Ottoman Ulema, Turkish Republic: Agents of Change and Guardians of Tradition

By Amit Bein | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
The Ulema Matter

The ulema of the late Ottoman period did not fare particularly well in the historiography of modern Turkey. Only a handful of books and articles in European languages have concentrated on the intellectual production, actions, and institutions of ulema. Perhaps this relative lack of interest should not come as a surprise considering that ulema wound up getting the short end of the stick in the transition from the Ottoman Empire to the Republic of Turkey. In a matter of a few years after the establishment of the new regime in late 1923, the religious establishment was downsized and peripheralized, most of its institutions were abolished, its jurisdiction was severely curtailed, and even the appellation ulema was virtually purged from the Turkish language. When discussed in the historiography of the period, the ulema have often been described, at times dismissively or even derisively, as the essential “other” to a modernized and Westernized new elite that came to dominate the empire and the republic from the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 to the midtwentieth century. Often they have been presented as a rather uniform socioreligious group that had run its course by the early twentieth century and was thus tossed into the dustbin of history. As such, they did not appear to merit much interest in academic studies until quite recently.1

Enter any Islamic bookstore in Turkey or visit the Web sites of Turkish booksellers and a very different picture emerges. Late-Ottoman ulema and the institutions associated with them are the subjects of dozens of books published in recent years. In some cases, these are new translations or revised renditions of texts originally published either in Arabic or in Ottoman script by late-Ottoman ulema. In many other instances, the publications consist of new studies about the late-Ottoman religious establishment, mostly by graduates and faculty of divinity schools that have mushroomed in Turkey in recent decades. These compilations are diverse: some are distinctly academic in tone whereas many

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