Islamic civilization currently encompasses every major culture, ethnicity, race, and language on the planet. The pages of Islamic history are filled with the emergence of many different ethno-linguistic groups, from regions as far apart as West Africa and Central Asia, as important political and cultural forces, which greatly impacted the direction of Islamic civilization. Unfortunately, despite this reality, Muslim history has often been presented as a series of accomplishments revolving around Arabs, Persians, and Turks, to the exclusion of all other groups. The rich histories of hundreds of Muslim ethnic, racial, and linguistic groups have too often been overlooked or overshadowed by this mistaken approach towards Muslim history which has identified Muslim history with a very specific cultural and geographic context.
One particular group of Muslims that has played an important role within Islamic civilization as scholars, administrators and warriors have been Hellenes/Greeks. While the many contributions of Greek Christians to medieval and early modern Islamic/Islamicate/Middle Eastern civilization have been highlighted, especially in the context of intellectual exchange and the transmission of philosophical/medical knowledge, the history of Greek Muslims is all but unknown to most people. Greek, in the context of this post, is not meant in any ethno-nationalistic sense, but is intended to signify individuals or groups who belonged to lands and cultures where Hellenic languages and civilization predominated, whether 9th-century Sicily, 13th-century Anatolia, or the 19th-century Aegean. A variety of processes—ranging from enslavement and conquest to voluntary conversion and political opportunism—contributed to the integration of many Greeks into Islamic civilization from the seventh century to the present.
The following are only a handful of some of the most famous names of countless Greek Muslims who played an important role throughout Islamic history. As one will notice, a large number of the names come from the Ottoman period. This is largely due to the fact that there are far more historically-documented cases of Muslims of Greek descent during the period of Ottoman rule in western Anatolia and south-eastern Europe (areas where Greek speakers were concentrated most heavily) than there are for earlier periods of Islamic history. Significantly, many of the Greek Muslim men and women listed below who played an important role within this empire were a product of the devşirme system, which was one of the key aspects of the Ottoman imperial system during the pre-modern period. From the fifteenth century onwards, there was a major effort on the part of the Ottomans to lessen their reliance upon traditional military and political elites and concentrate power instead in the hands of those who had passed through the devşirme system. At a later date, I plan on providing some more concrete thoughts on the devşirme system, slavery and society in the pre-modern Islamic world. For now, however, I have attached a list of further reading below (feel free to recommend additional works) for those serious about learning more about the interrelationship between slavery, social mobility and socio-political developments in Islamic history.
Ibn al-Rumi (d. 896)
Known almost universally as “Ibn al-Rūmī” (‘son of the Greek’), he was born Abū al-Ḥasan ‘Alī b. ‘Abbās b. Jurayj in Baghdad during the early ninth century to a Persian mother and a father of Greek ancestry. He was one of the most accomplished Arabic poets of his age and his diwān of poetry remains an important literary treasure to this day. Among his many patrons was the Nestorian Christian Banū Wahb family. He was a Shi‘ite Muslim with strong Mu’tazilite leanings.
