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Power and Local

Tanzimat and After

In the Muslim mahalles of pre-nineteenth-century Istanbul, the central figure of the neighborhood community was the religious leader of the local mosque, the imam. He was indeed an influential man and, at times, a local potentate of sorts. Certainly not because of the meager powers given him within the administrative setup of towns in the central Ottoman lands but rather, as we shall see in greater detail in the case of the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle, simply because he was often relatively well-off—if not outright wealthy. Besides, his legal position as trustee of a number of pious foundations put him in command of a nonnegligible amount of local economic resources.
For the larger or sultanic mosques, the appointment of imams was a matter of seniority and, most probably of some haggling within the official religious hierarchy. As to the imams of small neighborhood mosques in Istanbul, such as that of Kasap ƒlyas, there was, to the best of our knowledge, no standard method or procedure for selecting or appointing them. The process must have certainly involved a combination of widespread local concensus and open or tacit approval of higher religious authorities. The imam needed at least tacit local concensus as the source of his religious authority since, from a strictly theological point of view, he was nothing but a primum inter pares within his congregation. But he also needed approval of the political/religious authorities because many of his functions constituted a link between the populace and the government.
The flexibility of the process of appointment sometimes created real dynasties of imams officiating in the same local mosque and sons often succeeded fathers as leaders of small Istanbulite local communities. Although the appointment procedure for imams in republican Turkey has greatly changed— the imams are nowadays no more than ordinary government officials and their appointment procedure obeys the rules that apply to all civil servants— even in the present-day Kasap ƒlyas mahalle, a father and his son have been the officiating imams of the mosque since 1970.1 Local dynasties of imams may therefore have survived to a certain extent.
Before the middle of the nineteenth century, the imams officiating in the small neighborhood mosques of the capital-city of the Ottoman Empire were not only religious figures, leading the prayers, reading sermons, and officiating in case of marriages and funeral ceremonies. They were also supposed to act as a link between the kadı of Istanbul, responsible for order and security in the capital, and in the population at large. The orders of the kadı were to be transmitted to the population by the imam after the Friday sermon, and so were the contents of imperial fermans, when these touched upon matters of everyday life. Besides, these imams were supposed to be in full control of their small neighborhood and of their congregation. They were considered guarantors for each one of the inhabitants of their mahalle. The imam was, in an informal manner, morally responsible for his congregation’s behavior.
Adequate supervision and effective control of the local imam’s activities were often lacking, however, particularly in times of political and economic trouble. This gave rise, in early nineteenth-century Istanbul, to a number of complaints about the arbitrary decisions and abuses of power of many local
imams. These imams, so went the complaints, never consulted anyone when taking a decision concerning the neighborhood and were “cruel” to the populace.2 The Istanbul imams were accused of bribery, of favoritism, of misusing vakıf property placed under their trusteeship, of being unfair in the appor- tioning of the avârız taxes within the mahalle, and of squandering the funds that had accumulated in the avârız foundations of their neighborhoods. Perhaps more importantly, they were blamed for not taking seriously their duty of contributing to the city’s security and for letting the inhabitants of their mahalle get out of control. They were accused of being sloppy in controlling
the travel documents of newcomers, rural migrants, and foreigners to the city who wanted to set up house in their mahalle, thus putting the security of Istanbul in jeopardy.3
These complaints and accusations seem to have prompted the reformist authorities of the Tanzimat period to introduce new and “secular” local administrative structures involving local headmen (muhtars) instead of imams.
This “secularization” meant, for all practical purposes, that the new basic administrative relationship between the government and the population at large was to exclude members of the religious hierarchy. The kadı, the chief religious judge for Istanbul was totally deprived of his previous authority on municipal, economic, commercial, and security matters, and so were, therefore, the imams. From the late 1830s and early 1840s on, muhtars were appointed in both villages and urban neighborhoods and the administrative powers of the imams were gradually transferred to these “secular” local headmen.4 Probably in order to prevent further abuses of power, the new local
headmen were flanked by a second muhtar (muhtar-ı sânî) and by an electoral committee (ihtiyar heyeti).

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