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The Legacy of Muslim Societies in Global Modernity | 6. Panel 4: Cosmopolitanism and Political Theory in the Age of Three Empires
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6. Panel 4: Cosmopolitanism and Political Theory in the Age of Three Empires

Hayrettin Yucesoy, St. Louis University

Husseyin Yilmaz, University of Florida

Stephen Dale, Ohio State University

Cengiz Sisman, Furman University

Hayrettin Yucesoy Presentation Summary

Prof. Yücesoy based his presentation on what he said is an extraordinarily important text by Ibn Taymiya. He discussed the fallacy of golden age and decline in reference to what is generally called Islamic political thought.

George Sabine’s History of Political Theory, and the Cambridge History of Political Thought, contain nothing about Islamic political thought, except for a brief treatment of it at the end of a volume dealing with the twentieth century. Such surveys may mention the subject in a chapter entitled something like “beyond Western political thought.” This is one problem in the discipline, and a related problem is the way in which specialists and generalists have dealt with Islamic political thought.

According to the received wisdom, Islamic political thought was divided into three distinct epistemic categories, only one of which was considered properly Islamic. One is political philosophy, advanced by philosophers who offered an exposition of politics under the subject of practical philosophy, which was considered to have been theoretical, short-lived, (for example, al-Farabi, d. 950, is considered as its last and greatest representative), and quite marginal. Another category is siyasa, which is secular government, which was elaborated by belles lettres and secretaries and included manuals of statecraft, mirrors of princes, and ethics. The received wisdom dismisses these two traditions as marginal or/and inauthentic. The third category is juristic or legal politics, which is dealt with in medieval Islamic history under the umbrella of the imama, which was mostly elaborated by jurists and theologians to promote the ideal religious form of government, and is viewed as the only properly Islamic genre of political thought.

The problem with the juristic theory, however, according to this view is two-fold: (a) Having allied themselves with the caliphate, and noticing the growing gap between ideals and reality, theologians and jurists gradually made concessions from the ideals until political thought was reduced to a bad copy of reality. As the caliphate declined, political thought followed suit. After the tenth century until the time when Western modernity altered its fate. In short, political thought had paralleled the rise and decline of Islam itself. (b) Islamic political thought consciously and continuously rejects rationality. It does not recognize reason as a foundation for political morality, but only as a branch of religious law which determines how political authority should be dispensed. As a result, according to this notion, Islamic political culture, and to a large extent political practice, lacks the notion of separation between religious authority and temporal power.

The task for the historian of political thought is therefore to dismantle this notion piece by piece to let new narratives emerge. The passage from Ibn Taymiya, taken from his treatise on public morality, treats the question of justification of state authority—why we need a state or government. By the standards of the conventional wisdom, Ibn Taymiya is considered a scholar of the period of decline, one of the inspirational forces of the modern Salafi movement, and one whose thought represents, in modern Islamist and Orientalist discourses, an attempt to bypass history, i.e. the decline period, in order to revive the thought and practice of the golden age. In this brief passage, however, Ibn Taymiya’s assumptions, reasoning, and argument do not fit the decline narrative. It is out of pace with the paradigmatic Sunni political epistemology about rationality, and it does not propose a break with either its present or its history. Prof. Yücesoy would therefore propose a footnote to Ibn Taymiya’s text, to illustrate how little sense the paradigm of golden age and decline makes in understanding so-called Islamic political thought.

Prof. Yücesoy began with a theoretical point. Using [Mikhail] Bakhtin’s dialogic strategy he has argued that the text in question seems to refract quite creatively the meaning of previous works of jurisprudence, theology, exegesis, philosophy, prophetic Hadith and wisdom literature all at once. On the one hand, it alludes to and grounds itself in these works, and on the other hand informs, enriches and re-deploys them for a new socio-political context as possible ways of thinking about and articulating political thought. Ibn Taymiya’s text can be read as an intra-discourse operating with and within other discourses to constitute a new type of political discourse appropriate for the post-Mongol world of politics. In order to introduce his own voice, Ibn Taymiya accentuates the notion of maslaha, defined broadly as the notion of welfare or social utility, precisely because it facilitates new ways to formulate rational arguments to justify rulership on the basis of the universal human condition. Secondly, it allows him to embrace various human experiences under a proper theoretical category. Thirdly, it enables him to expand jurisprudential and theological rationality to accommodate new methods of thought and arguments. Ibn Taymiya had to negotiate his thought with and within four competing but interrelated discourses which came to bear on political thought and which had complex histories of their own: (1) prophetic Hadith, (2) jurisprudential notion of ijmaa (consensus) (3) principle of welfare, maslaha, (4) the notion of human rationality, which will be discussed in the following.

First, the spread of Hadith literature and its integration into jurisprudential methodology underlined a major epistemological shift in Sunni thinking. Hadith became a textual representation of a remarkably privileged social and religious discourse maintained by Hadith transmitters, who, soon after they arise in the late 8th century, were able to establish it as one of the two major foundations of jurisprudential and theological thinking. The articulation of Sunnism and the formation of its fundamental principles were indebted in a major way to Hadith scholars as exemplified in the life of one of the most eminent jurists in Islamic history, al-Shafii (d. 820). Hadith became the second source in religious law after the Qur’an, in fact the prism through which one approached the Qur’an. The idea that the imamate was a religious necessity derived inspiration and strength from the prestige of traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. The imamate is the religiously sanctioned political leadership, but is also used generally as “government” or “state.” A master theologian such as al-‘Ashari (d. 936) deployed newfound Sunni and Hadith pre-commitments (newfound because he was a Mutazilite and had a change of heart) and used Qur’anic verses, but especially Hadith reports to argue for the obligatory nature of the imamate. The Hadith-based argument for the necessity of the imamate became so prominent that it was cited as a major opinion in the ninth century, well beyond Sunni circles.

