Late 19th-C. Ottoman Economic Thought


A review of The Political Economy of Ottoman Modernity: Ottoman Economic Thought During the Reign of Abdülhamid II (1876-1909), by Deniz T. Kılınçoğlu.

Deniz T. Kılınçoğlu’s dissertation aims to explore the influence of economic thought, “as a new interpretation of the world,” on Ottoman intellectuals in general, and the ways in which they appropriate this new interpretation in a transforming Ottoman society in particular (p. 3). Its main focus is therefore on intellectuals’ use of economic thinking “in formulating their strategy of saving the empire from downfall in the age of capitalist modernity” (p. 12-13).

The dissertation focuses on the reign of Abdülhamid II, a period “marked by the reign of a particular sultan and the economic, political and social policies of his regime” (p. 18) and representing “the zenith of the Ottoman modernization project of the nineteenth century” (p. 11). According to Kılınçoğlu, not only the elite of the era but also the Sultan himself “regarded economic development as the main path to modernity” (p. 2). Indeed, he proposes that Abdülhamid II was an “enlightened ruler” (p. 67) and that “the most influential and original works of political economy were produced” during his reign (p.6).

Kılınçoğlu argues that the existing literature on Ottoman economic thought examines “intellectuals and ideas in isolation from the political, social and economic context in which these ideas were produced” and therefore fails “to contextualize intellectuals and their ideas” (p. 6). On the basis of the claim that the social and cultural spheres shaped the economic sphere, the dissertation pays also attention to the popularization of economic thought and fictionalized versions of economic development strategy (pp. 12, 280). It therefore traces manifestations of economic thought not only in periodical articles but also in popular fiction and in books, manuals and archival documents on political economy (p. 12).

This course of research led Kılınçoğlu to the conclusion that in a “continuous evolutionary process of social, economic and political change” (p. 13), Ottoman intellectuals brought about “a native synthesis of economic thought in the Middle East” (p. 15) and “early examples of an Islamicized version of political economy” (pp. 2, 280). Because they did not imitate everything but rather adopted concepts and institutions, Kılınçoğlu emphasizes throughout the dissertation “the pragmatism of Ottoman modernism rather than the shallowness of the late Ottoman intellectual sphere” (pp. 16, 281).

The dissertation is composed of five chapters. The first chapter discusses, through a general literature survey, the evolution of Ottoman economy and respective economic thought from the late eighteenth century to the 1908 revolution. According to Kılınçoğlu, “the Ottoman economy was incorporated into global capitalism” through a “structural adjustment” process in the nineteenth century. But he describes this process as the result of neither economic and social decline nor one-sided imperialist policies but rather as an adaptation of local economic actors to new market conditions (p. 32). In this context, Kılınçoğlu suggests four periods in the study of Ottoman economic history: restrictive economic policies privileging the domestic market in the period lasting until 1826; the period of accommodation to free-market liberalism between 1826 and 1860; the rise of protectionism between 1860 and 1908; the national economy program after 1908 (pp. 33-34).

The second chapter analyzes economic literature produced by intellectuals such as Sakızlı Ohannes, Portakal Mikael, Ahmed Midhat Efendi, Mustafa Nuri Bey, Münif Pasha, Musa Akyiğitzade, Mehmed Cavid, etc., of the reign of Abdülhamid II by a special emphasis on the debate on protectionism vs. free trade. According to Kılınçoğlu, the forerunner of liberalism in the Ottoman Empire, Sakızlı Ohannes, “suggests a new model of socioeconomic organization to the Ottomans based on Smithian worldview, in which every individual pursues their own personal interest and engages in economic exchange with others to satisfy various needs” (p. 70). The adaptation of Adam Smith’s “universal” principles by Sakızlı Ohannes was however counteracted by Ahmed Midhat who adopted a “historical approach” to the study of economics (p. 74). Nevertheless, Kılınçoğlu underlines that despite his criticisms against liberal arguments, Ahmed Midhat’s “stance towards economic liberalism is more complicated than being an ‘anti-liberal protectionist’” because he also argued for cooperation, division of labor and individual economic success, as Smithian classics did (p. 78). According to Kılınçoğlu, “Ahmed Midhat is definitely a liberal when it comes to his ideas on monopoly, private property, and freedom of private enterprise, and he also accepts the indispensable benefits of freedom of exchange and competition” (p. 81). What distinguishes Ahmed Midhat from others is that he rejected the validity of laissez-faire theories to all countries (p. 81). According to him, “the local conditions should be taken into account in economic policies, rather than simply following allegedly universal laws” (p. 83).

Following the discussion on diverging approaches of Sakızlı Ohannes and Ahmed Midhat, Kılınçoğlu argues that Ottoman economic literature became more refined with the debates of Musa Akyiğitzade and Cavid Mehmed Bey on economic models to be followed by the Ottoman state: “industrialization vs. agricultural production” and “liberalism vs. protectionism”(109-119).

