The Ottoman Learned Class, 1300-1600


A review of The Formation of the Ottoman Learned Class and Legal Scholarship (1300-1600), by Abdurrahman Atçıl.

In this dissertation Abdurrahman Atçıl tackles two issues, each formidable in its own right: the development of the Ottoman learned class from its earliest stages, and the development of theoretical and practical jurisprudence in the Islamic world in the context of the post-Mongol conception of science. This is exactly the type of approach that is required to advance the field, namely, the examination of social and political history in relation to intellectual history.  The fact that Atçıl addresses the thorny question of the development of Islamic theoretical jurisprudence is praiseworthy by itself; until recently this area was the sole purview of students of theology. Atçıl’s primary contribution lies in his having produced one of the rare studies that problematizes a significant theological issue in its historical context.

Atçıl begins his discussion by examining the sources of autonomy and sociopolitical power of religious scholars in the Islamic world from the earliest times onward, with particular attention to the post-Mongol period. He identifies the most important factor to be the emergence and sustained development of a scholarly tradition that provided for the crystallization and institutionalization of a body of religious knowledge, emblematized by the institutions of endowment (waqf) and madrasa. He posits the Mongol political takeover as a development that in fact enhanced the status of religious scholars, since they were the actors who had the intellectual ammunition to challenge all-pervasive Mongol legitimacy claims and to represent “indigenous Islamic culture and religion.”

Chapter three turns to the status of religious scholars in Anatolia vis-à-vis the Ottoman imperial enterprise in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. First, the author discusses the pre-Ottoman elite madrasas in relationship to the Ottoman administration; here he concludes that the Ottomans were not able to successfully control them, at least in this period, because of the political immunity conferred by waqf which constituted the ideological and economic basis of these institutions. Second, he addresses in detail the question of the origins and mobility of scholars, demonstrating that they did indeed have a high degree of mobility and were able to directly integrate into the Ottoman religious establishment. This is a topic he examines in more detail in the following chapters in order to illustrate the process by which the Ottoman religious establishment transformed by the time of Suleyman I into a self-sufficient and self-contained structure from which outsiders were debarred almost without exception. This process also entailed a strict preference for Hanafi scholars in the core Ottoman lands whereas earlier there was a significant Shafi‘i presence. Third, Atçıl examines the office of town judgeship, here again concluding that during the early centuries the Ottoman center did not effectively control such posts; appointment to these offices was usually decided locally. All of these issues are critical for our understanding of the Ottoman scholarly and administrative world, and Atçıl is the first scholar either to identify them as such or to treat them in any detail.

Chapter four is devoted to a discussion of the first major attempt to manipulate the structure of scholarly life by Mehmet II (r. 1451-81), whose overwhelming prestige as the conqueror of Constantinople empowered him to redefine the hierarchy of institutions of religious education by establishing his personally-endowed teaching institution as supreme (a policy that was followed and legally codified by his immediate successors) and attacking the waqf institutions of the scholars that ensured their independence and self-maintenance. Furthermore, Atçıl argues that Mehmet’s conquest constituted a turning point after which Ottoman self-perception changed significantly. Now they began thinking in imperial terms, which implied an imperial administration with a corresponding scholarly sector. Thus began the full integration of scholars into the Ottoman enterprise, a result of which was the creation of specifically Ottoman scholars in the sixteenth century; this is in contrast with the ‘international’ scholars of the preceding period who usually did not have a defining political affiliation or identity.

Chapters five and six treat the reigns of Bayezid II (r. 1481-1512), Selim I (r. 1512-1520), and Süleyman I (r. 1520-1566), a long period during which the above processes were fully realized. Here it should be noted that the legal code of Mehmed II that, among other things, administered the scholarly establishment was now transformed into a binding, impersonal principle. Appointments and promotions for teaching and judicial positions having been given a predictable structure in this code, the path to top-level positions (e.g., head professorship, chief jurist, judgeship of Anadolu and Rumeli, and judgeship of major cities) became well-defined and the system closed-off to outsiders.