Once Hadith became a discursive practice defining where one stood in the religious and intellectual spectrum, jurists and theologians had to find a way to tackle the question of the imamate without discarding Hadith. Ibn Taymiya’s challenge was precisely how he would negotiate Hadith as a discourse without violating his basic religious and intellectual principles or loyalties. One way was to rely on jurisprudential rationality. Developed out of the need to deal with the issues of an increasingly complex society, legal rationality in Islamic jurisprudence which we call fiqh, presented scholars with the occasion to devise strategies that could clarify, limit, reject, or modify Hadith to address new questions. With it, it became possible to remember and revive older or alternative views that had been pushed to the margins because of their anomalies to the Hadith paradigm.

Relying on historical memory, jurists developed a major argument on the question of the imamate to engage Hadith, namely the notion of communal agreement, ijmaa. Ijmaa, or consensus , the idea that if the community agrees on a legal or theological issue, its consensus became a legally binding verdict, first appeared in the text of al-Shafi’I’s al-Risala, in which the imamate was presented as an obligation dictated by communal consensus. The idea of ijmaa gradually spread in jurisprudential and theological writings until it became a major justification for the necessity of the imamate among Sunni jurists and theologians in the tenth century. It seems that ijmaa played a dual role as a construct that reigned in Hadith-based assertion, floating around without a strict methodological structure, and perhaps more importantly, it opened the door to embrace and absorb community’s experience as a source of legitimacy. Ijmaa had its own limitations and had its critics, however. It was essentially a legal principle, it favored jurisprudential solutions for political questions, and it did not have wide applicability, since it became an abstract concept with limited value confined to a limited number of cases.

Additional constraints on both the Hadith and the ijmaa came from an elephant in the room. That is the legacy of imperial practices and ideologies in the Near East, which found talented supporters since the 7th century, and experienced a renaissance from the ninth century onward. Expressed and elaborated in treatises of advice to governors, caliphs and princes, this genre began largely with translating Sassanian imperial literature into Arabic as exemplified in the writings of Ibn al-Muqaffa in the 8th century. It gradually incorporated aspects of practical ethics, akhlaq, jurisprudence, and Greek political philosophy, forming an influential political ideology that amirs and sultans of the late Abbasid and post-Mongol periods aspired to emulate. Interested primarily in practical governance and the ways by which royal authority could be maintained, siyasa was a distinct discourse on government, therefore part of the struggle during and after the tenth century. From the perspective of the jurists, engaging siyasa did undermine their own basic principles.

The third discourse engaged by Ibn Taymiya was use of the principle of maslaha—welfare or social utility. Al-Juwayni (d. 1085) marks a major shift in political thinking with his introduction of the notion of maslaha into legal and theological reasoning. In general, maslaha denotes welfare and is used by theologians and jurists after al-Juwayni to mean the general good or the public interest. Anything which helps to avert injury and furthers human welfare is considered maslaha. The argument from maslaha about the origins of government is based on the premise that social life and leadership are necessary for human survival and betterment, and as such, rulership is needed merely to protect, arbitrate, administer, and in some cases to avoid chaos and self-destruction. Once al-Juwayni made the principle of welfare his overriding argument, he was able to make another leap to discuss polities other than the imamate. He acknowledged that forms of government other than the imamate are also legitimate as long as they ensure welfare, maintain social harmony and prevent chaos. Al-Juwayni’s maslaha was a very perceptive intervention, and his contemporaries and later generations of scholars engaged his views. Al-Juwayni’s student al Ghazali refined maslaha as a concept and argued more extensively and broadly than his teacher for its use in elaborating on social and political life.

Once the notion of public welfare became part of the vocabulary, especially in regard to politics other than the imamate, it brought to the fore additional semantic questions within its field. Was divine law universal? What was the status of societies customs and traditions without it? What was the role of reason in determining the value of things in the absence of revelation? It is not difficult to imagine that such questions brought jurists and theologians intellectually face to face with human nature and human societies at large, and presented them with a new opportunity to expand the conceptual “toolbox” of Sunni epistemology. This is where jurists and theologians engaged a crucial subject long discussed among philosophers. Why does humankind need coercive authority in the first place? Why should social organization be beneficial to humans? Initially, the subject was raised as a philosophical question among the philosophers, and later made its way into juristic and theological writings, becoming a major aspect of the discourse shortly after the emergence of the theory of welfare.

To Prof. Yücesoy’s knowledge, the first among the jurists and theologians to discuss this problem in some depth were al-Ghazali and his contemporary Raghib al-Isfahani. The argument is that humankind is civil by nature, in Arabic, “al-insan madaniyyun bi al-tab’.” This is familiar to us from the history of philosophy, but here it is something new among the jurists and theologians. Humans have a natural propensity to live in communities and therefore need to cooperate among themselves. From human cooperation results the familiar storyline of the birth of human communities and eventually the rise of cities and so forth. One must admit that this line of thought is very much different from an argument based simply on a tradition attributed to the Prophet asking the faithful to institute rulership or leadership.

Returning to Ibn Taymiya’s text, it is creatively linked to a web of discourses that the author is deliberately bringing to the foreground for discussion. The text is in fact a palimpsest containing layers of both the erased and the erasing, the absorbed and absorbing, and the transformed and transforming. It is an intricate transposition. Without its corresponding text, we would not be able to appreciate these points in depth, and would not realize the nuances of the other texts. Like his earlier colleague al-Ghazali, Ibn Taymiya thought about the question of reform and revival, and was bold enough to challenge categories, beginning with his own Hanbali background. It is instructive to see how a younger contemporary of his-- the Asharite al-Iji and still younger scholar Spanish Maliki scholar al-Shatibi expanded on his ideas.

