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Reviewed by:
  • Ottoman Ulema, Turkish Republic: Agents of Change and Guardians of Tradition
  • Madeline C. Zilfi (bio)
Ottoman Ulema, Turkish Republic: Agents of Change and Guardians of Tradition, by Amit Bein. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011. 224 pages. $55.

The emergence of the secularist Turkish Republic from the Ottoman Empire in 1923 has usually been recounted in binary terms of modern versus anti-modern, with little acknowledgment of the kaleidoscopic partisanships that embroiled religious debate in the late Ottoman and early Republican eras. Until recently, when the Ottoman religious establishment and conservative factions were discussed in relation to the Empireto- Republic transformation, they were usually depicted in monochrome tones of antimodernism or worse. Amit Bein’s Ottoman Ulema, Turkish Republic joins earlier studies by Kemal Karpat, Sükrü Hanioglu, Erik Zürcher, and Hasan Kayalı, among others, in imparting document-rich revisionism to the older historiography. Bein’s contribution, though, breaks additional ground by painstakingly tracking the religion-centered debates that animated ruling circles and the print media in the years of the Empire’s disintegration and the formative decades of the Republic. Although the book touches on the 1960s and recent trends, its temporal focus is the twenty-some years from the Young Turk revolution of 1908 through the height of Kemalism in the early 1930s. In that frame, the book scrutinizes the religious establishment, represented by madrasa-trained ‘ulama’, as well as lesser known figures among religion- minded intellectuals, and uncovers the surprising spectrum of opinion that divided them even while many were drawn into collaboration with the secularizing policies of the Committee of Union and Progress, the Young Turks.

Bein is particularly adept at sorting out the thrusts and parries of religious spokesmen in their struggles to secure the place of Islam in the functioning of the state and in the moral guidance of society. The battle over the place of religion in the apparatus of state had already been joined in the mid-19th century, when the reforms of the Tanzimat [“New Orderings”] deprived the religious establishment, the collective body of licensed ‘ulama’, of their traditional monopolies over law and formal education. The ‘ulama’ of the 20th century had learned to accept the existence of secular schools and courts alongside the shari‘a courts and medrese educational institutions over which they presided. However, the number and kinds of secular schools, from elementary through higher education, had only continued to expand. On the eve of World War I, the scope of the ‘ulama’s responsibilities was further whittled away as high ‘ulama’ officials were increasingly shut out of the councils of state. [End Page 388]

Some of the more conservative elements, men like the one-time Shaykh ul- Islam Mustafa Sabri (d. 1954), were willing to sacrifice everything, even to the point of betraying their countrymen, rather than give up on their rigid notion of an Islamic state. For many others, the confrontation between their religious ideals and the changing nature of state and society in an age of constant, losing warfare led to more creative modes of interaction with Young Turk reformism. Some who cooperated by seeking to modernize the medrese curriculum or by teaching in the new schools — indeed since the mid-19th century, ‘ulama’ had been instrumental in designing the new educational and legal institutions — lived to regret their part in what they saw as the increasing irreligiousness of the state. Still others made the transition from Islamic state to secular Republic with regrets, but not to the point of rejecting the new order.

Bein’s strength is his judicious reading of the myriad religious standpoints in play during the period, and the way that these intersected with regime policies. What is missing, however, is a discussion of how the wider context — of three major wars and tens of thousands of deaths and incoming refugees in the decade before World War I — contributed to religion-state confrontations and ambivalences, including the many shifts in individual adherences, and the revolving-door turnover in ‘ulama’ appointments. The many layers and complications of inter-vocational factions, personality, and economic and other wartime pressures are too often absent from the analysis.

Ottoman Ulema, Turkish Republic...


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pp. 388-389
Launched on MUSE
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