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2011 | 3(239) | 311-325

Article title

SABBATAI ZEVI'S CONVERSION TO ISLAM. A REAPPRAISAL (Shabbetaj Zvis Uebertritt zum Islam. Versuch einer neuen Sicht)


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On 16 September 1666, Sabbatai Zevi arrived at the Sultan'a palace in Adrianopol. Several hours later, he left the palace wearing Muslin garb, with a turban on his head, and the new name of Mehmed. He also received the honorable title of Guardian of the Gates, which carried with it a life pension and the right to live in the Sultan's palace. Turkish sources say nothing about the circumstances of Sabbatai's conversion and his subsequent activities. Sabbatai's Jewish adversaries maintained that he was forced to convert, and this is the version of events accepted by Jewish historiography. The historians of Judaism agree with regard to the circumstances of Sabbatai Zevi's conversion to Islam. We come across such explanations as 'He converted to Islam to escape execution'. But this hypothesis is not supported by any available source materials. The religious laws and Islamic customs forbade forcing Christians and Jews to convert to Islam. It would be difficult to assume that such coercion took place in the presence of the Sultan and senior dignitaries of the state. Several days after his conversion, Sabbatai himself spoke of the adoption ofthe Islamic faith as the fulfillment of God's will. For him, this was more than a change of the professed faith. After the switch to the new religion, he felt like a reborn person. He never regretted that choice and regarded it as an important milestone in the implementation of his mission. Neither the his closest associates mention that the Messiah's conversion was a forced one. It is also striking how forbearing the Sultan was toward the Jewish convert, who did not renounce his Messianic mission. How can one assess the rulers' tacit acceptance of the actions of Sabbatai and his fellow converts, incompatible with Muslin law, such as going to synagogue or observing Jewish holy days? Anyone else would be deemed an apostate and condemned to death. Was is possible to imagine such special treatment in the case of a convert who only embraced Islam because he was forced to? There is every indication that Sabbatai came to the Sultan's palace to attend a formal act of conversion to Islam that was agreed in advance. Sabbatai sailed from Smyrna to Istanbul to meet the Sultan on 30 December 1665. Sabbatai's adversary, Yaacov Sasportas, wrote that already on 5 December 1665 Sabbatai dispatched his crony Abraham Shebili to Istanbul, in order to arrange his arrival. During Sabbatai's audience before the Sultan, the turban was to be formally placed on his head. The Turkish rulers must have had a priori knowledge of the plan, which explains their tolerance toward the Jews' Messianic acts.







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  • dr. hab. Jan Doktór - E. Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw


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