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A Handbook and Reader of Ottoman Arabic

Esther-Miriam Wagner

I. Handbook

4. Rumi authors, the Arabic historiographical tradition, and the Ottoman Dawla/Devlet

Guy Burak

Texte intégral

  • 1  On al-Nahrawālī see Blackburn (2012). See also the Introduction in Blackburn (2005). On Semiz Ali (...)

1In Jumādā II 965/April 1558, the envoy of the sharīf of Mecca, the Hanafi jurist, scholar, and chronicler Quṭb al-Dīn Muḥammad b. Aḥmad b. Muḥammad al-Nahrawālī (d. 1582) visited Istanbul and met with Semiz Ali Paşa, then second vizier and future grand vizier of the Empire (served as grand vizier from 1561 to 1565).1 The Meccan envoy was impressed by the vizier’s scholarly interests and, particularly, by the latter’s interest in history (taʾrīkh). When the vizier informed the envoy of his successful military campaigns against the infidels, al-Nahrawālī warned the vizier:

if what you have mentioned is not recorded, it will perish from memory and its virtues will not be known after a few years, and when whoever was present in that campaign perishes, his narration [of events, khabar] will perish as well. No one will remember [the campaign] and its knowledge will vanish from the pages of existence (ṣafaḥāt al-wujūd) after a short while.

  • 2  On Kinalizade see Tezcan (1996) and Köker (1999). Kinalizade’s familiarity with the Arabic scholar (...)

2The Meccan envoy immediately mentioned the interest of Arab scholars (ʿulamāʾ) in the science of history and even provided the vizier with a relevant example: the 13th-century chronicler Abū Shāma’s (d. 1267) al-Rawḍatayn fī akhbār al-dawlatayn (Abū Shāma 1997). Abū Shāma’s chronicle, al-Nahrawālī explained, records the military campaigns against the crusaders undertaken during the reigns (dawla) of Nūr al-Dīn (d. 1174) and Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn al-Ayyūbī (d. 1193). “This most exquisite and beautiful book,” the Meccan pointed out, “remained in the pages of time.” Al-Nahrawālī then concluded with a question: “Why aren’t your histories (akhbārakum) and deeds (āthārakum) recorded in the books [of history], eternalised in the pages of the eras and time periods?” Upon hearing the envoy’s question, Semiz Ali Paşa asked the scholar and jurist Kınalızade Ali Çelebi (d. 1572), whom al-Nahrawālī described as “the time’s most virtuous composer in Arabic” (faḍīl dhalika al-waqt fī al-inshāʾ al-ʿArabī), to compile a work like Abū Shāmah’s. According to al-Nahrawālī, Kınalızade started working on the Arabic chronicle, which he never completed (Al-Nahrawālī 2004, 310–11).2

  • 3  For the treatise on the Ottoman construction projects see Burak (2017, 315 n. 2). On the Duʿa-name(...)

3The vignette is revealing for several reasons. First, the exchange between the three protagonists reveals intriguing dynamics between the different parts of the Empire and their respective intellectual/historiographical/literary traditions. Al-Nahrawālī, a Meccan jurist and scholar, was well-versed in the Arabic historiographical tradition. The vizier, who was of Bosnian descent and had entered the imperial administration as a young boy, on the other hand, was known for his patronage of at least two works in ‘simple Turkish’ over the course of his career: a short treatise on the Ottoman construction projects in Mecca, which he commissioned during his tenure as governor of Egypt, and the Book of Prayer (duʿā-nāme), which he commissioned during his grand vizierate.3 And Kınalızade, “the most virtuous writer in Arabic [among the Rumis],” emerges as one of the relatively few scholars from the core, predominantly Turkish-speaking lands of the Empire sufficiently familiar with the Arabic historiographical tradition to compile a chronicle like Abū Shāma’s.

  • 4  The literature on 15th-century historiography in the Ottoman lands is quite vast. See, for instanc (...)
  • 5  On ‘Ruminess’ see Kafadar (2007).

4Secondly, al-Nahrawālī’s comment on the state of Ottoman historiography merits attention. By the mid-16th century, when al-Nahrawālī visited the Ottoman capital, numerous chronicles devoted to the history of the Ottoman dynasty had already been written.4 Al-Nahrawālī clearly misrepresented the state of historical writing in the core lands of the Empire. His implicit observation, however, that few historical works were written in Arabic in the core lands of the Empire, was quite accurate, as most historical works were compiled in Ottoman Turkish and Persian. But assuming that both the Meccan envoy and the vizier knew about the historiographical corpus in Turkish (and Persian), the former’s statement about the lack of historical writing, presumably in Arabic, in the core lands of the Empire implied a hierarchy between the Arabic and Turkish historiographical traditions: it was only historical writing in Arabic, according to al-Nahrawālī, that was truly eternal. This was obviously a view of a scholar versed in the Arabic historiographical tradition. But in the second half of the 16th century, several scholars and chroniclers from the core lands of the Empire (known as Rumis, ‘from the Land of Rum’)5 followed in Kınalızade’s footsteps and were receptive to this view of historical writing.