As for the other elites writing on economics, Kılınçoğlu underlines the synthetic nature of their texts in the adaptation of economic ideas from Europe. For example, according to Kılınçoğlu, Mustafa Nuri Bey differed from others by including not only history of economics and biographies of prominent European economists but also Arab contributions to economic thought (p. 88). Münif Pasha followed in general the economic themes of European sources but he also provided examples and debates from the Ottoman Empire (p. 95) and incorporated these examples in his discussion of economic analysis on ethics especially by means of references to Islamic sources. As such, Münif Pasha employed “the familiar to introduce the new” (p. 96). According to Kılınçoğlu, Süleyman Sudi’s book is the most synthetic book written during the era and it “is an excellent example of the synthetic texture of Ottoman modernist discourse composed of European and Islamic/Ottoman elements” (p. 108).

The chapter (and the dissertation) puts the stress on synthetic works written especially by Münif Pasha, Mustafa Nuri and Ahmed Midhat, who incorporated traditional Islamic-Ottoman values into their economic methods and ideas, and not on those of Sakızlı Ohannes, Mehmed Cavid Bey and Musa Akyiğitzade who incorporated simply elements of Ottoman economic development in the presentation of their ideas. According to Kılınçoğlu, as such, they established an intellectual basis for an indigenous modernity:

Notions and ideas from modern economic theories were tested and sometimes simply legitimized through Islamic references. This process paved the way for an Islamic capitalist discourse with its own jargon… Muslim economists emphasized that essential capitalist notions – like hard work, productivity, and private property – had already been accepted and encouraged in Islamic civilization (p. 120).

The other three chapters focus on different aspects of economic thought during the reign of Abdülhamid II. The third chapter analyses the discussion on “the social question.” It should be noted that Kılınçoğlu uses the concept of “social question” in a different manner than the existing literature. Instead of referring to the rising tension between capital and labor during the industrialization period, it means “the issue of identity” of the Ottoman people, and debates on “social vision” and “social models” to be followed in the Empire during “the capitalist modernization” (p. 135).

According to Kılınçoğlu, “Ahmed Cevdet Pasha, following Ibn Khaldun, asserts that societies pass through certain hierarchical stages of development (i.e., from nomadism to urbanism)” (p. 129). He argues that it was following Ahmed Cevdet Pasha that elites adopted a historicist perspective and looked for the causes of Ottoman failure and backwardness in the past (p. 131). As they identified old institutional setting as being responsible for backwardness, they proposed a new institutional setting (p. 135) and “actual social change stood as the real challenge before the Ottoman modernization process.” Kılınçoğlu proposes that it was in such a context that Münif Pasha and Ahmed Midhat Efendi, as social reformists, struggled for social reform by way of their writings on economics (142).

According to Kılınçoğlu’s reading, Münif Pasha proposed that education was essential for every social group, from peasants to merchants, in order to increase social prosperity (p. 145). As such, educated and industrious individuals would constitute the basis of Ottoman modernization, time, labor, and knowledge would feed all production processes. According to him, “laziness, ignorance, and time-wasting stand as the main obstacles to economic development” (p. 148). Kılınçoğlu argues that as non-Muslims dominated the Ottoman economy in the late nineteenth century (p. 149), Münif Pasha and other like-minded Ottoman bureaucrats of the Abdülhamid II regime, “sought to pave the way for a new Muslim middle class” (p. 150).

For his part, Ahmed Midhat argued that the nomadic heritage of homo ottomanicus left him little time or inclination to invest in cultural and economic development. Ottomans thus lacked notions of discipline, order, law and politics (p. 152-153). In this context, the “old wealth” of the Ottoman Empire was collapsing, thereby making way for the creation of the “new wealth” (p. 153). In order to create this new wealth, there was need, first of all, for Muslim intervention to control and manage capital in an environment where Muslim Ottomans were totally uninvolved in the commercial and industrial sectors. The solution was to establish “a new society whose members were in control of directing and managing their own resources through their own labor” (p. 154). Secondly, homo ottomanicus had to acquire a new work ethic based on industriousness; the “lazy and harmful man should be kicked out of modern society” (p. 155-56). Ahmed Midhat’s tales written about the sultan’s industrious character simply served to promote these new ideas in the old society (165-66). Indeed, according to Ahmed Midhat, “passion for labor already exists in Muslim-Ottoman culture and […] Islam prescribes industriousness” (p. 158). Kılınçoğlu argues that such praise of productive work represented a paradigm shift in Ottoman economic and political thought (p. 77) and reflected the project of economic development undertaken during the reign of Abdülhamid II (p. 165-66).

