CHRISTIANITY AND ISLAM IN AN AGE OF RELIGIOUS CONTENTION

By 1550, the threat to Christendom from the Ottomans was real, their advance into European lands inexorable. With energy and creativity they cemented their hold on the Hungarian plain around military and governing centres (sanjaklar), which they established to control the Danube and its associated watercourses. The capture of Belgrade in 1521 was followed by the collapse of Hungary in 1526. Buda was pillaged by the Turks in 1526, besieged in 1529 and then finally occupied permanently in 1541. Esztergom was besieged six times before it finally fell to the Ottomans in 1543, to become the front-line fortress and frontier sanjak. Meanwhile, Temesvár was conquered in 1552, thereby broadening and consolidating the Ottoman footprint north of the Balkans. The Turks adapted to local customs as the price for cementing their hegemony. The post-conquest cadastral surveys in central Hungary allocated local resources to support material infrastructure locally in order to make good their claims that they were not a predatory regime. There were tax exemptions and compensation for civilian populations most affected by Ottoman garrisons, paid for from central funds or transfers from the Egyptian treasury.

Moldavia, Wallachia and Transylvania were unstable, porous, multi-cultural and religiously diverse overlordships where the success of those in authority depended on how they brokered their acceptance with the various local groups, and played off their neighbours against one another. The Ottomans understood how to exploit local grievances and disputes to keep local rulers loyal to them. They embraced Wallachia as a quasi-independent protectorate. It was occupied by garrisons but never subjected to a cadastral survey, nor was its land granted out as prebends (timar) to reward Ottoman cavalry (sipahis) or serving officers in the imperial army (janissaries). That served as the pattern for Moldavia as well, where a failed attempt by local nobles to recover their independence from Ottoman rule in 1538 signalled its more permanent absorption into Ottoman overlordship.

Transylvania was more complex. It was the densely wooded region to the east of Hungary, whose scattered population was divided into Hungarian (Magyar) nobles and peasants to the west, Turkish peasants and Slavs to the east, Lutheran German immigrants in small towns, and self-governing communities of Szekler forest folk. The princes (voivodes) of Transylvania could not hope to defend their lands against an outright attack by any of their larger neighbours (Poles, Habsburgs, Turks). Their countrymen could raise cavalry on a voluntary basis, but only for the summer months. They needed a protector. But opinions were divided in Transylvania as to where that protection should come from. Around 1550, some (especially in western Transylvania) looked to the Habsburg archduke, and later emperor, Ferdinand I. Others supported John Sigismund Zápolya, a remnant of the Jagiellon dynasty through his mother. He was twice elected king of Hungary (1540–51 and 1556–71), mainly thanks to the protection of the Ottomans.

Rivalry between John Sigismund and Ferdinand was also fomented by religious differences. Transylvania had become a haven for Reformed Protestant proselytizing and, in due course, for Unitarians. The beliefs of the latter seemed to offer the possibilities of syncretism between Christianity and Islam. That appealed to many groups in eastern Transylvania, especially the Szeklers, for whom Islam was a close and not-so-feared neighbour. The Ottomans played on those differences to establish their hegemony while allowing the local Diet to elect its own princes and exacting no hostages or tribute. In Transylvania, a neo-Calvinist prince ruled with Ottoman blessing. Under Turkish aegis, Latin-rite Christians, Calvinists, Lutherans and Unitarians had a recognized place in Transylvanian life, while Orthodox Christians were tolerated. As with the frontiers between Protestant and Catholic Christianity, so those between Christianity and Islam were nowhere as neat as the proponents of Crusade and Holy War on either side would have liked them to be.

The Ottoman empire was (somewhat like the pre-Christian Roman empire) an amalgam of cultures and traditions which its expansion fostered. Islam provided its foundational legitimacy. The sultans conceived of themselves and their social order as Muslim and their state as an Islamic one. Yet, by 1550 the empire spread over three continents and embraced 15 million people. The Ottomans learned how to match the protection of the House of Islam with the practicalities of ruling diverse peoples. Ottoman religious and military élites maintained the primacy of Islamic law but were flexible about how they did so. The interpreters of Islamic law (müftis) presided over mosques and religious schools (medresses). They were independent of the regime and could be the focus of opposition to it. But they were trained in the Sunni Hanafi school of Islamic law, which offered justifications for religious syncretism in terms of the eventual conversion of those who were not originally of the faith. By contrast, those who administered the Islamic law locally (kadis) were appointed by the state, priest-magistrates who drew upon Sultanic law as well as local customs and traditions, while seeking to interpret them within the framework of their understanding of Islamic law (the Shariah). At the same time, Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Jewish communities all had their own courts within the empire, and judged people in accordance with their own laws. Genoese, Venetian (and then, later, French, English and Dutch) residents were also allowed their own courts in the trading centres of the empire. Even within the House of Islam, the Ottomans accorded space and legitimacy to the dervish orders. Christians, Jews and Armenians of talent found their way into Ottoman military and administrative élites.

