Reading a Century of Change and Transformation through the ‘Ulamā

The nineteenth century marks a period of major transition for the Ottoman Empire. The changes and transformations that took place during this century differed significantly from those in previous centuries in several respects. First, pre-nineteenth century changes were limited to internal developments that remained within the requirements of the system established by the Empire. In other words, without changing the ontological assumptions upon which the Ottoman Empire was established, updates were made within the existing framework of the existing system. These modifications ranged from education to the administrative structure, and from knowledge production to international relations. As a result, the great empire had a dynamism that adapted itself to the conditions of the time.

The second important point about change and transformation in the Ottoman Empire before the nineteenth century was that the changes that took place in the system itself were directed by those who set up that system and even as they introduced change, they remained within the system itself. Determining the ontological and epistemological foundations on which the Ottoman Empire was founded, the ‘ulamā played an active role in the changes introduced before the nineteenth century and shaped the intellectual foundations of this change. The innovations that emerged within the system of values established and controlled by the ‘ulamā continued in this way in harmony with the common values of the Islamic worldview. Therefore, transformations continuously took place within the existing structure and in a way that was consistent and compatible manner with other institutions. For this reason, the introduction of minor reforms did not upset or disrupt the system.

By the nineteenth century, the situation was completely different. During this century, the Empire experienced more radical changes and transformations. However, the main difference that distinguished these changes and transformations from previous centuries was that they occurred under the influence of another civilization and culture. Rooted in Europe’s historical experience, modernity imposed itself with its institutions upon the remotest parts of the world. Although the philosophical and intellectual foundations of modernity were not compatible with the realities of other civilizations, modernity made it an indispensable process to other civilizations thanks to European colonialism. As has been well-studied, the military and economic power of Europe enabled these impositions. The Ottoman empire, the largest Muslim empire of the nineteenth century, was severely affected by this imposition by Europe. This prompted many people and institutions, especially the Ottoman scholarly establishment and bureaucracy, to take a precautionary stance towards European reforms.

The worldview on which modernity was built prompted the Ottoman ‘ulamā to be cautious against the demands for reform based on European values. However, this cautiousness did not mean that the Ottoman scholars neglected or did not pay attention to these new developments. On the contrary, the ‘ulamā pioneered some changes and responded to the developments by producing scholarly discussions about these reforms within the Islamic worldview. For example, we saw that Shaykh al-Islām Ārif Hikmet Bey Efendi took an active role in institutionalizing these reforms as a bureaucrat and later as Shaykh al-Islām. Likewise, the books and treatises written by the late Ottoman scholars were an important indicator of their efforts.

I would like to underline one point here: Although there was rigorous intellectual production and efforts on the part ‘ulamā, it is also true that these efforts were not always successful. However, this outcome was not due to the scholarly regression of the ‘ulamā. On the contrary, it was due to new and emerging institutions, the gradual disappearance of the audience to which ‘ulamā addressed themselves, and a transformation in scholarly institutions. In previous centuries, madrasas, the institutions where the ‘ulamā engaged intellectually, were gradually replaced by newly-established schools. These new schools became the main institutions where the bureaucrats and academics were educated in the Empire. Changes in the curriculum meant that lessons taught by the ‘ulamā decreased over time, which resulted in the shrinkage of the ʿulamā class and the disappearance of the interlocutors of the ‘ulamā. When the graduates of the new educational institutions – where the ‘ulamā did not set the curriculum and did not teach –  began to take part in the administration levels, the ‘ulamā lost their chance to influence them and steer the course of state affairs as they had in previous centuries. However, it is possible to say that the written scholarly production of the ‘ulamā continued quite strongly nonetheless.

As we have seen, the scholarly production of Shaykh al-Islām Ārif Hikmet Bey Efendi and Hasan Fahmi Efendi was quite prolific compared to previous centuries. Furthermore, they were writing works that would encompass many different disciplines, especially in areas such as rational theology, law, semiology, dialectic and logic. Other scholars among their contemporaries, such as Shaykh al-Islām Kara Halil Efendi (d. 1880) and Omar Lutfi Efendi (d. 1897) similarly produced important scholarly works. The composition of important works in different disciplines shows that the scholarly production of nineteenth century Ottoman ‘ulamā continued and their intellectual continuity and productivity was not interrupted. However, historical scholarship about the nineteenth century has focused on political, military, economic and bureaucratic developments while neglecting the intellectual production of the ‘ulamā, which addressed modernity and new emerging institutions, and promises to provide us with a different picture of the Ottoman Empire in this century. I believe that when the neglected works of the Ottoman scholars of the nineteenth century, especially the works of Shaykh al-Islāms, are examined, we will have a more nuanced and complete picture of Ottoman history during a crucial period of change and transformation.

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