see clear parallels with practices in the Americas and emerging attitudes among Western Europeans- but then we come to Shaykh Zā’id’s status when ‘Abd al-Ghanī met him. He had become a majdhūb, ‘a divinely drawn one,’ and had been recognized as such by others, allowing him to win his freedom and to occupy a new space within the rural economy of Ya’bad. We might be tempted to attribute his marginality- dwelling in a cave in the woods outside of the village- to his status as a black former slave, but I think it is more accurate to see this as an expression of his sainthood. Many majdhūb saints elsewhere of diverse backgrounds inhabited similar spaces; indeed, in the deep history of sainthood in Palestine and elsewhere we can think of many holy men and women dwelling in places at once outside of settled life but still proximate.

As for the rest of Shaykh Zā’id’s saintly ‘profile’ or repertoire, it does not seem to really have much to do with his ethnic origin or skin color: his practice of hospitality (which, we are given to understand by ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s account, was divinely aided) drove at a central value across not just the Arab provinces but the whole of the empire and indeed the Islamic world as a whole. Not only that, but in making and serving coffee he was very much ‘up to date,’ a reminder that the social innovations of early modernity such as ‘coffee culture’ could be found even in rural villages such as Ya’bad, and served as a linkage between an urbane man of culture such as ‘Abd al-Ghanī and those he encountered in his travels. It might not be too much of stretch to think of Shaykh Zā’id’s cave as a sort of sanctified coffeehouse, on the model- almost certainly coincidentally- of the holy coffeehouse and shrine of the majdhūb of Aleppo Shaykh Arslan. Finally, it is possible, I think, that the saint’s reputation for super-strength owed something to his African origins: as in Western Europe, black men and women both were reputed to have exceptional bodily strength, the bodily and physical being ‘coded’ as predominant in them. Whether or not this reputation arose out of such stereotyping, it was assimilated to his identity as a saint, and, in ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s telling, tied in to his practice of hospitality.

Let us continue ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s account:

And when we entered we greeted him, and he returned the greeting. He is a black freed slave who prefers silence and solitude; Shaykh Muṣlaḥ of the aforementioned village had told us that he used to be the slave of some of the people of that village, and he used to shepherd animals for them. But when this divine attraction (al-jadhb) occurred in him, he abandoned shepherding, and his master manumitted him. He used to return at times the village after the death of his former master, but then he settled in this cave and the people began paying visits to him in it. People from every place seek him out, believe in him, seek blessing from his words, and ask advice from him about their affairs. I asked him about the condition of my brothers and of the group of people traveling with me to Jerusalem, and he replied: ‘They are in grace and good through you.’ And he mentioned to us many words in which were good tidings to us and favorable end for our goal, and peace and safety.

And when we went in to visit him there was with us a young divinely attracted man from among the divinely attracted folk of Damascus, whom we have mentioned previously. When that divinely attracted one went in to him and spoke with him, he laughed greatly. He then said that he was tired, so we recited the Fātiḥa, paid our regards, and departed. [4]

This half of the story brings our central focus into sharp relief, and also raises questions we cannot fully answer. ‘Abd al-Ghanī provides, in no doubt condensed form, the saint’s biography as it had been related to him by a villager- though, we should keep in mind, ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s retelling was done through the lens of his own ideas about sainthood, which might not have exactly converged with those of the people of Ya’bad. That said, there was clear overlap, even in the use of the categories of jadhb and majdhūb- but we stray somewhat from our topic. We learn in this account that Shaykh Zā’id, like many slaves of African origin, had formerly been employed in shepherding, which by itself tells us that the presence of black slaves in rural Palestine was not probably not unusual. There are many things that remain unknown to us: how did Shaykh Zā’id’s former master acquire him? Where? Was Zā’id a Muslim when he came to Ya’bad, or did he convert later? How did Zā’id come to know about categories and practices of sainthood- or should we suppose that villagers were projecting their own assumptions upon his new behavior? We get the sense that both Zā’id and the villagers interpreted his changed lifestyle as being ‘real’ and necessary, the result of divine attraction- and that his master, in recognizing this new status, manumitted him. This suggests that despite being both a slave employed in manual labor and being black, the villagers of Ya’bad, as well as ‘Abd al-Ghanī  and presumably his intended audience, did not see those things as impediments to becoming a saint. Furthermore, Zā’id’s ‘entry’ into sainthood entailed his manumission and a change in his relationship to his master and to the villagers.

Shaykh Zā’id seems to have kept up his relationship with his master- a very common situation in Islamic slavery and slavery the world over, for that matter. Yet he also seems to have been gradually moving himself into his ‘own’ space and set of relationships, predicated upon his new liberated identity as a saint. With his former master’s death he fully entered into this new arrangement of space and relationship: the villagers, who continued to venerate him, now came to him instead of he to them. His former identity as a slave was not totally erased, since he continued to be remembered as a former slave, and even in ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s account his blackness and his identity as a (former) slave was foregrounded. But it does seem safe to say that in his new, much more autonomous space, Shaykh Zā’id was no longer defined by his blackness and his former servility. It was his experience of jadhb, his practices of sainthood, and his reputation for miraculous powers that mattered now and which shaped his relationships with others. The remainder of the account bears this out, ‘Abd al-Ghanī and his companions’ interactions with the shaykh not differing from interactions with other living saints, regardless of skin hue.

