Foundational studies on Islamic legal history in the modern era have largely ignored Ottoman legal thought and experience. This approach, which dominated the historiography of Islamic law written in the 20th century, prevents us from understanding the role played by fiqh in the Ottoman era, which shaped and guided the fields of law, economics and politics of the Ottoman Empire that ruled for six centuries. Of course, this style of writing the history of Islamic law was a new phenomenon that began in the 20th century among scholars. The reconstruction of Islamic history by members of the renewal and reform movements in the Muslim world and the rising Arab nationalism effectively utilized this approach. Muḥammad Khudarī Bek’s (d. 1927) Tārikh al-Tashrī‘ al-Islāmī, which is one of the works written in this century and which has had significant effects on the subsequent literature, is a typical example of this new type of historiography of Islamic law. In this work, the early periods of Islamic law was studied extensively and detailed information was given about the life and works of jurists. For example, concerning the period from the beginning of the 2nd century to the middle of the 4th century, 130 pages were devoted. In contrast, the last six-centuries of the history of Islamic law, which began with the capture of Baghdad by the Mongols and lasted until the time Muḥammad Khudarī Bek’s lived, was discussed in ten pages and almost no names and works were mentioned. On the contrary, this long period, in which many prominent lawyers were trained and sophisticated books were written, was depicted and criticized as a dark age of imitation.
The picture drawn by these works, which mostly read the history of Islamic law through the ijtihād–taqlīddichotomy, has been partially destabilized by studies produced in recent years. Especially in these new studies, in which the Islamic intellectual history was examined through certain figures, works, regions, subjects and concepts, important findings have been revealed that the picture is different from the one drawn by scholars like Muḥammad Khudarī Bek, ‘Alī Ḥasan ‘Abd al-Qādir, and Muḥammad Yūsuf Mūsā. However, in a significant part of these studies, the situation in the Islamic world in general and in the Ottoman Empire in particular is discussed within the framework of the decline narrative. This assumes that the political and military situation of the Ottoman Empire and its intellectual production are synonymous and closely interdependent. However, when we look at certain intellectual disciplines, as the studies focusing on the ‘ulamā’ biographies, works and intellectual history have shown, the picture is also different here. Indeed, some recent studies have led to a serious questioning of the decline discourse, at least for certain centuries. Khaled El-Rouayheb did this for the 17th Century in his Islamic Intellectual History in the Seventeenth Century: Scholarly Currents in the Ottoman Empire and the Maghreb whereas Ahmad S. Dallal, in his Islam without Europe: Traditions of Reform in Eighteenth-Century Islamic Thought challenged the dominant discourse and paradigms and offered a re-reading of these two centuries from the perspective of intellectual developments. Like these two works, close studies focusing on these centuries examine deep intellectual developments in later centuries of the Islamic history. The crucial question here is what kind of a picture existed in the intellectual life in the 19th century?
The intellectual history of the 19th century has not been yet extensively studied, and has largely been examined under the influence of the dominant discourse of decline. Studies on this century mainly focus on relations with Europe and military and political history, placing economic and legal transformations, institutional change, and bureaucracy at the center. However, I believe that there was an extensive production of knowledge in the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century and that it had an intellectual depth at the level of the studies that were put forward in the past. Therefore, my main thesis about the 19th century is that there was no intellectual decline in this century. In order to reach this conclusion, I believe that it is sufficient to examine the biographies of shaykh al-Islāms and ‘ulamā’, their fatwās, books, and treatises. However, such studies in contemporary scholarship are very rare. In the next three posts, I will study the biographies of the three 19th century shaykh al-Islāms.
Of course, my aim here is not to study the authority of shāykh al-Islāmship as a political and intellectual institution, but to write about the intellectual biography of some shaykh al-Islāms in brief as representative of the broader scholarly class. So without going into too much detail, I will focus on some points that will reflect their scientific and juristic life.
To conclude this introduction, let me provide a list of the two-dozen 19th century shaykh al-Islāms and their tenures:
- Sāmānizada Omar Hulusi Efendi (1800–1803) in the reign of Selim III.
