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Les conversions à l’islam en Asie mineure, dans les Balkans et dans le monde musulman

Philippe Gelez
Gilles Grivaud

Aires balkaniques et micrasiatiques (XIe-XIXe S.) : études de cas

A Bibliographical Note on Jews and Dönme-s in the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey

Note bibliographique sur les juifs et les dönme-s de l’Empire ottoman et de la république de Turquie

Jacob M. Landau


La publication du livre Les Conversions à l’islam en Asie Mineure et dans les Balkans aux époques seldjoukide et ottomane. Bibliographie raisonnée (1800-2000) est un événement d’importance capitale pour les historiens de l’Empire ottoman. Cet article a trait à quelques autres ouvrages sur le même sujet, qui concernent spécialement l’Empire ottoman et la république de Turquie. Son intention est de mettre l’accent sur deux aspects en particulier : les livres et articles qui présentent un parti pris contre les juifs d’un côté, et ceux qui étudient l’arrière-plan social et économique des dönme-s de l’autre. Quelques exemples de publications en langues diverses sont présentés et analysés.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Grivaud Gilles, Popovic Alexandre 2011.

1A comprehensive annotated bibliography, Les conversions à l’Islam en Asie Mineure et dans les Balkans aux époques seldjoukide et ottomane. Bibliographie raisonnée (1800-2000), has recently appeared.1 This is a considerable scholarly achievement, contributing greatly to our knowledge and critical analysis of the subject. I myself had a modest share in this enterprise on two closely related themes - the conversion of Jews to Islam, and the conversion of Dönme-s, the followers of Sabbatai Tsevi, and of those who joined this sect in later years. Here I would like to make a few comments on the subject and add some recently published items with an assessment of their importance.

2My subject was somewhat different from that of the other bibliographical topics, which were mostly concerned with defined geographical areas. Both Jews and Dönme sectarians lived in several provinces of the empire, a fact which made research on bibliographic material especially challenging, not to speak of the need to read the many languages employed in publications on these matters. Another difficulty is the special character of Jewish and Dönme conversions. My impression is that in many, probably most, cases, Christian conversions to Islam in the Ottoman Empire, whether voluntary or enforced, were generally final, that is, not much debated or reversed subsequently. Converted Jews, however, kept their history of conversion strictly secret from their Muslim surroundings, if it was voluntary, and often returned to Judaism (usually outside the borders of the Ottoman Empire) if it was under duress. This considerably reduces our chances of acquiring reliable details of conversion, at least from original Jewish sources.

3Finding reliable information in original Dönme sources is even more problematic. All Dönme groups living in the empire continued to preserve a certain part of Jewish religious rites. They were well aware that the imperial authorities were suspicious of them (the term “Dönme” means “apostate”, “turncoat” in Turkish) and would punish very severely any convert to Islam who still appeared to practise a former religion. Hence the Dönme-s insisted on behaving like Muslims everywhere in public and even called themselves Ma’min or Mu’min, “Believers.” Moreover, they maintained the utmost secrecy in any matter which might make them suspect in their religious behaviour and, over time, even concealed the fact that they were Dönme-s at all, pretending to be regular Muslims - although the texts they produced had little, if any, mention of Islam. Their communal prayer sessions were usually held in clandestine “synagogues” which did not contain a Torah scroll and were devoid of any other Jewish religious objects; most Dönme-s hardly ever visited a mosque. Since they insisted on marrying only within the sect, their secret character remained well guarded.

  • 2 Neyzi Leyla 2002.
  • 3 Shilon Avi 2003.