While religious dissent had initially encouraged Christendom to define itself as a belief-community through the exclusion of those who did not subscribe to its beliefs, the Ottoman empire was able to expand in the same period on a basis of qualified inclusion. So although European lands had few Muslims in their midst the Ottoman empire embraced a mixture of Christians of different traditions. The majority of its Balkan subjects were (with the exception of some parts of Albania and Bosnia) Christians. There were minority Christian populations in Anatolia and concentrations of Christians in Middle Eastern mountain regions which had traditionally served as refuges (Mount Lebanon, Sasun and the Tur Abdin). Many Christians in the Ottoman empire acknowledged their allegiance to either the Greek Orthodox patriarch, or the Apostolic Armenian patriarch, both located in the Ottoman capital. Both Church hierarchies were recognized by the Ottoman bureaucracy. But there were many Christians in the Asian and African provinces of the Ottoman empire who were neither Orthodox nor Armenian – Copts, Jacobites, Maronites and Nestorians.

From the later sixteenth century onwards, the globalizing Christian ambitions of Catholic Christianity sponsored attempts by European missionaries from the later sixteenth century onwards to make common cause with these Asian and African Christians and to wean the Orthodox and Armenian faithful to the Latin cause. Their objective was to form a ‘Uniate’ Church (that is, one in communion in Rome) as had occurred in the Polish-Ukrainian borderlands among the Orthodox faithful after 1595. In the Ottoman empire, however, such efforts backfired – not least because Ottoman officials, reluctant to intervene in what they regarded as Christian quarrels of no concern to them, endorsed the rival authorities of the two patriarchies. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the contentions over religion in Constantinople were focused around protecting Catholic missionaries (attempts led by the French monarchy) from hostility originating, in most part, not from Muslims but from the Orthodox and Apostolic Armenian patriarchs.

Western Christendom’s ideologues talked up the need to respond to the Ottoman threat with a Crusade against the Infidel, ignoring the reality that the Ottoman empire was a pluralist entity in which Christianity had an acknowledged place. In a parallel fashion, Islamic religious leaders periodically proclaimed the need for a Holy War (ghâzá), while Ottoman rulers simultaneously sought to retain the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional basis of the empire. Like Christian princes in the West, however, the sultans had to respond to the popular expectations for spiritual renewal in their midst as well as pressures for a greater degree of religious orthodoxy and state-sponsored confessional identity. In both Christian Europe and Ottoman Islam there were mutual and contradictory pressures – some for confrontation and others for coexistence. The resulting ambivalence explains the ebb and flow in the relationships between Europe and the Porte: mutual tensions, followed by renewed and contingent accommodation.

Ottoman expansion in the Mediterranean constituted a particular focus for Christendom’s fears. That was where it was most readily understood within an eschatological context. The prophecies of Joachim of Fiore from the years of Christendom’s crusading fervour taught that the Turks were a manifestation of the Antichrist whose final overthrow would signal the End Time. They were joined by other prophetic proclamations with their origins in the last years of Byzantium. In Venice, Florence and elsewhere in Italy, such writings were more widely diffused in print, and given credence in the years of heightened tension from the Turkish menace. As the Ottoman siege of Cyprus unfolded in 1570 so the Brescian alchemist Giovanni Battista Nazari published one of several works to appear from Venetian presses that year predicting that the Venetian Lion, the Imperial Eagle and the Papal Lamb would together slaughter the Turkish Dragon. Equivalent prophecies circulated in the Muslim Mediterranean world as it approached its own millennium (1591–2 in the Christian calendar). One of the most widely distributed predictions within Christendom (appearing in twenty-three printed editions in the years from 1552 to 1600) was that the Ottomans would capture ‘the red apple’, interpreted in the West as the city of Rome.

