An Unusual Messianic Movement: Hubmesihis in the Early Modern Ottoman Society

Four Ottoman dervishes and their musical instruments from Paul Rycaut’s work the Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1665). 

(The small note: I prepared this relatively small inquiry for TKL 405 (Mysticism in Turkish Literature) in June 2020. Written in Turkish at first, I translated this work into English before it was too late. Enjoy reading!)

Introduction

Analyzes on some groups in the Ottoman Sufi history studies are insufficient due to a variety of reasons like the lack of resources. Hubmesihilik (Khubmesihis), which is thought to have emerged among Ottoman Sufis and scholars, is one of them. The word Hubmesihi, which has been used since the 17th century, defines people in the Early Modern Ottoman society who believed that Jesus Christ is superior to Prophet Muhammad1, saying the provisions of the Bible and Christianity are valid2. However; the term also implied those who did not reject Islam and Prophet Muhammad3. To understand them better, we must choose the more reasonable ones among the claims such as the debatable roles of Christians and Ibn Arabi in the origins of Hubmesihi and especially the role of the claims regarding the Messiah and the apocalypse expressed in the 16th century. Although our resources are limited in this way, they still offer a great deal of information. For example, we can say that the Ottoman administration’s response to the Hubmesihiler was not tolerant and the state tried to eliminate and exterminate them with accusations. The reason for not reaching its founders and their basic works may be that, as Imber said, they only appeared in the state’s “times of crisis”4. Therefore, although Hubmesihilik cannot be seen as an institutionalized sect, it can be considered as a different Messianic (and heterodox) movement.

The Disputed Emergence of Hubmesihis

Jesus Christ and two angels are over a minaret in an Ottoman miniature from the Zubdat Al-Tawarikh in 1583.

Firstly, various theories about the origins of Hubmesihis have been introduced. Based on Hurufian texts, I do not believe that the role of Hurufism is as important as it is supposed to be, and I think it is more necessary to focus on the mentioned role of Ibn Arabi thought and the Christian beliefs. First of all, according to A. Y. Ocak, it is necessary to point out the effects of Hurufism in the birth of Hubmesihism. It is known that “Jesus had a special place in Hurufilik.”5 Pointing to the prevalence of Hurufism in Iran and the Persian origins of many Hubmesihis, Ocak thinks that Hurufis also believe in the superiority of Jesus6. On the other hand, Fatih Usluer brought an important objection to this view because Jesus does not play a vital role in the founding works of Hurufilik. Because “a comparison between Muhammad and Jesus is never encountered.7” Also, the use of the New Testament like the Qur’an to prove their theories does not show that they regard Jesus as the most supreme prophet8. When it comes to Ibn al- Arabi, Ilieva argues that the followers of the famous Sufi and the Orthodox Christians have reached an agreement with the divine nature of Christ9, because “Jesus has a very special place for the Andalusian mystic.”10 For example, Ibn Arabi writes that Jesus was “his first teacher” and that he “exists” in Jesus’ hands11. However, he did not consider Jesus superior to Muhammad, but his development of “theories that are not always easy to understand” led to misunderstandings among his followers12. And their followers were also accused of heresy due to misunderstandings from other critical groups against Ibn Arabi. To illustrate, some Ottoman scholars accused Davud-ı Kayseri, one of the followers of Ibn Arabi, since “he has given too much place for Jesus”13. Although we cannot clearly identiy any Hubmesihi’s commitment to Ibn Arabi, we can think that “Sheikh-ul-Ekber” and his ideas would have contributed to the formation of Hubmesihilik. And we can assume that the Christians under the Ottoman rule in the 14th century also contributed to this. Emperor John V Kantakuzenos wrote that some Muslims who had Bibles could not explain their different views on religions in fear of execution14. It is meaningful at this point that  several reactions occurred after a preacher in Bursa declared that Muhammad was not superior to Jesus during the reign of Bayezid I according to Latifi15. Besides, Ocak notes that local people returning to Islam could maintain their old beliefs about Christ16. In this framework, the place of Hesychasm, the mystical movement spread in Byzantium in the 14th century, can be questioned. There are some studies that detected crucial similarities between Hesychasm17 and Sufism with Palamas, the founder of Hesychasm, and Ibn Arabi. Even though the end result is not apparent, this factor may have led to the emergence of a tendency that would lead to synthesis and syncretism between the two religions18.

