18.10.12, Graf, The Sultan's Renegades

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Marian Coman

The Medieval Review 18.10.12

Graf, Tobias P. . The Sultan's Renegades: Christian-European Converts to Islam and the Making of the Ottoman Elite, 1575-1610. Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 2017. pp. xxii, 261. ISBN: 978-0-19-879143-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Marian Coman
University of Bucharest

"Such is godes depe iudgement that Christendome is scourged with her owne breed, the whole power and force of the Grand Signior [i.e. the Ottoman sultan] restinge and consistinge in runnegates, the children and ofspringe of Christians." This sentence, written in 1591 by the English ambassador in Constantinople and uncovered by Tobias Graf in the State Papers housed at the National Archives from Kew, encapsulates a paradoxical view of the Ottoman Empire (3). The idea that Christendom's arch-enemy derived its strength from the skills and energies of Christian renegades was both reassuring and unsettling at the same time. On the one hand, it implied that the Islamic Empire was an empty shell polity, with no strength of its own. On the other hand, it undermined the very difference between "us" and "them". The English ambassador's fear and fascination with renegades epitomizes two of the most intense and persistent Renaissance obsessions: religious identity and the Turkish menace. As Tobias Graf argues in this beautifully crafted book, by crossing over the frontier between two allegedly separate and opposing worlds, the Sultan's renegades are "at once evidence of the deep interconnections and entanglements of Christian Europe and the Ottoman Empire as well as constituent elements thereof" (207).

The Sultan's Renegades is explicitly part of the young but rapidly growing field of trans-imperial studies. Graf painstakingly reconstructs some fascinating micro-histories of renegades from fragmentary and dispersed sources, without ever losing sight of the broader picture. By thoroughly exploring the acts of identification that located renegades within a certain social space, usually a trans-imperial one, Graf convincingly argues for a significant gap between the rhetorical condemnation of apostasy and the pragmatic adjustments of individual interaction. In stark contrast to the Renaissance rhetoric of alterity and treachery surrounding those who "turned Turk", individuals such as Ladislau Mörth/Ali Bey, Scipione Cigala/Yusuf Sinan Pasa Cigalazade or Adam Neuser/Mustafa Bey managed not only to belong to the two worlds, but to act as go-betweens. Most importantly, Graf makes a compelling case for understanding conversion to Islam not as complete social rebirth, but rather as "a new affiliation, grafted on the top of pre-existing layers of local and regional identification" (161). When Ladislau Mörth/Ali Bey was reassuring his former Christian lover that "God recognizes every man's heart" and he was overtly accusing his former employer, the Habsburg ambassador in Constantinople, that "you have made me a Turk," he was actually reinforcing his pre-Muslim affective and social ties (103). Love and hate alike had not been altered by religious conversion. When the Ottoman admiral Scipione Cigala/Yusuf Sinan Pasa Cigalazade was writing to his mother that "I will not rest in this world without having seen you" and paid her an unexpected visit in Messina along with his fleet, he was reiterating the bonds that continued to connect renegades with their former families and communities which they had supposedly abandoned (164). The case of the Cigalas, discussed in the book but treated at length in an article published by Graf in 2017, perfectly exemplifies how a noble Christian adventurer, a subject of the Spanish king, and his converted brother who climbed to the high-Ottoman rank of kapudan pasa worked together for the social advancement of their family. [1] Notwithstanding the religious and political rivalry between Christian Europe and the Ottoman Empire, renegades were part of a shared world.

Graf argues that the Ottoman elite was still open to Christian converts to Islam in the late sixteenth century, even up to the highest administrative and military echelons. More importantly, these converts extensively contributed to the intertwining of Christian Europe and the Ottoman Empire. By emphasising the crucial role played by non-native Muslims in the administration of the Empire, both in provinces and in Istanbul, Graf is deeply influenced by Heath Lowry's thesis on the nature of the early Ottoman state. [2] Following Tijana Krstic, Graf points to the similarities between the islamization of the Ottoman elite and the simultaneous process of confessionalization in Christian Europe. [3] The period under scrutiny (1575-1610) seems more of an epilogue to Lowry's "Islamo-Christian syncretism" than a preamble to Krstic's "age of confessionalization" or to Tezcan's "second Ottoman Empire." [4] Graf convincingly argues for continuity between the absorption of Christian aristocrats by the fifteenth-century Ottoman elite and the appointment of converts to key military and administrative positions in late sixteenth century (148). One may wonder whether the open nature of the Ottoman elite was influenced not only by its history, but also by the imperial ideology that blurred the distinction between "what was inside and what was outside" the sultan's domains. [5] By promoting the Venetian born Gazanfer aga/Michiel to the high rank of chief of the white eunuchs or the Viennese native Mahmud bey/Sebold von Pibrach to the key position of chief dragoman, the sultans were perfectly consistent with their own propaganda, which, at least occasionally, labelled the Venetian doge and the "king of Vienna" as Ottoman vassals. Graf does not, however, explore the ideological background of Ottoman elite formation, as his interest lies more in its structuring mechanisms.

