Tezcan Traces Modern Islam to 17th-Century Preacher

By Andrew McCullough – The emergence of a religion is a process—one involving changes in beliefs, social attitudes, and political structure. On March 15, 2017, Associate Professor of History Baki Tezcan explored that process in the context of Kadizade Mehmed, an Islamic preacher active in the 17th-century Ottoman Empire. Tezcan suggested that Kadizade’s influence inspired a populist reformation that ultimately led to the emergence of Islam as we know it today.

Tezcan’s studies involve reviewing ancient historical texts and connecting the lives of individuals such as Kadizade with the political events and societal shifts of the era. Kadizade lived at a time when ancient religious beliefs and practices were being challenged by the increasing interconnectedness of the Ottoman empire. Before Kadizade, the ancient rituals of the medieval Sufi belief system—which might be described as a mysticism rather than a religion by today’s standards—had slowly been cordoned off from the public.

The Sufi traditions had long held a place in Ottoman society. (In fact, the pre-text of the Koran is thought to be based on philosophical and moral traditions that emerged from Sufi practices.) However, as that society became more interconnected through travel and trade, population centers emerged, economic and political class differences became more prominent, and activists attempted to shape the religious practices of the masses in new ways.

For example, long-accepted Sufi practices were banished from the main areas of mosques. Such changes led to increased tension between Islamic beliefs and medieval Sufi practices—practices that were based, in part, on those same beliefs. 

Direct interpretation

In the late 16th century, amid this political and social turmoil, Kadizade Mehmed moved to Istanbul and began practicing at a mosque. He quickly rose through the ranks of the religious hierarchy, taking over the mosque at the age of 22. Kadizade was on his way to becoming a sheik when he fell into disagreement with higher-ranking officials.

Breaking from more modern religious practices, he moved towards more ancient religious rituals—such as those of the Sufi tradition. Kadizade advocated for interpreting ancient religious texts directly, rather than simply following the interpretations of contemporary political and religious leaders. In this sense, Kadizade was leading a movement much like the Christian reformation that would occur centuries later. 

Far-reaching voice

Kadizade’s movement helped to level the playing field. Prior traditions had required the lower (poorer) classes to follow the teachings of the (wealthier, more powerful) political and religious leaders. The idea that individuals could interpret the ancient religious texts on their own—or according to religious leaders of their choosing—was popular in part because it broke down the class hierarchy that had developed as the far-reaching Ottoman civilization became interconnected. 

Tezcan suggested that Kadizade Mehmed was instrumental in the emergence of the multiple sects of Islam we know today. But Kadizade himself did not associate with one sect over others, nor was he particularly extreme in his ideology. Rather, Kadizade was influenced by many different religious and philosophical thinkers with diverse perspectives. As a young religious leader with a far-reaching voice, he was uniquely positioned to influence a massive transformation in Ottoman society.

Learn more about Baki Tezcan.