Caliphate Redefined

The Mystical Turn in Ottoman Political Thought

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Hüseyin Yılmaz
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , January
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the “Acknowledgements” section of this important new contribution to the field of early modern Islamic political thought, Hüsayin Yılmaz states that he is “particularly indebted” to the late Shahab Ahmed (x), whose 2016 What is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton University Press) seeks to dislodge, among other things, scholarly assumptions that the central normative discourse in the Islamic tradition is one of law. In this regard, Yılmaz’s Caliphate Redefined: The Mystical Turn in Ottoman Political Thought might be considered an extension of this argument into the field of historic Sunni political thought. Indeed, in reading this impressive study, one is thoroughly disabused of any nomocentric prejudices regarding how Ottoman political discourse conceptualized the caliphate from the empire’s humble origins to its emergence as a global superpower in the 16th century. 

Modern studies of Muslim theories of governance often have assumed that the manner in which Muslim jurists conceived the historic caliphate during the Abbasid period (c. 750-1258 CE) continued to frame and provide the undergirding logic for subsequent articulations of the institution. However, as Yılmaz extensively demonstrates, post-Abbasid discourse on the Ottoman caliphate was to be found, not primarily in works of jurisprudence, but rather in a range of works on political thought shaped more by Sufism and indigenous traditions of rule from the Turkic and Persianate East than the Arab south. Whether authoring works on rulership from the disciplinary confines of ethics, statecraft, philosophy, or Sufism, a major feature of political writing of this period was the expectation that one incorporate, or at least negotiate with, Sufi discourse. Thus, as Yılmaz states, “[t]he history of Ottoman political thought from its frontier origins to imperial manifestations in the age of Süleyman was at the same time a resounding story of the mystification of rulership” (277). 

Over the course of this study, Yılmaz performs a genealogical analysis of post-Abbasid Ottoman vocabularies of political thought which were used to reimagine the caliphate in a uniquely Sufistic idiom as a manifestation and extension of cosmic divine governance (5). In their political writings, Sufi-minded authors such as Idris-i Bidlisi (d. 1520), Ahmed b. Mustafa el-Taşköprizade (d. 1561), and Kınalızade Ali Efendi (d. 1572) sought to address the nature of political authority, including its purpose, status among humanity, how it was acquired and lost, the morality of the ruler, and historical models of rulership. Employing an esoteric Sufi cosmology along with the theoretical models of philosopher-kingship, prophethood, and the imamate, these authors presented the Ottoman sultan as assuming the office of the caliphate, not so much as the successor to the Prophet Muhammad (khalīfat Rasūl Allāh), but rather as God’s unmediated deputy on earth (khalīfat Allāh), the spiritual pole or axis (quṭb) of the world and perfect human being (insān-ı kāmil) whom God entrusted to oversee all creation (191-206). 

As Yılmaz makes clear, these Sufi-oriented Ottoman political theologies served the vital purpose of establishing Ottoman legitimacy in the face of those religious and socio-political forces which challenged it, especially in three areas. First, Ottoman sultans often found themselves competing with Sufi shaykhs of the Mevlevi, Abdalan, and Nakşibendi orders which wielded large amounts of cultural capital in Ottoman lands. As a result, Ottoman sultans and their Sufi and non-Sufi supporters found it not only beneficial but necessary to both cultivate support from loyal Sufi shaykhs and appropriate and deploy mystical vocabularies of rulership to counter the authority held by “God’s unruly friends.” In this process, spheres of authority were constantly (re)negotiated, with rulers and saints adopting each other’s titles and images (141). 

Secondly, Ottoman sultans faced a legitimacy deficit as a result of their tenuous connection to the Quraysh tribe, a necessary criterion of legitimacy in historic legal discourses which defined the caliphate as the successorship to Muhammad through his Quraysh-based lineage. Other post-Abbasid Islamicate regimes faced similar challenges, and as such, Sunni political discourse shifted from a classical focus on the qualifications of the caliph to a post-classical emphasis on cultivating the virtues of the ruler, a central concern in “mirrors for princes” literature. It was in this context that Ottoman political writing came to define true rulership as that which attained excellence in the areas of morality, spirituality, and piety (200). This extension of the teachings of ethics and Sufism into the realm of rulership not only introduced a moralistic-pietism into political discourse; it also provided an alternative mechanism for establishing Ottoman legitimacy which circumvented juristic writings on the caliphate. 

Thirdly, the 15th and 16th century Ottoman state found itself surrounded by the rival empires of the Habsburgs, Mamluks, and the Safavids, and consequently, it became increasingly urgent to find a mode of legitimation to compete ideologically with the claims of universal sovereignty asserted by these rival regimes. This was especially the case with the Safavids, who themselves were equipped with a vast conceptual apparatus due to their background as a Turkoman chieftainship, Shiite dynasty, and Sufi order. Sufi-minded theories of rulership, especially those provided by al-Suhrawardi and Ibn Arabi, provided a deep repository of narratives and symbols for such ideological warfare by establishing a spiritual genealogy between not only the House of Osman and the first four caliphs but the twelve Shiite imams as well (237). 

Although this Sufi-oriented political literature played a crucial discursive role in securing Ottoman legitimacy, it eventually gave way in the post-Süleymanic era to a mode of writing which evaluated rulership, not according to the norms of ethics, piety, and spirituality, but by its conformity to the customs and laws of the state. While the sultan continued to be considered God’s representative on earth, the focus of political discourse shifted from the person of the ruler to a more empirically grounded assessment of the laws and institutions of government. However, as Yılmaz extensively and articulately shows, the mystification of the caliphate—which culminated in the age of Süleyman—was a pivotal chapter in the history of Ottoman political discourse, and as such, this study sheds much needed light on the diverse social imaginaries which have characterized Islamic political thinking on this institution.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sam Houston is Visiting Assistant Professor in Religious Studies at Stetson University.

Date of Review: 
June 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Hüseyin Yilmaz is associate professor of history and director of the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University.



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