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February 07, 2007


Brian Ulrich

There's a trend which I want to look into one of these days of the bureaucratization and institutionalization of the Sunni religious establishment. People usually blame the Ottomans, though I think you could see the relationship between the various pre-Ottoman Turkish dynasties and the ulama as a precursor of that. In any case, Kemal Karpat has said that there's a lot written in Turkish on the effects this had in making Islam much more conservative during the Ottoman centuries, and I've always wanted to try to get a grip on what you might call the organization of Islamic knowledge in the post-Ottoman Arab world and see the current state of play.

Non-Arab Arab

Hardly arcane! Thanks for the pointer. And it ties directly into Brian's comment: Islamic orthodoxy becoming more...orthodox...during the Ottoman centuries was really just an offshoot of decaying political and economic power which then became ossified in social and religious structures (institutional and non-institutional). Cracks in those ossified molds have been occurring for a long time now (since Napoleon in Egypt? And of course more recently as reflected in the Jazeera and media phenomenona), but change in how religion operates is always one of the tougher nuts to crack in any culture.


Sorry, but as someone who has (been forced to) read some of what's been written in Turkish on the "Ilmiye Teskilati" of the Ottoman state the 'ossification theory' doesn't make much sense to me. First, most of the literature Karpat is referring to (e.g. Uzuncarsili) was written during the early to mid Republican period, when both Ottomans and ulema were the mirror for what the modernizing Kemalist state wanted to be doing. That attitude was bound to manifest in scholarship that was, after all, published by a semi-official foundation in Ankara. To be taken with a grain of salt. Second, the Ottomans had little or no control over the various Arab and North African states until the mid-16th century, long after the "gate of ijtihad" is supposed to have closed. The alleged "ossification" is also applied tout court to all Islamic societies from Nigeria to Indonesia. So there are control groups in time and space-- if ossification exists, the Ottomans can't be blamed for it.

As for the equally hoary theme of Ottoman "decay," it would seem to move in the opposite direction from "ossification." If a state is weak, it won't be much good at enforcing institutional uniformity and conservatism.

To me, "conservatism" doesn't seem like a very good way of describing present-day Islamic insitutions either politically or theologically. Salafism, for example, is a classic reactionary movement that developed in explicit response western European colonialism.


Is it true that "people usually blame the Ottomans", Brian? My sense of the ijtihad debate was that the gates closed long before the Ottoman period, and that they just inherited and adapted the new orthodoxy. But I don't read Turkish, so m-a's comments are just fascinating to me. I should post on stuff like this more often.

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