Baba Ishak’s revolt, 1239

I want to talk about a minor revolt that took place in Anatolia between 1239 and 1241 not because it’s important on the world stage, but because it illustrates very clearly the strains in the Muslim world at this time. The revolt was led by a mystic named Baba Ishak (Father Isaac), and it went on until authorities captured and hanged him.

When we say that waves of Turkic migrants kept coming west, it’s hard for us to picture exactly what this looked like. Going back to the Abbasid Caliph’s heyday, in the 800s, Seljuk Turks began arriving in large family groups, traveling at the speed of their flocks and carts. They meandered through Iran and Iraq slowly, picking up Islam and other cultural habits over several generations. The Turkish language they spoke in Anatolia, by the time they drifted that far west, was generously peppered with Persian and Arabic words and ideas. They gave their children Arabic Muslim names, so that it becomes harder for us now to distinguish in a written history who was Arabic or who was Turkish.

But as those people settled, a new wave arrived. This went through the 900s, 1000s, 1100s, and now the 1200s. The newest arrivals were Oghuz Turks who were pushed out of the east by the approaching Mongols. They had little in common with the settled Anatolian Turks. They could probably understand the language easily, apart from the unfamiliar borrowed words. But while the old settlers had now been Muslims through the entire Crusade period and several dynastic changes, the new arrivals were fresh off the steppes and still worshiped the Father Sky and Mother Earth. The old settlers had learned farming; the new arrivals were pastoral nomads. The old settlers had lost track of how many ideas and customs had been shaped by Islam and the new western cultures, until they saw how different and “green” the new arrivals were.

The new arrivals were duly converted to Islam, but they didn’t get it. Turkic steppe life had a lot of gender equality; men and women dressed alike, women owned the yurt and carts, and men typically were out in the field or forest while women ran everything at home. Suddenly they were expected to take on Arab norms of female segregation and male leadership. The Arabic language had strong gender markers in every word, where Turkish had none.

Some mystics in Eastern Iran created versions of Islamic theology that were easier for the former Tengrists to digest. Their version was tolerant of alcohol (fermented milk was a steppe staple). It promoted equality of women, played down the Ramadan fast, and followed Tengrist blood taboos rather than Muslim slaughtering laws. Worship with music was okay in this folk religion, too. It seems to have been mostly part of Sunni Islam, but some of the leaders may also have been given commissions by the Nizaris (the Ismaili Shi’ites who were constantly rebelling in Iran, operating out of their stronghold Alamut). It may have overlapped with Sufism (this gets difficult for an outsider to distinguish).

The Seljuks of Anatolia had set up their own Sultanate of “Rum,” which is to say: Rome, that is, Constantinople. This Sultan was trying to govern separately from the Seljuks ruling in Baghdad, and from other Sultans like the Ayyubids of Syria and Egypt. Now his territory was faced with these Oghuz migrants who could not fit in. Worse, when a slightly older migrant wave saw that the newest ones were defiantly creating their own Tengri-Islam blend, they joined them. Sultan Gıyasettin arrested their leaders and everything blew up.

The rebellion caught fire just east of the troublesome region where Armenians and Crusaders had been living. Baba Ishak was one of the popular preachers of the new theology. He became the leader of an armed force, and they went on to capture a number of central Anatolian cities. The Seljuk Sultan’s forces had already been worn down with fighting the Latin Empire of Constantinople, the Empire of Trebizond, and other Christian establishments. So the rebellion flared out of control for two or three years.

Then the Sultan captured Baba Ishak and hanged him. He hired French mercenaries, probably drifters from Constantinople or Antioch, to defeat the rebels in one last big battle. Presumably, with the armed rebellion ended, the Sufi Babas had to stop preaching syncretist religion and become more orthodox Sunni. But the Sultan of Rum had been fighting on too many fronts, and this was the last thing that bled out his resources. Cities had been ruined and plundered, and Rum had lost its control over a Crimean trading colony.

When the Mongols arrived in Rum territory, conquest was easy. By 1243, the Seljuks of Rum were vassals of the Mongols, sending tribute to Karakorum.

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