Sabbateanism: a mysterious heritage from the Ottoman Empire
Sabbateanism, a movement that began 400 years ago in the Ottoman Empire, is the subject of some of the most popular conspiracy theories in Turkey.
Although interest in these theories has considerably increased in recent years, there has been a lack of any academic study of the issue. All the existing theories have been superficially constructed from loose links to certain figures known to have Sabbatean backgrounds. Now, however, those looking for an academic perspective on the Sabbatean phenomenon can turn to the work of historian Cengiz Şişman, who studied the subject for his doctoral thesis at Harvard University and recently published a book on the subject in Turkish titled “Sabatay Sevi ve Sabataycılar: Mitler ve Gerçekler” (Sabbatai Sevi and Sabbateans: Myths and Realities).
Sabbatai Sevi was born to a Jewish family in İzmir in 1626. In his early youth he was interested in mysticism and he became a rabbi at the age of 18. In 1648 he announced that he was the long-awaited Jewish messiah. Although he had supporters within the Jewish community, he was expelled from İzmir, following which he lived in Salonica, İstanbul, Aleppo, Jerusalem and Cairo. In 1665 he returned to İzmir, where he was greeted with joy by his followers and with hostility from most of the rabbis. The Jewish community split into two over his controversial status. Eventually the Ottoman rulers summoned him to İstanbul, where he was sentenced to imprisonment in Çanakkale. Because he continued to attract supporters during his exile, the sultan himself gave him the choice of converting to Islam or execution. He changed his name to Aziz Mehmet Efendi and pursued a thorough education in the Islamic sciences. He helped the Ottomans in the conversion of many Jews to Islam. In 1673, however, he was caught in the middle of a ceremony holding a Quran in one hand and a Torah in the other. He was exiled to the Balkans, where he eventually died in 1676 at the age of 50.
Conspiracy theories around the sect
As pointed out at the beginning of Şişman’s book, in modern times Sabbateans have been used as scapegoats to explain the successes and failures of the Turkish Republic by left and right-wing nationalists and “Islamists.” According to Şişman, Sabbateanism is one of the most important issues in Jewish, European and Ottoman history, but most people who have investigated it have looked at the subject from their own perspectives, and hence they missed the big picture. He says the topic must be analyzed within the context of the histories of Judaism, religious mysticism, Europe, the Ottoman Empire and contemporary Turkey, and that is precisely what he did in his doctoral dissertation. “Unfortunately, in Turkey, we have always made arguments about the subject on a conspiratorial platform. In fact, the debates and conspiracies about the Sabbateans never end, but in times of great turmoil and changes, such as the early years of the Republican era and the last decade, they increase. Short and seemingly easy conspiratorial solutions to the problem were wholeheartedly embraced by the masses, marginal groups and those who were left outside of the ongoing changes,” he says in an interview with Today’s Zaman. “Turkay Nefes at the University of Kent is doing his doctoral work specifically on this very relation between Sabbateanism and conspiracy theories, and I am sure that we will learn more about the ‘meaning’ of this notorious relationship,” he continues.
After the formation of the three Sabbatean sub-sects — Yakubis, Karakas and Kapancis — at the end of the 17th century, the community members developed idiosyncratic lifestyles, combining Kabalistic and Sufi theories and practices. In the subsequent centuries, however, three major attitudes emerged among them. While some retained their Sabbatean beliefs, others converted entirely to Islam and yet others embraced modernity and adopted agnostic and atheist beliefs. At present, Şişman explains, most Sabbateans fall into the latter category. That’s why Şişman prefers to call them not “Sabbateans” but “people of Sabbatean origins,” since they have adopted different identities. After all, many of these people, including the late Minister of Finance Cavit Bey, were among the founding members of the Turkish Republican elite.”
Relation to Judaism and Islam
Asked whether or not Sabbateanism should be considered a branch of Judaism, Şişman replies that the two are essentially contradictory. “Sabbateanism is as close to Judaism as Christianity is. They diverge in their belief on the coming of the messiah. The backbone of Judaism is the anticipation of the Messiah’s first coming but, like Christianity, the backbone of Sabbatean theology is the anticipation of the second coming of the Messiah,” he explains, adding that when Sevi declared himself a messiah, some of the Jews believed in him, but others didn’t. Regarding contemporary Jewish interest in the subject, Şişman says: “Zionist historians have accepted him as the beginning of the Zionist movement and Jewish nationalism, since he also mentioned the promised land and visited it himself,” stressing that this interest is important from a political perspective, rather than a religious one.
When it comes to the Sabbateans’ relationship to Islam, Şişman says the main reason most of them converted was that their messiah had done so. “You have a messiah and you believe that he is right in every circumstance. A very limited minority thought like this and converted to Islam. They, of course, did not drop all their beliefs overnight, but developed a syncretic and eclectic belief and praxis system, which included Judaism, Islam, Kabbala and Sufism. Over time the Islamic and Turkish dimensions of the Sabbatean identity gained ascendancy, as the community members forgot the Jewish language, disconnected with the Jewish community and mingled with the larger surrounding society. However, the clouds of suspicion about the veracity of their ‘true’ Islamic identity were never dispersed.”
As to why members of the sect conceal their identities, Şişman explains that the reason for this in the Ottoman period is different from the reason today. In the Ottoman era they kept it a secret because their messiah had been punished, and conversion to another religion could be punished by death. “However, their idiosyncratic identity was not a great mystery; rather, it was an open secret. The Ottoman multi-religious and cosmopolitan culture ‘tolerated’ these sorts of identities, including crypto-Jews, crypto-Christians and ‘heterodox’ Bektaşis, in the midst of Turkish communities. After the 19th century, the mystical secrets of the community faded away, since there were no Sabbateans who fully knew the Sabbatean Kabbalah and could really interpret the texts,” Şişman explains. In the Republican period, he says, there were not many mystical “secrets” to be revealed, since the issue became primarily a matter of historical heritage, rather than belief or practice. That created not a religious community but a social community, where most of the people of Sabbatean origin got to know each other through different social activities, such as attending the same schools and frequenting the same social circles. Interestingly, there has been growing interest in Sabbateanism among the young Sabbateans in recent years. But as more conspiracy theories are generated about the Sabbateans, they become more hesitant to talk about their identity.
Şişman’s book also includes a critical chapter on writers who feed the conspiracy theories surrounding Sabbateanism with poorly researched books. Some suggest that Sabbatean influence is the reason behind the traditional animosity toward Islam in the Turkish Republic. Others argue that Sabbateanism is the source of Turkey’s failures. Asked whether there is any truth to such theories, Şişman explains that, although there is some truth to these arguments, they arise primarily from selective perception, as not all Sabbateans are wealthy or powerful. He explains that during the Turkish-Greek population exchange of 1923, 10,000-12,000 Sabbateans came to Turkey. They had natural advantages, such as coming from cosmopolitan port cities like Salonika, and having received good educations. With the population exchange, the Christian population in Turkey decreased and the Sabbateans stepped into the place of the Christians in the merchant class. He suggests that if there had not been a population exchange, there may never have been such conspiracy theories about Sabbateans. In the end, he says, conspiracy theories and our perceptions about others are historically constructed social and cultural categories, and we need to deconstruct them in order understand ourselves and others.
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“Sabbateans are a secretive bunch. They mostly marry among themselves, and traditionally their children don’t even find out about their Sabbatean origins until the age of 18. And members are rumored to practice some strange rituals, among the more eccentric of which is the notorious festival of the lamb, at which married couples commemorate the beginning of spring by feasting on newborn lamb, then turning off the lights and pairing off randomly.”