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20130719-194851.jpgReligion and state at the center of the Empire: the Sultanahmet Mosque

Today I had the privilege of hearing a lecture from Professor Cemal Kafadar, one of the leading scholars of Turkish Studies. His talk ranged far and wide, but I focused on his discussion on religion in the Ottoman Empire. His primary theme: the Empire was more deeply involved in the organization of religious practice than any prior Islamic regime.

The basic roles of the professional religious were the same as in much of the Islamic world. The graduates from the madrases, the ulama, were, as they still are, religio-legal scholars. They followed three career paths: professor, mufti or qadi. Professors in the madrases, like today, would teach and write commentaries on books. Muftis were jurisconsults, very similar to rabbis giving responsa. Individual muftis’ rulings, or fatwas, would be followed to the extent these scholars were respected by their community. Thus they were not court rulings. Qadis were judges who offered binding court rulings, registered business relationships, marriages and divorces, and regulated the weights and measures in the marketplaces.

The Ottoman state revealed its influence in how it ranked the madrases in three ranks of competitiveness and quality. They also created a pyramidal hierarchy of muftis and qadis, all the way from the local level to the Sheik al-Islam. They frequently used the phrase “religion and state.” Professor Kafadar gave the example, “We must do such-and-so, for the good of religion and state.” Thus the two were explicitly tied both in practice and in rhetoric.

Professor Kafadar’s did not have time to discuss Sufism much, but I have seen much about Sufism in the Empire in my time in Turkey. I suspect that the Ottoman government’s heavy intervention in the official religion pushed those who wanted more religious flexibility into the alternative path of the mystical masters.

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