Radway on Graf, 'The Sultan's Renegades: Christian-European Converts to Islam and the Making of the Ottoman Elite, 1575-1610'

Tobias P. Graf
Robyn Radway

Tobias P. Graf. The Sultan's Renegades: Christian-European Converts to Islam and the Making of the Ottoman Elite, 1575-1610. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. xx + 261 pp. $100.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-879143-0

Reviewed by Robyn Radway (Central European University) Published on H-War (November, 2020) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53227

Tobias Graf’s The Sultan’s Renegades brings to life the world of a motley group of men who changed both their hearts and their hats when relocating from Christian Europe to the Ottoman Empire. Rather than seeing the foreign-born converts as the secret of Ottoman success, Graf seeks to situate the experiences of converts in their Ottoman contexts to raise questions about the relationship between the origins of individual elites and their roles in “imperial enterprises and rivalries in the Mediterranean as well as South Eastern and Central Europe” (p. 28). In doing so, he outlines a system of both religious and political conversion to tell an important entangled history of European-Ottoman interactions.

The introduction situates the book in the historiography of conversion, shared worlds, and trans-imperial subjects. It also presents the broad source base and methodology that structure the chapters that follow. Graf is working primarily from a set of published travel narratives (including early printed examples in German like Gerlach and Friedrich Seidel, alongside translated classics like that of Vratislav z Mitrovic) and Vienna-based archives (primarily the ambassadorial reports preserved in the Turcica collection of the Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv and the Kriegsarchiv). In explaining why Ottoman Turkish sources were not consulted, Graf points to methods of textual criticism, which allow him to unpack his sources and interpret the acts of identification and silences they contain. Graf also uses the introduction to highlight the data-driven methodology behind some of the chapters that follow. This includes both a cutting-edge integration of network analysis (by making use of the software package Pajek) and more traditional quantitative analysis based on the results of a “systematic search for references to Christian-European converts to Islam” (p. 20). This search resulted in a set of data on 137 Christian-European converts between 1580 and 1610, which Graf uses to “contextualize anecdotal evidence or put it into perspective” (p. 23). 

Chapter 1 provides a series of useful definitions and key terms, thereby introducing readers to some of the staples of scholarship on the Ottoman Empire (including Rumi, Turk, Osmanlı, re’aya, askeri, timar, kul, and devşirme). Graf defines the term “renegade” as a pejorative word for a Christian convert to Islam that emphasizes an individual’s apostasy and turning away from Christian values (p. 30). He goes on to justify its use here because of its political connotations. The chapter ends with a discussion of the military, economic, and social transformations in the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the seventeenth century, which older historiography referred to as the beginning of the long decline.

Chapter 2 examines the anatomy of a conversion. First, it uses examples from Graf’s pool of primary sources to explore markers of conversion: replacing hats with turbans, circumcision processions, and the act of taking a new name. Then it details the contexts in which such conversions took place: captivity and voluntary migration for political, religious, and legal reasons. Lastly, the chapter discusses the shifting legal status of a convert within Ottoman law.

Chapter 3 uses the unusually rich sources on the conversion and subsequent activities of renegade Ladislaus Mörth to explore the complex religious and political dimensions of a shift (or indeed multiple shifts) in loyalty that accompanied a conversion. Mörth was a mid-level officer in the borderlands in Croatia before joining the entourage of Habsburg resident ambassador Friedrich von Kreckwitz to Constantinople. A German translation of a petition submitted to Sultan Murad III after his conversion to Islam allows Graf to explore both his biography and the confessionalizing rhetoric he employed. A second document filed with the petition allows Graf to explore another side of the story, that the conversion was an attempt to escape punishment for a sexual relationship with one of the embassy’s kitchen boys. The juxtaposition of these two documents allows the chapter to end on an extended discussion of the limits of the historian in understanding orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and the issue of sincerity of belief.

Chapter 4 turns towards the postconversion integration of newly minted subjects of the sultan. Through a close investigation of renegade career trajectories mapped out using network graphs, the chapter reveals that shared foreign origins played a role in socialization within the Ottoman elite. This chapter largely confirms the thesis put forth by Metin Kunt in his 1974 article on the importance of cins (ethnic-regional) solidarity in the configuration of patronage networks among the Ottoman elite. It explores how the nautical and technical skills a convert arrived with allowed them to launch careers. Yet, above all, it was the gift of linguistic aptitude that could launch a convert to new heights, particularly in the murky world of intelligence-gathering. The bulk of Graf’s network analysis takes place here, on pp. 149–59. With regard to his discussion of central European converts, common language, Graf argues, “was not the only factor to give cohesion to the network” (p. 153). Rather, he sees professional connections to Transylvania and confessional leanings towards Unitarianism as other grouping mechanisms that help explain the network graphs on p. 150.

