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The Removal of Doubts: Producing Natural Knowledge in the Ottoman Empire

Panel VII-14, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
Perhaps no other author better reveals the richness and complexity of the Ottoman experience of “science” (ʿilm) than the seventeenth-century polymath Kātib Çelebi (d. 1657, alias Ḥācī Halīfe). His massive bibliographic encyclopedia Keşfü’ẓ-ẓunūn (lit. The Removal of Doubts) lists thousands of scientific works written in several hundred fields of knowledge. That a great number of these fields had nature as their subject matter and aimed to produce knowledge about nature testifies to the breadth of the Ottomans' scientific engagement with the natural world. Inspired in large part by Katib Çelebi’s survey of Ottoman science, this panel brings together papers on different realms of knowledge production on the natural world in the Ottoman Empire. Offering a diachronic view stretching from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth century, our panel investigates the changing meanings of ʿilm in the Ottoman Empire. The first paper explores the role of astrology and how Kātib Çelebi incorporated the claims made by his predecessor Ṭaşköprüzāde (d. 1561) on astrology’s relationship to the other sciences. It explores these themes by evaluating Kātib Çelebi’s Taḳvīmü’t-tevārīh and asking whether the principles of astrology offered useful knowledge for the historian. The second paper investigates the Ottoman tradition of physics or natural philosophy (ʿilm-i ṭabīʿī) and aims to establish a preliminary framework for further investigation of this scientific discipline. By examining hitherto unstudied premodern Ottoman books on natural philosophy, the paper introduces the principal authors, texts, and issues of this body of knowledge, offers an overview of the historical development of its textual tradition, and discusses the institutional context in which its specialists worked. The third paper deals with the Ottoman perceptions and understandings of cifr, a divinatory practice, which was based on the numerical values of the letters of the Arabic alphabet. Leaving aside the vast corpus of manuals on this kind of knowledge, the paper centers on encyclopedic treatises, in an effort to highlight the different opinions concerning the usefulness and legitimacy of the practice, along with its relation to other branches of knowledge. The final paper in the panel deals with the work of the Ottoman polymath Şānīzāde ʿAtāullāh Efendi whose early-nineteenth-century publications on anatomy (teşrīḥ) show how the introduction of new anatomical drawings from Europe into Ottoman medical literature demonstrated a move away from the microcosmic understanding of the body prevalent in early modern Greco-Islamic cosmology.
  • Prof. Nir Shafir -- Discussant
  • Ms. Yasemin Akcaguner -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Dimitrios Giagtzoglou -- Presenter
  • Mr. Cem Turkoz -- Presenter
  • Ms. Yasemin Akcaguner
    This paper investigates the changing relationship between astral science and medicine in the Ottoman Empire by focusing on the development of teşrih or anatomical science at the turn of the nineteenth century. Katip Çelebi in describing the importance of anatomy in his Keşfü’z-zünun quotes the following from Ibn Sadr al-Din: “Those who do not know astronomy (heyʾet) and anatomy (teşrīḥ) are deficient in knowing God.” The parallel Qunawi draws between astronomy and anatomy elucidates how the human body was conceptualized as microcosmic in the pre-modern Islamicate world, with body parts understood as beholden to planetary forces. Building on recent scholarship on the professionalization and institutionalization of medicine in the Ottoman domains, I show how the human body’s position within Islamicate cosmology changed at turn of the nineteenth century with the introduction of new European anatomical drawings to Ottoman medical literature, notably in the works of Şanizade Ataullah Efendi. To illustrate this transformation I contrast the anatomy sections of two texts: the Maʿrifetname, or Book of Gnosis by İbrahim Hakkı Erzurumi – a popular encyclopedia of the sciences from 1757, and Şanizade Ataullah Efendi’s Mirʿatü’l-Ebdan, or The Mirror of Bodies published in 1820. Şanizade’s reproduction of anatomical drawings from Padua-trained physicians such as Andreas Vesalius signaled a move away from the primarily textual Galenic understanding of human anatomy, I argue, and a step towards a more detailed three dimensional visual understanding of the body that eschewed astrological connections. Beyond a discussion of what these new scholarly models of the body meant for Ottoman medical ontology, I also explore the practical implementation of ʿilm-i teşrīḥ: how did anatomical teaching take place in the first quarter of the nineteenth century in Istanbul? Were dissections a part of anatomical instruction in Istanbul as would soon be the case in Cairo? If so, how, where and by whom were they conducted? Exploring the early-nineteenth-century scholarly publications on and practice of anatomy helps us understand to what extent anatomical science was a discrete and institutionalized discipline for making sense of nature in the Ottoman Empire.