5The differences between the historiographical traditions that coexisted throughout the empire were more than simply a matter of language. Each historiographical tradition employed conceptual and stylistic conventions that were not easily translatable. The emergence of a Rumi Arabic historical writing in the second half of the 16th century was also intended to provide the Ottoman ruling and administrative elite with a vocabulary to legitimise their rule over the newly conquered Arabic-speaking territories of Greater Syria, Egypt, the Hijaz, and, slightly later, Arab Iraq.

6This essay seeks to focus on one of these conventions: the Arabic expression al-Dawla al-ʿUthmāniyya. This expression, I would like to suggest, was embedded in the Arabic historiographical tradition, but was quite alien to the Turkish (and Persian) ones. It is for this reason that this expression opens a window into broader dynamics that await further study. I will return to this point in the concluding section of this essay.

1.0. Rumi Authors, Arabic Chronicles

  • 6  For an English translation of this section, see Rosenthal (1968, 530– 35).

7In the chapter on History/Historiography (ʿIlm-i Taʾrīh) in his work on the classification of the sciences, Nevʿi Efendi (d. 1599) provides his readers with “the books associated with this [science” (el-Kütübüʾl-musannefetü fih): The History of Ibn Kathīr, the History of al-Ṭabarī, the History of Ibn Athīr al-Jazarī, the History of Ibn al-Jawzī and his Mirʾāt al-Zamān, the History of Ibn Khallikān, the History of Ibn ḤḤajar [al-ʿAsqalānī], the History of al-Ṣafadī, the History of Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyuṭī, Siyar al-ṣaḥāba wa-lzuhhād, Ḥilyat al-abrār, the History of Ḥakīm al-Nīsābūriī, the History of al-Baghdādī, Taʾrīkh al-ḥukamāʾ, Kashf al-ghamm, and Taʾrīkh al-umam. It is worth pointing out that all the titles in this list were compiled in Arabic (Prochazka-Eisl and Çelik 2015, 53). This fact is particularly striking, as Nevʿi Efendi chose to write his work in Turkish and included works written in Persian. In addition, it is quite evident that he relied on chronicles written in Turkish for his survey of the history of the Ottoman dynasty (Prochazka-Eisl and Çelik 2015, 72–77). Nevʿi Efendi was probably inspired by the work of his earlier colleague, Ahmed Taşköprüzade (d. 1560). In the section devoted to History in his comprehensive work on the classification of the sciences, Taşköprüzade offers a remarkably similar, though much longer, list of works. Among the works Taşköprüzade’s lists are The History of Ibn Kathīr, the History of al-Ṭabarī, the History of Ibn al-Athīr al-Jazarī, the History of Ibn al-Jawzī, Ibn al-Jawzī’s Mirʾāt al-zamān, the History of Ibn Khallikān, the History of Ibn Ḥajar and his Anbāʾ al-ghamr fī abnāʾ al-ʿamr and al-Durar al-kāmina fī aʿyān al-miʾa al-thāmina, the History of al-Ṣafadī, the History of Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyutī and his Ṭabaqāt al-nuḥāh (his Bughyat al-wuʿāh fī ṭabaqāt al-lughawiyyīn wa-l-nuḥāh), the History of al-Baghdādī, the supplement to al-Baghdādī’s History by Ibn al-Najjār, the History and works of Abū Saʿd al-Samʿānī, the supplement to al-Samʿānī’s History by al-Dabītīhī, the History of al-Dhahabī, ī Kitāb al-bārīʿ by Ibn Abī Manṣūr, and Yatīmat al-dahr by al-Nīsābūrī. At the conclusion of the list, Taşköprüzade briefly states that “the chronicles in Persian are too numerous to be counted,” but does not include a similar list of noteworthy Persian and Turkish chronicles (Tāshkubrīzāda [Taşköprüzade] 1968, 1: 251–70).6 It appears that for Taşköprüzade, much like for Nevʿi Efendi, the point of reference was the historiographical tradition in Arabic.

