Manhood, piety, and power

You are here

Manhood, piety, and power

Scholar examines Ottoman origins of masculinity in present-day Turkey

by Kathryn Dickason on Friday, December 20, 2013 - 8:54am

ErdoğanDuring the 2013 political protests in Turkey, the Prime Minister's manhood became embroiled in controversy. Supporters of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan proclaimed him to be a “true man,” while detractors accused Erdoğan of being too macho. With masculinity continuing to play a vital role in Turkish politics, religious studies scholar Özgen Felek wanted to understand the origin and history of current ideas about masculinity as well as the role Islam has played in influencing what is considered manly behavior. 

To answer these questions, Felek looked at religious texts such as the Qur’an and the Hadith, and a variety of Ottoman sources, such as epics, mystical biographies, and poetry. Felek, who was formerly a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford, traced how ideals of manly behavior evolved during the late Middle Ages and pre-modern Ottoman eras (c. 12th – 16th centuries).

She discovered that Turkish courts and religious practices of this period established ideals of manhood that continue today. Erdoğan, for example, is portrayed by his supporters as simultaneously pious and powerful--a description that echoes historical portrayals of Ottoman sultans.

Islam re-shaped manliness 

Felek with textFelek found that Islam initiated a makeover of manhood--and her research reveals multiple models of ideal male behavior. "Islamic tradition understood manhood differently in different venues," notes Felek.

As an example, Felek explains that male sexuality is discussed differently in different genres of writing. Some sources celebrate male sexual self-restraint, while others celebrate male virility.

The Qur’an and other legal collections tie Muhammad’s manliness to his piety and his ability to convert family members to Islam. Despite Muhammad's well-documented polygamy, these foundational texts rarely mention his sexual performance. When they do so, it is in order to highlight Muhammed's ability to control his libido. 

Yet, when Felek looked at another genre of religious writing known as hagiography (or a saint biography), she noted a change in the relationship between masculinity and sexuality--they began to be linked. For some Sufis (Islamic mystics), explains Felek, “sexuality becomes part of their manliness.... Their sexuality and constant virility is presented as a symbol of their miraculous abilities, demonstrating how sexuality is seen as part of being an effective Sufi master.” 

Sex, sanctity, and masculinity go hand in hand--a change from the type of manhood idealized in the Qur'an.

Take, for example, Rumi (d. 1273), a celebrated medieval Sufi. In some accounts, sexual excess is one of the primary ways of proving Rumi's religious devotion. What's more, these accounts also portray Muhammad as sexually vigorous. In fact, argues Felek, “exaggerated sexuality serves... to emphasize their manliness and similarity to the Prophet and hence their essential ‘orthodoxy.’”

Here, sex, sanctity, and masculinity go hand in hand--a change from the type of manhood idealized in the Qur'an.

Men of the court

Cover of Felek's forthcoming bookFelek also investigated how Ottoman court culture influenced masculine identity. Again, she found multiple notions of ideal male behavior.

The Ottoman court created and reinforced gender difference through its very architecture, explains Felek, because Ottoman imperial buildings contained specialized spaces for men and women. Women occupied separate quarters known as the Harem (meaning “forbidden”). Meanwhile, male courtiers conducted state business and managed the imperial academy in the Birun and Enderun (meaning  “outer” and “innermost” areas).

In the male spaces, teachers taught boys skills such as hunting, fighting, literature, religion, and languages. Through learning these skills, explains Felek, boys were expected to develop the qualities of a noble man--honesty, trustworthiness, stability, and endurance. In short, Felek identifies the Ottoman court as a factory of elite manhood.

Piety and power were the essential elements of a strong Ottoman ruler.

Within court culture, Ottoman sultans embodied a composite male identity. The historians, poets, and artists at court depicted sultans as embodying courtly virtues, while simultaneously carrying the legacy of epic and holy warriors of the past. Felek acknowledges that these sources may reflect embellished representations, rather than the reality of courtly life. But they can still reveal Ottoman ideals about manhood, including the qualities Ottomans wanted to see in their rulers.

In particular, Felek notes that court historians and poets lavished praise on pious and powerful sultans, suggesting that piety and power--both in body and personality--were the essential elements of a strong Ottoman ruler. 

In the shadow of Ottoman ideals

These ideas about masculinity continue to animate Turkey’s political stage. Extolling his exemplary masculinity, supporters of Prime Minister Erdoğan proclaim that he is an Ottoman successor. During the opening of a new metrobus line in 2009, one enthusiastic admirer presented a poster calling Erdoğan “The Last Ottoman Sultan.”

This episode demonstrates the continuing importance of Ottoman characteristics at work in Turkey’s contemporary political consciousness, including Ottoman ideals about manhood, piety, and power.

Özgen Felek
Özgen Felek
Postdoctoral Research Fellow, MEMEAC

Özgen Felek is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Middle East & Middle Eastern American Center of the City University of New York. Previously she was a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University an Affiliated Scholar with the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies. Felek specializes in religion, gender, and visual representations of the Ottoman Empire. Currently, she is working on a book project titled Imperial Men: Manhood and Masculinity in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire. Felek has also prepared a diplomatic edition of Ottoman Sultan Murad III’s approximately 2,000 dream letters.

Kathryn Dickason (Photo credit: Kate Gentzke)
Kathryn Dickason
Graduate student, religious studies

Kathryn Dickason is a graduate student in religious studies focusing on western medieval Christianity. Her interests include female mystics, liturgical rituals, and religious iconography. She is also a closet dance historian. Dickason is a member of the Clayman Institute Student Writing Team.

(Photo of Kathryn Dickason by Kate Gentzke)