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National Romanticism: The Formation of National Movements

Balázs Trencsényi
Michal Kopeček

Chapter V. National Heroism: Revolution and Counter-Revolution

Hymn to Independence

Mehmed Akifs
Traduction de Ahmet Ersoy

Texte intégral

1Title: İstiklal Marşı (Hymn to Independence)

2Originally published: Ankara, simultaneously published in the daily Hakimi yet-i Milliye and the journal Sebilürreşad (March 2, 1921)

3Language: Ottoman Turkish

4The original prints of the poem are republished in Zeki Sarıhan, Vatan Türküsü: İstiklal Marşı, Tarihi ve Anlamı (Ankara, Ministry of Culture, 2000), pp. 34–35.

About the author

5Mehmed Akif (Ersoy) [1873, Istanbul – 1936, Istanbul]: poet and national activist. Mehmed Akif was the son of a medrese (Islamic school) teacher of Albanian origin. After receiving his primary Islamic training in a local school, he studied in secular institutions, mastering Arabic, Persian and also French. Although trained as a veterinarian surgeon, he was employed as a professor of literature at the Istanbul Academy of Sciences after 1908. He is known as the most eminent figure of the Islamic reform movement of the second constitutional period (1908–1913). In contrast to the resolute traditionalist stance of some conservatives, a large group of intellectuals like Mehmed Akif believed in the essential compatibility of Islam and modernization, promoting, under the constitutional regime, the idea of a social and cultural regeneration based on Islamic principles. After the Balkan Wars of 1912– 13, Mehmed Akif joined the Committee of Union and Progress, the political party that was in charge of the Ottoman government following the constitutional revolution of 1908. At this time, he was renowned as a fervent preacher of “the Unity of Islam” (Islam İttihadı), the policy espoused by the Unionists in order to gain the allegiance of the Arab citizens. During the First World War, Mehmed Akif worked in the intelligence service of the Committee of Union and Progress, propagating the pan-Islamic message in Germany (among British prisoners of war from the Muslim colonies) and the Arabian peninsula. Following the invasion of İzmir (Gr. Smyrna) by the Greek forces, he began preaching in support of the nascent independence movement, while writing passionate anti-imperialist articles in the Islamist journal Sebilürreşad (Path of Righteousness). After the British invasion of Istanbul (1920), he was invited to Ankara by Mustafa Kemal, who was eager to gain public support by appealing to Muslim dignitaries. In Ankara, Mehmed Akif got elected to the national parliament that was convened in April 1920. In the following months, he was sent to various towns in Anatolia, campaigning for the independence movement. With his immense popularity among conservative circles as the “poet of Islam,” Mehmed Akif was able to mobilize large Anatolian masses for the cause of national independence. Yet, on the eve of the final Turkish victory, he severed his ties with Ankara, disillusioned by the political agenda of Mustafa Kemal. When the Republic was declared in 1923, Mehmed Akif left Turkey for Egypt, returning to Istanbul only for the summers. When the principle of secularism was accepted by the parliament in 1927, he made his self-imposed exile permanent, only returning to Turkey in 1936, wishing to die in his own country. Republican official historiography portrays Mehmed Akif as a great national poet and as a hero of the war of independence, carefully overlooking his post-Republican absence. His broader intellectual legacy is embraced by the conservatives who lay emphasis on his critical stance towards Republican secularism.

6Main works: Safahat [Stages] (1911); Süleymaniye Kürsüsünde [On the Pulpit of the Süleymaniye Mosque] (1912); Hakkın Sesleri [Voices of Truth] (1914); Hatıralar [Memoirs] (1917); Âsım (1924); Gölgeler [Shadows] (1933).


7In October 1920, only months after the inauguration of the national parliament in Ankara, local newspapers announced the guidelines of a poetry competition organized by the newly established Ministry of Education. The objective of the competition was to select a poem, defined from the start as the “Hymn to Independence,” that would best represent the aims of the national resistance movement and appeal to the public as a token of their national struggle. When none of the 724 works submitted to the contest were found worthy of adoption by the national parliament, Mehmed Akif (who had declined to join the contest because of the cash prize involved) was invited directly by the minister of education to submit a separate entry. In the early months of 1921, Akif’s poem was sanctioned by the parliament as the official “Independence Hymn” of the Turkish nation. Subsequently, another competition was launched for the musical composition of the piece. The whole endeavor was part of an active propaganda and mobilization campaign conducted by the leadership of the resistance movement, which also involved activities such as the acquisition and control of provincial newspapers, or the careful dispersal of acclaimed orators around Anatolia. Throughout the War of Independence, the Hymn was recited (or sung) on every public occasion organized by the resistance. An intensely emotional poem written by the most revered literary figure of the time, the ‘Hymn’ was a powerful instrument for augmenting nationalist sentiments among the Anatolian public. Conceived in the form of a national anthem, Akif’s poem also worked as an important token of legitimacy for the Ankara government yet in need of local and international recognition.