8Nothing attests more to Taşköprüzade’s historiographical preferences to writing history in Arabic than his own introduction to his biographical dictionaries of the jurists and scholars who were affiliated with the Ottoman dynasty. In the introduction to this work, he explains why he decided to compile this work:

Since I [learned to] distinguish between right and left, between the straight [path] and trickery, I sought passionately the merits of the ʿulamāʾ and their histories (akhbār), and I was obsessed with memorising their important deeds and their works, until I would accumulate a large [body of knowledge] in my weak memory [so] it would fill the books and notebooks. Historians have recorded the merits of the ʿulamāʾ and the notables according to what has been established through transmission or was confirmed by eyewitnesses, [but] no one has paid attention to the ʿulamāʾ of these lands, and [consequently] their names and practices have almost vanished from the tongues of every present [i.e., living person] and [their memory] perished. When the people of excellence and perfection noticed this situation, they asked me to gather all the merits of the ʿulamāʾ in Rum.
Tāshkubrīzāda [Taşköprüzade] 1975, 5

9Note the similarities between the passage from Taşköprüzade’s introduction and the comment al-Nahrawālī made to the Grand Vizier. Writing in Arabic, Taşköprüzade claims that only the recording of the histories of the Rumi scholars as part of the Arabic historiographical corpus—a corpus that was compiled elsewhere, beyond the Ottoman lands—can perpetuate their memory.

10It appears that the perception of and anxiety about the Arabic historiographical tradition as more eternal than historical writings in Turkish and Persian subsided over the course of the 17th century. For instance, in the universal history he wrote in Arabic, Müneccimbaşı (or Munajjim Bāshī, d. 1702) includes a bibliography of historical works on which he drew. Although he organised the list according to the languages in which the works were written, his bibliography represented the historiographical traditions in the three languages: Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. Yet, it seems significant that Müneccimbaşı (Jāmiʿ al-duwal, 2a) retained the distinction between the traditions. Clearly, he knew that each of these traditions followed different conventions and employed distinctive vocabularies.

11Most studies of historical writing in the Ottoman lands have tended to focus on the historiographical production in a specific language. The insightful collection of essays on Ottoman courtly historiography focuses almost exclusively on works written in Ottoman Turkish (Çıpa and Fetvaci 2013). On the other hand, Michael Winter, in his survey of Arabic historiography in the Ottoman Empire, ignores the writings in Persian and Turkish (Winter 2006, 171–90). To be sure, most scholars acknowledge that writings in Turkish include many expressions from Arabic and Persian and that expressions in Arabic frequently feature in Persian texts. But little scholarly attention has been paid to the manner in which the historiographical traditions relate to one another: are there particular expressions or conventions that can be associated (or, at least, more commonly associated) with a certain tradition? Which expressions and conventions were borrowed and, equally important, which were not? And when and why did authors choose to write in a specific historiographical tradition?

12These questions draw attention to differences among the various historiographical traditions that coexisted and interacted throughout the Ottoman realms. In a recent study of 15th-century debates among five thinkers writing in Arabic and Persian about the nature of historical inquiry, Christopher Markiewicz (2017, 221) argues that

monolingual approaches to Islamic historiography further obscure the full extent of the fifteenth-century discourse on history. The tendency to divide Islamic historiography between its Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish expressions reinforces an understanding of the historical traditions as separate, linguistically delineated dialectics. Moreover, while considerations of Ottoman historical writing generally acknowledge its relationship to Arabic and especially Persian historiography, the interrelationship between the three remains only superficially acknowledged.

13Markiewicz thus concludes that

the wide-ranging interaction between Arabic and Persian historical thought since the tenth century—and Turkish historiography, as well, beginning in the fifteenth century—constituted a fundamental aspect of the development of Islamic historiography as a vibrant cultural tradition until the rise of national historiographies in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

14I do not disagree with Markiewicz’s general observation, but, in this short essay, I would like to highlight the special semiotic baggage that writing in Arabic carried in the context of a multilingual empire and the dynamics between multiple historiographical traditions. It seems to me that the study of historical writing in the Ottoman lands—and, in fact, across the Islamic (ate) world more broadly—ought to acknowledge the fairly wide range of interactions between these traditions, from the retention of differences to translations and borrowings. In this sense, what follows seeks to nuance the idea of a single historiographical project as a singular “vibrant cultural tradition.”

15Paying attention to these differences can also reveal how members of various learned circles across the Empire employed historiographical traditions and conventions to legitimise Ottoman rule and to enrich the Ottoman repertoire of power. At the same time, studying the manners in which certain expressions were employed may reveal tensions between competing claims and political projects. To illustrate this point, I now turn to examining in some detail the use of the expression “the Ottoman Dawla” (or al-Dawla al-ʿUthmāniyya) in the 16th and 17th centuries.

