Scholars and Sultans in Early Modern Ottoman Empire by Abdurrahman Atçil
There is little doubt that the Mongol conquests fundamentally transformed the order of things in the Eurasian heartland in the thirteenth century and caused great fluctuations in the social structures from the Middle East and Anatolia to the Central Asia and China. The very establishment of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of its bureaucratic structure was indeed an outcome of the post-Mongol realities in Anatolia shaped by the collapse of the Seljuks in mid-thirteenth century due to the Mongol attacks. Following the conquest of Istanbul in 1453, the scholars who found themselves in the Ottoman lands stemmed mainly from the migrations and turn-over caused by the Mongols transformed the Muslim scholars into the imperial bureaucrats and made a notable contribution to the emergence of the Ottomans as an early modern empire. By their contribution, the Ottoman state was reinstated and 'bureaucratized' as an Early Modern Empire similar to its counterparts in Europe and Asia. However, the number of the studies that locates the Ottoman experience of the empire-formation in the early modern and post-Mongol contexts is still limited. In this regard, Abdurrahman Atçıl's book, Scholars and Sultans in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire, fills a very meaningful gap in the existing literature by focusing on the transformation of the scholar class from the very beginning of the Ottoman era well into 1600s when the imperial body began to experience another transformation. The main argument of the books is that the scholars played a significant role in the transformation of the Ottomans into an Early Modern Empire, which is successfully established through the book.
The book consisted of three parts and ten chapters, which chronologically traces the emergence, consolidation and the domination of the scholars, the imperial bureaucratic hierarchy from the very beginning of the Ottoman history up to its heydays. All the parts are tactfully combined with the world-historical developments of the periods they are focused. The first two chapters of Part I are dedicated to the adventure of the scholars and scholarly institutes, i.e. Madrasas,in Anatolia and Ottoman lands prior to 1453 by focusing on the scholars' global networks extending from Samarkand to Cairo, and demonstrating their contribution to the emergence of the Ottomans as a worldwide empire. The lack of information in the first and second-hand sources, however, prevented the more accurate analyses through the [End Page 135] chapters. In addition, this part points out the distance between the scholars and the imperial rulers during the analysed period.
The second part focuses on 'the formative period' of the scholar-bureaucrat class (1453–1530), combines the rise of the scholar-bureaucrats as a new elite class with the transformation of the Ottoman state from a nomadic Turcoman state to an early modern empire and shed light on the former's role in the bureaucratization of the Ottoman state, which happened frequently in the early modern imperial structures. The new era, which began with the capture of Constantinople, the last capital of the Roman empire, paved the way for the Ottoman assertions for a universal empire that scholars occupied a significant place in the justification of such claims. The scholar's influence began to increase in the first period of this era (1453–1481) as Mehmet II (r. 1444–1446, 1451–1481) tried to monopolize the patronage of the Muslim scholars. He created an opportunity for the lifetime carrier to the scholars in the service of the empire. His investments to make Istanbul attractive for the scholars bore their fruit and a scholarly migration took place from Iran during his reign. However, they still did not completely incorporate in the imperial bureaucracy and remained reluctant to support Mehmed II's project to make Constantinople a central place for the scholars from all over the Muslim world. The scholarly support is further needed with the emergence of such crises as the Safavid challenge and throne struggle between Bayezid II (r. 1481–1512) and Cem following the death of Mehmet II in late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. As a result, the scholars were organized in a hierarchical way by transforming themselves into scholar-bureaucrats and reaching quite an influential power within the empire. In the period following the reign of Mehmed II, as the author details in chapter 5, the scholar-bureaucrats benefitted from the power struggles between the sultans and their competitors to realize their power. Moreover, the need to take or receive the religio-legal justification of the scholars in the wars against the Safavids (1514) and the Mamluks (1516), too, contributed to the rise of this class.
Atçıl focuses in the last part on the consolidation of the scholar-bureaucratical hierarchy and their domination to the imperial bureaucracy from 1530sto 1600s by combining it with the concerns of the central government such as the centralization of the power in the newly conquered territories during the reigns of Selim I (r. 1512–1520) and Suleiman I (r. 1520–1566) and their successors and the definition of the Sunni identity of the empire in the struggle with the Safavids. Many details are provided in this part regarding the career paths of the scholar-bureaucrats toward the highest posts of the Ottoman [End Page 136] bureaucracy. In addition, this part successfully demonstrates how – by the intervention of the influential high-ranking scholar-bureaucrats – the imperial bureaucracy was extended and new posts were created wherein the scholars could be employed as the bureaucrats. Furthermore, the book shows how the needs of the bureaucracy transformed the criteria for the scholarly excellence.
While shedding light on such critical topics and bringing a new interpretation to the most debated topics in the existing literature that exemplified above, the book uses noteworthy first hand sources in Ottoman Turkish from the archives of the Directorate General for the Foundations and The Topkapi Palace as well as the other crucial sources in Arabic such as Shaqa'iq-i Nu'maniyye and fetva collections. The dialogue with the existing scholarships continues through the book. However, the lack of the documents from the Ottoman archives for the later periods could have been raised as a fundamental criticism to the book. The inclusion of these sources would more firmly substantiate the arguments of the author. Yet, the book is a significant contribution to the growing literature on the bureaucratic classes of Early Modern Empires and the Islamic intellectual history as well as the history of the ulema class in the early Ottoman period.