Kılınçoğlu argues that these new ideas were also echoed in the political program of the nascent Young Turks. For example, Sabahaddin Bey similarly proposed the “transformation of the bureaucratically and communally minded Ottoman society into an individualistic society of entrepreneurially minded citizens” (p. 172). On the other hand, Ahmed Rıza suggested that reformists should give “priority to the education of the masses in order to make the principle of effort and labor prevail in Ottoman society” (p. 175). According to Kılınçoğlu, social reformism was replaced by political activism among the Young Turks up to 1908, “thereby leading to a top-down political revolution followed by a dictatorship of the modernist elite” (p. 175). The Young Turk principle “for the people, despite the people” thereafter dominated Ottoman and Republican history. The author constrasts this situation with the Abdülhamid era during which “evolutionary and bottom-up arguments that put the social question before political revolution” prevailed (p. 175).

The fourth chapter discusses the development of nationalist discourse in economic development during the reign of Abdülhamid II. According to Kılınçoğlu, the economic policies of Ottoman-Muslim modernists (Ahmed Midhat, Namık Kemal, Ali Suvai, Ahmed İhsan, etc.) represent Muslims’ anxiety about and reactions to the increasing power of foreign capitalists and the non-Muslim bourgeoisie on the one hand, and the discourse of the “Eastern Question” on the other (pp. 196, 199-200, 202). In an analysis of several memoranda prepared by Abdülhamid II on social, political and economic issues, Kılınçoğlu stresses that the Sultan adopted “an anti-imperialist and Muslim-Ottoman nationalist discourse on economic matters” (p. 223). Such reactions led Ottomans from the reign of Abdülhamid II onward to espouse economic protectionism following Friedrich List’s national economy approach (p. 196). Kılınçoğlu suggests, however, that Ottoman economic protectionism did not have a mercantilist or autarkist character; it rather promoted integration into the world market by means of an economy based not on agricultural production but on industrial production (p. 197).

In chapter five, Kılınçoğlu studies a selection of novels in order to establish the social and cultural representations of nascent Ottoman economic thought during the reign of Abdülhamid II. According to him, “in some cases the Ottoman novel actually provides us with many more important insights into Hamidian-era reformism (both radical and official) than the non-fictional works of the era” (p. 227). Novels written by Ahmed Midhat and Mehmed Murad (Mizancı) are very fruitful ones with respect to the economy and dynamics of the period. Kılınçoğlu argues that they were in fact “roman[s] à thèse” in their criticism of the existing economic and social structure and their didactic exposition of reformist economic and social ideas (p. 247).

For example, in the novel entitled Turfanda mı Turfa mı? (Is It a Firstfruit or Is It Strange?), Kılınçoğlu shows how Mehmed Murad, under an anti-imperialist and anatolianist Turkish discourse, both criticized the ineffective and wasteful administration (p. 255) and proposed an educational reform (p. 259) to advance “talented and meritorious youth instead of the spoiled sons of the Ottoman elite” (p. 258). His reformist ideas reached their zenith with a modernization project aimed at wholly transforming a village of Manisa (p. 262). In short,

idealist Ottoman fiction served as a ‘practical user’s guide’ for modernist ideas. The ideas of cooperation and division of labor, a capitalist work ethic, and the importance of science, technology, and education were presented to readers in easy-to-digest stories about success and failure. The authors show the ways to wealth and social reputation through hard work, thrift, diligence, moderation, and rational thinking. They also warn against the destructive consequences of ignorance, laziness, indifference, irresponsibility, and irrational behavior (p. 268).

As such, in contrast to French and English novels reflecting social and moral aspects of a capitalist transformation, Ottoman novels reflected “idealistic prototypes of a national bourgeoisie who were expected to plant the seeds of a bottom-up bourgeois transformation on a dry and long-ignored land” (p. 272).

In the concluding chapter, Kılınçoğlu concludes that during the reign of Abdülhamid II, elites conceived of economic development as an imperial project in which holistic approaches were favored at the expense of individualistic ones. The exceptions to this rule were the works of Sakızlı Ohannes, Mehmed Cavid Bey, and Sabahaddin Bey. According to the holistic approach vigorously pursued by Münif Pasha and Ahmed Midhat, “economic development necessitated mobilizing masses for the common goal of building a new country.” The latter believed in private enterprise and a free market, and expected Muslim Ottomans to become wealthy through entrepreneurship. In spite of these liberal theoretical roots in their economic and social projections, however, Muslims’ “altruism and patriotism were put before private interests” (p. 275). Wealth at the individual level had to feed into the wealth and power of the country. According to Kılınçoğlu, this “ideal patriotic and solidarist entrepreneurial behavior” as developed during the period of Abdülhamid II’s reign dominated Ottoman modernist visions of society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (p. 275-6).

Alp Yücel Kaya
Department of Economics
Ege University, Izmir

Primary Sources

Ottoman Archives of Prime Ministry (Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi – BOA), Istanbul.
19th century and early 20th century Ottoman periodicals, journals and books.

Dissertation Information

Princeton University. 2012. 309 pp. Primary Advisor: Şükrü Hanioğlu.


Image: Osmanlı ve Endüstri, Epaş Industrial.

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