N. Alkan: Non-Sunni Muslims in the Late Ottoman Empire

Non-Sunni Muslims in the Late Ottoman Empire. State and Missionary Perceptions of the Alawis

Alkan, Necati
London 2022: Bloomsbury
248 S.
Rezensiert für 'Connections' und H-Soz-Kult von:
Katrin Köster, Research Centre Global Dynamics / Oriental Institute, Leipzig University

Ethnic and religious diversity as well as the resulting dynamics of majority-minority interaction were and continue to be an undeniable driving force of sociopolitical developments in the Middle East. This was especially true for the Ottoman Empire, which was simultaneously a state defined as Sunni Muslim and home to numerous diverse ethnic and religious communities.1 The past two decades have seen heightened scholarly interest in Ottoman strategies for dealing with this ethno-religious diversity. Research, for example, by Stefan Winter demonstrates that Ottoman policies towards minorities were usually driven by pragmatism and rather by political than by theological considerations, thus contradicting narratives of constant oppression.2 Necati Alkan’s monograph confirms this existing research and adds new insights into the impact American and European Protestant missionaries had on Ottoman politics as well as into the region’s social history – with a special focus on the Alawis, a “heterodox” Shiite minority at home in the empire’s Arab provinces.

Drawing on understudied Ottoman archival sources and missionary documents, the study provides a more nuanced understanding of the majority-minority interactions of the late Ottoman Empire. Simultaneously, it also testifies to the difficulties researchers face when working to identify the voice and agency of a peripheral community like the Alawis in broader geopolitical developments.

The study is divided into four empirical chapters. The first chapter introduces the Alawis as a “heterodox” non-Sunni Islamic community. It begins with historicizing Islamic conceptualizations of heterodoxy and highlighting their contingency upon sociopolitical contexts. It then provides an overview of the Alawis’ history (ninth to twentieth century) and social structure. It concludes that the community’s perception as a unified group only emerged during the nineteenth century and was shaped by Ottoman centralizing policies and intensifying Western interventions.

The second chapter focuses on the activities of Protestant missionaries among non-Sunni Islamic groups as a significant element of these Western interventions. It concentrates on two case studies on the conflicts between the Ottoman authorities and Protestant missionaries over the treatment of Alawi converts. These two case studies reveal that the Ottoman government increasingly came to see Christian missionaries as a threat to stability and consequently launched its own Sunnitizing missionary activities among non-Sunni Islamic communities designated as “correction of belief/beliefs” (tashih-i itikad/akaid).

The third chapter historicizes this concept of “correction of belief(s)” and traces its development by comparing the policies of Sultan Mahmud II (r. 1808–1839) and Sultan Abdülhamid II (r. 1876–1909) towards non-Sunni Islamic groups. This comparison reveals that the “correction of beliefs” was part of Ottoman centralizing and modernizing policies – a “civilizing mission” targeting non-Sunni groups.

The fourth chapter shows that the Young Turk Revolution (1908) initially led to high hopes for more religious freedom and to an influx of Alawi students into missionary schools. It then continues by analysing how the Italo-Libyan War (1911–12) curbed these developments as it caused growing wariness towards foreign intervention in the Muslim world and gave rise to the Islamist and pan-Islamic ideologies advocating for Muslim (Sunni-Shiite) unity, to the curtailing of foreign influences, and to efforts to fight backwardness through Islamic education.

Alkan’s research on Ottomans, missionaries, and Alawis contributes to a better understanding of the majority-minority interactions of the late Ottoman Empire in a threefold way. Firstly, by historicizing the concepts of heterodoxy and “correction of beliefs”, Alkan shows that the demarcations between orthodox and heterodox as well as between Islamic and non-Islamic should not be considered as monolithic but adjustable and contingent upon sociopolitical contexts. Secondly, by analysing the Ottoman civilizing missions targeting peripheral rural communities, his study confirms the research highlighting that the distinctions between the “civilized” and the “savage” as well as civilizing missions did not only occur between different nations or cultures but within the boundaries of empires or nations as well.3Thirdly, by putting Ottoman and missionary perspectives into dialogue, Alkan highlights that Ottoman policies toward minorities should be viewed in broader geopolitical contexts. He convincingly argues that the political and educational efforts pertaining to the “correction of beliefs” as well as later Islamist and pan-Islamist ideas were part of these centralizing politics and did not result from “religious zeal, but imperial anxieties” (p. 159). These anxieties were part and parcel of the growing political and military demands on the weakening empire and intensifying Western intervention during the nineteenth century.

