March 03, 2007

The History of Tobacco in the Ottoman Empire


James Grehan wrote a very interesting article in the December 2006 issue of the American Historical Review about the changing attitudes towards tobacco smoking in the Ottoman Empire during the early modern period. Essentially as Tobacco spread across from Western Europe towards the Turkish Empire, the authorities both religious and secular reacted with fear and scorn. The religious scholars argued that tobacco like coffee before it was included by analogy in the Koranic prohibition on alcohol. Numerous texts argued that the effect of smoking on an individual were the same as the effect of alcoholic consumption- it dizzied the smoker and made him giddy. Others argued it damaged the smoker's health, it produced fatigue and damaged the buxomness of women according to one Egyptian critic. Furthermore tobacco they claimed was frequently adulterated with other substances- clover was often cited. Ibrahim Al-Laqani (d. 1631/2) argued that tobacco was part of anti-Muslim Christian plot, that it was rolled in pig's carcasses and dosed with alcohol and that a smoking Muslim was following a Christian Sunna and not his own god-given Sunna.

Ottoman governments joined with religious scholars Grehan found in attempting to prohibit the substance. Various efforts were made which Grehan chronicles. Furthermore the population rioted to stop smoking at various points and on the Wahabi borderlands of the empire in the 18th Century, smoking was looked down on. Puritanical religious scholars refused to treat with those who smoke, striking pipes from the hands of those passing by them, and Sultans joined the anti-Tobacco craze.

Grehan's article describes much of this activity but argues that it had little effect. What Grehan suggests is that what we see with the importation of coffee and tobacco into Turkey and indeed into the Eurasian world generally is the beggining of modernity. He isolates two particular ways in which this was true- firstly coffee houses and tobacco dens produced a new kind of social interraction, in England this gave birth to the great insurance companies like Lloyds of London for example, in other places it could inspire the begginings the enlightenment or even political sedition. The second thing that Grehan highlights is the way that anti-tobacco campaigns almost universally failed. In Turkey the conservative Ummah were defeated by their more liberal colleagues who argued that tobacco was a discretionary pleasure. ‘Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi (1641–1731) argued that Tobacco like other substances was only bad if used to excess or used by someone whose constitution was unable to cope with it, otherwise he argued it did no harm. Coffee Houses and tobacco dens were public, and people congregated there, observers worried in preference to the Mosque. As Grehan points out the second of his related developments was the emergeance of fun as a justification for public sociability replacing religious or political reasons for sociability.

There is much of interest within his argument- the evidence he marshalls is spectacular and interesting. Its worth considering as well the limits that this case demonstrates existed for early modern governments in dealing with policies- it was almost impossible for a government to actually ban something if it wasn't backed by local elites and in the case of tobacco the variation of impact reflected the variation of local reactions. In many ways a third development symbolised by the progress of Tobacco within the Turkish Empire is that it shows us the way that the empire can't be regarded as a single whole. Customs seen as perfectly harmless in Constantinople were heresy in the deserts of Arabia.

Grehan's wider points do have a justness within them- its worth remembering the dangers of applying European models of socialisation and enlightenment to very different societies. Its worth highlighting that what he is describing is very much a city or town culture- one wonders about the intrusion of tobacco into the country- one wonders too about the influence of non-Muslim minorities in the transmission of both tobacco and coffee and furthermore about whether the new socialisation was as radical as he suggests. Having said that the progress of tobacco through Turkey is fascinating- it demonstrates how in a great age of globalisation the trade of a single product from America could revolutionise the lives of people living in Anatolia.

8 comments:

ashok said...

Very much enjoyed reading that, hope I can remember all the ground you've covered.

CityUnslicker said...

there is clearly no end to your interests. How much of your reading do you think you retain, btw?

Gracchi said...

Thanks Ashok.

City Unslicker- well I try. That's one of the purposes of this blog- its a kind of reading watching diary as much as anything else. I retain quite a bit- less than I should.

james higham said...

My goodness you produce some fine posts. I was rivetted to this one about the Ottomans.

edmund said...

very good post don't liek the terms "conservative" and liberal" though so many problems iwht them in this context- restricitonist and anti-restrictionist perhaps?

edmund said...

good localism point

J. Otto Pohl said...

As a narghile smoker, Turkophile and student of the Ottoman Empire (it was my minor for my MA) I found this article fascinating on many different levels.

Gracchi said...

You sound like the perfect constituency for this post- thanks very much for your compliment.