Lâle Can, Spiritual Subjects: Central Asian Pilgrims and the Ottoman Hajj at the End of Empire (Stanford University Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Lâle Can (LC): In the summer of 2006, I decided to take a break from the Ottoman Archives and to visit the Sultantepe Özbekler Tekkesi, a Sufi lodge I had read about in hundreds of petitions and state-generated documents. I knew from a short article by Grace Martin Smith that this modest Central Asian lodge had retained a trove of registers with information about the hajjis who had passed through its doors in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The shaykhs at Sultantepe had dutifully recorded the guests’ names, provenance, occupations, dates of arrival and departure, and personal details that provided glimpses into a rich history that was difficult to uncover in government records. After many visits, many attempts to gain access to these unique sources, many attempts to integrate unpublished hajj narratives into my research, and many years of thinking about the ways that Sufi spaces and texts facilitated long-distance travel, I knew that the only way I could write about this book was to let pilgrims be my guides. But if it was these hajjis and the community at Sultantepe that motivated me write this book, I was not always prepared for the complex questions about law, belonging, and rights that their experiences brought to light.

In crafting the ensuing study of migration, law, religious authority, and patronage, it was important to me to keep the subjects of my study—and their communities and networks—at the center of my analysis. Whereas inter- and transimperial histories often start by invoking global processes and ruptures or stories about people who made it into archival sources because they were in some sense exceptional, I chose to begin and to end the book in the courtyard of this lodge amidst scenes of daily life. In part, this was to illustrate that the hajj was not something happening in a distant province at a set time of year, but a ritual woven into the structure of Ottoman communities. It was also meant to root the history of hajj connections in a place that readers could envision as a nodal point in a network that mediated tense experiences and provided new arrivals with support. By taking readers with me, up the steep hill in Üsküdar to Sultantepe, I hoped to introduce them to the shaykhs who helped new arrivals find jobs, healthcare, and steamer tickets. I also wanted them to meet the lodgers who came and went, sometimes tens of times over tens of years. In the context of the formidable hardship pilgrims faced as they traveled Istanbul, I wanted to show how this lodge would have offered some respite, some sense of familiarity and home. At the same time, I wanted to paint a finer grained picture of this space of connection, which included a beautiful old magnolia tree that marked the passing of seasons and was a quiet observer of the large-scale changes that impacted the quotidian rhythms of life between 1869 and 1914.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

LC: Spiritual Subjects is a study of global hajj, nationality reform, and international law that traces how pilgrimage-related migration paved the way for Central Asians to become Ottoman subjects and, later, Turkish citizens. It follows people from Russian and Chinese Turkestan and explores how Ottoman assertions of caliphal power in the Hamidian and Young Turk eras reconfigured the sultan’s relationship to Muslims from abroad. By integrating research from the Ottoman Foreign Ministry Office of Legal Counsel and its engagement with international law, the book traces how the Porte (the central government) sought to counter the proliferation of Muslims seeking extraterritorial rights and privileges by denying their rights to European protection, and then claiming that they were subject to the exclusive protection of the Ottoman caliph. Not quite Ottoman and not quite foreign, Central Asians derived a type of subjecthood based on the Porte’s novel claim of protection via the caliphate. Their status defied both contemporary legal classifications of Ottoman and foreigner and the categories that historians have used to analyze imperial subjecthood.

Among the book’s contributions, I believe three are particularly important. First, it disaggregates a range of developments studied under the rubric of pan-Turkism and pan-Islamism. For example, it shows how Ottoman patronage and repatriation of pilgrims to Russian and Chinese Turkestan were often driven by concerns about policing and public order—not political-religious ideology or ethnic kinship. Similarly, it demonstrates that the Porte’s claim to being the exclusive protector of Bukharans and other “protected peoples” was a response to legal imperialism, not an attempt to vie for Central Asians’ hearts and minds. Second, through a focus on pilgrimage accounts, petitions, and Sufi lodges, the book highlights the important role of Islamic texts and spaces in facilitating both travel to the empire and integration into Ottoman communities. Third, by calling our attention to the many dead ends hajjis faced in their attempts to benefit from extraterritorial rights, Spiritual Subjects counters the view that competing jurisdictional sovereignty increased legal opportunities for subjects with contested or ambiguous nationalities. Imperial competition, I argue, often led to a narrowing of legal horizons—especially for people from informally colonized lands in Asia.

