Imperial Rule

By Alexei Miller; Alfred J. Rieber | Go to book overview

Redefining Identities in the Late
Ottoman Empire: Policies of
Conversion and Apostasy

SELIM DERINGIL

[Therefore I say in my heart the Faiths are like horses.
Each has merits in its own country.]
Mahbub Ali, Pathan Horse Trader
in Rudyard Kipling's KIM

This chapter is an exercise in comparative history. It aims to put conversion and apostasy in the late 19th century Ottoman Empire in the context of world historiography.

The chapter will compare the Ottoman and Russian Empires. My main focus will be perforce the Ottoman case, as the primary sources at my disposal are mostly Ottoman archival documentation. Nor do I claim in any way to be an expert in Russian history. I will therefore rely on secondary sources for my discussions of Russian cases. As such the paper has no claims to being an exhaustive study on the topic, and hopes more to use the issues of conversion and/or apostasy as a vehicle. A conscious comparative approach to Ottoman history is a fairly recent phenomenon, in a field, which has always hidden behind the [exotic façade] of the linguistic and methodological skills required of the practitioner.1

A word about sources is in order at this point. The Ottoman archives are a tremendously rich source on religious matters. The documents I have used are mostly correspondence from the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of the interior and the Office of the Şeyhülislam, the highest religious official in the empire. This work is bound to be, at best, a mere sampling of the vast amount of documentation available. Another problem with the Ottoman archival sources is that they are not properly indexed, and the cataloguing is not always of the best quality. But the documents are invaluable first hand glimpses into a lost world. In approaching my material in a comparative perspective I have tried to keep the following questions and themes in mind, hoping through them to be able to reach out to colleagues in other fields. The [History of Empires: Comparative Approaches to History and Teaching] project, which culminated in a conference in Moscow in June 2003, forms the basis for this volume. The meeting was a very auspicious occasion to air thoughts and learn from colleagues in other fields. Particularly the papers presented by Dominic Lieven, [Empire on Europe's Periphery: Russian and Western comparisons,] and Paul Werth's contribution,

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