4Consequently, we have very little trustworthy original information from Dönme sources. Even a rare exception such as a fairly recent interview with a Dönme woman, Fatma Ang, reported by Leyla Neyzi,2 tells us little that is new, except on points of folklore. The same is true of another recent interview conducted by the Israeli journalist Avi Shilon with Turan Hamudi, a Dönme archaeologist in Istanbul.3

5Considering all this, the question arises of how can one get at the necessary material for research on the Jews and Dönme-s in the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey, of which much is written in Hebrew or in the language many people employed daily, Judeo-Spanish (Ladino). There are some references in the Responsa made by certain rabbis concerning Jewish conversion to Islam and the Dönme-s, but these references are so hostile to the converts that their historical value is seriously compromised. More material can be found in two other sets of documents: in accounts written by people outside the Jewish community and the Dönme sect, and in research carried out by independent observers and scholars. I shall consider each category separately. A few of the references that I shall mention are included in the Bibliographie, but most are to works published after the year 2000, which were not included in our volume. These are fairly numerous, and here I shall draw attention to a few characteristic examples.

  • 4 T. H. 1963.
  • 5 Perlmann Moshe 1965.
  • 6 [Anonymous] 1966.
  • 7 Küçük Abdurrahman 1994.

6Accounts written by people outside the Jewish community are sometimes quite objective. This is usually when an article on “Dönme” or “Dönmeler” appears in an officially-sponsored encyclopaedia, such as the İslâm Ansiklopedisi ( “Encyclopaedia of Islam”),4 particularly since this work is largely based on the articles in the Encyclopaedia of Islam,5 or the Türk Ansiklopedisi ( “Turkish Encyclopaedia”),6 which in turn is partly based on the İslâm Ansiklopedisi. The same holds good of the new Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı İslâm Ansiklopedisi,7 which prides itself (justifiably) on its scholarly character.

  • 8 Zorlu İlgaz 1999.
  • 9 Bayramaşik Musa Saffet 1958.
  • 10 Frumkin Max 1976.
  • 11 Muhammed Esad 1972.
  • 12 Galip Selahattin 1977.
  • 13 Küçük Abdurrahman 1979.
  • 14 Yesevizade 1989.

7However, other writings often suffer from ignorance or bias - or both. They are frequently of little value to serious research on Jewish converts. Many of these publications display more than a touch of anti-Semitism, frequently cloaked in fine phrases. They attack Jews in general and particularly converts to Islam, who are suspected of clandestinely continuing to practise the Judaic faith. There are only a few such publications on the Ottoman period, but more on the Republican: many of these refer to the earlier period as well. Among the authors are Jewish converts to Islam who defend their conversion by denigrating their former religion. Of these, the best-known, listed in our bibliography, is probably the 174-page book entitled Evet, ben Salonikliyim: Türkiye Sabetaycılığı by İlgaz Zorlu,8 which went through several editions. It contains many comments critical of the beliefs and practices of the Sabbateans. The author, reportedly the son of a Muslim father and a Dönme mother, has recently converted to Judaism but is socially rejected by both Jews and Dönme-s. Another example is a pamphlet by Musa Saffet Bayramaşık, an imam-hatip in Izmir, Niçin Müslüman oldum?.9 A book by Max Frumkin, Yahudilikten niçin çıktım?,10 and an article by Esad Muhammed, “Nıçın Müslüman olduk?”,11 are other examples of conversions, as are an undated book by Selahattin Galip, Türkiye’de dönmeler ve dönmelik,12 and a doctoral dissertation, Dönmeler ve dönmelik tarihi, by Abdurrahman Küçük,13 which claims objectivity but is anti-Dönme in the main. This is not surprising since the author’s supervisor was Hikmet Tanyu, who also wrote the introduction (Tanyu’s writings manifest an ignorance of literary Hebrew). Perhaps the most virulent of these attacks on Jews and Dönme-s is a 501-page work, Yahudilik ve dönmeler, by Yesevizade.14 This author leaves no stone unturned in his attacks on both groups.

  • 15 Landau Jacob M. 1986.
  • 16 Eygi Mehmed Şevket 2000.