For more on him, see Beatrice Gruendler, Medieval Arabic Praise Poetry: Ibn Al-Rūmī and the Patron’s Redemption (2003), Robert McKinney, The Case of Rhyme vs. Reason: Ibn al-Rumi and his Poetics in Context (2004) and Ali el-Huni’s 1996 PhD Thesis The Poetry of Ibn al-Rūmī (available here: http://theses.gla.ac.uk/4070/1/1996El-HuniPhD.pdf )
Jawhar al-Siqilli (d. 992)
Known variously as al-Siqillī (“the Sicilian”), al-Rūmī (“the Greek”), al-Kātib (“the royal secretary”), al-Qā’id (“the military commander”) and al-Saqlabī (“the slave”), Jawhar was one of the most important figures in Fatimid history. Originally a Greek slave from Sicily, he was converted to Isma‘īlī Shi’ism and entered the service of the Fatimid caliphs al-Manṣūr (r. 946–953) and al-Mu‘izz (r. 953–975) as a secretary, but was soon manumitted and eventually rose to the rank of chief minister and commander-in-chief of the military. He was one of the most effective military commanders in medieval history, conquering North Africa, Egypt, and Palestine for the Fatimids within a 30-year period. His single most important achievement was his conquest of Egypt from the Ikhshidids in 969 and his construction of the new city of Cairo (“al-Qāhira”) and the al-Azhar mosque. He would rule Egypt as the caliph’s viceroy for a period of two years, being responsible for overseeing the Fatimid da‘wa, civil administration and military in the country. It was Jawhar who made the crucial decision following the conquest of Egypt to issue a general amān (amnesty) to the largely Sunni population, ensuring that the policy followed by the Fatimids would be toleration. He also played an important role during the administration of the Fatimid caliph al-‘Azīz (r. 975–996).
For more on Jawhar, see the relevant sections in Heinz Halm, The Empire of the Mahdi: The Rise of the Fatimids (1997) and Paul Walker, Exploring an Islamic Empire: Fatimid History and its Sources (2002)
Leo of Tripoli (d. 921)
Known in Arabic as Rashīq al-Wardāmī or Ghulām Zarāfa, Leo was a Greek Christian who was enslaved as a child and raised in the city of Tripoli on the Syrian coast. He rose to become one of the most important Muslim admirals during the 10th century. The famous historian Abū al-Ḥasan ‘Alī al-Mas‘ūdī (d. 956), who apparently met him in person, regarded him as one of the most accomplished sailors of his age. Although “officially” in the service of the Abbasids, Leo was in fact an independent corsair whose fleets wreaked havoc against the shores of Byzantium during the ninth and tenth centuries. His most devastating attack against the Empire was his sack of Thessaloniki in 904. At some point in the late ninth century, he allied himself with another Greek convert to Islam, Damian of Tarsus (d. 924), the infamous Δαμιανός/Damianos of the Byzantine sources. The rise to prominence of corsairs of Greek origin, such as Leo and Damian, underscores the fluidity of the military-political frontier between Byzantium and the Islamic world during the ninth and tenth century. Their careers demonstrate how a renegade of humble origins from one side of the religio-political divide could easily rise to become a major political player on the other.
John Tzelepes Komnenos (d. after 1160)
He was the son of Isaac Komnenos (d. ca. 1153), the rebellious brother of Byzantine Emperor John II Komnenos (r. 1118–11143). In the early 1130s, Isaac and his son John fled Constantinople and sought refuge at the court of the Danishmendid ruler Gümüshtigin Ghazi II ibn Danishmend (d. 1134). Although trying (and failing) to create a set of alliances against his brother Emperor John II, Isaac (and his son) reconciled themselves with the emperor by 1138 or so. However, around 1140, when John was campaigning with the emperor in Anatolia, he defected to the camp of the Seljuk sultan Mesud I (r. 1116–1156), converting to Islam and marrying the sultan’s daughter. He was known as Tzelepes (from the Turkish Çelebi) following his conversion to Islam. His conversion to Islam was the most high-profile conversion of a member of the Byzantine royal family in medieval history. In later Ottoman legend, he was reimagined as an ancestor of the dynasty.
(Mosaic of Emperor John II Komnenos and Empress Irene in the Hagia Sophia)
(Mosaic of Isaac Komnenos in the Chora Church)
Yaqūt b. ‘Abd Allāh al-Rūmī al-Ḥamawī (d. 1229)
Born in Byzantine lands, he was captured by raiders and spent most of his childhood as a slave in Iraq. After he acquired his freedom, he decided to pursue Islamic scholarship, studying with some of the eminent scholars of the age. Yaqūt became one of the medieval Islamic world’s most accomplished geographers and historians. He traveled widely in Iran, Syria, Mesopotamia and Egypt, and visited the major scholarly center of Marv (present-day Turkmenistan), where he spent about two years. His magnum opus, the encyclopedic Mu’jam al-Buldān is one of the most important works of geography from the medieval Islamic world.