So the relevant question, in conclusion, is far from asking how we come from point A to point B in terms of decline or progress. The real task is to reconstruct a spiderweb that the passage time, and we as scholars, have disturbed, so that we can re-imagine individuals and societies in their complex connectedness.


Ahmad b. ‘Abd al-Halīm b. Taymiyya, Public Duties in Islam: The Institution of the Hisba, Tr. Mukhtar Holland (Leicester, UK: Islamic Foundation, 1982), pp. 20-22 (with modification).

Sabine, George. A history of political theory. 3rd ed. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1961.

Burns, J. The Cambridge history of political thought, 1450-1700. Cambridge ;;New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Husseyin Yilmaz Presentation Summary

One of the areas that the decline paradigm does not problematize is how the Islamic tradition was inherited and adopted by later cultural entities. In that context Prof. Yılmaz discussed how the Ottomans were exposed to the broader Islamic tradition, how they adopted it, and how they produced different manifestations of Islam. He focused on the area of language.

When the Ottomans appeared around the late thirteenth, they were linguistically different from the surrounding cultural context, so they were not fully capable of absorbing the broader Islamic tradition despite their exposure. They were Islamically much less educated than the broader Arab and Persian constituency, and because they were expanding towards non-Muslim territories, they had historically very little exposure to traditional Islamic institutions of learning. That led to a very different kind of development from that of other Islamic historical periods. One tendency among the proponents of conventional decline paradigm is to look for great figures in the Ottoman Empire who are comparable to such medieval figures as al-Mawardi and al-Farabi. We don’t find such figures because the Ottomans had a very different historical experience in their exposure to and adaptation of Islam.

Prof. Yılmaz began with an early sixteenth century passage from a translation regarding contemporary perceptions of Arabic tradition and Turkish, which helps illustrate how Turkish became an important medium for conveying the broader Islamic tradition into the Ottoman context. Aksarayi, in his translation of Imad al-Islam, stated:

“Do not take this book lightly just because it is in Turkish, for it contains thorough knowledge and practice. Every people have their own language and people cannot benefit from other languages. Had Prophet Muhammad been here, he would have spoken Turkish, because he could only address people in this way. The Qur’an indicates that messengers were sent to people in their own languages. We know that the Prophet said, “learning in a duty for every male and female Muslim.” But this does not mean that they have to learn it in Arabic from a teacher, nor it means that the duty is unfulfilled if one does not study it in Arabic. Know that the ultimate objective is to acquire knowledge regardless of the way one may pursue to achieve it. It makes no difference whether one learns it through studying Arabic with an instructor, by hearing from a scholar, or by reading books in Turkish. Although I put a Turkish garment on this book, its meaning is revealed Arabic. Because God revealed knowledge in Arabic, Arab scholars explained it in Arabic for the benefit of their people. Then, when knowledge passed to Persia, Persian scholars continued to write scholarly works in Arabic. But for the common folks, they wrote in Persian, because common folks could only benefit from it in Persian. When the knowledge passed to the land of Turks, Rumeli, the scholars of the Rum continued to write only in Arabic, and knowledge remained as a buried treasure for the common people. Therefore just as the muftis of our time issue their legal opinions in Turkish, I reveal this treasure which was buried under Arabic and Persian to the common people despite the false assumptions of the jealous.”

There are a number of important insights in this short passage, such as the insight about being able to write in Turkish instead of Arabic or Persian. It further points to the tension between Islamic universalism vs. vernacular identities. But, more importantly, it shows that by the mid-sixteenth century, Turkish had become the language of literary culture in the Ottoman Empire, a process that has been little questioned in scholarship. The fact that this cultural formation could not simply be taken for granted is the starting point of my inquiry. In the other two empires discussed in this forum, Turkish did not become the primary language of literary culture, despite the fact that both the Mughal and Safavid Empires were ruled by Turkish dynasties. The Ottoman Empire was founded by speakers of Turkic languages as well so, demographically, Turkish could still have continued to be the language of oral communication. But as a medium of cultural and administrative articulation, it didn’t have to become a single, hegemonic language by the sixteenth century. This was the result of a peculiar historical process that was uneven, and that was prompted by specific historical developments.

The historical process by which Turkish became a literary language seems to have gained a noticeable momentum in the aftermath of the Battle of Ankara in 1402. The Ottoman defeat by the Timurids led to a moment of crisis that prompted a search for good government. During the ensuing interregnum, marked by a fierce succession struggle among competing princes, a number of important texts on good government were translated from Persian and Arabic.

At the time, Turkish was still not a literary language. First of all, the lack of orthography made writing in this language a daunting task for both authors and translators. Second, it was still a profane language; namely, it lacked even the most basic vocabulary to express Islamic views that was already ingrained in Turkish high and folk culture alike. In interlinear Qur’anic translations, for example, even the most popular of Islamic terms needed to be translated, such as God, Heaven, Hell, and prayer, a fact that may point to vernacular consciousness, but also demonstrates that the target audience for these translations were more comfortable in using the vocabulary of their indigenous religious tradition. Translating these basic Islamic terms into a profane language was quite a feat on the part of translators. But perhaps a more challenging problem was the lack of a readership for Turkish because the literate members of society were already educated in Persian or Arabic. As a result there was not yet a considerable reading audience for Turkish. Writing in Turkish was a sign of lacking both education and social status which could easily attach its user a lingering stigma.