  • This paper explores the hitherto neglected tradition of natural philosophy (al-ʿilm al-ṭabīʿī) in the Ottoman Empire in the period ca. 1500-1800. While research on the history of Ottoman science and philosophy has made significant progress in recent decades, the discipline of natural philosophy remains severely underresearched. Given the lack of secondary scholarship and edited primary sources on the subject, this study aims to lay a preliminary framework for further research into the Ottoman tradition of natural philosophy. Examining numerous unpublished works on natural philosophy that survive in Turkish manuscript libraries, it offers general answers to questions such as the following: What were the main texts, issues, and debates of natural philosophy in the Ottoman Empire? Who were the principal authors? How did Ottoman scholars understand the discipline of natural philosophy? What was its relationship to other fields of knowledge? What was the institutional framework in which the study of natural philosophy took place? In addressing these questions, this paper argues that Ottoman scholars vigorously pursued natural philosophy throughout the empire's history by presenting three findings. First, the paper shows that the section on natural philosophy in Athīr al-Dīn al-Abharī's (d. 1265) Hidāyat al-ḥikma, Qāḍī Mīr al-Maybudī's (d.1504) commentary on this work, and Muṣliḥ al-Dīn al-Lārī's (d.1571) gloss on al-Maybudī's commentary were tremendously popular in Ottoman scholarly circles. Second, the paper shows that Ottoman scholars wrote numerous glosses and super glosses on al-Maybudī's commentary and al-Lārī's gloss, where they investigated central topics of Aristotelian physics such as atomism, hylomorphism, space, void, motion, and time. Third, the paper shows that the madrasa served as an essential setting for studying natural philosophy and that the discipline was an important part of Ottoman madrasa curricula. Together, these findings radically challenge received views of the natural sciences in the Ottoman Empire, which tend to regard Ottoman scholarly engagements with nature as marginal or characteristically devoid of philosophical orientation.
  • Dimitrios Giagtzoglou
    The word cifir/cifr/cefr (الجفر) was used in the Islamicate World to describe a complex divinatory technique, which was based on the numerical values of the letters of the Arabic alphabet. This occult practice dates back to the early days of Islam and the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali; it was him, who acted as its first practitioner and the one who allegedly composed the first book, which described the secrets that were hidden in the letters. Some of the most prominent scholars within the Lands of Islam such as Ibn Khaldun and Imam Ghazali spoke of the nature of cifr and the qualities of the people who were allowed to know and practice it. Throughout the course of centuries the practice found broad use, mainly within a political context, where it was used as a tool for the legalization of political authority through predictions of major future events of military, political and apocalyptic nature. This is, for example, the case in Miftah-ı Cifrü'l-Cami (Key to the comprehensive divination), a magnificently illustrated cifr treatise attributed to one of the most prolific lettrist masters, Şeyh Abdurrahman el-Bistami (d. 1454). Bistami stands as the one who introduced this knowledge in the Ottoman Realm and as the intellectual heir to the greatest lettrist of the Islamicate World, Ahmed el-Buni (d. 1225). Τhis paper focuses on the ottoman period and deals with the understandings and interpretations of this particular field of knowledge (‘ilm) from an outside perspective, that is, not through the expert eyes of its practisers, but through those of the polymaths and the people of knowledge. It tackles questions such as the position of cifr among different branches of knowledge, occult and other, as these are presented and analyzed in the various Ottoman encyclopedias, from the early Ottoman period and up until the late 17th century. The starting point of this quest is the opus magnum of Islamicate and Ottoman encyclopedism, Katib Çelebi’s (1609-1657) Keşfü'z-zünun (The Removal of Doubts). In this monumental bibliographic catalog one is presented with the basic literature, characteristics and genealogy of all the branches of knowledge, which were based on the hidden qualities of the letters. The paper seeks to present these different branches and also to highlight the additional role of cifr as a tool in the polymaths’s efforts of understanding and interpreting the natural world.