Nilüfer Hatun (d. 1383)
As with most of the figures in early Ottoman history, much of her life is shrouded in uncertainty. However, later Ottoman accounts and historians emphasize that she was the daughter of a local Byzantine Greek governor in Anatolia who converted to Islam and married (as part of an alliance) the Ottoman Sultan Orhan (r. 1326–1362). Her son became Sultan Murad I (r. 1362–1389), making her a Valide Sultan (“Queen-Mother”). She was apparently influential and maintained a public profile, playing an important role in the early Ottoman polity during the reigns of both her husband and son. She is buried in the Ottoman royal mausoleum in Bursa.
Gazi Evrenos (d. 1417)
He was one of the early military commanders of the Ottoman polity, serving under five different Ottoman rulers: Süleyman Pasha (d. 1357), Sultan Murad I (r. 1362–1389), Bayezid I (r. 1389–1402), Süleyman Çelebi (d. 1411) and Sultan Mehmed I (r. 1413–1421). Although his exact origins are debated, several scholars have suggested that, like Köse Mihal (d. 1340), he was a Byzantine Greek military commander who converted to Islam, a soldier of fortune who joined the nascent Ottoman state as it expanded in Thrace and western Anatolia during the fourteenth century. After joining the Ottoman cause, he led major campaigns the Balkans, playing a role in the Ottoman conquest of Adrianopolis/Edirne in 1362. He also participated in the Battle of Kosovo (1389) and the Battle of Nicopolis (1396). In addition to his career as a general, he also patronized various madrasas, Sufi lodges (tekkes), and mosques throughout Ottoman Rumelia. His importance was such that his descendants were known as the Evrenosoğulları and constituted one of the most powerful noble military families in the Ottoman polity until the late fifteenth century.
For more on Gazi Evrenos, see the relevant sections of Heath Lowry, The Nature of the Early Ottoman State (2003) and Stanford J. Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey (1977)
Mahmud Pasha Angelovic (d. 1474)
Although various sources differ on his exact origins (some authors refer to him as a Serbian or Croatian), it seems likely that he was a descendant of the Serbian branch of the noble Byzantine Greek family of the Angelos. Around 1427, he was brought to the Ottoman palace as part of the devşirme system. He was educated and raised in the Ottoman palace school in Edirne and proved himself to be an accomplished administrator and soldier. He held the post of Grand Vizier from 1456 to 1466 and again from 1472 to 1474. He distinguished himself during the Siege of Belgrade in 1456 and in 1463 he led the Ottoman invasion and conquest of Bosnia. Although a Muslim and a high-ranking member of the Ottoman elite, Mahmud Pasha maintained contact with his Christian family in Serbia, whose status and fortunes he elevated. Although he had a successful career, he gradually fell out of favor (due to court intrigue) and was executed in 1474. He was married to one of the daughters of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II (r. 1451–1481). In addition to his military and political success, Mahmud Pasha was a major patron of art and architecture and was also an accomplished poet who composed poetry in Persian and Turkish.
For more on Mahmud Pasha, see Théoharis Stavrides, The Sultan of Vezirs: The Life and Times of the Ottoman Grand Vezir Mahmud Pasha Angelovic, 1453–1474 (2001)
Mesih Pasha (d. 1501)
He was born the nephew of the last Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI (r. 1449–1453), and was thus a member of the royal family of the Palaiologoi. He converted to Islam and entered the service of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II shortly following the conquest of Constantinople. By 1470, he had risen to become a local governor in Gallipoli, from where he commanded the Ottoman fleet against the Venetians in the Aegean. Between 1480 and 1491, during the reign of Bayezid II (r. 1481–1512), he held the rank of Kapudan Pasha, or commander-in-chief of the imperial navy, and played an important role in court politics and administration. Throughout his career in the Ottoman administration, he held a number of other posts (including that of Grand Vizier). He famously performed the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) around 1499.
