From Bayrami to Hamzevis
The Bayrami tarikat (founded and named after Haji Bayram Veli, d. 1430 CE) grew to be one of the most popular Sufi orders in the Ottoman Empire. Indeed its founder had gathered so much recognition that Sultan Murad II sent officials to central Anatolia to investigate whether or not Haji Bayram posed a potential threat as a leader of another revolutionary messianic movement. According to legend Sultan Murad was so impressed with Haji Bayram’s godliness (and orthodoxy), that he became one of his supporters. But the sultan was not the only one to be influenced by this meeting and the Bayrami tarikat would be tied to the House of Osman for generations to come.
As mentioned above, the Ottomans had good reason to suspect the growing popularity of Haji Bayram or any other şeyh who was gaining a large following among the masses. The added fact that Haji Bayram’s initiatic chain (silsile) stemmed from the 11th century Melami movement from Khorasan by way of the Safavid order did not help his standing. The doctrines commonly associated with the Melamis were considered nonconformist by the standards of many of the Ottoman ulema, and Haji Bayram either purged or concealed these from the public in order to appease the apprehensive Ottoman court, which had only recently suppressed a revolt lead by another very popular Sufi master, Bedrettin Simavi (d.1420 CE).
Following Haji Bayram Veli’s death in 1429 CE, his order split into two contrasting branches. One became the mainstream continuation of Haji Bayram’s legacy, and it was led by Haji Bayram’s halife Akşemsettin (d. 1459 CE), who was also a member of the ulema class and intimately connected with the Ottoman palace. The other branch, directed by an eccentric dervish named Ömer Sikkini (d. 1476 CE), sought to revive the unorthodox Melami doctrines and practices that may have initially been taught by Haji Bayram Veli but later seemingly abandoned. This branch came to be labeled the Melami-Bayrami, and it was characterized by the ecstatic practices and an immoderate understanding of vahdet-i vucud. Ömer Sikkini also accentuated certain messianic doctrines (which always carried certain political implications) that were simply extensions of his interpretation of the concept of vahdet-i vucud. Having doctrinally crossed the fine line between the spiritual to social realms, the Melami-Bayramis began to attract the attention of the Ottoman administration, which was understandably fearful of nonconformist movements that had social and political agendas. The two Melami kutbs that followed Ömer Dede, Binyamin Ayasi and Pir ‘Ali Aksaray were both imprisoned by Ottoman authorities, most probably for allowing claims of Mehdihood to be advanced on their behalf. The appearance of Oğlan Şeyh (also known as İsmail Ma’şuki) as a new Melami kutb brought the order into open confrontation with Ottoman authorities. Oğlan Şeyh had begun to gather around him a number of influential people in Istanbul through his open preaching of vahdet-i vucud. Even though he was merely upholding the credo of his two predecessors, the government put Oğlan Şeyh on trial for heresy and he was publicly executed. In actuality the Ottoman administration (not the ulema however) was never genuinely concerned with issues of religious doctrine. It was only when Oğlan Şeyh moved out of the rustic milieu of Central Anatolia to the capital, where he acquired a literate and prominent following that the government felt the need to eliminate him dreading serious upheaval.
Nevertheless Oğlan Şeyh’s followers continued to be active clandestinely. Several years after his execution, in reaction to the persistent rumors of Melami activity, the government had the ulema issue a fetva declaring that anyone who proclaimed Ismail Ma’şuki to have been killed unjustly was himself a heretic deserving of death. It is believed that during this second wave of persecution a successor of Oğlan Şeyh, Husamettin Ankaravi (who was Hamza Bali’s master) was captured and executed in 1568 CE, after a failed uprising – most probably based on some form of messianic claim. Consequently the historical stage had been set for Hamza Bali (d. 1573 CE), a charismatic and influential spiritual master, to become one of the greatest martyrs of the Melami-Bayramis, which would eventually come to be known as the Hamzeviyye.
Hamza Bali’s history prior to his succession as a Melami kutb is ambiguous. Though born in Bosnia, he left in his youth to the imperial capital. There he became a Melami dervish at the hand of Husamettin Ankaravi and soon developed a strong reputation. It is assumed that to avoid persecution he fled Istanbul for his native Bosnia, both to take refuge and to spread his teachings. He attracted many followers in Bosnia through his dazzling personal charisma; as Sari Abdullah Efendi put it, “whoever came into his presence, whether from the elite or the common people, would be drawn involuntarily to him.” This appeal must have been noteworthy, for Hamza Bali managed to gather a following beyond the borders of Bosnia, extending as far north into Ottoman Hungary, as well as in Istanbul among already existing Melami circles and members of the Janissary Corps. Sources point to the fact that Hamza Bali carried his role as the Melami kutb to a new extreme. According to Müniri Belgradi (d. 1617 CE), a contemporary of Hamza Bali, Hamza was setting up a following that was comprised of very influential and elevated individuals – dignitaries, notables, and the feared Janissaries, in Istanbul and throughout the empire, against the sultan and his entourage. Considering that the Hamzevis had an independent religious and social organization, as well as the scale its following had reached, according to Müniri Belgradi, the movement invokes the image of a very well-coordinated and particularly influential conspiracy against the sultan and the established power-structure.