Ottoman Reform and Muslim Regeneration (Library of Ottoman Studies)

  • Book Title:
 Ottoman Reform And Muslim Regeneration
  • Book Author:
Itzchak Weismann
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… [S]ince the late 1850s we witness two political and ideological trends in the Muslim community in Istanbul and other cities of the Empire. The first which enjoyed popular support, was the Sunni-Orthodox trend. This trend upheld the ideals of the Islamic state in which the shari‘a was held supreme and formed the fundamental law of the land, and in which the Muslims were the ruling community and the non-Muslims were ‘dhimmis’ who suffered from certain disadvantages. In such a state the ruler gained legitimacy by implementing the shari‘a.

The second trend upheld the idea of the supremacy of the state in the sense of an all-powerful and corporate body which had the privilege of making laws. This latter trend, moreover, stood for a state in which all its citizens enjoyed equal civil and political rights and were bound together by the bonds of patriotism. 

– Butrus Abu-Manneh, Studies on Islam and the Ottoman Empire in the 19th Century (1826-1876).

As the matrix of the modern Middle East,1 the ‘long nineteenth century’ of Ottoman History, from the seminal treaty of Küçük Kaynarca in 1774 to the demise of the empire in 1918, has received ample scholarly attention. Similar to what occurred in studies of other regions of the world, this research underwent a substantial shift from the traditional/modern dichotomist presentation typical of theories of ‘modernization’, to a more nuanced understanding of the continuum between them.2

 By this process, the earlier emphasis on the influence exerted by a progressive and dynamic West on basically static and backward non-Western societies such as the Ottoman3 gave way to a more perceptive analysis of the inner processes of change undertaken by this admittedly dynamic and complex society in the face of the modern challenge.

More recently, the focus on the political and legal history of the empire has been supplemented by new perspectives such as economic and social history,4 gender and popular culture,5 symbolism and ceremonies of legitimacy,6 and, last but not least, national identity formation7 and Islamic reformulations.8 

The present volume seeks to make a contribution to this ongoing research on the late Ottoman period from two complementary aspects. One is the evolution of Ottoman state reforms as it was perceived from various perspectives, ranging from those of the capital, Istanbul, to those of the Arab provinces of Syria, including Ottoman Palestine. The other aspect is that of Islamic regeneration, derived from the interaction between the Ottoman centre and the periphery.

The twelve articles contained in this volume, each from its own perspective, points to the close relationship between the symbolic and actual measures undertaken by the Ottoman state from 1774 on, especially from the era of the Tanzimat (1839-76), and the role of Islam as its foundational ethos and as the religion of the majority of the population. This is true even in the case of the articles dealing with the external European impact and the Christian minorities, where Islam still looms large as a point of reference.

Through the various articles, the book also reveals the extent of the changes that the Ottoman Empire underwent throughout the period, from the epicentre of the Ottoman dynasty and court to the remotest towns of Safad or the ‘invented’ Beersheba on the fringes. It ventures beyond its borders too, to Chechnya and Daghestan. For all that, in most of the articles the continuity underlying much of the change proves to be not far below the surface.

This is amply evident in the articles on the concept of Caliphate and the rules of succession, as well as in those on the tribal and semi-tribal systems among the Druzes in the Hawran and the Sufi families in Kurdistan. Continuities are no less apparent in the more focused pieces on the Sufi sympathies of a prominent reformist jurist in Damascus or the anti-Wahhabi worldview of a Hanbali scholar in the Hijaz. By its sheer range and diversity, the collection helps to displace the simplistic traditional/ modern dichotomy in favour of a more sophisticated picture of a state and a society building on their political-administrative and the concomitant cultural-religious traditions to constantly adapt to modern realities. 

Still, at least from the Islamic point of view an important distinction must be made concerning the Ottoman policies of reform during the nineteenth century, dividing them into two parts. These may be characterized respectively as the policies of modernization and the policies of Westernization. The turning point was the Hatt-i Humayun of 1856 which, for the first time, traded the hallowed religious principle of the supremacy of the Muslim subjects for the European principle of equality of citizens.9

It resulted in a cleavage that rent Ottoman society, at the centre and the periphery alike, pitting the Sultan-Caliph and the conservative men of religion who supported him against the Porte and a new middle class of Western-inspired merchants and intellectuals.

