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. Continue reading “Race, Slavery, and Sainthood in the Early Modern Ottoman World: Some Perspectives”

The Incident at Nabi Samwil

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The mosque-shrine of Nabi Samwil, now split between Muslim Palestinians who use the above-ground mosque, and Jewish Israelis, who control the tomb-shrine itself. The figures atop the structure are members of the IDF.

i. I am standing, a few miles north of the Holy City, on a rise of ground that slopes off to one side towards the Jordan River, on the other towards the Great Sea. Like every rise of ground in this angry and holy land, it is covered over by a vast sea of the past and present commingled and churning. When the Crusaders crested this hill they could see the walls of their goal, or so the story goes, though today we can see only the ever expanding sprawl of modern Jerusalem, rising and falling over hills where a few decades ago there were only olive trees and flocks of sheep and goats and little villages. But we are not looking out over the rolling hills that spill out, east and west, from along the invisible Green Line that divides—in theory at least, one that that grows less relevant day by day—Israeli and Palestinian territory. We are watching, my friend and I, in transfixed anger, a momentary act in the interminable drama that plays out on this hill and in so many other places in this land, day after day after day, the long ugly drama on endless repeat. As the sun sets over the great corrupting sea to the west, I find myself right in the thick of that drama, feeling emotions to which I am unused and which terrify me even as they shoot through my body and heat my blood. I clench my fists, fight back hot tears, fight back the urge to pick up a stone and crack someone in the head. Instead I curse under my breath, tell M. that I am going back to the car, and hurry down the hill to the rental, parked precariously on an incline. I climb inside, grab the wheel, and weep angry tears. M. follows close behind and we drive off in bitter silence, processing what we’ve seen and felt and how very ordinary it is for this land.

ii. I was staying for several days in an Airb&b rental on El-Wad street, one of the main arteries of Jerusalem’s Old City, in an apartment being rented out by a French archeology student whom I never met. M. was staying there as well, while taking Arabic lessons. We had spent this particular day taking a break from the Old City and its tensions, the strain of soldiers on every corner with heavy weaponry slung in front, the constant watch of cameras on every other rooftop, perched above the street, the heaviness that percolates through the air, the loud silent confrontation of the settlers’ bristling rooftops. I could not then and cannot now imagine what it must be like to live here as a resident, to have this be your reality every day and night. After a week it was too much for me. Perhaps you adjust. Perhaps you bottle it up until it snaps. During my stay I wondered more than once what I would do were I in the place of a Palestinian Jerusalemite, or an Israeli settler. I don’t know, but I can speculate, and it’s not very pretty.

After picking up our rental car, at an agency down the street from the King David Hotel of lore—every block, every stone here has some world-historical significance, it gets old really, and I’m a historian—we cross through the Separation Barrier into the West Bank, then through another checkpoint, past a settlement, eventually winding down to Ein Prat National Park, our main destination for the day. Like almost everywhere else here it goes by at least two names—in Arabic it’s Ayn Farar, close, but not quite the same, as the Hebrew. Unlike most places around this city, though, it is an island of calm and coexistence. Apart from a couple of Japanese tourists who arrive as we are leaving, we are the only foreigners. Israelis and Palestinians—more of the latter than the former, at least today, it seems—are enjoying the cool waters of the springs and creek cutting through the desert, or are out hiking along the steep wadi, or enjoying a picnic in the eucalyptus groves planted during the British Mandate (growing alongside the ruins of a Byzantine church, in the shadow of a still functioning monastery inhabited by monks of Eastern European extraction…). There are no guns or uniforms or political slogans in sight. The settlements that cling to the ridgetops in this part of the West Bank are invisible, having receded behind the crags lining the wadi. We climb into caves used by late antique hermits, trail gazelles up a hill to a village site dating back, so they say, to the late Neolithic, sink into the marvelous papyrus reed jungles that hug the course of the stream. The conflict is far away, and here, at least, we feel as if there are possibilities open beyond merely tracing new permutations in the never-ending struggle.

iii. We spend the rest of the day exploring, down to Jericho, motoring into town past the languid Palestinian Authority checkpoint, get a bite to eat, and try to find an Umayyad ruin. We end up by the Jordan instead, at a site claimed to be where St. John baptized Jesus, but which today is dominated by a looming Israeli military instillation and mine-seeded zone, a parking lot full of tourist buses, and gaudy new churches across the holy river on the Jordanian side. It’s a strange and vaguely disturbing scene, and I remark that I feel like I’ve scene it all in a dream. Continue reading “The Incident at Nabi Samwil”