For more on his life and career, see the relevant sections of Heath Lowry, The Nature of the Early Ottoman State (2003)
Turgut Reis (d. 1565)
Born a Greek Christian, he was enslaved as a child and converted to Islam. He distinguished himself as a warrior and soldier at a young age, participating in several major Ottoman military and naval campaigns throughout the early sixteenth century, including the conquest of Egypt in 1517. In 1520, he joined the corsair Hayreddin Barbarossa (d. 1546) in North Africa and greatly contributed to the success of the Barbary pirates in the western Mediterranean. At the Battle of Preveza (1538), he commanded the center-rear wing of the Ottoman fleet that defeated the Holy League. He held various high appointments in the Ottoman administration in North Africa, namely chief governor of Algeria, supreme commander of the Ottoman fleet, and Pasha of Tripoli. He was one of the most effective, competent and dangerous of the Barbary corsairs, due both to his own abilities as a naval commander and the vast resources of the Ottoman Empire that he was able to draw upon. Under his naval command the Ottoman Empire’s maritime power was extended across North Africa. His rule in Tripoli (Libya) transformed the city into one of the most strategic and wealthy cities on the North African coast. His career as privateer-turned-admiral made him a source of fascination even among his enemies in Christendom, where details of his career were embellished and became a central part of the many legendary anecdotes about Barbary during the sixteenth century. He was killed during the failed Ottoman Siege of Malta in June 1565.
Kösem Sultan (d. 1651)
Many English-speaking audiences are quite familiar with Roxelana or Hurrem Sultan, the queen-consort of Suleyman I (r. 1520-1566). However, Kösem Sultan seems to be much less known. As the consort (and wife) of Ottoman sultan Ahmed I (r. 1603-1617), the mother of the sultans Murad IV (r. 1623-1640) and Ibrahim (r. 1640-1648), and the grandmother of the sultan Mehmed IV (r. 1648-1687), she wielded immense influence and can be considered to be perhaps the most powerful woman in Ottoman history. Originally a Greek Christian with the name Anastasia, she was enslaved at a young age, converted to Islam and brought to the Ottoman palace, where she became the concubine of the sultan Ahmed I. According to a contemporary source, Cristoforo Valier, in 1616, Kösem was the most powerful of the sultan’s associates: “she can do what she wishes with the Sultan and possesses his heart absolutely, nor is anything ever denied to her.” Between 1623 and 1632, she served as regent for her son Murad IV, who took the throne as a minor. Until her assassination in 1651, as a result of court intrigue, she exercised a major influence on Ottoman politics.
For more on Kösem Sultan and the institution of the Ottoman imperial harem, see Leslie Peirce’s The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire (1993).
Emetullah Rabia Gülnuş Sultan (d. 1715)
She was born Eugenia Voria in the town of Rethymno, Crete in 1642, when the island was under Venetian rule, and was the daughter of a Greek Orthodox priest. She was enslaved as a child during the Ottoman conquest of Rethymno around 1646 and taken to Topkapi Palace in Constantinople, where she was brought up as a Muslim. She became one of the most powerful consorts of Sultan Mehmed IV and held the rank of Valide Sultan (“Queen-Mother”), when her sons took the throne as Mustafa II (r. 1695–1703) and Ahmed III (r. 1703–1730). She played an important role in Ottoman imperial politics and was a major patron of art and architecture, with the Yeni Valide Mosque in Istanbul being one of the most important structures she had constructed.
For more on Emetullah Rabia Gülnuş Sultan and the institution of the Ottoman imperial harem, see Leslie Peirce’s The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire (1993).