Chronologically, some authors predicted that Hubmesihilik was founded by Molla Kabız19 20 (d. 1527), but it can be said that this movement emerged in the middle of the 15th century. Nikolas, a German cardinal who came to the Ottoman lands in 1437, mentions a soldier named Baltasar who secretly taught the Bible among Muslims. Baltasar spoke to Nikolas about the Muslim scholars who saw the Bible above the law21. An anonymous chronic from 1444 wrote that a preacher in Edirne was executed because he said the superiority of Jesus Christ and saw the laws of the Prophet of Islam below22. In 1495, Stefano Magno from Venice reports that twelve Muslim scholars were killed on the orders of Bayezid II because they claimed that Christianity was just as true as Islam23. In this respect, Colin Imber argued that Hubmesihis first manifested their beliefs in times of crisis because these cases intersected with the Battle of Varna (1444) and the Cem Sultan incident that lasted 14 years until 1495 24.

Hubmesihis in the 16th Century: Kabız and others in an Age of Apocalyptic Arguments

The Mufti of Istanbul (later Sheihk ul-Islam), Kemalpaşazade, interrogated Mulla Kabiz and criticized Hubmesihi ideas without mentioning Kabiz’s name in his books.

Nevertheless, the most common documents about Hubmesihilik belongs to the 16th century, when Molla Kabiz also appeared. As Krstić said, the reason for this was important political and religious developments such as Reformation25 awoke the idea that Christ would be raised and the apocalypse would occur in different corners of the world26. In this century, it is necessary to remember the propaganda27 of the Ottoman, Safavid, and Habsburg rulers that the only regenerating Christ figure (mujaddid) would be themselves28. However, many mystical groups opposed to this sultanate claim29. In the face of this rejection, Suleiman the Lawgiver took stricter legal measures such as execution against these groups 30. In 1527, Molla Kabız, who asserted the superiority (afdaliyat-tafdil) of Jesus over Muhammad, was the most mentioned person in works about Hubmesihilik31. Starting from Celalzade, Ottoman sources narrated about the excitement of Suleiman I’s Istanbul with this move of Kabiz. Initially, Mulla Kabiz is questioned by Kazaskers (leading judges) in the Imperial Council (Divan) (including the Grand Vizier). The failure of the Kazaskers disturbs the sultan32 and with the participation of Mufti Kemalpaşazade, Kabız is tried for the second time and sentenced to death33. Even though the works of Kabız cannot be found, it is possible to find clues about him in the works of Kemalpaşazade34. However, Ottoman primary sources do not present sufficient information about the identity and profession of Kabiz. However, contrary to many researchers that explain Hubmesihilik mostly based on Kabiz, Ocak tells us regarding someone who changed his religion named Hakim Ishak and entered into the way of Sufism35. As far as we learn from Shaykh al-Islam Ebussuud Effendi, Isaac or Ishak, who did not reject Islam, said the superiority of the Bible and Jesus over Qur’an and Islam. Accordingly, he was also executed due to his “heresy”36. The reports of European travelers and ambassadors also contain valuable information. For example, according to Guillaume Postel, someone named Saib İbrahim was killed in 1540 because he emphasized the superiority of Christ37. He also writes that a Franciscan Muslim was murdered in 1545 because he stated that the “Messiah Law” was the “supreme law”38. On the other hand, it should be kept in mind that Europeans may have errors in their notes and some wrote their reports for propaganda39. Nevertheless, these cases may show us that Hubmesihis played a precious role in the socio-cultural panorama of the 16th century. At the same time, the accusation of Bosnian Sheikh Bali from Hamzevis with the claim that he emphasized the superiority of Christ may indicate that Hubmesihis had influences outside of Istanbul40. It is also worthwhile that the final word of the teacher (lala) of the one of Selim II’s sons was “there are thousands of people who share my belief” when Selim II executed him due to his Hubmesihi ideals41. For this reason, the studies that mostly point to Molla Kabiz should be reorganized within the framework of other cases.

Hubmesihis in the 17th and the 18th Century from Bosnia to Cyprus

The cover of the Baptized Turk by Thomas Warmstry in 1658, London. Several Christan authors wrote regarding “the Converted Turks” in the seventeenth century like this. It must be remembered that some of such works were based on fictional stories for the purpose of propaganda.