8Other Turkish publications level anti-Semitic accusations against both Jews and Dönme-s.15 A characteristic example is a book by Mehmed Şevket Eygi, İki kimlikli, gizli, esrarlı ve çok güçlü bir cemaat: Yahudi Türkler yahut Sabetaycılar.16 Writings about the Dönme-s seem even more aggressive in general than those criticizing the Jews. Works produced by people outside the Dönme sect tend to suffer considerably from ignorance and misconceptions, largely due to the secretive character of the Dönme-s themselves, more markedly than those about Jewish converts. As a rule, authors copy extensively from each other, often concealing facts, or invent stories, sometimes of a sexual nature, about the Dönme-s. They thus often propagate fantasies, hardly useful in scholarly research. Among these fabrications are the supposed connections between Dönme-s, Jews and freemasons combining in a plot to bring about the downfall of the Ottoman Empire.

  • 17 Landau Jacob M. 2007.

9However, contemporaneously with these and other fiction-minded pseudo-historical efforts, a good number of serious books and articles about the Dönme-s have appeared recently. I shall omit the articles (including one of my own, “The Dönme-s: Crypto-Jews under Turkish Rule”)17 and focus rather on new books, some of which attempt to shape a different approach to the subject.

10Most works on the Dönme-s listed in our volume find their point of reference in the history of these people, often with a more or less careful account of the religious aspect. A large majority retell, with little new material, the history of the sect, its supposed theosophical approach to messianism, and its daily practice, which appears increasingly to be a symbiosis of Judaism and Islam. This approach is true also of a very recent MA thesis at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, by Hadar Feldman, available in the library of the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem, which examines some 18th century Sabbatean manuscripts (probably from Salonica) focusing on the sect’s mystical beliefs.

  • 18 Mazower Mark 2004.
  • 19 Mallet Laurent-Olivier 2008.
  • 20 Ibid., p. 129.

11Very few discussions have referred to - and then only briefly - the economic, social and political aspects of the community. Lately this approach has changed somewhat. Even works introducing the Dönme-s only incidentally, such as Mark Mazower’s monograph, Salonica, City of Ghosts, Christians, Muslims and Jews,18 refer to such matters. This is also true of a recent book by Laurent-Olivier Mallet, a researcher at the Galatasaray University and at the Institut Français d’Études Anatoliennes in Istanbul, La Turquie, les Turcs et les Juifs.19 In discussing the phenomenon of Sabbatai Tsevi, Mallet points out the economic difficulties of the time, the cooling of relations between the Jewish communities and the Ottoman authorities, and what he calls “les fièvres religieuses qui secouent le monde ottoman dans la seconde moitié du XVIIe siècle”.20 Further, Mallet examines the anti-Semitism directed at the Dönme-s in the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey. It is these two elements - the social and economic background, and anti-Semitism - that characterize recent literature about the Dönme-s.

  • 21 Bali Rıfat N. 2008.
  • 22 Bali Rıfat N. 2011.
  • 23 Reviewed in Middle Eastern Studies 48/4 (July 2012), pp. 679-680.
  • 24 Bali Rıfat N. 2004.

12A young Turkish scholar, Cengiz Şişman, who teaches at Bilkent University in Ankara, has drawn attention to the fact that in the late Ottoman Empire (and, indeed, in the Republic of Turkey as well), the Dönme-s were townspeople, well-educated (including the women) and relatively well-off. Many adopted the general way of life of Muslim residents and became active as politicians, business people, journalists, university lecturers, lawyers, physicians and writers, although not a few were tradesmen or artisans. Such activities attracted some anti-Semitic propaganda, on which Rıfat N. Bali focuses in his recent 416-page book, A Scapegoat for All Seasons: The Dönme-s or Crypto-Jews of Turkey,21 published in English and Turkish. This work is largely a vigorous reply to anti-Semitic propaganda. Bali is an independent scholar who graduated from the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris and has become, through his numerous studies, probably the most prolific writer on Jews in the late Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey. His latest work, Bir günah keçisi,22 deals with Munis Tekinalp (Moiz Kohen), a Jewish businessman and journalist in the late Ottoman Empire and the early Republic of Turkey.23 From our point of view as bibliographers, Bali’s most useful work is a 432-page Bibliography of Books, Theses and Articles Published in Turkey Concerning Judaism 1923- 2003,24 comprising 5,684 references. It lists no more than five items on conversions, however. This book is an indispensable tool for researchers on Jews in the late Ottoman Empire and in the Republic of Turkey.