(Interior of Yeni Valide Mosque)
Ahmed Resmi Efendi (d. 1783)
Born in Rethymno/Resmo into a Cretan Muslim family of Greek origins, Ahmed Resmi Efendi was a significant Ottoman statesman, diplomat and author of the late 18th century. In addition to serving as the Ottoman Empire’s ambassador to Berlin and Vienna, he was chief of the Ottoman delegation during the negotiations and the signature of the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca (1774). As an author, he is most famous for his various literary works, among which his travelogue (Sefaretname-i Prusya) recounting his time as ambassador in Berlin and Vienna is the most prominent.
For more on Ahmed Resmi Efendi, see Virginia Aksan, An Ottoman Statesman in War and Peace: Ahmed Resmî Efendi 1700-1783 (1995)
Mustapha Khaznadar (d. 1878)
Born Georgios Kalkias Stravelakis, a Greek Christian from the island of Chios, he was enslaved (along with thousands of other women and children) following the Ottoman suppression of the 1822 rebellion on the island. He was educated in Istanbul before entering into the palace service of the Husaynid dynasty in Tunis. Mustapha was appointed as the private secretary and treasurer (hence the name “Khaznadar”) of Ahmad I (r. 1837–1855). Mustapha managed to ascend to the highest offices of the Tunisian state and married Princess Lalla Kalthoum in 1839. In 1840, he was was promoted to lieutenant-general of the army and made bey. From 1862 to 1878, he was President of the Grand Council of the Beylik of Tunis. Although enslaved only as a child, Mustafa Khaznadar retained memories of his Greek origin as well as contact with his native Greece. He is buried in a mausoleum at Tourbet El Bey in Tunis.
Osman Hamdi Bey (d. 1910)
He was the son of Ibrahim Edhem Pasha, an Ottoman Grand Vizier of Greek origins. Osman was an Ottoman administrator, intellectual, art expert and also a prominent and pioneering painter. He was also an accomplished archaeologist who founded the Istanbul Archaeology Museum and the Istanbul Academy of Fine Arts, known today as the Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts.
Further Reading (on slavery, clientship, social/political mobility etc.)
David Ayalon. Eunuchs, Caliphs and Sultans: A Study in Power Relationships. 1999.
Sussan Babaie. Slaves of the Shah: New Elites of Safavid Iran. 2004.
Alan W. Fisher. “Muscovy and the Black Sea Slave Trade.” Canadian-American Slavic Studies 6/4 (1972): 575-594
_____________. “Chattel Slavery in the Ottoman Empire.” Slavery and Abolition 1/1 (1980): 25-45
_____________. “Studies in Ottoman Slavery and the Slave Trade.” Journal of Turkish Studies 4 (1980): 49-56
Paul G. Forand “The Relation of the Slave and the Client to the Master or Patron in Medieval Islam.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 2 (1971): 59-66
Heath Lowry, The Nature of the Early Ottoman State. 2003.
Eizo Matsuki. “The Crimean Tatars and their Russian Captive-Slaves: An Aspect of Muscovite-Crimean Relations in the 16th and 17th Centuries.” Mediterranean World 18 (2006): 171-182.
V.L. Melange. “Some Notes on the Devsirme.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 29 (1966): 64–78
Konstanty Michalowicz. Memoirs of a Janissary: Konstantin Mihailovic (ca. 1435). Edited by Svat Soucek and translated by Benjamin Stolz. 2010
Leslie Pierce. The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. 1993
Peter F. Sugar. Southeastern Europe under Ottoman Rule, 1354-1804. 1977.
Ehud Toledano. As if Silent and Absent: Bonds of Enslavement in the Islamic Middle East. 2007.
_____________. Slavery and Abolition in the Ottoman Middle East. 1997.
_____________. The Ottoman Slave Trade and its Suppression. 1982.
Miura Tora and John Edward Phillips eds. Slave Elites in the Middle East and Africa: A Comparative Study. 2000.
Paul Wittek. “Devshirme and Shari’a.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 17/2 (1955): 271-278.
Madeline Zilfi. Women and Slavery in the Late Ottoman Empire: The Design of Difference. 2012.