Now, in thinking about the wider implications of this story, it is of course true that it primarily tells us about the attitudes of ‘Abd al-Ghanī and his Palestinian villager interlocutors. Did ‘Abd al-Ghanī or the inhabitants of Ya’bad ‘see race’? Yes and no: certainly Shaykh Zā’id was seen as black, his blackness closely tied to his former status as a slave, a status that was never entirely ‘former’ in fact but stayed with him to some degree. Yet at the same time, even if this blackness and servility were seen as central to his identity, they did not define who Shaykh Zā’id was to ‘Abd al-Ghanī, the villagers, or other devotees who came to visit the saint. It was the former shepherd’s reputation as a Friend of God that really ‘mattered’ socially, and which had come to structure his place in the world of rural Palestine. Perhaps there were villagers who balked at the idea of a black slave shepherd becoming a powerful Friend of God- but if there were, their voices have vanished, and perhaps by ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s time any such concerns had indeed passed away.

How much can this story tell us about other places in the Ottoman world? It is noteworthy that ‘Abd al-Ghanī feels no need to explain things further to his audience, an audience which included literate individuals across the Ottoman lands, in the Arab provinces, in Anatolia, in Rumelia, even in the Kurdish marches. Perhaps someone in that audience might have been bothered by the idea of a black slave becoming a Friend of God- but such an objection seems doubtful to me. There was, after all, precedent for such things, going all the way back to the time of Muhammad and the Companions- and any educated Ottoman Muslim would have been familiar with the story of Bilāl ibn Rabāḥ (picture below), a freed slave and, according to Sunni tradition, the first one to give the call to prayer.

In conclusion, as I noted above, it is hard to fit Ottoman attitudes- and indeed wider Islamic ones- neatly into the categories with which we are used on the questions of race and slavery. Shaykh Zā’id’s story is not meant to be a condemnation of slavery, to be sure- but it does point to the fact that slavery, like skin color, need not be an absolute social fact foreclosing everything else. Likewise, while it seems inaccurate to say that Ottomans did not see skin color- they clearly did- or that they did not sometimes attach attitudes we might identify as ‘racist’ to ethnic difference or varieties of skin color, it is also clear from examples like Shaykh Zā’id or Mullah ‘Ali that these attitudes had their limits, and that a man (or perhaps woman, though here we are on different terrain) could pass from being primarily seen as a manual laborer marked by his black skin and servility to being a member of the elite, either political or spiritual. Their cases are to be sure exceptions, but the fact that they were exceptions that could be reproduced and that made sense socially is important and reinforces further the complicated and contingent reality of slavery and ethnic difference in the Ottoman world and both its distance and closeness to the categories and histories we in the modern West are more familiar with.

Bilāl as depicted in a copy of the
Siyar-i Nabî, by Mustafa Darir, Istanbul, c. 1594–1595. Topkapı Museum, Istanbul, vol. 6, fol. 75–304-a

[1]  Baki Tezcan, ‘Dispelling the Darkness: The politics of ‘race’ in the early seventeenth century Ottoman Empire in the light of the life and work of Mullah Ali’in, Identity and Identity Formation in the Ottoman World: A Volume of Essays in Honor of Norman Itzkowitz, ed. by Baki. Tezcan, Karl K. Barbir (Madison: Center for Turkish Studies at the University of Wisconsin, 2007).

[2] Of course ‘Abd al-Ghanī was a member of the elite, albeit in a different way from Mollah ‘Ali. Nonetheless, as I think this story indicates, he moved around a great deal in decidedly non-elite circles, his work and life in fact destabilizing many of the ways we might divide Ottoman society into ‘elite’ and ‘non-elite’ levels. That said, his perspective cannot be imagined to be exactly the same as, say, a Palestinian peasant, and we must keep in mind his work of literary crafting, writerly strategies, and so forth.

[3] On Ottoman slavery broadly, see for instance Madeline Zilfi, Women and Slavery in the Late Ottoman Empire: The Design of Difference, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Géza Dávid and Pál Fodor, Ransom Slavery along the Ottoman Borders: Early Fifteenth-Early Eighteenth Centuries (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2007).

[4] ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī, al-Ḥaḍrah al-unsīya fī al-riḥlah al-Qudsīyah (Beirut: al-Maṣādir, 1990), 66-7.

Sofra close up

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One thought on “Race, Slavery, and Sainthood in the Early Modern Ottoman World: Some Perspectives

  1. Pingback: On the Answering of Questions in the World of Dreams: Two Early Modern Dreamers – Thicket & Thorp

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