The grand vizier and the false Messiah: the Sabbatai Sevi controversy and the Ottoman reform in Egypt.

AuthorHathaway, Jane

In 1651, the son of a jewish commercial agent was expelled from the Ottoman port of Izmir (ancient Smyrna), located in what is today southwestern Turkey, for publicly pronouncing the name of God. By 1658, he and his followers had launched a proselytizing campaign designed to prepare Jewish communities throughout the Ottoman Empire and beyond for the approaching messianic age. The merchant's son was know as Sabbatai Sevi, and his movement became one of the most widespread Jewish messianic movements in history. The movement's initial fervor was relatively short-lived, however, lasting only from roughly 1651 through Sabbatai Sevi's conversion to Islam in 1666. Nonetheless, the Sabbatian faith, in the form of the Frankist sect, lived on into the nineteenth century in eastern Europe and can still be found among the sect of Muslims known as Donmes, who reside primarily in Greece and Turkey.(1)

The political events of Sabbatai Sevi's movement are fairly well known: he attracted followers throughout the Ottoman Empire, notably in the Arab provinces and Salonika, as well as among Jewish communities in Holland and Italy. Beginning in 1665, when he proclaimed himself messiah, Jews throughout these regions abandoned their normal occupations in anticipation of the day when Sabbatai Sevi's messianic reign would commence. The Ottoman authorities, however, were alarmed at this ferment among their Jewish subjects, as well as Sabbatai Sevi's implicit challenge to the Ottoman sultan's authority, and imprisoned Sabbatai Sevi. They were loath to execute him lest he be hailed as a martyr, which, in any case, would do nothing to mitigate the messianic movement. Instead, they persuaded him to accept Islam. A number of his followers followed him into the new faith, thus laying the ground for the Donme sect.(2)

The major treatment of Sabbatai Sevi, Gershom Scholem's monumental 1957 study, published in English translation in 1973, emphasizes the doctrinal features of his movement and seeks to place these in the context of Jewish mysticism. More recently, the Ottomanist Madeline Zilfi has examined Sabbatai Sevi's arrest and conversion in the light of Ottoman social and religious history. In a study of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Ottoman ulama, or religious authorities, she demonstrates that a puritanical tendency among the ulama conditioned the Ottoman response to Sabbatai Sevi.(3) I intend to further this line of inquiry by addressing the repercussions of Sabbatai Sevi's mission in the Ottoman province of Egypt, where Sabbatai Sevi found a favorable reception among Jews at the highest levels of society, yet where his mission coincided with a brief but intense period of centralizing reform.


By the late seventeenth century, the Ottoman Empire had, to a large extent, ceased to be a territorial-conquest state. The virtually uninterrupted wave of conquests of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that had spread Ottoman rule from the borders of Morocco to the borders of Iran and from Abyssinia to Hungary had halted, although it had not yet been reversed to a significant degree. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the empire's central lands had suffered from rural depopulation and the ravages of gangs of rebellious soldiers and dispossessed landholders who had turned to banditry; this wave of lawlessness was known collectively as the celali (jalali) rebellions. Meanwhile, soldiers who were still on the imperial payroll, as well as all other sorts of government employees, drained the central treasury by adding wives, children, and even deceased persons to the rolls.(4) In the midst of this continuing fiscal and moral crisis, Sultan Mehmed IV (1648-87) conferred authority on a family of reforming grand viziers, or chief ministers-the Koprulu family, who headed the Ottoman government for most of the second half of the seventeenth century. The Koprulus concentrated on pruning bloated government payrolls and ensuring the collection of taxes from the Ottoman provinces.(5) Under their leadership, the empire achieved a degree of stability; the second and longest-ruling Koprulu grand vizier, Fazil Ahmed Pasha (1661-76), oversaw the Ottoman conquest of Crete at long last in 1669, after a twenty-five-year siege of the Venetian fortress at Candia.(6)

Koprulu Fazil Ahmed Pasha also nurtured a new religious rigor in Istanbul and, eventually, in many of the Ottoman provinces. Islamic mysticism, or sufism, had been widespread in the Ottoman Empire throughout the empire's history, despite periodic anti-sufi eruptions. Some of these sufi orders entertained highly antinomian practices, others more sober, "orthodox" practices.(7) By the seventeenth century, one of the more mainstream orders, the Halvetis (or Khalwatis, according to the Arabic pronunciation) had become quite influential in Istanbul; Halvetis monopolized the position of imam, or preacher, at the great mosques in the capital and the major towns of the empire's central lands.(8) In opposition to the Halvetis, there emerged a puritanical movement consisting largely of the class of lower-level provincial preachers who were obliged to compete with sufi leaders for the most prestigious mosque posts. This movement was known as the Kadlzadeli movement, after its most prominent leader, Kadizade Mehmed Efendi, who was active in Istanbul in the 1630s.(9) The movement, like other puritanical movements in Islam, opposed innovation in the practice of the religion and advocated a return to the exact practices of the original Muslim community in seventh-century Medina. For that reason, the Kadizadelis were bitterly antagonistic toward the Halvetis and all other sufis. They demanded that sufi lodges be burned; that alcohol, coffee, and tobacco be prohibited; and that people be forbidden to visit the tombs of revered sufi leaders.(10)

Under the leadership of Kadizade Mehmed Efendi's successors, the Kadizadelis attained a great measure of politico-religious legitimacy. This trend peaked during the career of Vani Mehmed Efendi, a preacher from the eastern Anatolian city of Van, who was prominent in the 1660s and 1670s. The grand vizier of the time, Koprulu Fazil Ahmed Pasha, favored the Kadizadelis and employed Vani Mehmed Efendi as his personal spiritual counselor.(11)

Such was the atmosphere in Istanbul and in many central Ottoman cities when Sabbatai Sevi's movement emerged. The movement was highly mystical, drawing on the medieval Jewish tradition of Kabbala, which was revivified in the sixteenth century as a result of the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-72) in the northern Palestinian town of Safed. Indeed, Ottoman Safed in the sixteenth century was a wellspring of Jewish mysticism, home to such mystical luminaries as Rabbis Joseph Karo (1488-1575) and Haim Vital (1542-1620).(12) Yet just as Sabbatianism was heavily informed by traditional, if not by specifically Lurianic, Kabbalism, it almost certainly absorbed influences from sufism, as well.(13) Therefore, the movement was virtually guaranteed to arouse the...

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