13Bali’s book on the Dönme-s is a counter-attack against anti-Jewish and anti-Dönme calumniators of the Dönme-s’ Jewish origins in the late Ottoman and the Republican periods. He begins by listing several recent Turkish writings accusing the Dönme-s of conspiring to dominate Turkey’s economy and press, accusations which he counters by demonstrating that attacks on the Dönme-s are born of a delusional obsession. From our point of view, it is interesting that Bali shows how smear campaigns against the Dönme-s in the Republic of Turkey are a continuation of similar trends in the late Ottoman Empire. Of special significance is chapter 4 of this book, which examines, over 72 pages, a large number of memoirs and interviews referring to the Dönme-s (amongst other subjects) in late Ottoman history. Despite its polemical character, Bali’s book is based on solid scholarship and, by the use of many documents, convincingly analyses and rebuts political and economic allegations against the Dönme-s.

  • 25 Ehrlich Avrum 2001.
  • 26 Barnai Jacob 2000. See also Barnai Jacob 2015.
  • 27 Landau Jacob M. 1988.

14Of special interest is a paper by Avrum Ehrlich, “Sabbatean Messianism as Proto-Secularism: Examples in Modern Turkey and Zionism”,25 who not only develops further the arguments already offered by Jacob Barnai, an Israeli scholar of Jewish history, about the impact of economic conditions on the development of Sabbataism (and the Dönme population) in Shabbeta’ut: heybetim hevratiyyim,26 but adds an interpretation of his own on two separate levels. First, Ehrlich points out the similarities between the doctrine and practices of Dönme-s and of the Bektashis. Secondly, he argues - not always convincingly - for Dönme involvement in Zionism. It has already been asserted that several Dönme-s might have been active in the early stages of the Zionist movement - but it has not yet been proven that Dönme society as a whole was involved. Ehrlich, too, cannot demonstrate this conclusively.27

  • 28 Baer Marc David 2008.

15Even more instructive are two recent works by Marc David Baer, a professor at the University of California, Irvine. The first, Honored by the Glory of Islam: Conversion and Conquest in the Ottoman Empire,28 is largely based on archival materials and other sources in Turkish and Arabic; it is a study of conversion to Islam that focuses mostly on the reign of Sultan Mehmed IV (1648-1687). Baer describes the intensification of piety in the Sultan’s court and, most particularly, the inner circles. He shows how these turned belief into a political policy to Islamize Jews and Christians within the empire, and also into a military policy, one of the effects of which was a long series of wars against the Habsburgs, the Romanovs, and the Venetians, with the declared intention of Islamizing their peoples. In Istanbul itself, a transformation of religious geography took place after the great fire of 1660, with mosques replacing churches and synagogues. In this way, both the desire for conquest and mere chance transformed religious geography. Economic persuasion was employed as well, as when Jewish physicians at the Sultan’s court were compelled to convert to Islam or lose their jobs. Baer also argues that social interrelations, which are difficult to analyze, were less relevant in converting people to Islam, although social rewards did have some part in attracting converts to the ruling religion.

  • 29 Baer Marc David 2010.

16The conversion of Sabbatai Tsevi and his followers receives only three short paragraphs in this first work but is central to Baer’s second book, The Dönme: Jewish Converts, Muslim Revolutionaries, and Secular Turks.29 Baer’s research is based on several sources: interviews with several Dönme-s, but chiefly the examination of tombstones in Dönme cemeteries in Salonica and Istanbul, where he successfully deciphered the names on the stones. Baer attempts to understand the economic and social positions, financial links and networks of those buried under them. He also uses archival and other written sources relating mostly to Ottoman Salonica between 1862 and 1908, although later years are examined as well. To me, the two most interesting chapters are those dealing with Dönme education, economy and trade. Baer discusses at some length the element of modernization in Dönme education. On trade, he has discovered new information about Dönme merchant families and their businesses in textiles and tobacco, partly based on connections with the Dönme diaspora in Europe; all this contributed to making Ottoman Salonica a flourishing mercantile centre.

