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Post Rise and Fall of the Janissaries
Created by John Eipper on 07/13/14 5:34 AM

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Rise and Fall of the Janissaries (Yusuf Kanli, Turkey, 07/13/14 5:34 am)

A few words on the janissaries and the Ottoman military system. (See Eugenio Battaglia, 12 July, and JE's comments.)

First of all, "hiring" soldiers from other ethnicities, religions or states was rather routine in the pre-Ottoman Middle East and Asia Minor. For example, in the 1071 battle between Byzantine and the Grand Seljuk Empire at Malazgirt (Menzikert War), which is considered to be the decisive war opening the doors of Anatolia to Turks, a considerable section of the Byzantine army was composed of "hired" soldiers from a Turkish tribe. The smaller Seljuk military won the war because some of the Turkish elements of the Byzantine army joined the other side. Even today, the Jordanian palace guards are Circassian.

Janissaries were different from everything that preceded them, because contrary to official historical hearsay in the West, children of Christians were not snatched from their families, forcefully converted to Islam and made soldiers of the Ottomans. While some of the children recruited into the Janissary forces were sons of the fallen enemies, most were recruited through a system which required presence and approval of a "man of religion from the region's dominant religion," as well as a Muslim Hodja and consent of the family.

Anyhow, I have no intention of engaging in a debate over the background of Janissaries now. But, it was the first-ever regular army. Furthermore, when the "Nizam-i Cedid" or "New Order" force was established, Sultan Mahmud II ordered the Janissaries to go to the "War Preparations Barracks"--today's Belgrade Forest area of Istanbul--and the new army bombarded the Janissaries, murdering them all. Why this incident was called "Vaka-i Hayriye" (Happening to serve the good) is something that cannot be understood with today's perceptions. Yet, without going into much detail, let me just stress that Janissaries were Alevite and subscribed to the "Bektashi school," while Nizam-I Cedid--which indeed the first Western-style organized Turkish army, a tradition which continues even today--was officially outside religion, but in reality was Sunni.

JE comments:  Mahmud II's 1826 slaughter of the Janissaries is translated as the "Auspicious Incident."  Certainly it wasn't from the Janissary perspective:


The Wikipedia entry on Janissaries describes the recruits as "captives" and "slaves."  Yusuf Kanli speaks of the boys being taken with family consent.  I'm not assuming that Wikipedia is authoritative, but to what do we attribute these different interpretations?

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  • Janissaries and Alevism (Massoud Malek, USA 07/14/14 4:33 AM)
    On 13 July, Yusuf Kanli wrote:

    "Contrary to official historical hearsay in the West, children of Christians were not snatched from their families, forcefully converted to Islam and made soldiers of the Ottomans. While some of the children recruited into the Janissary forces were sons of the fallen enemies, most were recruited through a system which required presence and approval of a 'man of religion from the region's dominant religion,' as well as a Muslim Hodja and consent of the family."

    According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Janissary corps was created by Sultan Murad I in 1383; it was originally staffed by Christian youths from the Balkan provinces who were converted to Islam on being drafted into Ottoman service. But from 1420s, young men were taken from their homes at an early age, and all contact with their old communities was cut. In the first couple of centuries, they were forced to celibacy, but this would later change. The Janissaries were not allowed to grow beards, which was the sign of a free man.

    Later, Yusuf wrote:

    "Janissaries were Alevite and subscribed to the Bektashi school."

    The persecution of Alevis, Bektashis, and Sufis, who consider the fourth Caliph Ali as the holder of the divine secrets and esoteric meaning of Islam, transmitted to him by Muhammad who said "I am the city of knowledge; Ali is its gate," started in the 14th century, when Ottoman sultans decided to follow closely the orthodox Islamic law (Sharia). In 1514, the Ottoman Sultan Selim I defeated the Safavids of Persia, and several Alevis who were Muslim and not Christian were forced to join the Janissary corps.

    In 1934, long before the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Kemal Ataturk's government passed a resettlement law, aimed at assimilating ethnic minority communities within the country. Its measures included the forced relocation of people within the country, with the aim of promoting cultural homogeneity.

    In 1937 and 1938, the Turkish military conducted a campaign against the Dersim Rebellion of local ethnic minority groups against Turkey's Resettlement Law of 1934. Thousands of Alevi Kurds died and many others were internally displaced due to the conflict. A 2008 conference organized by Kurdish PEN reached the conclusion that Turkey was guilty of genocide, estimating that 50,000-80,000 were killed in the aftermath of the Dersim rebellion.


    JE comments: The Alevis, not to be confused with the Alawis, are a Shia group mostly living in Turkey.  (The largest Alawite population is in Syria.)  I did a quickie Wikipedia lesson on the Alevis, and was struck by their use of what I would call "icons"--images depicting their pantheon of saints.  The icons have an unmistakable Byzantine look to them.  I always thought graven images (can an image be "non-graven"?) were taboo in all branches of Islam.  Who can explain?  I'd wager a week's salary that Vince Littrell knows the answer.


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    • Shias and Images of the Imams (Massoud Malek, USA 07/15/14 8:15 AM)
      In response to John E's question (14 July), Shias have no problem with showing images of Muhammad, Ali, or other Imams. In Iran you can buy posters of Muhammad and all the Imams. Abbas, Ali's son who bravely fought in Karbela, is admired by Shias; if you want to convinced someone that you are telling the truth, you call his name. Shopkeepers usually display the pictures of Muhammad, Ali, Hussein, and Abbas.

      When I was very young, my mother took me to a fabric store owned by a Jew (most fabric shops were owned by Jews). The man had a picture of Abbas in his shop; to convince my mom that he was only making a 5% profit, he pointed to Abbas's poster hanging in his shop and said: "I swear to Hazrat Abbas, I am making only a 5% profit. My mom told him that he was Jewish, but he said that he believes in him and Abbas is the protector of his shop.

      The picture in the Alevi Wikipedia entry is of Ali:


      JE comments:  Read WAIS, and learn something every day!  So I have to ask:  does this mean that Sunnis believe Shias practice idolatry?
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