In the Arab provinces, the new ideologies were cemented first in the Christian-dominated renaissance (nahda) of the late Tanzimat, and subsequently in the Islamic reformism of the Salafiyya, which emerged as an opposition to the autocratic regime of Sultan Abdülhamid II. The antagonism between the authoritarian state and, on the one hand, an increasingly militant Islamism and on the other occasional liberal intellectuals, which had had its origins in the Tanzimat reforms and came to the forefront during the First World War, was one of the principal legacies bequeathed by the Ottoman Empire to its successors in the Arab Middle East. It has remained a prevalent feature of most countries of the region to this day.

The structure of the present collection was determined to a large extent by our major concern with the centre-periphery and state-Islam cleavages during the ‘long nineteenth century’ of Ottoman attempts at regeneration and reform. Accordingly, the book is divided into four sections dealing with the Ottoman central government, its interaction with Islamic traditions, and the impact of the reforms it initiated on the Syrian at large, and on Palestine.

The first two articles focus on the Ottoman dynasty and the symbolic and actual practices that reigning Sultans adopted in the face of various external and domestic challenges of modernization. Tufan Buzpinar takes a broad look at the evolution of the institution of Caliphate in what appears to be its last phase. His point of departure is the Russian-Ottoman treaty of Küçük Kaynarca of 1774, in which the concept was invoked to save face for the Sultan after losing Muslim-inhabited territories in the Crimea.

A century later, it became the cornerstone of the domestic and international Pan-Islamic policies of Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876-1909), and consequently also an important tool for rival claimants to the position of caliph, principally the Sharif of Mecca and the khedive of Egypt, or opponents to his autocratic rule such as Blunt and Kawakibi. Reviewing the old and new religious principles upon which the Ottoman concept of Caliphate rested throughout the period, Buzpinar demonstrates how, despite their weakness, by using religious symbolism Sultans were still able to mobilize popular support among Muslims in the Ottoman domains and beyond.

Hakan Karateke examines the complementary question of the Ottoman Sultans’ attempts during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to change the rule of succession or, in some instances, to install another dynasty in their place. His major argument is that such attempts, which began with Sultan Abdülmecid in the 1850s, were fostered by the desire to bring the Ottoman monarchy closer to contemporary European models.

But he also notes that their preference for primogeniture, namely filial succession from father to eldest son, over the prevailing principle of succession by the oldest male member in the family, was actually a return to the original practice of the early Ottoman dynasts. Karateke shows how, although generally unsuccessful, the proposed changes triggered factionalism in the Ottoman capital, as well as the rise of various rival claims. Moreover, following the demise of the empire in 1918, the contested process of succession made it easier to deal the Ottoman dynasty the final blow.

In the concluding paper of Part I, Moshe Gammer explores the influence of the Ottoman process of reform in both Istanbul and the provincial capital of Cairo on the reform policies (nizam) of Shaykh Shamil in the eastern Caucasus regions of Chechnya and Daghestan. Gammer dwells on the religious character of Shamil’s state, owing to his affiliation to the emphatically orthodox and activist Khalidi branch of the Naqshbandiyya brotherhood. Such religiosity, however, by no means prevented him from adopting innovative legal and military measures such as the ruler’s regulations (qanun).

 Here again, the connection between Islam and politics is plainly evident. Not only were relations with the Ottoman Empire enhanced through the Khalidi nexus, and the Sultan held in high regard as the caliph of the Muslims, but also many of the actual reformers were hajjis who served Muhammad ‘Ali for a period of time. 

In Part II we move to the Islamic aspect of the Ottoman era of reforms. The three case studies here on one hand help to refute still-prevalent notions such as the incompatibility of Sufism and ‘orthodox’ Islam, or the essential Puritanism of the Hanbali creed. On the other hand they deepen our understanding of the ambivalent relationship between the Ottoman state and the ‘ulama and Sufi brotherhoods. The articles are chronologically arranged, relating respectively to the periods of the initiation of the reforms, their middle course, and their culmination. 