By tracing pilgrims’ trajectories and their attempts to engage with different regimes of protection, Spiritual Subjects presents a new history of the hajj. This includes revisiting much conventional wisdom about the caliphate and recognizing the burdens and limits of this institution. This is clearest when we examine the inability of the Porte to establish a firm nationality boundary, and when we trace the ways that claims of “spiritual” protection and sovereignty translated into material responsibilities that strained the coffers of the bankrupt empire.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

LC: As an active participant and beneficiary of early efforts to promote Inter-Asian research (supported by the Social Science Research Council), I started this project armed with questions about how to think about Ottoman history in a broader Asian context. This has been a line of continuity in the projects I have taken on, and helps me counter what I find to be frustrating about the dominant, reductive paradigms concerning ideas of Muslim loyalty and ideology, as well as imperial patronage and legitimacy. It also informs my interests in the vast regional linkages between hajj, migration, law, and imperial belonging that I discuss in articles in Modern Asian Studies and the International Journal of Middle East Studies. This book also directly connects to a volume I co-edited, which includes pioneering scholarship on Ottoman engagement with international law.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

LC: This book was a labor of love; it connected a complex family history to intellectual interests in ways that I try to explain in the preface. In addition to Ottomanists and historians of the hajj, I hope that scholars of Islamic history, migration, international law, and citizenship will read the book, and assign it in undergraduate and graduate courses. In terms of impact, I hope that it helps historians to think about writing Ottoman history from what Engseng Ho refers to as an outside-in approach: in this context, how attention to people from outside the empire allows us to productively disaggregate concepts many take for granted in a field—including the very category of “Ottoman” itself.

When readers tell me they can visualize the magnolia tree at Sultantepe, and the pilgrims passing through Istanbul, I feel that I have succeeded in writing Central Asians into history in ways that extend beyond merely being pawns in great power rivalries, or as masses of undifferentiated subjects traveling during the steamship era. I hope the book inspires graduate students to find projects that will at times keep them up at night (with questions and excitement) and stories they are committed to reconstructing in ways that feel true to the subjects of their inquiry.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

LC: As a senior fellow at the Koç University Center for Anatolian Civilizations, I am working on a new project on Ottoman exile in the long nineteenth century. Right now, I am investigating practices of forced relocation and their impact on what I term a culture of exile. In a sense, I am working on the flip side of mobility and considering what it meant to be Ottoman from the perspective of those who were cast out of society and rendered immobile. The project opens up exciting questions about visions of justice, imperial space, and the affective traumas of displacement.

J: What are some books that have inspired you along the way?

LC: This is a very partial list, but as an undergraduate, I adored The Mantle of the Prophet, and the gorgeous prose that Roy Mottahedeh used to bring the mullah Ali Hashemi and modern Iranian history to life. As a graduate student, I found much inspiration in Leslie Peirce’s Morality Tales, an exquisite microhistorical account of law, gender, and society in sixteenth-century Aintab. In the growing field of inter-Asian history, I read and re-read Engseng Ho’s The Graves of Tarim and learned so much from how he approached mobility and diaspora through registers and scales that extended seamlessly across oceans. My advisor Robert McChesney’s Waqf in Central Asia: Four Hundred Years in the History of a Muslim Shrine, 1480-1889 offered a model of scholarship on Central Asian history, which I saw as a book that would stand the test of time. More recently, everything Sarah Abrevaya Stein writes about extraterritoriality is an inspiration. I am also a huge fan of Dominique Kirchner Reill’s work, which subverts conventional wisdom on the end of empire, the rise of nationalism, and support for fascism through a history set in what she evocatively calls the “ghost city” of Fiume (today’s Rijeka). In readings related to my new project, I am really excited by the work of social historians such as Noémi Lévy-Aksu, Ufuk Adak, Cengiz Kırlı, Nadir Özbek, Gülhan Balsoy, and Can Nacar, and how they engage with and historicize “order,” prisons, corruption, taxation, and gender and labor history.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 5, “From Pilgrims to Migrants and De Facto Ottomans,” pp. 149-153)

