Lâle Can, Spiritual Subjects: Central Asian Pilgrims and the Ottoman Hajj at the End of Empire (Stanford University Press, 2020).
Lâle Can’s Spiritual Subjects: Central Asian Pilgrims and the Ottoman Hajj at the End of Empire is a meticulously researched and beautifully crafted book on the Central Asian hajj and Ottoman management of religious mobility. The subjects of the book are Muslim pilgrims from Russian and Chinese Turkestan, Bukhara, Khiva, and Afghanistan. Can offers a highly original approach to the hajj, exploring not only pilgrims’ journeys but Lâle Can’s Spiritual Subjects: Central Asian Pilgrims and the Ottoman Hajj at the End of Empire is a meticulously researched and beautifully crafted book on the Central Asian hajj and Ottoman management of religious mobility. The subjects of the book are Muslim pilgrims from Russian and Chinese Turkestan, Bukhara, Khiva, and Afghanistan. Can offers a highly original approach to the hajj, exploring not only pilgrims’ journeys but also their evolving relationships with the Ottoman Empire.
Spiritual Subjects enriches the growing body of scholarship on the global hajj in the late imperial age that includes such titles as Michael Christopher Low, Imperial Mecca: Ottoman Arabia and the Indian Ocean Hajj (2020); Umar Ryad, ed., The Hajj and Europe in the Age of Empire (2016); Eileen Kane, Russian Hajj: Empire and the Pilgrimage to Mecca (2015); John Slight, The British Empire and the Hajj, 1865–1956 (2015); and Eric Tagliacozzo, The Longest Journey: Southeast Asians and the Pilgrimage to Mecca (2013). Can’s work contributes to the existing scholarship in several ways. While others rightly demonstrated that the European empires perceived the hajj to be a threat to their colonial projects and often sought to control the movement of their Muslim subjects, Can asserts that the Ottoman government also saw the hajj as a challenge—a legal one. For Ottoman officials, the hajj highlighted the weakened position of the sultanate in international diplomacy and the dangers that pilgrims with foreign nationality posed to Ottoman sovereignty. Can also extends the usual meanings of the hajj spatially and temporally. The hajj was rarely a unidirectional journey to Mecca, and, for many Central Asian pilgrims, it included stops in British India, Iran, Russia, and many Ottoman localities outside of the Hijaz. Indeed, the book focuses on Istanbul as a site on pilgrims’ itineraries more than on the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. Furthermore, Spiritual Subjects tells us less about the pilgrims’ act of journeying and more about their acts of lingering, prior to or after visiting Mecca. One’s hajj could have been decades long.
Spiritual Subjects strikes a balance in examining the Central Asian hajj and the Ottoman state. This book gives us access to the perspectives of both a Bukharan or Kashgari pilgrim and an Ottoman bureaucrat charged with pilgrim affairs. The first two of the book’s five chapters study Central Asian migrant experiences in the Ottoman Empire. In chapter 1, Can takes us on a journey from Russian Turkestan to the Ottoman Hijaz by following Mirim Khan, an author of the turn-of-the-twentieth-century hajj narrative in vernacular Turki (Chaghatay). Can demonstrates that the new “industrialized hajj” of trains and steamships transformed the sacral landscapes for many Muslims who were now bypassing the shrines of old and ascribing new meanings to religious sites on their way (51). Chapter 2 reconstructs the world of Central Asian networks through Sufi lodges where many pilgrims stayed. Can uses a remarkable archival set of guest registers from Sultantepe Özbekler Tekkesi in Istanbul to analyze how Central Asians used their connections not only to ease their journey but also to become locals. Historians of the late Ottoman Empire often think of Istanbul as a diverse cosmopolitan setting and a thriving international city. Can shows that many Central Asian pilgrims experienced the Ottoman capital as a Sunni Muslim landscape and a place of migrant precarity.
