Although Ottoman rule was avowedly Islamic in ideology from its very inception, historians have tended to discount the importance of the religion for both state and population during the nineteenth century. Historical accounts of the era dwell upon plans to modernize the empire, which are often equated with an aspiration to westernize, and thus to secularize. Such narratives treat matters of faith that contradict the secularization theme as tainted subjects unworthy of serious study.1 Ottoman invocations of religion are frequently dismissed as ‘reactionary’ and ‘conservative’ (and therefore petty-minded), or as socially acceptable formulae that disguised other interests. Yet assumptions that Islam denoted ignorance or was little more than a tool for political posturing obscure the nature of reform by misconstruing the conflicting pressures driving change. From top to bottom of Muslim society, religion was not only a matter of belief but also vital to personal identity and sense of social order, and Muslims acted when they perceived threats to Islam’s well-being.\ud \ud This article, therefore, challenges the concept of a ‘taint’ that has precluded consideration of religion in the nineteenth-century Ottoman empire, by means of a reinterpretation of the domestic context of reform. It focuses primarily upon the last decade in the reign of Sultan Mahmud II (1808–39), the ruler heretofore credited with committing the empire to modernization, westernization and secularization. After disastrous losses in wars with European powers, especially Russia, Mahmud and his advisers embarked upon a plan to centralize authority in Istanbul, but their motivation was less emulation of Europe than strengthening the state’s defence of the Abode of Islam (Dar al-Islam) against Christian enemies. Their forceful imposition of change on the population, in turn, drove many to take up arms against the state in order to defend what they perceived to be most at risk: the ethos..
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