- Sāmānizada Omar Hulusi Efendi (1807), 2nd time in the reign of Mustafa IV.
- Sāmānizada Omar Hulusi Efendi (1810–1812), 3rd time in the reign of Mahmud II.
- Salihzada Ahmad Asad Efendi (1803–1806) in the reign of Selim III.
- Salihzada Ahmad Asad Efendi (1808), 2nd time in the reign of Mahmud II.
- Sharifzada Mehmet Ataullah Efendi (1806–1807) in the reign of Selim III.
- Sharifzada Mehmet Ataullah Efendi (1807–1808), 2nd time in the reign of Mustafa IV.
- Arapzada Mehmet Arif Efendi (1808) in the reign of Mustafa IV.
5. Durrizada Sayyit Abdullah Efendi (1808–1810) in the reign of Mahmud II.
- Durrizada Sayyit Abdullah Efendi (1812–1815), 2nd time in the reign of Mahmud II.
- Mehmet Zaynalabidin Efendi (1815–1818) in the reign of Mahmud II.
7. Makkizada Mustafa Asim Efendi (1818–1819) in the reign of Mahmud II.
- Makkizada Mustafa Asim Efendi (1823–1825), 2nd time in the reign of Mahmud II.
- Makkizada Mustafa Asim Efendi (1833–1846), 3rd time in the reign of Mahmud II and Abdulmajid I.
- Haji Halil Efendi (1819–1821) in the reign of Mahmud II.
9. Yasinjizada Abdulwahhap Efendi (1821–1822) in the reign of Mahmud II.
- Yasinjizada Abdulwahhap Efendi (1828–1833), 2nd time in the reign of Mahmud II.
- Sidqizada Ahmad Rashid Efendi (1822–1823) in the reign of Mahmud II.
11. Kadizada Mehmet Tahir Efendi (1825–1828) in the reign of Mahmud II.
12. Ahmad Arif Hikmet Bey Efendi (1846–1854) in the reign of Abdulmajid I.
13. Mashrapzada Mehmet Arif Efendi (1854–1858) in the reign of Abdulmajid I.
14. Sayyid Mehmet Sadaddin Efendi (1858–1863) in the reign of Abdulmajid I and Abdul‘aziz.
15. Atifzada Omar Husamaddin Efendi (1863–1866) in the reign of Abdul‘aziz.
16. Haji Mehmet Rafiq Efendi (1866–1868) in the reign of Abdul‘aziz.
17. Hasan Fehmi Efendi (1868–1871) in the reign of Abdul‘aziz.
- Hasan Fehmi Efendi (1874–1876), 2nd time in the reign of Abdul‘aziz.
- Ahmad Mukhtar Mulla Bey Efendi (1871–1872) in the reign of Abdul‘aziz.
- Ahmed Muhtar Molla Bey Efendi (1878), 2nd time in the reign of Abdulhamid II.
- Turshujuzada Ahmad Mukhtar Efendi (1872–1874) in the reign of Abdul‘aziz
20. Hasan Hayrullah Efendi (1874) in the reign of Abdul‘aziz.
- Hasan Hayrullah Efendi (1876–1877), 2nd time in the reign of Abdul‘aziz, Murad V and II. Abdulhamid.
- Kara Halil Efendi (1877–1878) in the reign of Abdulhamid II.
22. Uryanizada Ahmad Esad Efendi (1878–1889) in the reign of Abdulhamid II.
23. Bodrumlu Omar Lutfi Efendi (1889–1891) in the reign of Abdulhamid II.
24. Mehmet Jamaladdin Efendi (1891–1909) in the reign of Abdulhamid II.
 See. Muḥammad Khudarī Bek, Tārikh al-Tashrī‘ al-Islāmī (Dimashq: Dār al-Fikr, 1967). See also ‘Alī Ḥasan ‘Abd al-Qādir, Naẓrah ʿāmmah fī tārīkh al-fiqh al-Islâmī (al-Qāhirah: Maktabat al-Qāhirah li al-Ḥadīth, 1965); Muḥammad Yūsuf Mūsā, Tārīkh al-fiqh al-Islāmī (al-Qāhirah: Dār al-Maʻrifah, 1964).