The entire old East was in these streets. Turkestanis with their scant, round trimmed beards, prominent cheekbones, their faces strained by asceticism and piety, their hands clasped in their long-sleeved shawl robes, having come in who knows which year’s hajj caravan—just like storks separated from their flock—ended up staying in a corner of this city [İstanbul]. Chinese Muslims, married in Ayvansaray or Hırka-i Şerif [Mosque] and becoming heads of households, their limbs by custom still finding our clothes strange, [mixed with] people of the Caucasus in black kalpaks, their waists tightened with belts with silver buckles, [and] Yemenis, wrapped in white cloaks, their figures reminding old hajjis of Arafat . . .

Ahmed Hamdi Tanpınar, Beş Şehir (Five Cities)

In the busy commercial districts that lead from the Süleymaniye Mosque Complex down to Mahmutpaşa—where many Central Asians found lodging and work at Istanbul’s inns, workshops, and coffeehouses—there are still businesses for hajj and umra services, with names that evoke Bukhara and Turkestan. Despite a recent surge in labor migration from Central Asia—bringing men and women to take care of Istanbul’s elderly and to work in its service industries—the connections between places like Bukhara, Greater Istanbul, and Arabia no longer make much sense, and for most city dwellers, the existence of Bukharan hajj businesses is probably little more than a curiosity, if that.

But during the early life of famed novelist Ahmed Hamdi Tanpınar (1901–62), the connections between Central Asians and the hajj were still clear. As he wrote in his essay collection Beş Şehir, Turkestanis were part of the diverse Muslim cosmopolitan community that populated Istanbul and connected—an “old East,” Arafat—and to the hajj (fig. 10). Into the mid-twentieth century, when one visited the city, it would be commonplace to see Bukharan and Kashgari hajjis gathered by the steps of Yeni Camii, near the hans where they worked and bachelor houses where they resided or near the lodges of Üsküdar and Eyüp Sultan, where they had forged small communities. At the end of empire, Central Asians and Indians would be gathered in and around the Zawiya al-Uzbakiyya (Uzbek Sufi Lodge), just off the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem—the route that led Jesus to his crucifixion. In the midst of the Arabic being spoken in the busy streets, one would likely hear Turki, Persian, and Urdu and notice the code switching that is a feature of conversation among multilingual people. In Tarsus, migrants from the Ferghana Valley would be milling about the Türkistan Tekke, a Sufi lodge established long before steamship routes eclipsed the overland roads leading through Anatolia into Greater Syria. In Medina, Bukharans could be found at any number of the guesthouses established between the early modern and modern era, one just off the Prophet’s Mosque. In each setting, their distinctive silk and velvet hats and robes (doppi, chopon) would give away that they originated from somewhere else, their accents in Turkish and Arabic hinting that they were not quite Ottoman.

Unlike Muslim migrants and refugees (muhacirin) who fled persecution and war in the Balkans, Caucasus, and Crimea and sought shelter in the sultan’s domains, the nature of nineteenth-century Central Asian migration was, as Tanpınar suggested, ad hoc. Bukharans, Andijanis, and Kashgaris did not arrive en masse, and were not processed by special refugee commissions, and resettled in Rumeli, Anatolia, or Arab provinces, where they were expected to become productive and loyal citizens of their adopted homeland. Rather, they were travelers like Nur Muhammed (who we met in Chapter 2)—people who came in small waves and stayed behind after completing their pilgrimage and who straddled the fine line between Ottomans and foreigners that the Porte began to draw in 1869. Their stories are often scattered and lost or overshadowed by accounts of people at the center of diplomatic struggles over nationality and protection, the masses of problem subjects whom the Porte sought to repatriate, and pan-Turkists who reshaped how the Turkish Republic understood its historical connections to Central Asians.