Hoca Mes’ud in the early fourteenth century was one of those early adventurers in Turkish writing who declared his task a moral obligation: “I wrote in Turkish because it is more appropriate to speak to people in their own language, and people nowadays all speak Turkish.” But he was more blunt when he voiced the technical difficulties and social challenges he faced: “Turkish doesn’t fit the meter or rhythm. The language of the Turk is such a strange language. When I write in Turkish I was half mortified because of shame. I fear that someone will read it and belittle me for ignorance.” An anonymous contemporary of his couldn’t agree more: “My country is Turk, my language is Turk, I wrote Turkish because people speak Turkish. Turkish is not easy to read or write, it is not a known language. Turkish lacks suitable expressions; it is cold with no taste. Turkish is dry and rough like Turks. If you work on the form, you will lose the meaning. If you keep the meaning, you lose the form.” Many such early authors highlighted these difficulties and reflected their anxiety of being stigmatized as uncultured. In similar vein, a translator who humbly identified himself as not being a learned man told the dramatic story behind his undertaking. As he stated, he implored his brother, who was a well-regarded scholar, for years to write a book to educate the little learned folks on Islamic matters. His brother refused to write in Turkish because of this stigma, but ultimately agreed to write in Arabic. The author then translated it into Turkish, relieved his brother from that anxiety and took the risk upon himself.

Those early writers deployed a number of reasons to justify their use of Turkish. One was the Qur’anic precedent that prophets addressed their people in their own languages. Considering themselves as vicegerents of prophets, they justified writing in Turkish as taking up the same mission. The translators also attributed an instrumental value to language, careful not to undermine Arabic’s status, and pointed to the meaning rather than the language itself as the ultimate goal. In that regard, many fifteenth century authors also claimed to have conveyed the same meaning in Turkish as in Arabic, despite the fact that this claim may not have been taken very seriously by their contemporaries. Gülşehri, for example, claimed that he created a better work than the Persian original. Some translators were motivated by piety, taking on the obligation to educate the masses who were mostly illiterate, Turkish-speaking, and uneducated in Islamic matters. More significantly, using Turkish was particularly prompted by a marked demand on the part of uneducated rulers themselves, who commissioned the translation of books not only for their broader constituencies but for their own use. In this way, medical and political works were translated for the use of the courts and masses.

An important story from around the thirteenth century indicates the level of education among these early rulers. It was conveyed by a sixteenth century Ottoman source, but is quite telling for the broader western Anatolia at this time. A Germiyanoğlu ruler, neighboring the Ottomans at the frontier was reported to have enjoyed poetry and kept a number of poets at his court. One poet, Şeyhi, was a very respected poet and often presented the ruler with very elaborate poems. But the ruler had difficulty in understanding his poetry. In one of his courtly gatherings an unknown poet took up the word in Turkish and said, “My illustrious Sultan. I wish you well, may you eat honey and cream, and walk on fine grass.” Upon hearing this words which were not more a rhymed praise, the sultan said: “That is the kind of poetry I want to hear. It is pure Turkish, it is simple, it has no mystical value”. He rewarded the poetaster by promoting him to his chief court poet and dismissed the others. One of those dismissed poets is said to have died from grief at the degradation of culture.

Such little educated rulers seemed to have been more and more interested in Turkish. These rulers also seemed to have developed interest in Turkish as a propaganda medium for noting that Turkish texts had a broader chance of reaching to common folks who could not read Persian or Arabic but could only comprehend when read in Turkish. These translated texts were often prefaced by long panegyrics about the ruler. Ottoman rulers capitalized on this tradition, sponsoring and commissioning the translation of a number of books that circulated widely. In that regard, Murad II seems to have seized the moment; during his reign of 30 years he commissioned the translation of over 30 books into Turkish. Most of these were very well-read, popular books in medicine, poetry, and Islamic sciences. With few exceptions, all were also accompanied by panegyrics for the benefit of the Ottoman sultan.

With the gradual institutionalization of Ottoman education, Turkish also became the language of learning as well. In medreses and Sufi convents where lectures were based on text-reading, translation became same as teaching. Textbooks were kept in original languages, whether Persian in the Sufi convents, or Arabic in Ottoman medreses but got translated and commented upon when taught. Ottoman learned men still continued to write in Arabic, especially in the Islamic sciences, and most Ottoman Sufis kept writing in Persian. However, the medium to teach these texts increasingly became Turkish, and the number of copies with marginal explanatory notes increased drastically. As a result, the very teaching activity came to be dominated by Turkish. Overall, by the sixteenth century, more than 200 titles had been translated into Turkish from Arabic and Persian. In the meantime, translation gained a much broader meaning than a mere rendering a text from one language to another. Thanks to this unprecedented translation activity of the previous two centuries Turkish became firmly established as the primary language of Ottoman culture and administration by the sixteenth century. As such, it became a language capable of expressing even the most complicated concepts and ideas in the Arabic and Persian tradition. The anxiety in writing Turkish diminished. To the contrary, there was an anti-translation movement in the sixteenth century in which a group of poets who boasted to have been inventors, belittled and criticized poets and scholars who translated from Arabic and Persian, or who used poetic motifs from Persian in their Turkish poetry. Such a reaction points to the formation of a very different cultural identity. Re-capping this historical process, Prof. Yılmaz showed how, Turkish itself, not Arabic or Persian, became the main vehicle for conveying the broader Islamic tradition into the Ottoman context.

Stephen Dale Presentation Summary

Prof. Dale discussed commonalties among the three empires or states. Before beginning, he issued a few cautions on how historians talk about these commonalities. The first is the question of multiple identities of individuals. Dale cited the example of Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire. In the Babur-Nama, he talked about his father, Shaykh Mirza, who in a very telling passage, described how his father would wear a Mongol cap when he was sitting around with his Turco-Mongol buddies drinking or doing other things. In the same passage, he said that when his father held court in the Ferghana Valley, that he would then put on the turban. This passage describes on one hand Babur’s father’s Turco-Mongol identity, which was a social and military identity, and his religious identity as a Muslim. When he sat at court, he was acting as a Muslim sultan. When he sat with his Turco-Mongol colleagues, drinking as they often did, he was acting as a Turco-Mongol warrior. It is worth keeping in mind that individuals in these empires could and did shift across different identities, depending on the context in which they were operating at a given time.