17This is the writing of history at its best: Bali uses the anti-Semitic background to analyze Dönme conditions, and Baer’s two books use the political, economic and military background to interpret conversion to Islam in the Ottoman Empire.

18The new publications I have listed above appear to indicate a change in points of reference regarding the conversion and subsequent way of life of Jews and Dönme-s in Turkey. They deal less with mysticism and sufi influence on the converts, which have been very adequately studied by Gershom Scholem and his students. Some present the subject in an anti-Semitic vein, often making use of anti-Jewish calumnies for use against the Dönme-s as well; others are founded on a more solid and historical approach.

19One last observation: “Sazanikos: Les derniers Dönme-s” is a 1992 documentary film in French directed by Michèle Blumental and Michel Grossman. Four years later the script was printed in a special edition of the Turkish periodical Atlas Dergisi (I confess that this film and publication were unknown to me until very recently).

20In concluding these brief comments on the difficulties of preparing a bibliography on conversion to Islam of Jews and Dönme-s in the Ottoman Empire (difficulties very probably shared by other contributors in their own domains of research), the importance must be stressed of fully appreciating the scholarly labours of editors and contributors over a dozen years in researching the materials on conversions to Islam in the Ottoman Empire and annotating them for publication in the volume mentioned at the beginning of this paper.



[Anonymous] 1966
nonymous], “Dönmeler”, Türk Ansiklopedisi 14 (1966), pp. 41-43.

Baer Marc David 2008
aer Marc David, Honored by the Glory of Islam. Conversion and Conquest in the Ottoman Empire, New York, Oxford University Press, 2008.

Baer Marc David 2010
aer Marc David, The Dönme: Jewish Converts, Muslim Revolutionaries, and Secular Turks, Stanford (Cal.), Stanford University Press, 2010.

Bali Rıfat N. 2004
ali Rıfat N., Bibliography of Books, Theses and Articles Published in Turkey Concerning Judaism 1923- 2003, Istanbul, Turquaz, 2004.

Bali Rıfat N. 2008
ali Rıfat N., A Scapegoat for All Seasons: The Dönme-s or Crypto-Jews of Turkey, Istanbul, Isis, 2008.

Bali Rıfat N. 2011
ali Rıfat N., Bir günah keçisi I-II-III, İstanbul, Libra, 2011.

Barnai Jacob 2000
arnai Jacob, Shabbeta’ut: heybetim hevratiyyim, Jerusalem, The Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 2000.

Barnai Jacob 2015
arnai Jacob, Ha-Mar’a shel Eiropa, Jerusalem, Carmel, 2015

Bayramaşik Musa Saffet 1958
ayramaşik Musa Saffet, Niçin Müslüman oldum? Museviliği tark ve islamiyeti kabul edmişimin sebepleri, İzmir, 1958.

Ehrlich Avrum 2001
hrlich Avrum, “Sabbatean Messianism as Proto-Secularism: Examples in Modern Turkey and Zionism”, in Tütüncü Mehmet (ed.), Turkish-Jewish Encounters: Studies on Turkish-Jewish Relations throughout the Ages, Haarlem, SOTA, 2001, pp. 273-306.

Eygi Mehmed Şevket 2000
ygi Mehmed Şevket, İki kimlikli, gizli, esrarlı ve çok güçlü bir cemaat: Yahudi Türkler yahut Sabetaycılar, İstanbul, Zvi-Geyik Yayınları, 2000.

Frumkin Max 1976
rumkin Max, Yahudilikten niçin çıktım?, İstanbul, Eskin Matbaası, 1976.

Galip Selahattin 1977
alip Selahattin, Türkiye’de dönmeler ve dönmelik, İstanbul, Kıraçlı Yayınları, 1977.

