Educated at such important Islamic centers of learning as Konya, Cairo, and Mecca, Sheik Bedreddin Mahmud stood at the forefront of a revolutionary religious and social movement during the period of Ottoman Civil War that followed the defeat of Sultan Bayzeid I by Tamerlane at the battle of Ankara in 1402. One of the leading scholars of his time, Sheik Bedreddin wrote numerous books on philosophy, theology, and Islamic law. He preached a form of pantheism and promoted religious tolerance, seeking to break down the barriers between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism; he also advocated the redistribution of wealth and notions of collective property.
At the beginning of 1415, the Ottoman civil war moved into a new phase when Sheik Bedreddin encouraged another of Bayezid’s sons, Mustafa to challenge Sultan Mehmed I for control of the empire. To begin the effort to defeat Mehmed, the Emirs of Anatolia facilitated contacts between Mustafa and Mircea the Old, prince of Wallachia, in the spring of 1415. The Ottoman chronicler Idris Bitlisi, observed that Bedreddin played a key role, “as earlier, through his ties to Musa Çelebi, he was friends with the prince of Wallachia.” As a result, Mustafa followed in Musa’s footsteps; he left Karaman for Sinope and from there traveled by boat to Wallachia. His arrival in the capital of Argeș is recorded in a diploma granted by Mircea on June 10, 1415, “at the time when Mustafa Çelebi arrived.”
Mircea placed Wallachian troops at Mustafa’s disposal and the pretender soon began leading raids south of the Danube. A report from Ragusa, dated August 18, tells that Mustafa, within two months after his arrival in Wallachia, launched attacks on Bulgaria and had won over two Danubian beys to his cause. But despite some successes, Mustafa failed to gather the kind of support among the Ottoman elites that Musa had amassed against Suleiman. Byzantine chronicler Laonikos Chalkokondyles explains that “he did not achieve anything as Mehmed, among other things, was a decent man and he knew how to treat well the leading Turks, being of a gentle nature; and he declared outright that Mustafa is not the true child of Bayezid.” Another reason the Ottoman aristocracy in Rumelia [the European portion of the Ottoman Empire] did not flock to Mustafa was their wariness of his association with Sheik Bedreddin and the radical reforms advocated by the Ottoman cleric.
Although Mustafa garnered limited support among the Ottoman elites, his ties to the popular Bedreddin won him the loyalty of many ordinary Muslims. As Mustafa prepared to cross the Danube, Sheik Bedreddin, the true architect of the revolt against Mehmed, joined his disciple in Wallachia. Bedreddin arrived in the principality after the suppression of a failed revolt in Aydîn intended to keep Mehmed pinned down in Anatolia while Mustafa launched his attack in Rumelia. They now laid plans for a two-pronged offensive in Europe; Mustafa was to lead his forces south to Thessaly, while Bedreddin stirred up unrest in Dobrudja and Bulgaria, with the intention of leading his followers south to join with Mustafa. The Ottoman chronicler Solakzade Mehmed Hemdemi confirms that Bedreddin “had an agreement with Börüklüge [Mustafa].”
While Ottoman and Byzantine chronicles, favorable to Mehmed, portray Mustafa as an imposter, it cannot be ruled out that he was truly Bayezid’s son. In any event, he managed to present himself as a legitimate contender for the throne. The Anatolian Emirs supported him as an alternative to Mehmed, while many of those who had backed Musa rallied to him; most important among these Sheik Bedreddin who convinced Mustafa to stake his claim. Mehmed Neshri records that Bedreddin boasted: “he is my disciple and he revolts for me.”
Soon after Mustafa set out from Wallachia, Mehmed I crossed the straits and quickly defeated Mustafa, eliminating him as a potential threat, but the Sultan’s problems in the Balkans persisted. While his disciple was trapped at Salonika, Bedreddin, with Mircea’s assistance, set out from Silistra and, preaching his gospel of social equality, incited the first peasant uprising in Ottoman history. Holding to the plan established with Mustafa, he gathered a ragtag force of some 3000 men in Dobrudja and Bulgaria and proceeded to march on the Ottoman capital. But these rebels proved no match for veteran Turkish troops. Before reaching Adrianople, Bedreddin was defeated and captured; the Ottoman cleric was then taken before Mehmed at Serres who ordered him hanged on December 16, 1416. Having crushed the rebellion, the Sultan now turned his sites on Wallachia, where Mircea the Old had been a thorn in his side since the days of Musa.
The defeat of Bedreddin’s movement had a significant impact on the evolution of Ottoman society. The ties between religion and the state became more deeply entrenched as a means to stamp out religious dissent as a political threat to the Sultan. The Ottomans began a more aggressive policy of converting and assimilating non-Muslims to Islam, expanding the janissary corps which would have a devastating impact on Balkan history. Despite his defeat, many of Bedreddin’s ideas persisted in sects such as the Bektashi order of dervishes.
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