The Sultan's Renegades is mostly based on Christian European sources, as converts are seldom referred to as converts in the Ottoman sources. As Graf underlines, the paucity of references to the Christian origin of some high-ranking Ottoman dignitaries is in itself "a remarkable testament to the integrative capacity of Ottoman elite society" (163). In stark contrast to the Ottomans' lack of interest, Christian sources showed a deep fascination with the origins and destinies of their former coreligionists. Unlike previous scholars who focused on Mediterranean case studies (mostly based on Venetian sources and Iberian captivity stories), Tobias Graf thoroughly explored the Viennese archives. Scrutinizing the diplomatic correspondence of (chiefly but not exclusively) the Habsburg residents in Istanbul, Graf gathered a sample of 137 renegades for the period between 1580 and 1610. Occasionally, Graf turns to a quantitative analysis of his sample, such as when he looks for the geographical origins of converts, for the most common Muslim names given to renegades, or for their involvement in intelligence (see tables from pages 25-26, 71 and 194). Nonetheless, the book draws less on quantitative methods and more on social network analysis. The results of Graf's meticulous and thorough investigations, compellingly conveyed with the visual aid of sociograms, are impressive. The network of German and Hungarian speakers in the Ottoman elite (figure 4.1, 150) includes no fewer than 21 individuals revolving around the chief dragoman Mahmud Bey/Sebold von Pibrach. The dragoman was, in his turn, under the patronage of Sokollu Mehmed Pasa, himself a kul-convert, born to a Bosnian Christian family. Equally illuminating are the sociograms of family and patronage relationships between prominent Italian renegades in the Ottoman elite (figures 4.2 and 5.1, 156 and 171). In this case, the network of 27 individuals mainly converged on the Venetian-born Gazanfer aga/Michiel, while Uluç Hasan Paşa/Andrea Celeste and Yusuf Sinan Pasa Cigalazade/Scipione Cigala acted as secondary focal points. Based on these relatively large groups of converts, Graf is able to explore how these networks were constituted and reshaped. As he is venturing into unexplored territory, Graf's thought-provoking suggestions are always cautiously formulated. Scrutinizing the constitutive force behind the renegades' networks, he argues that a shared language (such as German or Italian) or a shared theological background (such as Unitarianism) played a role in integrating recent converts into the Ottoman elite. The underlying pattern of conversion to Islam and of migration to the Ottoman Empire seems to have been the typical Renaissance model of patronage into a grandee's household. For the Ottoman high dignitaries recruiting new converts was beneficial both symbolically and practically, as a source of social prestige and as a method of enrolling loyal clients.

The Sultan's Renegades makes for captivating and enjoyable reading. The fascinating micro-histories of converts are excellently balanced with in-depth macro-analysis, while Graf's carefully-hedged arguments are consistent and persuasive. The book's structure builds up steadily to the last two chapters, where Graf expounds his main argument. The introduction may serve as an example for academic writing, as Graf outlines his own research, cautiously framing his methodology and source analysis within the larger scholarship on early modern conversion and social identity. The first chapter, "An Elite of Converts," provides necessary background by describing the cornerstone of the Ottoman military-administrative elite, the kul system. The second chapter, "Turning Turk, Becoming an Ottoman Muslim," considers religious conversion as part of larger cultural transformations undergone by a Christian renegade. The third chapter, "A Change of Heart or a Change of Hat?," turns to the political implications of conversion to Islam in the age of confessionalization. The fourth chapter, "In the Sultan's Service," explores the mechanisms of recruitment and integration of converts within the Ottoman elite, with a special focus on the patterns of renegade social networks. The last chapter, "Mobilizing Trans-Imperial Ties," looks at the surprising continuous contacts between renegades and their former co-religionists, arguing that families not only stayed in touch across religious and political borders but also developed trans-imperial strategies. The aim of the book, "to reorient the scholarly discussion of renegades," is thoroughly achieved (207). Graf brings a new understanding not only of Christian renegades, but also of their role within the Ottoman society, as agents and mediators between the Ottoman Empire and Christian Europe.