A further illustration of this in a political theory sense is a work by the fourteenth century Indo-Muslim historian Birani who is a kind of Indian equivalent of Mustafa Ali, someone who has been thrown out of work and is complaining about the situation. Birani, in a political theory work, talks about the problems of the Delhi Sultans, that they don’t govern like Muslim rulers. Here is this massive country, he says, where most of the people are still Hindus. In the streets of Delhi are Hindu bankers, Hindu merchants, Hindu rulers of one kind or another, sometimes with Muslim servants running in front of them to clear out the crowds. He complains that this is terrible: here is a ruler who is Muslim but he’s not ruling over a Muslim state. But then in the same treatise, Birani says, “Well, how can one rule a country like India?” He said that the way to govern such a country is to rule like a Persian emperor. So here again are the different identities of someone who is Muslim, technically in a Muslim state, patronizing Muslim institutions, decrying the problems but at the same time saying the ruler must rule it like the old-fashioned, pre-Islamic Persian empire. Inhabiting these different, seemingly contradictory identities at the upper levels of society in such Muslim states, or Muslim empires as the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughals may be a common characteristic.

Prof. Dale spoke about these three states as sharing a common civilization or common culture within a larger Islamic civilization. Here he is thinking about the way anthropologists talk about cultures and civilizations. Many in the audience may be familiar with the standard work by American anthropologists A. L. Kroeber & Clyde Kluckhohn, Understanding Culture in which they define the essence of civilization and culture as a distinction in values from one culture or civilization to another. This kind of thing is apparent in al-Biruni’s work on India. When he entered India he was shocked by what he saw, and revealed the distinctions in the values of a person moving from a Greco-Islamic Central Asian context into a Hindu South Asian context. His shock at the culture he encountered was really palpable.

On the other hand, these three empires are usually considered separately. For example, the late John Richards was a scholar of the Mughal Empire who hardly discussed anything outside of it at all. In general, students of Ottoman Turkish at Ohio State University hardly take any courses outside of Ottoman history. The same is true of students who work on the Safavids. There is an extraordinary isolation among the students and scholars of these fields, despite the lack of any justification for it. In fact, the opposite is true—these three empires form a cultural sphere in the same sense that Europe forms a cultural sphere. While there are no doubt great differences among these empires in terms of the territories they conquered, their religious attitudes—particularly in the Shi’i and Sunni divide—but at least at the level of the dynasty, the military aristocracy, the bureaucracy and the literati, there is a common civilization. These three empires are common legatees of political, religious, literary, artistic, and philosophical traditions which are very striking commonalties in all three of these empires or states. At the same time, merchants, poets, religious vagabonds, philosophers, and military advisors circulated freely, constantly crossing the borders of these territories. Particularly in the case of Iran and India such movement occurred, and in the Ottoman case, military advisors of their time turned up at Babur’s Battle of Panipat in 1526, in India. His Ottoman military advisors organized the military based on Ottoman models.

Prof. Dale discussed the categories into which these empires or states fit. First, they were all Turco-Mongol states to one degree or another. In the case of the Mughals, they were Turco-Mongols whose lineage was impossible not to envy—descended both from Genghis Khan on this mother’s side, and Timur on his father’s side. In the case of the Safavids this factor was more muted, but still related to the Turkic White Sheep and the Black Sheep dynasties, in northwestern and western Iran, in the matrilineal sense. Shah Ismail was a Turk, and of course he spoke a Turkic language and wrote his poetry in what might be regarded as an old-fashioned version of Azeri Turkish, while the Ottoman Selim was writing poetry in Persian. In the Ottoman case, Prof. Yilmaz just spoke about the development of the Turkish language the Ottomans spoke, an Oguz Turkish which eventually became the spoken and written language of the Ottoman Empire. Some poets complained about borrowing from the Persian, and encouraged the Ottomans to improve their literary language and stop borrowing from Persian.

In terms of the political and military heritage, they were Turco-Mongol states. Their sense of their Turkic origins was particularly strong in the Mughal and the Ottoman case. The Mughals were still sending money back to Samarkand until they fell apart in the early part of the eighteenth century. The Ottomans at various times in their history became more or less concerned with their Oguz ancestors or presumptive ancestors in Central Asia. There was much less of this shared Turco-Mongol heritage in the Safavid case, in which religious identity became more important than racial or linguistic identity in their heritage.

In terms of the language, it is also interesting that all of these Mughals spoke a Turkic language. Babur wrote his memoirs in Chagatai Turkish; among the Safavids, Shah Ismail wrote his poetry in Azeri Turkish, and Turkish was used in the Ottoman Empire. In the case of the Mughals, by the seventeenth century, Turkish had evaporated as a written language, but it was still spoken by some members of the dynasty. Jahangir, when he went to Kabul in the early seventeenth century, specifically congratulated himself for being able to read Babur’s memoirs while he was in Kabul revisiting his ancestors’ homeland. In the Safavid case, Turkish was spoken at the court of Shah Abbas and even at the court of the Qajars in the nineteenth century; their Turkish identity continued. To some extent, the sub-culture of Azeri Turkish continues to the present day, but only in the Ottoman Empire did Turkish become the dominant literary and cultural language of the empire.

Another striking feature of the shared political heritage was the fact that all of these dynasties shared the same problems of succession following the death of a ruler. The idea of shared sovereignty was a characteristic of tribes in general, but particularly of Turco-Mongol tribes in Central Asia. Preference was often given to the eldest son, but that didn’t guarantee that the eldest son would inherit the throne. In the Ottoman case and in the Safavid case the problem was “solved” if we can think of it in those terms, by immersion of the successors in the harem. Whether or not one could call it a “solution” from the point of view of the heirs, there was the scene of coffins coming out of the Topkapi Palace, but it was certainly a solution from the point of view of the ruling dynasty. In the Mughal case, there was never a serious attempt to change the system which led to a civil war upon the death or illness of each ruler. This Turco-Mongol inheritance pattern continued to the end of the dynasty. It is possible to look upon this and consider it an advantage to the dynasty because the most capable military leader would rise to the top, and perhaps that was true in several cases, but it probably wasn’t true in the eighteenth century. In all of these empires there was this same political inheritance.

