The role of the seyhulislam among the Ottomans

The role of the seyhulislam among the Ottomans

Niki GAMM ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News
The role of the seyhulislam among the Ottomans

The seyhulislam was not a member of the divan or high council but it is known that he would keep in close contact with the grand vizier at the time, often informally in private, so that they worked in concert.

The two most important men in the Ottoman Empire after the sultan were the grand vizier and the seyhulislam. The grand vizier was in charge of the administration and the seyhulislam was the head of what has been called in English “the learned class” (ulema in Turkish). The seyhulislam was something of a shadowy figure for westerners for all that he wielded considerable power, perhaps because he was powerful in the religious realm that had little contact with foreigners. Both men were the only officials to be invested in their offices directly by the sultan. At ceremonies, the two men advanced together.

The seyhulislam or sheykh ul-Islam (the head of Islam) was an honorific that was given to various men who excelled in their knowledge of Islam, its traditions and practices. It wasn’t used until the 10th century and at the same time other names such as Cemal-ul-Islam and Sems-ul-Islam were in use, according to M.Z. Pakalin in his Tarihi Deyimler ve Terimleri Sözlüğü. Scholars belonging to the Hanefi branch of Sunni Islam used the honorific frequently so that by the time the Ottomans established their rule in the 13th and 14th century, there were many seyhulislams.

The first official seyhulislam who was to head the religious establishment in Rumeli, the European side of the Ottoman Empire, was Mevlana Elvan Fakih, although Pakalin suggests that it might have been more like the title of mufti (a scholar who is an interpreter or expounder of Islamic law) than an official position. The duty of the seyhulislam was to issue decrees validating or invalidating that a certain action was in accord with Islamic law. This may have occurred during Fatih Sultan Mehmed’s father’s time (middle of the 15th century) but certainly during his own reign between 1451 and 1481. One of the famous early decrees was the one that absolved Fatih Sultan Mehmed from sin when he had his male siblings put to death. The grounds were preserving the stability of the state. Similarly he requested and received a fetva allowing him to execute the king of Bosnia in 1463 in spite of the fact that the man had surrendered and accepted Ottoman suzerainty. During Fatih’s reign, he appointed three seyhulislams.

As time went on, more duties were added to the position of seyhulislam. He was responsible for teaching and for supervising the foundations or vakifs that belonged to the sultan. By the end of the 16th century he appointed (and could dismiss) judges, professors and the leaders of the Sufi orders. This was particularly important because it meant that he had financial control over these people as well. The salaries and pensions of the ulema were paid by the state. For example mosque complexes were often built so that people could operate stores out of them or with hamams so that the income from these places would go to the upkeep of the mosque and its staff. Members of the ulema would be assigned to positions that paid relatively well since they interpreted religious law that kept the members of the community in line. But in later years the number of applicants in line for a specific job would greatly exceed the number of positions so one person might be dismissed after a year or so and replaced with another. The person let go was entitled to a stipend that might function as a pension if he were old or infirm or as unemployment pay if he were merely waiting for another position.

Ebussuud Efendi is probably the best known of the Ottoman seyhulislams in part because he held the office for so long (1545-1574) during the reign of Kanuni Sultan Suleyman and that of his son, Selim II. He is known to have assisted in the codification of the laws that occurred at this time both when he was a judge in Bursa and Istanbul and later as the seyhulislam. In particular he brought local laws more into line with the shariah or religious law and as seyhulislam, the decrees (kanuns) of the sultan. Because of his power over appointments, he was able to exercise some control over events. For example, he issued a fetva that enabled Kanuni Sultan Suleyman to massacre thousands of Yezidis and two famous dervish leaders, Seyh Muhyiddin Karamani and Seyh Hamza Bali. On the other hand he also handed down a decree that allowed coffee to be drunk and Karagöz to be performed.
The seyhulislam was not a member of the divan or high council but it is known that he would keep in close contact with the grand vizier at the time – often informally in private – so that they worked in concert. He had close contact with the kadiaskers or chief judges of Rumeli and Anatolia who were also members of the divan. The seyhulislam had his own staff, including an official who liaised with that of the grand vizier and a special steward to look after the various foundations in his care.
Various theories have been promulgated to account for the position of seyhulislam since there is nothing in the Qur’an that gives rise to a religious hierarchy such as we see in the Ottoman Empire. One theory is that the Ottomans observed how the Greek Orthodox Church had organized itself over the centuries and used this as an example. Another possibility is that of the role the seyhulislam played in harmonizing the sultan’s decrees with the shariah and in having the final word in their implementation or not.

H.A.R. Gibb and Harold Bowen in “Islamic Society and the West,” write, ”Regarded ideally, indeed, the office of Seyh was in a sense superior to that of the Sultan himself, since he might issue a fetwa declaring a Sultan’s deposition to be required by the exigencies of the Seri’a. Nor might war be declared, or policies, such as the slaughter of the Sultan’s male relatives, be pursued without the Seyh’s official sanction. But the Sultan’s supremacy was in practice usually assured by his ability to dismiss a Seyh who opposed his wishes and appoint a more amenable successor. It was only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the Sultans had lost their absolute control of affairs, that Seyhs were sometimes able to command sufficient support in the ruling institution or among the inhabitants of the capital to oppose them with success, and even then they very often suffered subsequently for doing so.”

The office of seyhulislam was abolished in 1924. The most authoritative religious voice in Turkey today is the President of Religious Affairs.