MODERN HISTORY AND POLITICS - Ottoman Ulema, Turkish Republic: Agents of Change and Guardians of Tradition

By Zilfi, Madeline C. | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

MODERN HISTORY AND POLITICS - Ottoman Ulema, Turkish Republic: Agents of Change and Guardians of Tradition


Zilfi, Madeline C., The Middle East Journal


Ottoman Ulema, Turkish Republic: Agents of Change and Guardians of Tradition, by Amit Bein. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011. 224 pages. $55.

Reviewed by Madeline C. Zilfi

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 Kayali, 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. …

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