Our resources do not show a leading Hubmesihi for the 17th century. However, for the first time in this period, we reach the information about the concept of “Hubmesihis” as well as their lifestyles. The diplomat Paul Rycaut, sent by the King of England, Charles II (1660-85), to Mehmed IV (1648-87), reserved an important place for Hubmesihis42. According to Rycaut, Hubmesihilik is especially common among soldiers in the Balkans and the people of Enderun43. Hubmesihi (Chupmessahi) means “Christ lover” that a Hubmesihi expresses this term when they see or meet each other44. A Hubmesihi “wears a turban, which is an indication that they are secretly bound to this belief” 45 and is rapidly spreading his belief. In fact, the ground is now ready for the Bible to spread in Istanbul. The main characteristics of the Hubmesihis in Bosnia and its borders are primarily reading the New Testament and the Qur’an together, not fasting during Ramadan, drinking mustard wine, being circumcised, believing the crosses, and icons, but seeing Muhammad as the “holy spirit” heralded46. ​​Despite Rycaut’s claim, they were ultimately unable to succeed in the Christinization of Ottoman lands. This is because Ottoman rulers, who see themselves as the head of the Islamic world, consider Hubmesihis, who have ideas contrary to Islamic norms, as a threat against their existence. Thus, the state proceeded to take drastic measures against them in the following eras. For example, Balivet recounts that a “kadi” was killed because he was a Hubmesihi in Cyprus in the 17th century47. Tough measures continued in the 18th century and, for example, Derviş Emini, perceived as a heretic, was punished with “perversion” in Monastir48. However, the most important Hubmesihi in the 18th century is Bosnevi İbrahim Efendi from Cyprus, where Hubmesihilik was also found in the 17th century. Majer explains that Cyprus is a key center with Sokollu’s policy that protects Christians and Muslims on the island49. And I think the island that accumulates and distributes the commercial flow of the Mediterranean might have been seen by Hubmesihis as an attractive area for the flow of ideas. Ottoman historians Izzi and Şemdanizade describe this event in detail50. Ibrahim was exiled from Hubmesihilik to Cyprus, but he was murdered in 1746 because he promised paradise to the Cypriots by saying: “If you continue with the faithfulness of Muhammad’s faith in good deeds and believe in Jesus, the son of God.” Although Imber does not state this, I think it would be noted that Abraham (or Ibrahim) appears in a chaotic time when the Ottoman State were dealing with the Russian, Habsburg, and Safavid forces. In this case, Ibrahim said that he called all people to Catholicism upon the order of the Prophet Muhammad52 53, he refused salat (namaz) as an”irreligious” activity, and to know the Latin alphabet.54 Were these common features of Hubmesihis or was it only for Ibrahim? Although we do not know this, we see that Hubmesihis were erased from the works after the reason of Mahmud I (d. 1754)55.

Conclusion

Moving from all these points, it can be supposed that Hubmesihis, which lasted for nearly three hundred years, spread in Cyprus with many areas in Rumelia and fed from Christian and Muslim mysticisms. We can attribute the absence of their works to the secrecy of its activities (except in times of turmoil) due to the state’s punitive attitude. Therefore, we may think that Hubmesihis could not cult by not finding the ground of institutionalization, but they became an important movement that could protect its ideas and take various mystical and political clusters into its sphere. However, this movement was not adopted in the Ottoman and Western Europe but rather seen in the category of “deviant currents” or “heretic ideals”. However, by looking at the punishments imposed, we can see that Hubmesihis could have enough influence to activate the power mechanism of the Ottoman State.