The Mediterranean was the heart of an economic world straddling continents and civilizations. Its urban centres and hinterlands were linked by patterns of exchange which were both collaborative and competitive. What went on at one end of the Mediterranean was rapidly known, talked about and emulated at the other. Intermediary groups (Armenians, Jews, Moriscos, Christians who had converted to Islam either voluntarily or by coercion and others) served as conduits of information across religious and cultural divides. Venice, Europe’s great entrepôt with the East, had a guild of official translators (dragomen) who acted as intermediaries with the Ottoman empire. These intermediaries relayed Christian and Muslim prophetic voices in the Mediterranean echo-chamber, each urging on the anxieties of the other. One sign of the waning of Crusade was the decreasing economic and cultural influence of the intermediary Mediterranean trading diasporas in the seventeenth century, and the shift in the centre of gravity of Europe’s eschatological and millennial speculation. By the 1620s it had moved away from the Mediterranean and the fear of the Turk, to be relocated in the hands of Protestant interpreters in the upheavals of central Europe.

The Ottoman military conquest of Syria and Mamluk Egypt in 1517 was followed by the acknowledgement of Ottoman suzerainty by the Arab advocates of Holy War in the Maghreb and the corsair states along the North African coast. The latter’s licensed depredations on Christian shipping were the way whereby the Ottomans sustained their overlordship along the shoreline of the southern Mediterranean at little cost to local populations. They also acquired a naval competence with which to challenge successfully the combined maritime strength of Venice and the Habsburgs in the second Ottoman-Venetian War (1537–9). As a result, the Ottomans established their pre-eminence in the Aegean and over the majority of the eastern Adriatic coast. Just as the Ottomans exploited local frustrations against the incompetent Mamluks, so they were adept at fomenting Greek Orthodox resentments of their Latin Catholic overlords in the Aegean islands to establish their hegemony. By 1550, Ottoman naval forces were never more than a day or so away from a port and supplies for their galleys in the eastern Mediterranean. That gave them a considerable advantage over the navies of Christendom when the latter ventured on long-range expeditions east of Malta.

The Ottomans were well informed about the religion and politics of Christendom, thanks to the Jews, converted Moriscos and Christians in their service. The Muslim empire’s westward expansion depended on exploiting Christian divisions and rivalries. By 1550, however, it was reaching the strategic limits dictated by the geography of its land supply-lines. Ottoman military maps tell the story of how important these were, as do their ambitious projects to link the Don and Volga rivers (first conceived in 1563), to build a Suez canal (1568) and another linking the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara through the Sakarya river (begun in 1591). No amount of local outsourcing to supply the strategically placed outpost garrisons could replace the need to march men and equipment to the campaign front line. Equally, the materials and crews to man their Mediterranean fleets were not summoned out of thin air. They required logistic planning and forethought. Even more important in limiting Ottoman expansion to the west was the reality that the further they penetrated into the core of European land-space the more they encountered peoples who were acculturated not to accept Muslim rule and prepared to resist it.

Nor was the Islamic world itself immune to religious division. Developments here, as in other aspects of the Middle East, bear comparison with those in the West. In 1501, the Grand Master of the Safaviyeh Order, a Sufi group of mystics from what is now northwest Iran, proclaimed himself Shah (‘king’) Ismail in Azerbaijan and Iran and established his capital in Tabriz. Claiming to be the direct male descendant of the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, he succeeded in imposing Shi’ism as the religion of what coalesced under his authority and that of his successors as the Persian Safavid empire. Thousands of Shi’a adherents (fundamentally divergent from Sunni Islam) were massacred by the Ottomans in Asia Minor in an effort to repress the heresy in the first half of the sixteenth century, while the supporters of Ismail desecrated Sunni graves and sought to advance Shi’ism by military means, regarding the shah as both a religious leader and a military chieftain.

The periodic wars that broke out between the Ottomans and Safavid Persia in the sixteenth and first half of the seventeenth centuries took resources and focus away from Ottoman expansion to the west, which in turn further opened the door to a coexistence with Europe. With the Portuguese (and later the Dutch) holding sway in the Indian Ocean and hovering at the entrance to the Red Sea, the possibility that Europe would make common cause with the Safavid rulers of Persia was a constant preoccupation in Constantinople. Further Islamic dissent also appeared in the sixteenth century from the Saadi, an Arab dynasty located in southern Morocco, whose members claimed to be (like the Safavid) directly descended from the Prophet’s family. At the Ottoman Porte, as in the capitals of Europe, the relationships between East and West came to be seen in terms of global strategic imperatives rather than a Crusade.

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