Hopefully The Sultan's Renegades will also arouse a long-awaited debate in a subfield of Ottoman-Christian European studies at the core of my own research interests: that of the tributary states. Amongst Graf's renegades one of the most interesting cases is that of Pál Márkházy/Ibrahim Bey, a pretender to the principality of Transylvania converted to Islam. By turning Turk he abandoned his hopes for the throne, but he remained nonetheless deeply involved in Transylvanian politics. He maintained close contact with his family, and he was appointed to a bordering sancak from which he could conveniently follow and report news from his homeland, as well as continue his feud with the ruling prince of Transylvania. Pál Márkházy/Ibrahim Bey's case study brilliantly exemplifies one of Graf's main points: conversion to Islam and admission into the sultan's service frequently did not imply a radical break with the past, but rather meant grafting a new affiliation onto an already well-defined social identity. Another example endorsing Graf's thesis could have been that of the Wallachian prince Mihnea the Renegade. Unlike Pál Márkházy/Ibrahim Bey's Ottoman career, which has been studied by Hungarian scholar Sándor Papp, Mihnea/Mehmed's post-conversion life has remained a taboo subject for Romanian historians. [6] Accordingly, although Mihnea/Mehmed's conversion in the spring of 1591 falls within the timeframe studied, Graf seems unaware of this high-ranking Christian renegade. Nevertheless, and more importantly, the case of this princely convert supports every single one of Graf's contentions. For a start, Mihnea managed to preserve the throne for a few months after his conversion and even hoped to secure his position by changing the legal status of Wallachia from a tributary state into an Ottoman sancak. When this project failed, he quickly reoriented himself and was appointed bey of Silistra, on the borders of Wallachia. He kept a close eye on the principality and one of his offspring even made a successful bid for the throne. More significantly, after conversion, his household comprised Christian and Muslims alike. [7] Mihnea the Renegade, as he is known in the Romanian scholarship, continued to pursue his and his family's agenda in Ottoman Wallachia, from a new position and with different resources. Placed within the new interpretative framework provided by Tobias Graf, the Wallachian prince's actions make far more sense.

By shifting the focus of scholarly investigation from the illusory chase for the inner, "true" identity of renegades to the methodical tracking of their social acts, Tobias Graf gives a new impetus to the study of Christian converts within the Ottoman Empire. Some scholars, I suspect, will be reluctant to accept this new approach that privileges social network analysis across traditional political and religious frontiers. Scholars are accustomed to the frontiers that have shaped their own academic identities and it seems unlikely they will abandon them easily. Instead of continuing to ignore the pre-Muslim background of some of high-ranking dignitaries, however, Ottomanists will have to reflect on converts' assimilation to the imperial elite as a structural phenomenon. Similarly, Europeanists should mull over the growing discrepancy between the rhetorical condemnation of Christian renegades and the pragmatic pursuit of their goodwill. Scholars of religious studies will have to scrutinize more carefully the shadowy waters of post-Reformation religious indifference and dissimulation where at least some of Graf's renegades swam comfortably. Nevertheless, regardless of future controversies, Tobias Graf's The Sultan's Renegades will become an essential reference and, most likely, a turning point in the debates to come.



1. Tobias Graf, "Trans-Imperial Nobility: The Case of Carlo Cigala (1556-1631)," in Claire Norton (ed.), Conversion and Islam in the Early Modern Mediterranean: The Lure of the Other (London: Routledge, 2017), 9-29.

2. Heath Lowry, The Nature of the Early Ottoman State (Albany: SUNY Press, 2003).

3. Tijana Krstic, Contested Conversions to Islam: Narratives of Religious Change in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011). On Graf's nuanced support for the applicability of the confessionalization paradigm to the Ottoman Empire: pp. 108-109 and 116-117.

4. Baki Tezcan, The Second Ottoman Empire: Political and Social Transformation in the Early Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

5. Dariusz Kolodziejczyk, "What is Inside and What is Outside? Tributary States in Ottoman Politics," in Gábor Kármán and Lovro Kuncević (eds.), The European Tributary States of the Ottoman Empire in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 421-32.

6. Sándor Papp, "From a Transylvanian Principality to an Ottoman Sanjak: The Life of Pál Márkházi, a Hungarian Renegade," Chronica 4 (2004), 57–67. The origins of this problem are to be found in an influential article published by N. Iorga in 1914: "Renegatii în trecutul terilor noastre si al neamului românesc" [Renegades in the History of Romanian Countries and Nation]. This began as a public lecture given at the Romanian Academy on the eve of the First World War, in which Muslim converts were collateral victims, as Iorga was targeting mainly the Romanian renegades from Hungary (i.e. the Transylvanian archbishop Vasile Mangra).

7. Radu Mihnea, one of Mihnea the Renegade's Christian sons who was educated in Venice, became lord of Wallachia in the early seventeenth century. Ignoring the Wallachian nobles' protests, he brought his Muslim half-siblings to the court: N. Iorga, "Fratii pagâni ai lui Radu Mihnea," Revista istorica 10 (1924): 81-82.

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