Notes

  1. Ahmet Yaşar Ocak, Osmanlı Toplumunda Zındıklar ve Mülhidler: XV-XVII. Yüzyıllar (Timaş Press, 2016), 298.
  2. Ocak, Zındıklar ve Mülhidler, 298.
  3. Tijana Krstić, Contested Conversions to Islam: Narratives of Religious Change in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 94.
  4. Colin Imber, “A Note on ‘Christian’ Preachers in the Ottoman Empire”, Osmanlı Araştırmaları Dergisi, no. 10, (1990): 66.
  5. Ocak, Zındıklar ve Mülhidler, 302.
  6. Ibid, 302.
  7. Fatih Usluer, “Hurufi İnancı”, Hurufilik: İlk Elden Kaynaklarla Doğuşundan İtibaren (Kabalcı Yayınları, 2009), 152.
  8. Usluer, Hurufilik, 153.
  9. V. Spasova Ilieva, La Santidad Compartida: La Encrucijada del Islam Y La Ortodoxia Cristiana en Los Balcanes, Reflejos en Bulgaria (Madrid: PhD Thesis, 2016), 409.
  10. Ilieva, La Santidad Compartida, 497.
  11. Ibid, 497.
  12. Ibid, 498.
  13. Ibid, 498.
  14. Ibid, 409.
  15. Ibid, 409.
  16. Ibid, 299.
  17. Bakınız: Seyyid Hüseyin Nasr, “The Prayer of the Heart in Hesychasm and Sufism”, Greek Orthodox Theological Review, Cilt 32, No 1-2, (1986), 195-203.
  18. Bakınız: Peter Samsel, “A Unity with Distinctions: Parallels in the Thought of St. Gregory Palamas and Ibn Arabi”, Paths to the Heart Sufism and the Christian East (Indiana: World Wisdom Press, 2004), 190-203.
  19. Ocak, 299. The author expresses the claim of T. Houtsama, not his own.
  20. Hamid Algar, “K̲h̲ūbmesīḥīs” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, Accessed on June 18 ,2020. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1573-3912_islam_SIM_4317. Algar’a göre “[H]ubmesihi hareketi muhtemelen ilhamını Ḳabız’ın öğretisinde buldu”.
  21. Ilieva, 468.
  22. Imber, “A Note on the Christian Preachers”, 59.
  23. Imber, 64.
  24. Imber, 66.
  25. Krstić, Contested Conversions, 76.
  26. Ibid, 76.
  27. Ibid, 81.
  28. Ibid, 79. Here, the author talks about the works of Murad bin Abdullah and Haydar and explains how the sultanic propaganda was provided through their works. In a treatise of Murad, it was stated that Suleiman I was the supreme ruler and it is also worth noting that Muhammad is superior to other prophets. 29. Age, 82.
  29. Ibid, 82.
  30. To exemplify, Ocak, who made considerable studies about the topic, gives nine pages to Kabiz out of sixteen. See: Zındıklar ve Mülhidler: 300-308.
  31. Suleiman the Magnificent said that “[b]ir mülhid dîvanımıza gelüp Peygamberimiz iki cihan fahrine -salevâtullahi aleyhi ve selâmuhû- tafdîl-i Hazret-i İsa eyleyüp müddeâsı isbâtında ekavîl-i bâtıla tenzil eyleye, şüphesi zail olmayup ve cevâbı virilmeyüp niçün hakkından gelinmedi”. Ocak, 304. For the simplified version of the event in Turkish, see: Celalzade Mustafa Çelebi, Tabakatü’l Memalik ve Derecatü’l-Mesailik: Kanuni’nin Tarihçisinden Muhteşem Çağ (Kariyer Publishing, 2011), 139-141.
  32. Celalzade, 140.
  33. See İsmail Safa Üstün, Heresy and Legitimacy in the Ottoman Empire in the Sixteenth Century(doktora tezi, 1991), The University of Manchester.
  34. Ocak, 309.
  35. According to Ebussuud Efendi, this Sufi said that “[h]âliyâ Yehûd ve Nesârâ ellerinde Tevrat ve İncil inzal olundığı üzerinedir, asla tağyir olunmaz”. Ocak, 308.
  36. Ocak, 312.
  37. Ilieva, 477.
  38. For example, a report writes that a “devout Turk” was burned with his 40 disciples because he claimed that Jesus was the supreme man because Jesus was in the heavens compared to the Prophet Muhammad’s laurel in Mecca. Ilieva, 475. However, the fact that the Prophet Muhammad was buried in Madinah and the punishment of “being burned without judgment” instead of the execution determined by reasoning during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent shadows the reality of the event.
  39. Ocak, 375. The author bases this claim of Hamza on a contemporary Christian source used by Hammer.
  40. Stephen Gerlach. Türkiye Günlüğü (1573-1576): I. Cilt (Kitap Yayınevi, 2010), 140.
  41. Paul Rycaut, “Chapter XII: Concerning the New and Modern Sects amongst the Turks”, The Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1668), 129. We can link the interest in different religious groups among the British to the Puritan views in England. This Protestant movement fought a Civil War (1642-51) by opposing the British Church and was strong enough to establish a short-lived republic (up to 1660) with Cromwell. Thus, we can understand that Rycaut allocates more space to Hubmesihili compared to other country ambassadors.
  42. Rycaut, 129.
  43. Rycaut, 129.
  44. Ibid, 129.
  45. Age, 131. According to those in this group, Prophet Mohammed is the holy spirit that descends to the earth at the time of Pentecost, which took place 50 days after Easter. According to Christians, this holy spirit is not the Prophet Mohammed, but one of the elements of the holy trinity. “They believe yet that Mahomet was the Holy Ghoft promifed by Chrift.”
  46. Ocak, 312.
  47. Ilieva, 487.
  48. Hans Georg Majer, “The Koran: An Ottoman Defter! : Ottoman Heretics of the 18th Century” in Syncretismes Et Heresies Dans L’orient Seldjoukide Et Ottoman: XIV-XVIII Siecles (Peeters Publishers, 2005), 302.
  49. Majer, “Ottoman Heretics”, 301.
  50. Cahit Telci, “18. Yüzyılın İlk Yarısında Bir Hubmesihi: Bosnavi İbrahim Efendi”, Türk Dünyası İncelemeleri Dergisi (1997), 96.
  51. Telci, “Bosnavi İbrahim Efendi”, 94.
  52. Telci, 95.
  53. Ibid, 95.
  54. Ilieva, 498. The fact that Dimitri Kantemir in the 18th century or a French traveler in the 19th century regarded the famous Sufi Niyazi-i Mısri as Hubmesihi or Crypto Christian does not seem possible thanks to various studies.