Chapter 5 focuses on how trans-imperial ties were mobilized in terms of families positioning themselves within competitive hierarchies and intelligence networks. It also covers the question of the place of Austrian-Habsburg-born renegades within an overwhelmingly Italian-speaking context. Here again, we see Graf’s original central European sources shine through when he bookends an overview of Venetian renegades on pp. 167–72 with a discussion of the activities of Markus Penckner (alias Ahmed Bey) and Adam Neuser and a paragraph on the renegade son of an armorer from the court of the Duke of Württemberg attempting to convince his brother to convert. The chapter reveals how renegades themselves mobilized networks to secure protection, patronage, and prestige.

The book grew out of the author’s dissertation, defended in 2014 at the University of Heidelberg, which was titled “‘I Am Still Yours’: Christian-European ‘Renegades’ in the Ottoman Elite during the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries.” Graf was one of four doctoral students from the Heidelberg program, “Asia and Europe in a Global Context: The Dynamics of Transculturality,” to edit the methodologically groundbreaking volume, Well-Connected Domains: Towards an Entangled Ottoman History (2014). In The Sultan’s Renegades, we see how this approach to Ottoman history translates into an important scholarly monograph.

Readers will benefit from the book’s efforts to place lesser-known Habsburg renegades into more familiar contexts. Indeed, the book opens up a comparative entangled perspective that forces us to confront the connectedness of central and southeastern Europe with the Mediterranean. Building on the work of Natalie Rothman, Eric Dursteler, Maria Pia Pedani, and Emrah Safa Gürkan, Graf offers several useful summaries of work on Italian-speaking renegades and integrates sections on their Habsburg counterparts. The book is strongest at these points, where Graf presents his original research and mastery of the archival materials that allow him to focus directly on the lives and careers of individuals. In particular, his discussions of Mörth and the intelligence activities of renegades are most powerful, like Adam Neuser, Markus Penckner (alias Ahmed Bey), Melchior von Tierberg (alias Ali Bey), and Sebold von Pibrach (alias Mahmud Bey).

Graf’s data on Christian-European converts to Islam between 1580 and 1610 seems to be filled with fascinating scraps of information from which we can reconstruct microhistories, as he has done brilliantly with Mörth in chapter 3. The Sultan’s Renegades encourages further inquiries into the biographies of individuals and identifying their positions in broad networks of interaction and exchange. Beyond his list, there were certainly far more men and women converting and integrating themselves into their new Ottoman social and political environments. What about renegades that stayed in the borderlands, for example, and never made it into central correspondence? Can we see other, more local networks developing? What about important men from a slightly earlier period, like Zal Mahmud Pasha? It seems like there are a great many stories left to be uncovered and told. How can we incorporate a wider web of lived experience from Ottoman-European interactions? These stories and questions would eventually help us raise questions about continuity and change, particularly as related to differences between active open warfare and times of peace.

Another avenue for further research opened up by Graf’s book is a new approach to the Long Turkish War (1593–1606). The emphasis throughout The Sultan’s Renegades is on the transfer of loyalty from one sovereign to the other. On the Ottoman side, the nature of that sovereignty is fairly obvious. Loyalty, regardless of patronage networks, ultimately rests with the sultan. On the Habsburg side, however, such questions of loyalty and patronage are univariably more complicated. What are the differences between Spanish Habsburg and Austrian Habsburg experiences? What of the Wallachian, Polish, and Hungarian strands of loyalty? Were the Austrian Habsburgs part of the Mediterranean shared world? Will taking the fractured sovereignties of Habsburg Europe into account force us to seek other models of interaction and exchange? How do renegades play with these fractured and entangled sovereignties? Perhaps we might want to experiment with turning the entangled methods outlined in this excellent book onto the subject of imperial cultures themselves.

Citation: Robyn Radway. Review of Graf, Tobias P., The Sultan's Renegades: Christian-European Converts to Islam and the Making of the Ottoman Elite, 1575-1610. H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2020. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53227

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