8Mehmed Akif’s poem, imbued with images of Islamic martyrdom, powerfully conveys the emotions and anxieties of a people fearful of losing its independence, and even its existence, in the face of imperialist violence. Still, in contrast to Akif’s other military paeans, the strong Islamic evocations of the ‘Hymn’ are outweighed by an overall emphasis on national pride and solidarity. The fact that the Islamist poet never makes any specific reference to the ‘Turkishness’ of the nation has often led to interpretations that it was a pan-Islamic kind of nationalism, rather than Turkish, that Akif envisaged as the moving ideology behind the Anatolian resistance. Indeed, appealing exclusively to ethnic Turks would have been contrary to Mehmed Akif’s conviction that all Islamic peoples in the world constituted a greater “nation” unified by their faith. With reference to a hadith (prophetic saying) that denounced “tribalism” (kavmiyyet), Akif was strongly opposed to a politics of identity based exclusively on ethnicity, as fostered by the pan-Turkist wing of Turkish nationalism. Nevertheless, in Akif’s mind, Turkey was a separate and privileged political entity that constituted Islam’s most prominent bastion of resistance against imperialism. A closer reading of his Hymn reveals the strong territorial, if not ethnic, overtones of Akif’s religiously-clad nationalism. Even a cursory glance into the ‘Hymn’ leaves no doubt that the poet’s intended audience was the Turkish people, distinguished in the poem as a collectivity that nurtured the national ideal of independence, and one that had lived free “since time immemorial.” The consistent use of the word ‘yurt’ (motherland), an ancient Turkish word recently popularized by the nationalists in place of the Arabic term ‘vatan’ (favored by the Ottomanists), is also redolent of the local patriotism embedded in Mehmed Akif’s lines. Still, due to the ambiguous stance that the poet maintained between his larger pan-Islamic and Turkish nationalist loyalties, many critical terms in the poem, such as ‘millet’ (nation) or ‘ırk’ (race, descent), extended across various shades of meaning. As such, Akif’s ‘Hymn’ suited the yet unresolved political agendas of the independence movement, within which religion played a major role as a mobilizing agent.

9The poem’s aggressive tone is largely determined by the strong anti-imperialist sentiments prevalent among members of the resistance movement. In fact, some parts of the ‘Hymn’ can even be considered aggressively anti-Western, in striking contrast to the resolute westernizing agenda of the future Republic. Mehmed Akif considered western civilization to be in an alarming state of moral decay. For him, it was essential for the Islamic world to resist the degenerate values propagated by the modern West (although, one was expected to appropriate certain elements of Western material progress), and to fight against the imperialist system of global exploitation. Hence, in the ‘Hymn,’ Western civilization, as the imperialist aggressor, is characterized as a terrifying “monster” lurking beneath steel-clad walls, but a depraved one at that, with a single tooth left in its mouth. The very fact that the text begins with the call “Fear not!” is significant in terms of expressing the feelings of terror, humiliation and revolt that must have dominated the Turkish public mood around 1921. By this time, in accordance with the Sèvres Treaty of 1919, most of what had been left of the Ottoman Empire was under Allied occupation, including symbolic locations such as Istanbul, İzmir and Bursa. The rest of Anatolia remained fatally depopulated and impoverished, while the Ottoman army was severely depleted by numerous defeats and mass desertions. The resistance movement in Ankara had gained no significant victories until this point, and was merely trying to gather local resistance groups under its own leadership for the organization of a regular army. To that end, Kemalist leadership was ready to utilize all available ideological weaponry, including the kind of religious sentiment that Mehmed Akif so powerfully articulated. The fact that the poem remained the national anthem after the promulgation of the Republic, during its secularization, and throughout the subsequent political upheavals, reflects its very power in embodying the constellation of feelings that went into the making of the national War of Independence.

The Hymn to Independence

“Fear not!” The crimson flag gleaming above these horizons will never fade,
Not until the last hearth of the motherland fades out.
That flag is the star of my nation, shining forever,
It is mine, it belongs solely to my nation.

Coy crescent, I beg you, do not knit your brow,
Smile for once upon my heroic race, why that anger, that rage.
Or else, you will not be blessed, for all that blood we spilled in your name,
For independence is the prerogative of my God-loving nation.

I live free. I lived free since time immemorial,
What mad man, I wonder, hopes to put me in chains.
Like a roaring flood, I engulf the banks, erupt,
I tear apart mountains, outspread the horizons, overflow.

If the western horizons are dimmed by a steel-clad wall,
Standing firm are my frontiers, like a chest bursting with zeal.
It might howl, do not fear. How can it devour such faith?
That monster called civilization, left with a single tooth.

Friend! Do not let any villain set foot on my homeland,
Shield it with your own body, stop this shameless assault.
The days will come. Days promised to you by God,
Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps even sooner than that.

Do recognize what you stand upon. Just earth?
Think. With thousands of shroudless martyrs lying beneath?
You are the son of a martyr, do not fail your ancestor,
Never surrender this paradise land, even when offered the whole world.

Who would not die for this heavenly land?
Martyrs would gush out, if you squeezed the soil.
God can take whatever I have; my heart, my beloved,
But only, I hope, not deprive me of my motherland.

God! This is the only plea of my soul,
Let no impure hand touch a stone of my sanctuary.
These calls to prayer, confirming the basis of my faith,
Should resound forever in the motherland’s skies.

Then, in ecstasy, my tombstone – if I’d have one – would prostrate a thou-sand times,
Every slash in my body weeping bloody tears,
My carcass would burst out of the soil, like an ethereal soul,
I would be so elated, my head touching the heavens above.

Gleam, O crescent, gleam like the twilight,
Bless all the blood that we spilled,
Neither you, nor my race shall ever perish,
For freedom is the prerogative of my flag, forever free,
And independence is the prerogative of my God-loving nation.

© Central European University Press, 2007

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