In all three of these dynasties there was reverence for the Timurids of Herat. All three of these dynasties looked back at Herat as the ideal of Turkic literary and artistic culture. Mustafa Ali wrote about this in his history. The Safavids tried to generate a phony connection with Timur, and Babur and his descendants looked upon Herat as the high point of Timurid culture, before the Timurid Renaissance in South Asia. In the case of the Ottomans and Safavids, there was what might be called “lineage envy,” or the attempt to formulate a lineage which would provide the advantages of descent that the Mughals had, relating both to Timur and Genghis Khan as Central Asian lineages. In terms of political inheritance, the three shared aspects of the Sassanian legacy of the concept of the just sultan, and the political tradition of the Sassanians was present at all of these courts and dynasties to one degree or another.

The most obvious continuity or similarity among these empires are the literary and philosophical links. The literary links alluded to by the panelists at this Forum are extraordinarily strong. Persian literature dominated and became the model for the literary tradition both in Mughal India and in the Ottoman Empire. Even after the Ottomans shifted to writing poetry in Turkish, much of this poetry consisted of a string of Persian words ending with a Turkic verb. Even after Turkish became more important, the dominance of Persian literary models was quite striking.

Secondly, in terms of a point raised by Rajeev Kinra about the Sabk-i Hindi and the evolution of literary tradition, Prof. Dale noted that it has been discussed as early as the first decades of the twentieth century. An Indo-Muslim literary historian talked about this in the early 1920s. He mentioned wading through an entire Persian text on Sabk-i Hindi, which in some Ottoman literary sources was also referred to in the sense of literary changes in the tradition. The common literary inheritance and the common literary changes are another common feature in all three empires.

Thirdly, there was a common artistic tradition on which all three drew. The miniature painting was primarily a tradition originating in Iran and moving to India, or perhaps it came out of Timurid Iranian culture and the Timurid state, moved to India, then was adopted by court painters in the Ottoman Empire. No doubt there were changes in subjects and techniques in the different regions, just as there were changes and variations in the cultural expressions of European states, to recall the parallel made earlier in this presentation, which reflect a common literary inheritance from the Romans. Many of the illustrated manuscripts and in India as well as in the Ottoman empire were texts chosen for illustration were often based on Iranian literary models, notwithstanding differing traditions.

Finally, to end with a point related to political theory, there is the common philosophical inheritance of all these states. It is striking in all of these empires that they all accepted Aristotle as the First Teacher, and with it Neo-Platonic philosophy. The philosophical tradition that becomes so important in Isfahan and Shiraz in the seventeenth century is that heritage, and has tremendous influence in India. It really dominates some of the philosophical developments of the seventeenth century.

One other point is the cross-cutting influence of some of the Sufi movements, particularly the Naqshbandi order. Ahmed Sirhindi, the famous Naqshbandi shaikh in India, had a teacher who was a member of the Khawajah group in Central Asia. He came to India and gave instruction in the Naqshbandi tradition. Sirhindi referred to himself as the Mujadid [reformer] of this tradition, which was transmitted back into the Middle East in Kurdish areas and eventually, in the case of the early twentieth century, was influential as one of the most important Ottoman religious figures of the early twentieth century.

Keeping all of these commonalties in mind, Prof. Dale cited an important difference among these empires in connection with the presentations of the forum. In relation to the rise and decline of empires, the influence of Ibn Khaldun is striking. Only among Ottoman intellectuals was Ibn Khaldun considered seriously and discussed at length. That was because the Ottomans were conscious of what Ibn Khaldun said about the rise and fall of dynasties, and they worried that his work was a predictive model for themselves, and so they voiced these concerns. There does not seem to have been a parallel influence in the case of the Safavids or the Mughals, where there was no such tradition of decline literature, certainly at the political level, that there was among intellectuals of the Ottoman Empire. So, emphasizing the similarities among the three empires, this is one major difference, namely the discussion of the rise and fall of empires itself. This discourse was personified in the figure of Ibn Khaldun. In turn, in relation to al-Ghazali and the concept of society and social groups, reading Ibn Khaldun makes it clear that the source for that idea in al-Ghazali is in fact Aristotle, bringing us back to the shared philosophical heritage of the three empires.

Cengiz Sisman Presentation Summary

One of the major sub-fields of the “golden age” and “decline” paradigm is the treatment of non-Muslims in Muslim societies. Prof. Sisman stated the importance of the topic of non-Muslims in this forum, and mentioned that while there have been significant revisions and paradigm shifts in studies on “non-Muslims under Islam” on the intellectual level in the field Islamic history, this paradigm shift has not necessarily taken effect in popular or public policy levels. Prof. Sisman, through mainly addressing the status of Jews and Christians in the Ottoman Empire, visited the question of “golden age” and “decline” paradigms, and proposed a new model, called “semi-autonomous millet-system” to understand the ottoman method of managing the diversity. His presentation had three main objectives: (1) the issue of decline with a particular reference to the Ottoman Jews; (2) the necessity of replacing the famous so-called “millet system” model in examining the Ottoman non-Muslims; and (3) deriving lessons from the multi-religious and multi-ethnic Ottoman experience for the contemporary societies and transferring this intellectual knowledge into public knowledge.

