(Re)thinking Ottoman Sunnitization, ca. 1450-1700

25-26 August, 2017


In recent years, scholars focusing on religious politics and varieties of Islamic discourses in the early modern Ottoman Empire began to use the notion of ‘sunnitization’ (as well as ‘confession building’ and/or “confessionalization”) to describe a growing concern with defining and enforcing a Sunni orthodoxy and orthopraxy within the Muslim communities in the “Lands of Rum,” beginning some time in the early sixteenth and continuing throughout the seventeenth century. Different Ottomanists have emphasized different reasons as central to this development. Several scholars have pointed to the rise of the Shi‘a Safavid empire and the theological and political challenge this posed to the Ottoman dynastic legitimacy as one of the key reasons behind the growing attention to defining and policing the boundaries of a Sunni Hanefi orthodoxy beginning in the early 1500s. Others have emphasized the processes related to Ottoman state building and fashioning of an imperial dynastic ideology as catalysts for these new dynamics. Drawing attention to the intra-Ottoman dynamics, these studies point to the processes of urbanization, monetization of the economy, institutionalization and bureaucratization launched in the mid-fifteenth century that by the early 1500s resulted in a cadre of religious scholars well integrated with the Ottoman establishment, whose self-confidence grew in direct relation to the empire’s growing demand for textually grounded and law-centered interpretations of religion. They suggest that already prior to the Safavid challenge, the Ottoman ulema began to covet and promote their own greater role in defining the boundaries of Sunni belief and unbelief. Thus, according to the current state of research, the convergence of the processes related to the Ottoman imperial project and the nascent religio-political polarization in the wider Turco-Iranian world resulted in growing ‘Sunna-mindedness’ in the Ottoman Empire in the first half of the sixteenth century. However, not only is there still much to debate about the onset of this phenomenon, but the various phases, aspects, agents and documentary evidence of Ottoman Sunnitization between the 1500s and 1700s are yet to be explored and explained.


This workshop aims to bring together a group of scholars with a track record in researching and thinking about these developments from various perspectives and based on a variety of source materials. Participants are invited to present a pre-circulated paper (7000-8000 words) that would pay particular attention to the agents, strategies, documentary sources, chronology and/or sites of Ottoman Sunnitization (or resistance to it) between the 1400s and 1700s. Ideally, papers would aim to go beyond the better-studied actors (state, ulema), sources (muhimme defterleri, early sixteenth-century fetava) and dates (early 1500s) of research on Ottoman Sunnitization to date, although new perspectives on existing debates and sources are always welcome.


Questions to consider include but are not limited to:

  • Which social actors participated in, benefited from, or rejected defining and enforcing of a Sunni orthodoxy?
  • What were the methods and sites for enforcing compliance with or registering rejection of such measures?
  • Which narrative, documentary, visual or other sources testify to the motifs, successes or failures of the Ottoman agents of Sunnitization?
  • Were the strategies, motifs and intentions of the Ottoman agents of Sunnitization in dialogue with confession an/or community building strategies, motifs and intentions of other Muslims within or beyond Ottoman domains?
  • How did Ottoman authors conceptualize Kizilbash, Shii, and other non-Sunni groups in various documentary and narrative genres? How did they conceptualize Sunnis?
  • Which texts, authors, or intellectual trends from pre-Ottoman times influenced Ottoman agents of Sunnitization?
  • How did the agents, discourses, and documentary genres of Ottoman Sunnitization change or evolve over time, between the 1400s and 1700s?
  • How did regional dynamics and/or inter- or intra-madhhab plurality come into play in and shape the process of Ottoman Sunnitization in various regions and communities of the empire?
  • What was the relationship between the phenomenon of Sunnitization and Ottoman political theology?