This chapter looks at the hajjis who stayed behind after completing the hajj and became Ottomans. I begin by working back from the onset of the First World War—when the abrogation of the Capitulations sparked a rush of applications for legal naturalization—and investigate two forms of pilgrimage-related migration and paths to Ottoman subjecthood. In the first part of the chapter, I examine the process of granting nationality to long-term residents and denizens—referred to in governmental sources as telsik (a new term for naturalization)—and argue that the abrogation of the Capitulations facilitated the formalization of a type of extralegal belonging that had emerged after 1869. I call this status de facto subjecthood and use it to refer to persons who lived for all intents and purposes as Ottomans, even though they were not Ottoman legal nationals. My analysis entails distinguishing between foreigners perceived as outsiders and foreigners as people with non-Ottoman legal nationality. While this is a distinction that often gets lost in translation, it is important for understanding how Central Asians became integrated into Ottoman societies and why they were able to bypass—not necessarily via subterfuge—legal restrictions on the rights of ecnebi. De facto subjecthood existed not simply because people exploited legal loopholes but because the central government could not achieve consensus on what it meant to be a foreigner and was not willing to enforce many of its own regulations.

Tracing the connections between hajj and migration sheds light on a fuller range of Asian mobilities and challenges the commonly held view that Central Asian migration to Ottoman lands was driven primarily by ethnicity. There is a reason why Bukharans, Turkestanis, and Kashgaris settled in cities along hajj routes like Istanbul, Damascus, Jerusalem, Mecca, and Medina rather than “Turkish” cities. This becomes clearer in the second part of the chapter, as we move to the Holy Cities and examine an understudied form of state-sponsored migration and subsidized residence termed mücaveret. The experiences of Central Asians in the Hijaz raise questions about nationality and imperial belonging in “exceptional” provinces that impel us to reconsider what it meant to be a Muslim foreigner or to become Ottoman in a polity that was legitimized by the caliphate and ruled through difference.

De Facto Ottomans

For the Andijani native Hacı Sahib, who migrated to Istanbul in the early 1900s, becoming Ottoman was a process that was a long time in the making. Sometime before or after completing the hajj, he had settled in Eyüp—perhaps hesitant to return to the Ferghana Valley, which was still shaken by the 1898 uprising and subsequent Russian reprisals. Once the hajji accumulated sufficient capital, he opened a prayer-bead business and married an Ottoman woman, Fatma Tevhide Hanım, the daughter of a local coffeehouse proprietor. Together they had two little girls named Naime and Nebiye. As he built a new life in the Ottoman capital, Hacı Sahib held on to his Russian identity papers and passport, ne olur ne olmaz (just in case). Like many of his countrymen, Hacı Sahib may have made the calculation that he could one day stand to benefit from foreign nationality. If he were to expand his business,for example, capitulatory privileges would allow him to compete with European proteges in ways that Ottoman subjects could not. Given that he could already live and work in the empire without becoming Ottoman, this was the path of least resistance since he otherwise would have to take a costly trip to Russia to legally (per Russia) renounce his subjecthood.

It was only in the days after 9 September 1914, when the government of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) unilaterally abrogated the Capitulations, that Hacı Sahib seems to have questioned the wisdom of maintaining his foreign nationality. That fall, people in the city began decorating their homes and businesses with flags and banners and turning out to large public rallies to celebrate independence from the onerous capitulatory agreements that had long plagued the empire. When the CUP entered the war on the side of the Central Powers on 29 October, the government’s marshaling of patriotic and antiforeign sentiment only increased. Ottomans throughout Istanbul began to mobilize against foreigners, who were increasingly seen as “dangerous insider[s] in cahoots with non-Muslim traders against the beneficial emergence of a ‘national economy.’” Although it was unlikely that his neighbors or associates regarded him as an insidious outsider, maintaining foreign nationality was becoming a liability rather than an advantage. With two young children and a wife who probably did not want to move from Istanbul to a distant village in Turkestan, he submitted a petition to the Interior Ministry asking to be naturalized. The documentation included a sworn statement that he renounced any future rights to foreign nationality. The process of seeking naturalization—telsik—was followed by a fairly straightforward investigation: Ottoman authorities consulted with intermediaries such as tekke shaykhs in Eyüp and established that the hajji had fulfilled the five-year residency requirement of the 1869 Ottoman Nationality Law and that he was a reputable man with a sound business. His application was swiftly approved: he and his daughters—who had automatically taken the nationality of their father at birth—became Ottomans.