Lessons for the modern Muslim world from the Ottoman experience
In his royal address at the opening ceremony of the recent KL Summit, the King of Malaysia, Yang di-Pertuan Agong Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al Mustafa Billah Shah, wisely remarked, “We are blessed to have such a rich past that can guide us in the present,” with the Ottoman period cited as an example by His Majesty.
Indeed, the Ottoman State (“Devlet-i Aliye-i Osmaniye”) is a continuation of the civilisation of Islam, which lasted for 700 years. It inherited the intellectual and spiritual tradition of great luminaries in the history of Islam chiefly through the schools of Abu Hanifa (d. 767), Al-Maturidi (d. 944), Al-Ghazali (d. 1111), Jalaluddin Rumi (d. 1273) and Muhiyuddin Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240)—as acknowledged by leading Ottoman historians such as Halil Inalcik.
The Ottomans’ central concern was for unity of the Muslim world—so much so that it was related that Sultan Selim I (d. 1520) wanted to impose the Arabic language on the Turks but the Shaykh’ul Islam (head of Ulama in Ottoman State, appointed by royal warrant) advised against it as the Holy Qur’an had mentioned of the diversity in the world as Signs of God (ayatullah) and of the need to preserve it.
Thus gradually what emerged in the Ottoman period instead was the Islamization of the Turkish language wherein key Islamic vocabularies were infused into the Turkish language but clothed in Arabic script (known as Ottoman Turkish)—as were the case in the entire family of Islamic languages such as Persian, Urdu, Jawi, etc.
It must be remembered that though one could argue the many imperfections of the Ottoman period, the spiritual seeds were sown early on: the founder of the Ottoman State himself, Osman Bey (d. 1326) was raised to esteem knowledge and scholars by his father Ertugrul Bey and this led to a close working relationship with his spiritual guide, Shaykh Edebali (d. 1326). The following quote is one of the famed counsels of Shaykh Edebali to Osman Bey:
Be such an eye that sees only goodness so that you go after it!
Be such a hand that you help the poor!
Be such feet that do not step on ants!
Time is very valuable beware not to waste it!
Be such a tongue that turns poison into honey!
Be such head that stands upright always so that you are not overrun!
Be such a heart that utters ya Haqq* always!”
Thus the central philosophy of Ottoman leadership was: to transcend one’s personal interest in the service of the religion and community. In order words, it was to create a condition such that things are in their proper place, or adalet (justice).
This foundational vision of the Ottomans would later be crystalized into the Circle of Justice (daire-i ʿadliye) as articulated by eminent Ottoman scholars such as Kınālızāde Ali Çelebi (d. 1572) as follows: “Justice leads to the rightness of the world; the world is a garden, its walls are the state; the state is ordered by the shari’a the shari’a is not guarded except by the king; the king cannot rule except through an army; the army is summoned only by wealth; wealth is cultivated by the subjects; the subjects are made servants of the ruler by justice.”
What the Circle of Justice presupposes is perhaps best described by Hasan Çelebi (1937-present), the eminent Turkish calligrapher, who said: “…the main philosophy of the Ottomans was always in establishing justice in the society, and entrusting the task to the qualified, competent, expert. The proficient ones were always encouraged and protected. We all know of the existence of sultans holding their teachers inkpots as they were teaching.”
As a result, every religious group was free to administer its own justice system during the Ottoman period, just as they were free to live their religion in what is known as the “millet system”.
In the domain of architecture and urban design, it was known that the most important infrastructures were entrusted to the best talent in the field: Mimar Sinan (d. 1588), who was responsible for the construction of more than 300 major structures in Ottoman territories. He is famously reported to have said,
“Architecture is the most difficult profession, and he who would practice it correctly and justly must, above all things, be pious.”
In other words, the realization of justice in its comprehensive sense in society must necessarily entail entrusting the various trusts to its genuine Keepers (ahl) of moral integrity and authentic knowledge as commanded by God in surah al-Nisa (4): 58: “God commands you to deliver trusts to keepers worthy of them; and when you judge between people, that you judge with justice.” This has been deliberated profoundly by Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas in his 2015 book, On Justice and the Nature of Man.
The realization of such conception of justice was made possible with the kind of education that inculcated adab in the sense of discernment of mind and spiritual awareness: During the Ottoman period, learning begins at mekteb, community, or elementary school. It was said to be entertaining for children, and they were taught how to read and write. It also included oral education wherein Sufi stories; stories from companions, stories of heroes, and moral stories were related so that their minds are directed towards the right role models.
Subjects taught in early formal education included calligraphy, the Arabic language for beginners and simple grammar, basic knowledge of Islam, syntax, rhetoric and poetry – what is known as trivium in the Western tradition.
The more advanced education (medrese) goes into the intellectual and spiritual sciences, reflecting the term “university” in its original sense (which is derived from the Arabic term “kulliyah”). Subjects taught at this level include interpretations of the Quran (tafsir), prophetic traditions (hadith), basic concepts in logic (mantiq), natural sciences, mathematics and theology – encompasses much more than the quadrivium in the Western tradition.
This educational system has produced numerous luminaries from various sciences. They include: Ak Şemsettin (d. 1459) – tutor and adviser to Fatih Sultan Mehmet; Serafeddin Sabuncuoglu (d. 1468) – physician and author of medical textbooks; Alī Qushjī (d. 1474) – celebrated astronomer and mathematician; Ibn Kemal (d. 1536) – historian, poet, shaykh’ul Islam; Piri Reis (d. 1553) – geographer; Kınalızâde Ali Çelebi (d. 1572) – moral philosopher; Taqi al-Din Muhammad ibn Ma’ruf (d. 1585) – engineer and polymath; Ismail Ankaravi (d. 1631) – spiritual master; and Katib Celebi (d. 1657) – polymath.
As far as spiritual life is concerned, it is more or less understood in the Ottoman period that there are four gates of tasawwuf that one should pass through (often explained in metaphors or stories): (i) Gate of shari’ah (must ground yourself in this); (ii) Gate of tariqa (training your nafs); (iii) Gate of Ma’rifa (experiential knowledge, live according to knowledge); and (iv) Gate of Haqiqa (discovery of real truth, live all together in the same time).
At the heart of their spiritual life is their sensitivity on the question of putting things in their proper place (adab), that contemporary Ottoman historian Mehmet İpşirli remarked, “The love of Islam and Prophet Muhammad was placed at the centre of the Ottoman existence as a comprehensive system and not as a sentiment that changed from one sultan to the next in a sporadic fashion.”