Chapter seven studies the the evolution and place of theoretical jurisprudence in the context of the religious disciplines, which themselves underwent a restructuring in the twelfth century. The author argues that a preoccupation with logic, the formation of new sciences especially after the thirteenth century, and the formation of a new philosophical language are the defining characteristics of post-eleventh-century Islamic intellectual history, and that, furthermore, all of these factors are reflected in the development of theoretical jurisprudence. This chapter makes for an engaging read, and particularly its treatment of various subtraditions in the development of theoretical jurisprudence, which Atçıl masterfully traces either through individuals or specific works. Although he concedes that most of the works written in this field followed earlier authorities fairly closely, he draws attention to the existence of several original works composed in the Ottoman domains.

Atçıl’s informed examination of theoretical jurisprudence in the Ottoman contexts continues in chapter eight. Here he offers an answer to the critical question of what the function of theoretical jurisprudence was in the early modern Ottoman context. He argues that the development of certain legal identities in the works pertaining to this field and the (re)definition of the place of theoretical jurisprudence in the general schema of knowledge were instrumental in the construction of an exoteric religious identity, a dynastic concern which gained relevance especially after the conquest of Constantinople. This argument is supported by the fact that there was a high degree of interest in theoretical jurisprudence in the second half of the fifteenth century when Ottoman Hanafi Sunni theological identity was being developed and a subsequent decline in the number of works on the subject once the Ottoman religious identity was fully formed. Chapter nine, dedicated to the Ottoman literature on practical jurisprudence, nicely complements Atçıl’s study of Ottoman theoretical jurisprudence.

In sum, this study is a detailed examination of the development of the Ottoman religious establishment in the first three centuries of its existence and also of a major subject of scholarly concern during this period, i.e., theoretical jurisprudence; it distinguishes itself from similar studies in its ability to show the relationship between the two categories. It is not easy to do justice to a work of such intellectual scope in a brief review and a number of important contributions were omitted for reasons of space, Atçıl’s treatment of Ottoman career paths for one. His portrayal of the emergence of a legally regulated, highly predictable and popular hierarchical system of institutions of learning and judicial appointments is unique in the literature.

This study could not have be undertaken without a solid training in theology, both in the Islamic and Ottoman contexts; Atçıl’s work demonstrates the required training in both. Nor could it have be undertaken without sincere affection for the main source of the study, Taşköprülüzade’s al-Shaqa’iq al-Nu‘maniyya and the tradition of biographical writing that sprung from it; here again the author shows a sound grasp of the material. Even if this is not the main focus of the work, a utilization of this tradition in such a manner was long overdue and Atçıl sets an excellent example that should be followed.

In the breadth and precision of his scholarship, Atçıl ably furthers the work of Richard C. Repp who almost thirty years ago produced an authoritative study on the emergence of the office of chief jurist in the Ottoman Empire and of Colin Imber whose analysis of Ebu Suud’s legal reasoning is the most extensive study of Ottoman legal thought to date. It bodes well for the field that dissertations are being produced that engage the intersection of history and the religious sciences so confidently.

Ertuğrul Ökten
Department of Politics and International Relations
29 Mayıs University, Istanbul, Turkey

Primary Sources

Ahmed Taşköprülüzade, al-Shaqa’iq al-Nu‘maniyya fi ‘Ulama’ al-Dawla al-‘Uthmaniyya
Ahmed Taşköprülüzade, Miftah al-Sa’ada wa Misbah al-Siyada
Aşık Çelebi, Dhayl al-Shaqa’iq al-Nu’maniyya
Mecdi Mehmed Efendi, Hada’iq al-Shaqa’iq
Süleymaniye Library, Istanbul
Müftülük Archives, Istanbul

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago. 2010. 352 pp. Primary Advisor: Cornell H. Fleischer.


Image: Ottoman miniature painting from the Şahname-i Selim Han, Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi, Istanbul (Inv. A.3595, fo. 9r, copied 1581). Wikimedia Commons.

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