Grivaud Gilles, Popovic Alexandre 2011
Grivaud Gilles, Popovic Alexandre (eds), Les conversions à l’islam en Asie Mineure et dans les Balkans aux époques seldjoukide et ottomane. Bibliographie raisonnée (1800-2000), Athènes, École Française d’Athènes, 2011.

Küçük Abdurrahman 1979
Küçük Abdurrahman, Dönmeler ve dönmelik tarihi, İstanbul, Öteken Neşriyat, 1979.

Küçük Abdurrahman 1994
Küçük Abdurrahman, “Dönme”, Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı İslâm Ansiklopedisi 9 (1994), pp. 518-520.

Landau Jacob M. 1986
Landau Jacob M., “Al demutah shel ha-antişemiyyut ba-Republiqa ha-Turkit”, Divrey ha-Qongres ha-‘olami le-madda‘ey ha-Yahadut 2 (1986), pp. 72-82.

Landau Jacob M. 1988
Landau Jacob M., “Muslim Turkish Attitudes towards Jews, Zionism and Israel”, Die Welt des Islams N.S. 28 (1988), pp. 291-300.

Landau Jacob M. 2007
andau Jacob M., “The Dönme-s: Crypto-Jews under Turkish Rule”, Jewish Political Studies Review 19/1-2 (Spring 2007), pp. 109-118.

Mallet Laurent-Olivier 2008
Mallet Laurent-Olivier, La Turquie, les Turcs et les Juifs, Istanbul, Isis, 2008.

Mazower Mark 2004
azower Mark 2004, Salonica, City of Ghosts, Christians, Muslims and Jews, New York, Harper Collins, 2004.

Muhammed Esad 1972
uhammed Esad, “Niçin Müslüman olduk?”, Hilâl (January-February 1972), pp. 23-33.

Neyzi Leyla 2002
eyzi Leyla, “Remembering to Forget: Sabbateanism, National Identity and Subjectivity in Turkey”, Comparative Studies in Society and History 44/1 (2002), pp. 137-158.

Perlmann Moshe 1965
erlmann Moshe, “Dönme”, Encyclopaedia of Islam 2 (1965), pp. 615-616.

Shilon Avi 2003
hilon Avi, “Shabbeta’im mevohalim”, Ma‘ariv, 10 January 2003 (weekly supplement), pp. 32-35.

T.H. 1963
T.H., “Dönme”,
İslâm Ansiklopedisi 3 (1963), pp. 646-650.

Yesevizade 1989
esevizade, Yahudilik ve dönmeler, İstanbul, Araştırma Yayınları, 1989.

Zorlu İlgaz 1999
orlu İlgaz, Evet, ben Selanikliyim: Türkiye Sabetaycılığı, İstanbul, Belge Yayınları, 1999.


1 Grivaud Gilles, Popovic Alexandre 2011.

2 Neyzi Leyla 2002.

3 Shilon Avi 2003.

4 T. H. 1963.

5 Perlmann Moshe 1965.

6 [Anonymous] 1966.

7 Küçük Abdurrahman 1994.

8 Zorlu İlgaz 1999.

9 Bayramaşik Musa Saffet 1958.

10 Frumkin Max 1976.

11 Muhammed Esad 1972.

12 Galip Selahattin 1977.

13 Küçük Abdurrahman 1979.

14 Yesevizade 1989.

15 Landau Jacob M. 1986.

16 Eygi Mehmed Şevket 2000.

17 Landau Jacob M. 2007.

18 Mazower Mark 2004.

19 Mallet Laurent-Olivier 2008.

20 Ibid., p. 129.

21 Bali Rıfat N. 2008.

22 Bali Rıfat N. 2011.

23 Reviewed in Middle Eastern Studies 48/4 (July 2012), pp. 679-680.

24 Bali Rıfat N. 2004.

25 Ehrlich Avrum 2001.

26 Barnai Jacob 2000. See also Barnai Jacob 2015.

27 Landau Jacob M. 1988.

28 Baer Marc David 2008.

29 Baer Marc David 2010.


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