Captivity, Conversion, and Islamic Law in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire

AHA Session 65
Friday, January 7, 2011: 9:30 AM-11:30 AM
Room 104 (Hynes Convention Center)
Will Smiley, Queens' College, University of Cambridge

Session Abstract

Especially in early modern Europe and the Middle East, organized religions provided the most significant way to articulate human experiences of the sacred. But religious identity had many other meanings, beyond spiritual conviction. Thus, religious conversion has attracted much attention, not only from contemporaries but also from modern scholars This panel will problematize such scholarship, by examining the confluence of religious conversion and captivity in the early modern Ottoman world. In part as a response to stereotypes of widespread forcible state conversion of Christians and Jews—especially slaves—to Islam, much previous scholarship has explained such conversions as purely cynical acts undertaken in order to gain access to privilege and social or political success. This panel seeks to re-evaluate this claim, arguing that religious conversion in the Ottoman empire was a much more complicated act than either (1) cynical self-advancement or (2) individual spiritual conviction.  These four case studies seek to re-interpret the act of religious conversion according to ideas of collective identity and belonging, in addition to the concept of religious conversion as a means of "career advancement" in the pre-modern Ottoman world. These papers use a wide variety of sources to show the rich diversity of different motivations which did, and did not, lead to conversion.

Tobias Graf tackles this problem through a prosopographic analysis of a wide variety of renegades—converted Christians—in the Ottoman Empire in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The author problematizes models of captivity and conversion, often developed for the Mediterranean frontiers, by looking at the empire’s land borders, and by examining the particular roles played by skills, career ambitions, and connections in individual cases.

Nur Sobers Khan, meanwhiile, uses Ottoman court records to explore a similar variety of motivations, again with a strong emphasis on the role of captivity—in this case by looking particularly at slaves, in the late 16th century. This paper pays particular attention to the interaction between individual initiative, and legal structures.

Joshua White similarly spotlights those legal structures, and the ways they were negotiated by captors and captives along the Ottoman frontiers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This paper emphases the tie between evolving legal constructions and individual experiences, in the fraught milieu of ransom captivity the early modern Mediterranean.

Finally, Will Smiley considers the continued importance of conversion, even after the ransom captivity system had been formally ended by the terms of interstate treaties. Foregrounding Ottoman, Russian, and Habsburg state frustrations in trying to make each other’s subjects comply with treaty provisions mandating the return of captives, this paper shows the importance of conversion as a site of contested, multiple interpretations, and as a tool used both by states and individuals for varying reasons.

Thus, while this panel's case studies are drawn from the Ottoman Empire, all of the papers reach across the empire's boundaries, so the panel should be of interest to scholars of neighboring states, and of conversion and captivity and slavery more generally. We hope to stimulate discussion, and perhaps debate, over all of these issues by drawing the audience into a dialogue.

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