Spiritual Subjects is at its best when exploring late Ottoman governance as it pertains to the hajj and extraterritoriality. For the Ottomans, the hajj was not merely a pilgrimage that affected the far-away Hijaz during the month of Dhu al-Hijja but a year-round concern in various corners of the empire. All Central Asians entered the Ottoman Empire as foreign subjects. Some were Russian or British nationals or protégés, who could claim European capitulatory rights, which meant preferential tariffs and exemptions from Ottoman taxation or prosecution. Whether pilgrims from “semi-sovereign” Bukhara or Afghanistan could make similar claims was uncertain. Chapters 3 and 4 delve deeply into the Ottoman Foreign Ministry Office of Legal Counsel, which scrutinized the legal status of Central Asian Muslims and, according to Can, created the category of “spiritual subjects.” Spiritual subjects were Muslim migrants from Bukhara, Afghanistan, and Kashgar, who were not Ottoman nationals yet claimed membership in the empire, having been “pulled into the Ottoman orbit through pilgrimage and the politics of protection” (11–12). Chapter 3 explores the relationship between the hajj and the politics of nationality. In the age of European colonialism and the erosion of Ottoman sovereignty, Sultan Abdülhamid II (r. 1876–1909) utilized Ottoman claims to the caliphate to shore up domestic and foreign Muslims’ support for the Ottoman state. Through the caliphate, the Ottomans attempted to assert spiritual leadership over the world’s Muslims, irrespective of their subjecthood. While the status of the empire as both a sultanate and a caliphate often helped the Ottomans in their outreach to foreign Muslims, Can examines what happened when the two were at odds. As the caliphate, the Ottomans could not circumscribe the hajj and often had to support destitute Central Asian pilgrims, who held Russian, British, Bukharan, and Afghan subjecthood, legally and financially. Yet as a sultanate, the Ottoman government was concerned with preserving its sovereignty, whereas foreign Muslims’ claims to European protections and exemptions, to which Bukharans and Afghans may or may have not been legally entitled, threatened it. Chapter 4 then explores the petitions of Central Asian pilgrims, who skillfully navigated legal ambiguities of their position as Muslims in the Ottoman sultanate-caliphate and presented themselves as the sultan’s subjects to Ottoman authorities.
Spiritual Subjects makes a valuable contribution to Ottoman and Middle Eastern studies. Through the study of the Central Asian hajj, Can positions the late Ottoman Empire within emerging international law and exposes dilemmas of Ottoman governance at the end of the empire. The Ottomans grappled with what it meant to be a caliphate in the European-dominated international order. They proposed the idea of religious subjecthood, which was a powerful tool in foreign policy but one that provincial officials found difficult to implement. Likewise, by granting foreign Muslims different rights based on their full subjecthood in the European empires or subjecthood in “semi-sovereign” Central Asian states, the Ottomans accepted the premises of the new order that “justified informal colonialism” (178). Moreover, through the focus on legal implications of Central Asians’ subjecthood and claims of protection, Can reframes the older discussions about pan-Islamism and pan-Turkism. The Ottoman Empire and Central Asia were certainly connected through networks of pan-Turkic intellectuals, but their ideals of unity and solidarity did not shape the Ottoman policy toward Central Asian migrants, which was instead guided by anxiety over sovereignty and extraterritoriality.
Spiritual Subjects adds richly to global migration studies, especially the literature on religious migration. Not only does the book present a conceptually innovative approach to studying the hajj and the state-pilgrim relationship, but it probes the very category of religious migrant. In chapter 5, Can looks at those who straddled the line between pilgrim and immigrant and identifies two types of long-term residence in the Ottoman domains. The first was residence in the Ottoman cities, such as Istanbul and Damascus, by those migrants who became “de facto Ottomans” (152). Many Bukharan and Kashgari Muslims, for all intents and purposes, settled in the Ottoman Empire, although they never became legal Ottoman subjects. The second was residence in the Holy Cities of Medina and Mecca by pilgrims who became mücavirin, or long-term pious residents. The Ottoman state recognized this special status and even subsidized their residence, although mücavirin never became Ottoman subjects either. These unique migrant categories were flexible and subject to negotiation, and lent themselves to their own social identities. These categories challenge our understanding of how subjecthood operated at the turn of the century. They also open up fruitful avenues for exploring the convergence between religious migration and late imperial and national concepts of nationality, residence, and border control.
The book does not provide many estimates of pilgrims’ numbers, which would have allowed readers to appreciate the scope of the Central Asian hajj, how it compared to that from other parts of the Muslim world, how it changed with the advent of new transportation, and how many pilgrims ultimately stayed in the empire. Can acknowledges archival limitations in answering some of these questions (162–63, 194n5).
Spiritual Subjects should be of interest to the broad audience of scholars of the Middle East and Central Asia, empire and colonialism, and religious migration. It is an essential reading on the Ottoman hajj, ties between Central Asia and the Middle East, and extraterritoriality.