Itzchak Weismann sets out to examine the inner relationship between reformist legal scholarship and reformist Sufism in the early nineteenth century through the eyes of the prominent Damscene Hanafi jurist, Ibn ‘Abidin. Living through a period of growing disorder, Ibn ‘Abidin developed an ambivalent attitude towards both the Ottoman state and Syrian society. He supported the Ottomans against the Wahhabi threat, but did not hesitate to criticize their maladroit administration; and he sought redress for the grievances of the local population, but also reproached the people for their deviation from the precepts of the law.

 As Weismann demonstrates, a similar ambivalence characterized Ibn ‘Abidin’s attitude toward Sufism. Although he denounced Sufi practices that contravened the shari‘a, he was attracted by the orthodox brand of reformist Sufism. Moreover, when the founder of the Khalidiyya, Shaykh Khalid al-Baghdadi, established himself in Damascus in the latter part of Ibn ‘Abidin’s life, the jurist enthusiastically joined his Sufi movement in the belief that, due to its combination of emphatic orthodoxy and organized activism, it constituted the best means of curing the socio-political and religious malaise of his time.

Similarly, David Commins takes a fresh look at the participation of what he calls traditional Hanbalis on the Ottoman side of the anti-Wahhabi polemic. For that purpose, he employs the practically unnoticed biographical dictionary of Muhammad Ibn Humayd, Hanbali imam and mufti of Mecca in the third quarter of the nineteenth century.

Through a careful examination of the Hanbali entries in this compilation, Commins discredits the common assumption that by the early nineteenth century Najd was already converted to Wahhabism; he moreover maintains that the anti-Wahhabi brand of Hanbalism at large remained viable throughout the century and that toward its end it merged with the rising anti-Salafi trend. The biographical dictionary of the Hanbali Ibn Humayd must thus be seen as part of the wider anti-Wahhabi discourse of the late Ottoman ‘ulama, who aimed at placing the Wahhabis outside the Hanbali fold.

In the last contribution to the Islamic section, Gökhan Çetinsaya presents a detailed examination of the Islamic and especially Sufi policies of Sultan Abdülhamid II as these are reflected through the prism of the north Iraqi province of Mosul.

More particularly, the article focuses on the incessant infighting that raged at the time between two major rival Sufi Qadiri families of the area, the Barzinjis dominating Sulaymaniyya and the Talabanis who were paramount in Kirkuk. The roots of struggle lay in the weakening of Ottoman central authority in the aftermath of the Russo-Ottoman war of 1877-8, resulting in tribal disorders that plagued the entire province for decades. The Ottoman officials were fully aware of the implication of both the Barzinjis and the Talabanis in the disorders, and repeatedly recommended taking measures against them. Yet as clearly shown by Çetinsaya, Abdülhamid II intervened every time to prevent action against families with such religious credentials. 

The remaining two parts of the book take a closer look at various aspects of the Ottoman process of reform as it was experienced by different elements in the region of Greater Syria. These include traditional Sunni elites, the newly empowered Christian minorities, and historically marginalized populations such as the Bedouin and the Druzes.

The main conclusion to be drawn from the diverse cases studied here seems to be that rather than merely responding to superior forces, local elements in the Syrian and Palestinian populations were engaged in a creative adaptation to, and at times even manipulation of, the new circumstances to their own advantage. While practically all the contributions examine the situation at the level of the state or the elite, some of them also attempt to delve into lower rungs of society.  

The first two contributions in Part III deal with the Christian-dominated Arab renaissance in Syria, the nahda, from two complementary aspects. Fruma Zachs and Basilius Bawardi examine continuity and change in the political and social outlook of Christian Arab intellectuals in Beirut during the first decade of Sultan Abdülhamid II’s rule.

Focusing primarily on Salim al-Bustani, son of the celebrated Butrus al-Bustani and a prominent intellectual of the second-generation nahda, they use the two genres of the journalistic essay and the novel, which he employed in his periodical al-Jinan, to trace the evolution of his ideas on Ottomanism and Syrianism. Zachs and Bawardi demonstrate that, in continuation to the Tanzimat era, Christian Arab intellectuals still espoused the essential compatibility between these two political concepts, while increasingly criticizing the lack of minority equality inherent in them. They also show that, faced with the intensification of the Hamidian censorship after 1880, Salim and his colleagues explored new ways to express their socio-political critique of the Ottoman state as well as their love of the Syrian homeland.

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