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  • Contested Conversions to Islam: Narratives of Religious Change in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire
  • Dina Le Gall
Contested Conversions to Islam: Narratives of Religious Change in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire Tijana Krstić Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011 xvi + 264 pp., $60.00 (cloth)

Contested Conversions to Islam is a study of converts to Islam and of how their conversions played out in the early modern Ottoman Empire, but it is also much more. Krstić employs conversion and narratives about conversion as a prism through which to explore the evolution and vicissitudes of state and community building, of interconfessional relations, and of how religious difference was understood and navigated, and what it meant to be a Muslim or Christian in Ottoman society between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. In turn, she situates such Ottoman dynamics in a wider early modern context of "connected histories." Here she points to similarities and links born of a shared Mediterranean past and of what she calls the "age of confessionalization and empire building" (15)—similarities that emerged simultaneously in neighboring empires and societies to the east and west, both Muslim (Safavid) and Christian (Habsburg).

A central contribution of this superbly rich monograph lies in its reconstruction of a multi-layered and highly complex history of Ottoman conversion, syncretism, and coexistence and the "anti-syncretistic" agendas, policies, and activities with which they were constantly in competition. To achieve this, the author applies her critical acumen both to a dazzling variety of sources ranging from catechisms to hagiographies, conversion narratives, neomartyrologies, converts' petitions, administrative documents, fetvas (legal opinions), chronicles, and diplomatic and missionary reports, and to a series of entrenched popular and scholarly conceptualizations of syncretism. She takes exception to understandings of conversion, tolerance, and coexistence in Ottoman and other Muslim societies that have privileged the state or dervishes and Sufi orders, or have equated syncretism with openness to heterodox, non-normative, shamanistic, or Christianized Islam. (A specific nationalist take in which converts are "traitors" and conversions "rob" subject nations of their best and brightest is also challenged). Instead Krstić masterfully explores syncretism, tolerance, and coexistence as sites of perpetual competition and negotiation with opposing anti-syncretistic efforts to uphold religious and communal boundaries—and this from both micro-and macrohistorical perspectives.

On the micro level, we get to know individuals — men and women, Muslims and Christians, their fears and aspirations—and the strategies through which they strove to manage their daily lives, legitimize their actions, and define their place in families and communities. On the macro level, we come to appreciate how conversion, tolerance, and coexistence, along with rival tendencies and measures, fit into broad efforts of forming and reinforcing communities and communal identities, institutionalizing and bureaucratizing state structures, and staking claims to universal imperial power. Here emerges also a broadly conceived history of early modern Ottoman syncretism and anti-syncretism, their ebb and flow, and their interconnections with, and impact on, broader religious, social, and political realities.

Chapters 1-2 explore, through didactic and hagiographic literature for converts, processes through which, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Muslim communities and identities were formed and the place of converts in society was negotiated. We see Islam instilled in new and old Muslims through catechisms, hagiographies, and epics about gazis (early warriors for the faith) and often tinged with Sufi language and imagery circulating via an array of informal channels. At a time of searching for political and religious legitimacy after the demise of the caliphate, there was much appeal, particularly among Turkmen populations in Anatolia, to a millenarian, saint-centered Islam influenced by ideas of the thirteenth-century mystic Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi. Another critically central experience of this period was the Ottoman expansion into Rumeli (today's Balkans), around whose memory formed communities of frontier raiders and their followers bearing alternative political visions to those of the Ottomans. Later they would be radicalized by the centralizing policies of Mehmed II, becoming associated with migrating Turkmen and their saint-centered piety and sustaining themselves through didactic and polemical narratives that served to educate and encourage new converts. All this was a time before any "normative" Ottoman Islam was established, so there...


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