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Social and Political Life of the Ottoman Empire

Session III-04, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
  • While recent scholarship has illuminated the educational and anticolonial activist actions of networks of Ottoman-trained military officers in the Mashriq during the interwar period, further examination of these officers’ life-writings also provides insight into these officers’ families and households, revealing episodes and trends of marriage, household formation, and mobility across the lands of the former Ottoman Empire. For example, the memoirs of Baghdad-born Ottoman army officer and later Iraqi Army Chief of Staff Taha al-Hashimi contain references to his marriage in Istanbul; the couple’s travel to Damascus in 1920; the birth of their children; searching for a residence; and visits to his family in Istanbul in the 1930s when he lived, seemingly separately, in Baghdad. Meanwhile, the memoirs of Ja‘far al-‘Askari refer to visits to Egypt by his spouse, near the end of the First World War, while later references to his family locate them in Baghdad in the 1920s. Similarly, Laila Parsons examines Fawzi al-Qawuqji’s family in Syria. Furthermore, Noga Efrati identified spouses of Ottoman-trained military officers in interwar Iraqi social and political circles, including the prominent women’s club Nadi al-Nahda al-Nisa’iyya. Examining these disparate primary and secondary sources to study the families and households that constituted the networks of Ottoman-trained military officers can reveal trends in marriage, household formation, and transnational mobility, in addition to an expanded understanding of these networks. Why did the household of Taha al-Hashimi and his spouse, Munawwer, reside in Istanbul, while others resided in Iraq during the interwar period? Could this indicate the existence of diaspora-like communities from Baghdad in Istanbul? How did these communities respond to the “end of empire”? How did these trends change over time, especially during the brief time that many Ottoman-trained officers and their families and households relocated to Damascus in 1920? Further examination of memoirs by Ottoman-trained military officers from the Mashriq will reveal similar glimpses of marriage, household formation, mobility, and interaction in the interwar period. This work will complement and expand upon recent scholarship by Provence, Kayalı, Parsons, Sanagan, and Watenpaugh about the individuals Michael Provence called “the Last Ottoman Generation;” as well as works by Tamari, Fortna, and Deringil that explore life-writings of Ottoman military personnel who were from or who served in the Mashriq; in addition to works by Abou-Hodeib on middle class households in late Ottoman Beirut.
  • What makes someone a Nahḍawī? Must a person have lived and breathed the Arab project of cultural and political modernity, or is it enough to have lived in the nineteenth-century to earn the moniker? This paper explores the attributes of a Nahḍawī through a case study of Ibrāhīm al-Najjār (1822–1864), a forgotten physician from Mt. Lebanon who was rooted in the Ottoman political and military arena and actively participated in Nahḍa-era events in Beirut. I argue that Dr. Ibrāhīm Bey, as he was known, was an Ottoman Nahḍawī who believed that his cultural and scientific contribution improved civil society and supported the state-sponsored program of modernity, i.e., the Tanzimat (1839–1876). This research draws primarily on his autobiographical-cum-ethnological monograph Miṣbāḥ al-Sārī wa-Nuzhat al-Qāriʾ (Traveler’s Light, Reader’s Delight, 1855–1858), as well as newspaper clippings, church records, and Catholic missionary reports. Living life on his own terms, Dr. Ibrāhīm Bey confounds conventional approaches to categorization. Intellectually, he was a man of science, educated at the top Ottoman medical institutions in Cairo and Istanbul. Politically, he was faithful to the Sultan and served as his chief physician at the Ottoman Military Hospital in Beirut. Locally, al-Najjār enhanced the cultural infrastructure of his city where he presided at the predominantly Catholic al-Jamʿiyya al-Sharqiyya (the Oriental Society, est. 1849) and established an independent printing press. Religiously, he was ambivalent, leaving Catholicism to adopt Protestantism and then leaving Protestantism to embrace something that the archives do not divulge. It seems that al-Najjār was like his peers, such as Buṭrus al-Bustānī (1819–1883) and Khalīl al-Khūrī (1836–1907), who navigated complex matrices of loyalties and affinities (Zachs 2011; Arsan 2021). Dr. Ibrāhīm Bey epitomizes the nineteenth-century Ottoman man of science, becoming a “proper” and “loyal” man of the state. (Yalçinkaya 2014). He operationalized his immoveable belief in logic and reason to serve the Sultan and perceived no contradiction in supporting imperial projects, in addition to engaging in the cultural and intellectual ventures transpiring in Beirut. He ascribed a positive mutual effect between activities in the periphery and plans drawn up in the metropole. Functioning confidently in both spaces, al-Najjār presents himself as both an Ottoman and a Nahḍawī.