Prof. Sisman began by exploring the decline paradigm and expressions of it in the Ottoman Jewish context. The declinist thesis tended to view the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries through the binary oppositions of purity and corruption. This model implied that only two legal situations were possible for non-Muslims: thick enforcement or lax disregard of the restrictions mandated by Islamic law. For a long period, historiography on the status of the non-Muslims in the Muslim empires was inspired by this dichotomy. According to this model, the non-Muslims, particularly Jews, Christians, and Hindus, lived in relative peace and harmony during the Golden Age, but with the introduction of orthodoxy and the puritanical and enthusiastic tendency in Islam, they then experienced exclusion, oppression, and even persecution. In the present context Sisman referred to the golden age as the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent in Ottoman times, Abbas the Great in Safavid Times, and Akbar the Great in the Mughal times. By the introduction of the orthodoxy, on the other hand, he referred to the Kadizadeli in Ottoman times, and Majlisi in Safavid times, and Aurangzeb in the Mughal times.

Examining the Jewish case in the Ottoman Empire is quite instructive in showing how this golden age and decline works in modern scholarship. Jews occupied important if not unique positions within the Ottoman socio-political and economic order. They were contractors, purveyors, private bankers, political advisors and physicians for the Ottoman court and other court matters; they made significant contributions to the Ottoman society in science, technology, culture and entertainment. They were one of the largest and most important non-Muslim communities in the Ottoman Empire.

Influenced by the Ottoman declinist argument, Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis claimed that the conditions of Ottoman Jews started to deteriorate in the seventeenth century due to the fact that immigration of Iberian Jewry was coming to a halt, economic opportunities within the Ottoman Empire were diminishing, and competition with the Christians was increasing. The declinist approach also assumes, then, that the Sabbataian movement (1665-1666) had a major destructive impact on already declining Jewish communities. In other words Sabbataianism , one of the largest if not the largest and most important Jewish messianic movements, did occur in the Ottoman empire, and its repercussions were felt not only within Ottoman territory but in all of the Jewish communities across borders in Europe, Russia, and other eastern communities. According to this argument, the Sabbataianmovement had a major destructive impact on these communities, accelerating their decline in two ways: (1) it is said to have undermined the Jewish position within the Ottoman system, since they lost their credibility in the eyes of the Ottomans; (2) it is said to have contributed to an unprecedented reinforcement of rabbinical power which was viewed as an obstacle to possible progressive development in subsequent centuries, including the nineteenth century.

Prof. Sisman stated that his study of Ottoman court and archival sources, as well as Jewish and European sources, forced him to revise this assumption. Along with the problems with the general Ottoman decline paradigm itself, the decline of the Ottoman Jewry has been the subject of misinterpretation and misrepresentation. For example, a longitudinal study of court record of Haskoy, which hasbeen one of the largest Jewish communities in Istanbul, showed that there was no dramatic change in the material or intellectual life of Jews in the first and second half of the seventeenth century and also the early eighteenth century. It is true that the Jews lost some of their privileged positions to the Greeks and Armenians in the seventeenth century in comparison to their privileged positions in the sixteenth century, but the pace & degree of so-called decline of the Ottoman Jews was greatly exaggerated by Jewish historians, who concentrated mainly on Jewish society or Jewish communities in Europe. Although it may be true that the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were on the whole characterized by economic and spiritual impoverishment, that process was slow and was interspersed with periods of stability and even prosperity, as in the case of Izmir Jewish community.

During the second quarter of the seventeenth century, one Rabbi Benvenista referred to the sultan as the “merciful king” and stated that the tax burden was not so heavy as that which the Jews had to suffer under Christianity. , At the turn of the eighteenth century Lady Montague, an English observer of the Ottoman empire, with some exaggeration obviously, described the role of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire as follows: “I observed that most of the rich tradesmen were Jews. That people are an incredible power in this empire. They have many privileges, above the natural Turks themselves, and have formed a very considerable commonwealth here. They are judged by their own laws, and have drawn the whole trade of empire into their hands, partly by the firm union among themselves. They are the physicians, the stewards, and the interpreters of all the great men in the empire.” This passage is not a lone example coming from the literary resources and reports in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which again shows that there was not a real, or dramatic decline in the eighteenth century with regard to the status of the Jews.

Similar observations could be made about the social and economic developments of the Christian communities in the Ottoman empire. They, too, did not have one general and seamless “golden age” or “decline” experience. To the contrary, they did have different experiences in different part of the empire. For example, examining Christian communities of seventeenth and eighteenth century in Greece, Socrates Petmezas demonstrates that those communities enjoyed high levels of autonomy and economic prosperity in the eighteenth century. The rise of Phanariots, members of prominent Greek families in the Ottoman economy and diplomacy could be another example to challenge the assumption of continuous decline of the Ottoman non-Muslims. There were obviously counter-examples, indicating the impoverishment of the non-Muslims in different regions, but still examples and counter-examples challenge the overgeneralized assumptions of the declinist paradigm.

Prof. Sisman’s second focus was a review of the so-called “millet system” and to propose a new model or new concept by which to re-conceptualize the status of non-Muslims within the Ottoman Empire. Millet literally means “religion” in the Ottoman context. Without resorting to oversimplification, following the tradition of previous Islamic governance practices, the Ottomans considered Jews and Christians as People of the Book, or dhimma, the protected subject. The mechanism was simple: if a group wished to keep their religion, they had to pay a poll tax which was called a jizya, and in return for paying this special tax, Jews and Christians were allowed to practice their religion, and their lives and properties were under the protection of the state law. This law was inspired mostly by Islamic law.