Furthermore, the study showcases the dynamics caused by local (seemingly insignificant or peripheral) communities, becoming entangled in wider geopolitical developments. Exercising influence on the Alawis and other non-Sunni groups became a bone of contention between the Ottomans and the Western powers represented by the missionaries, which rendered these communities central to wider geopolitical power struggles and gave them leverage and agency. Additionally, and on a more practical level, the Ottoman and Protestant civilizing missions led to the establishment of new educational institutions throughout the community’s territory. The monograph demonstrates that the Ottoman and Protestant interventions as well as an improved level of education among the Alawis triggered far-reaching internal dynamics within the community. Alkan identifies the emergence of a reform movement, an “awakening” of “enlightened” Alawis, that challenged traditional religious authority and led the community to adopt the self-designation “Alawi” already during the late nineteenth century and not as usually assumed only during the early twentieth century. This self-designation referencing ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, the cousin of Muḥammad and the first Shia Imam, signified the emergence of a more coherent and more distinctly (Shiite) Muslim group identity.

The most interesting contribution of Alkan’s study is his identification of these developments within the Alawi community. It contradicts the common assumption that there are no sources for studying Alawi history between the sixteenth and twentieth century and provides an example of how Alawi social history of that period can be researched.4 Nonetheless, his study also reveals the difficulties facing researchers when analysing dynamics within such a minority or peripheral group, namely the lack of sources produced by these groups, in this case the Alawis themselves. Apart from brief references to two Alawi works, a collection of religious texts published by Sulaimān al-Adanī in the 1860s5 and the History of the Alawis, published by Muḥammad aṭ-Ṭawīl in 1924 6, his evaluation of dynamics within the community are entirely based on the historical assessments of third-party observers, a limitation the author himself is aware of. While these sources, most importantly the descriptions of Alawi communities in the Ottoman yearbook Beyrut Vilayeti (1917–18), do reveal interesting and hitherto understudied aspects of Alawi community life, it remains unknown how the community itself perceived the Protestant missionary activities and Ottoman modernizing policies. One is left to ponder how direct or long-lasting the missionary influence on the Alawis actually was and why – after decades of Protestant and Ottoman-Sunni proselytizing efforts – Alawi reformers of the twentieth century instigated a rapprochement not with Sunnis or Christians but with the Twelver Shia community of Ǧabal ʿĀmil in southern Lebanon.[8] Future research on the community should therefore analyse Alawi voices on developments within their community.

Alkan’s study is highly recommended to everyone who seeks a more profound and nuanced understanding of late Ottoman history and the Ottoman Empire’s handling of ethno-religious diversity. It provides new and illuminating insights into the impact that Protestant missionary activities had on Middle Eastern social history and into the dynamics reshaping the Alawi community during the nineteenth century. By analysing hitherto understudied Ottoman archival material, he places the Alawis in broader geopolitical developments and thus contributes to a better understanding of the community’s modern history.

1 Hans-Lukas Kieser, Minorities (Ottoman Empire/Middle East), in: International Encyclopedia of the First World War, <https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/minorities_ottoman_empiremiddle_east>, last retrieved 16.02.2024.
2 Stefan Winter, The Shiites of Lebanon Under Ottoman Rule, 1516 – 1788, New York 2010.
3 For example: Birgit Schäbler, Civilizing Others. Global Modernity and the Local Boundaries (French/German/Ottoman and Arab) of Savagery, in: Birgit Schäbler/Leif Stenberg (eds.), Globalization and the Muslim World. Culture, Religion, and Modernity, New York 2005, pp. 3-31.
4 Most existing research either focuses on the origins of the community and theological questions, that is the Alawis’ believe system, or analyses the political strategies of the Assad regime in the twentieth century.
5 Sulaimān al-Adanī, al-Bakūra as-Sulaimānīya, Beirut 1864.
6 Muḥammad Amīn Ġālib aṭ-Ṭawīl, Tārīḫ al-ʿalawīyīn, Beirut: Dār al-Andalus, 1985.

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