Bibliography

Algar, Hamid. “K̲h̲ūbmesīḥīs” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Accessed on June 18, 2020. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1573-3912_islam_SIM_4317

Celalzade Mustafa Çelebi. Tabakatü’l Memalik ve Derecatü’l-Mesailik: Kanuni’nin Tarihçisinden Muhteşem Çağ. Kariyer Press, 2011.

Gerlach, Stephen. Türkiye Günlüğü (1573-1576): I. Cilt. İstanbul: Kitap Publications, 2010.             

Ilieva, V. Spasova. La Santidad Compartida: La Encrucijada del Islam Y La Ortodoxia Cristiana en Los Balcanes, Reflejos en Bulgaria. Universidad Complutense De Madrıd, Doktorat Thesis, 2016.

Imber, Colin. “A Note on ‘Christian’ Preachers in the Ottoman Empire” in Osmanlı Araştırmaları Dergisi (Journal of Ottoman Studies), 10 (1990): 59-67.

Krstić, Tijana. Contested Conversions to Islam: Narratives of Religious Change in the  Early Modern Ottoman Empire. Stanford University Press, 2011.

Ocak, A. Yaşar. Osmanlı Toplumunda Zındıklar ve Mülhidler: XV.-XVII. Yüzyıllar. Timaş Publications, 2016.

Ricaut, Paul. The Present State of the Ottoman Empire. London, 1668.

Telci, Cahit. “18. Yüzyılın İlk Yarısında Bir Hubmesihi: Bosnavi İbrahim Efendi” in Türk  Dünyası İncelemeleri Dergisi, 2 (1997): 91-101.

Usluer, Fatih. Hurufilik: İlk Elden Kaynaklarla Doğuşundan İtibaren. Kabalcı Publications, 2009.

Veinstein, Gilles (ed). Syncretismes Et Heresies Dans L’orient Seldjoukide Et Ottoman: XIV-XVIII  Siecle. Peeters Publishers, 2005.

2 Comments

  1. Dear Mr. Aksu,

    Thank you for translating and posting this paper, which I find fascinating. I learned about the Hubmesihi, and the possibly similar group Haietti, only a few days ago. There is not a lot of information about them available on the web in English.

    I am particularly interested because the Swedish scientist, philosopher, and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), who wrote the books of theology that my church (the New Church, or Swedenborgian Church, a small Christian denomination) looks to, made some rather strange statements about Islam, such as this one:

    “It is because of divine providence that Islam recognizes the Lord [Jesus Christ] as the Son of God, the wisest of mortals, and a supreme prophet, one who came into the world to teach us. Most of them regard him as greater than Muhammad.” (Divine Providence #255)

    This is clearly not true of official Islam, then or now. However, I wonder if the Hubmesihi or the Haietti may have been present in Europe, or known to Europeans, in the early to mid 18th century. If so, perhaps they may have been a source of Swedenborg’s misconceptions about Islam.

    Any further information you could provide on this question would be much appreciated.

    • Dear Mr. Woofenden, I am greatly sorry for my late response. It is worth analyzing the Hubmesihi movement’s presence in the 18th century’s Europe. As far as the movement is concerned, I cannot find any official writing or any traveller’s notes related to this topic so far.

      Nonetheless, it could have been possible that an direct or indirect wave of the Hubmesihi may have been impacted on Swedenborg.

      If I find further information, I will send what I find from documents to you. Thanks for your appreciation and awareness.

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