  • This paper analyzes an under-explored avenue of imperial exploitation that targeted the Ottoman Empire during the Tanzimat Reforms: The Ottoman Commercial Tribunals. These tribunals operated in nearly every corner of the Ottoman Empire to solve commercial disputes among foreigners and Ottoman subjects. This provides a unique window into rural Ottoman areas to analyze imperial interactions among European and Ottoman bureaucrats, as well as interactions among local and imperial actors of various nationalities and ethnicities. This paper demonstrates how attempts by foreign empires to increase their hegemonic influence in the Ottoman Empire led to clashes in the commercial tribunals between Europeans, non-Muslim Ottoman subjects backed by Europeans, local Muslim Ottoman subjects, and Ottoman imperial bureaucrats. The proceedings of these disputes uniquely display the local repercussions of imperial contests over economy and culture, as well as the consequences of hegemonic rivalries that stymied and ultimately undermined the Tanzimat Reforms of the Ottomans. Archival documents (court documents, bureaucratic and administrative correspondences) from The Ottoman Archives of the Prime Minister’s Office (Istanbul, Turkey) and from The National Archives (Kew, UK) were analyzed to form the arguments and conclusions. Two strategic outcomes of the imperial rivalries in these tribunals will be emphasized: increased tensions between European actors and the diminished authority of imperial Ottoman bureaucracy at the local level. Both of these outcomes played a role in ruining the Ottoman Empire’s relations with their European allies and the Ottoman reform efforts. A note on the reasons why Ottoman Commercial Tribunals are an under-explored area of research: most of the documents pertaining to the tribunals were destroyed during fires in the Department of Justice of the Ottoman Empire in 1875, and in British efforts to make space in their archives in early-twentieth century. Fortunately, many records of the tribunals were scattered throughout different departments of the Ottoman Empire due to clerical procedures and logistic circumstances. This has made it extremely time consuming to research the tribunal cases, as they are quite literally scattered across thousands of folders and documents in various archives, without any hints at how they are related. This surely adds additional value to this research as one that most historians would (correctly) dismiss as too time consuming for a sane person to engage.
  • In this paper, I look at how the two prominent Ottoman sheikhulislams (grand muftis), Zekeriyâzâde Yahyâ (d.1644) and Minkarizâde Yahyâ (d.1678), redefined and mediated the notions of space and alterity in their fetva (legal opinion) collections. Issued by the highest-ranking members of legal bureaucracy in the Ottoman empire, I argue, these collections can help understand how sheikhulislams turned into key interlocutors of state-sponsored ventures of social disciplining and otherization in the turbulent seventeenth century. More specifically, by contextualizing their fetvas tackling inter-religious disputes, spaces, and encounters vis-a-vis the dominant sociopolitical and moral discourses of the seventeenth century, I explore to what extent these bureaucrats-cum-intellectuals influenced and were influenced by imperial policies toward non-Muslims. I show that not only are there striking parallels between the subjects raised in their fetvas and the state-led coercive policies toward non-Muslims at the time, but there is also further evidence from other primary sources such as sicil (court record) and waqfiyye (endowment records) that can confirm how instrumental sheikhulislams became in the modus operandi of the empire by the early seventeenth century. I then turn to the content, sociolegal lexicon, and language of the fetvas that involve both Muslims and non-Muslims to unravel how new references, terminologies, and notions were introduced in the contexts of inter-religious cohabitations, rituals, and everyday practices. I specifically focus on the nomenclature of alterity that was constructed through the juxtaposition of the words “impurity, dirtiness, disturbance” with non-Muslim identities, spaces, and practices, a terminology that has not been seen in prior fetva corpora. I, therefore, claim that by redefining, changing, and adding to the pre-existing notions of space and subjecthood, these sheikhulislams (re)produced moral and sociopolitical discourses of otherization and, in a way, contributed to the coercive policies of the empire that targeted the Istanbulite non-Muslims. Finally, although it is known that fetvas were not legally binding instruments in Islamic legal systems, by considering the impact they made in this case, I question in particular why these sheikhulislams might have decided to set an unprecedented example and associated non-Muslims with notions of dirtiness, impurity, and disturbance. I believe uncovering such novel conceptualizations and discourses associated with spaces and subjects will be an important contribution to previous studies that pointed to the mercurial relationship the Ottoman court had with its non-Muslim subjects in the early modern period.