It was generally believed that following the conquest of Istanbul or Constantinople in 1453, Mehmet II established a separate, parallel and autonomous organization for the Orthodox, Armenian, and Jewish subjects. These were supposedly homogeneous, empire-wide structures with well-defined borders and hierarchies, controlled by Istanbul through their ecclesiastical leaders, the Greek and Armenian patriarch and the Jewish chief rabbi. This so-called millet system, was a well-organized, well-regulated government of the minorities. Writing in the 1950s, Gibb and Bowen, in their book, Islamic Society and the West: A Study of the Impact of Western Civilization on Moslem Culture in the Near East consolidated the image of a timeless, fixed, unchanging “millet-system.” Arguing against this point, and writing in the 1980s, Benjamin Braudel claimed that the existence of the “millet-system” was a myth, and that it dated to the post-Tanzimat period of the nineteenth century, and had been super-imposed on the previous centuries. Yes, Braudel agreed, Mehmet II, had an ambition to create a centralized system by which he would control the non-Muslim subjects, but this system declined and did not work in the subsequent centuries. Since the 1980s, scholarship on the subject oscillated between two poles, claiming the existence or non-existence of the “millet-system.” Most of the time, historians either studied the Ottoman side of the story or the communal side of the story and concluded that there was a longitudinal autonomous “millet-system” or lack thereof. Without necessarily resorting to all available sources on both sides, they either studied internal life of the communities, or the formal Ottoman structures that linked them to the state.

The conviction about communal autonomy has encouraged the study of Jewish and Christian communities as self-contained entities having no interaction or relations with the communities of other confessions. Since this conference is also about re-conceptualization or re-framing of some of our old concepts and vocabularies, Sisman stated, he wanted to suggest a new concept for understanding inter-confessional diversity management in the Ottoman Empire. Sisman proposed that “semi-autonomous millet system” would better explain the phenomenon between the time of Mehmet II (1450s) up to the 1850s in the Ottoman Empire. He stated that there are three essential characteristics to this so-called millet system: internal autonomy of religious communities; their hierarchically and centrally organized empire-wide structures; and Ottoman recognition of those systems. It is true that pre-nineteenth century non-Muslim communities did not have these three characteristics all at the same time in a full fledge manner, but traces of these characteristics were there for sure. For example, they did have autonomy in their religious and economic affairs. And it seems that they were also hierarchically organized, though not empire-wide. Rather, smaller or medium-sized communities accepted the authority of religious and lay leadership of nearby larger ones, and in return received spiritual and material help from them. Naturally, being the spiritual and communal center, Istanbul was the highest religious authority for the Jewish and Christian communities.

Centralized collection of taxes was another factor contributing to the foundation of congregational and communal unity. One example would illustrate how this semi-autonomous, hierarchically organized communal structure was working in the Ottoman empire.. Again, the case of the Sabbataian movement, that mentioned earlier, is a very constructive example to show the hierarchy and autonomy and also the connectedness of those communities in the empire. , During the movement, which emerged in Jerusalem, then moved into Izmir, Istanbul and Edirne, Istanbul Jewry played an important role in shaping its trajectory.. The chief rabbi of Istanbulsent letters to other Jewish communities,, trying to control the Sabbataian activities in Jewish communities of Cairo,Jerusalem, Aleppo, Izmir and the Balkans. Feeling himself probably more responsible before the Ottoman authorities, the chief rabbi from Istanbul sent a letter to the sultan, thanking him that he had ended the “Sabbataian madness” , and thereby saved Ottoman Jewry from a malady.

Similar examples coming from the Jewish and Christian communities indicate that there was a considerable amount of autonomy, and a communal leadership headed by Istanbul even before the nineteenth century. These autonomies were controlled by the Ottoman authorities through taxation and through approval of the communal leadership, meaning that non-Muslims elect their leader internally, but the leaders had to be approved—not chosen—by the Ottoman authorities. By providing alternative courts for the members of other non Muslim communities, the Ottomans set in place a system of checks and balances, in the tendencies followed by non-Muslim communities. It is important to remember, however, that the borders between the faiths and the communities were fluid enough that individual agencies could always transcend those borders, thanks to social mobility. The most prominent road to social mobility was conversion, but even without conversion, members of the non-Muslim communities could move along these borders and attain social mobility.

This semi-autonomous millet system turned into a millet-system by the second half of the nineteenth century when Muslims and non-Muslims became equal citizens before the law. This major shift in long established Islamic practice of taxation and population taxsonomy became possible through the efforts of reform-minded Ottoman intellectuals and bureaucrats. Inspired by the ideals of French Revolution, these intellectuals wanted to create somewhat an egalitarian society, despite resistances originated from the traditional segments of Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Jizya was replaced by a practice of buying off military service on the part of the non-Muslims. Non-Muslim communities were recognized as corporate units with a degree of internal autonomy that regulated personal status, ritual issues, and finances according to their religious law and custom, with state support for their communal authorities.

By way of conclusion, Prof. Sisman made reference to public policy discussions. The Ottoman empire held together a remarkably broad mix of people—ethnic and religious groups—in a relatively peaceful and stable co-existence. Non-Muslim millets, or non-Sunnis in the Ottoman case, were legally subordinate to Muslims. Still, it is very hard to imagine that Ottomans maintained this system with the sheer force of naked power. They needed to have a measure of legitimacy to do that. How did the Ottomans maintain or manage this diversity over many centuries? ? This is one of the major questions that are waiting to be tackled by scholars thoroughly. Examining the Ottoman case help us to understand the working mechanisms of , a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-religious community.

Examining the Ottoman case also provides with an instructive example for contemporary believing Muslim individuals and states , which could derive lessons from the the Ottoman reformist intellectuals, legalists, and bureaucrats who struggled with contemporary issues, such asequality of Muslims and non-Muslims, nationalism, citizenship, and authority, and resolved them within the parameters of Islamic legal and political traditions There is also a lesson for other decision makers who are trying to create harmonious societies in an age when religion is still of paramount importance to people, and they again need to come up with better or more refined solutions other than the nation and secular states would suggest.

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