2.0. Ottoman Devlet/Ottoman Dawla

16In what is perhaps the most systematic study of the meaning of the term dawla during the Mamluk period (1250–1517), Jo Van Steenbergen (2016, 55) observes that

[i] n the course of many centuries of Arabic and Islamic history the Arabic noun dawla has appeared as a generic qualifier in many different contexts of rule, with complex meanings that are not always easily rendered in other languages. However, in its semantic essence, as suggested by Arabic lexicographers, dawla is always meant to refer in these contexts of rule to a particular political formation’s temporary local monopoly of violence and of access to resources [...] But historically the Arabic noun dawla has always also been imbued with the transcendent, religious meaning of a God-given “turn”—the literal translation of the Arabic noun dawla—or term of rule in the monotheist trajectory of human history. In the hearts, minds and ears of those who used it, dawla therefore appealed to the idea of a universal empire as much as to that of a territorial state.

17The multi-layered nature of the term dawla—a political and authoritative order and a divinely ordained mandate to rule—poses considerable questions when one encounters the use of the possessive adjective attached to it (or the compound noun), as in the case of Dawlat al-Atrāk ‘the dawla of the Turks’ or al-dawla al-ʿUthmāniyya in Mamluk Arabic sources. Evidently, Mamluk authors imagined a

trans-regional hierarchy of (West-Asian or even wider) legitimate political leadership, which included Syrian viceroys as well as all kinds of Mongol, post-Mongol and other leaders, and which was topped by the royal persona of the sultan in Cairo.
Steenbergen 2016, 55

18Moreover, this perception of multiple dawlas, each with its own political and institutional orders, was also based on a sense of temporality, hence the succession of several dawlas in Mamluk historiography (Steenbergen 2016, 65).

  • 7  The Ottoman authors were drawing on a well-established use of the term dawlat in Persian sources f (...)

19One could argue that Ottoman authors were not oblivious to the perception of dawla from the Mamluk sources. But Ottoman sources, mostly written in Turkish, tended to focus on the more universal dimensions of dawla or devlet.7 For 15th- and 16th-century Ottoman writers, following Dimitris Kastritsis’ (2007, 98, 200–3) translation of the term, devlet conveyed a sense of charismatic rule, or, in Hüseyin Yılmaz’s (2018, 139, 157) translation, fortune or “auspicious turn to rule.” Importantly, while many contenders to the throne may have some degree of devlet, once enthroned, devlet temporarily resided with the ruling sultan. As an early 15th-century source quips with regard to the competition among Ottoman princes during the interregnum, “Although devlet existed in Musa, /The devlet of Mehmed [the future Mehmed I] was truly greater!” (Kastritsis 2007, 219, 226). This is not to say that Ottoman dynasts did not recognise the legitimacy of other Muslim rulers or did not assume that the House of Osman as a whole had a right to rule, but it is important to note that, for the most part, authors writing in Turkish over the course of the 15th through the 17th centuries were quite reluctant to attach a possessive adjective ‘Ottoman’ to the noun devlet. Instead, in the 16th century, as Yılmaz (2018, 275) has observed, they stressed its eternity.

3.0. Rumi Authors and Their Use of al-Dawla al-ʿUthmaniyya

20In the second half of the 16th century, several Rumi authors, that is, authors from the core, predominantly Turkish-speaking regions of the Empire, engaged in writing works in Arabic. Being Rumi, it should be emphasised, was not simply a matter of geography. In the context of an expanding empire, it was also a matter of political affiliation with the Ottoman dynasty. These Rumi authors who were writing in Arabic were astutely aware of the conventions of the Arabic historiographical tradition. In fact, the encounter of what was now the core lands of the Ottoman empire, and of Anatolia more generally, with historical writings in Arabic long predated the Ottoman conquest. Indeed, the inventory of the library of Bayezid II includes historiographical essays and chronicles in Arabic, some of which were even sent directly to members of his close retinue from the Mamluk capital (Markiewicz 2017, 236–40). What is intriguing about the second half of the 16th century is the Rumi authors’ experiment with, participation in, and response to the Arabic historiographical tradition.

21Perhaps the most extreme example of this engagement is the probably early 17th-century compilation of a text that was falsely attributed to the renowned 13th-century mystic Muḥyī al-Dīn Ibn ʿArabī (d. 1241), titled al-Shajara al-nuʿmāniyya fī al-dawla al-ʿUthmāniyya (‘the Tree of Nuʿmān on the Ottoman Rule/Good Fortune’). In this short and popular text, Ibn ʿArabī allegedly foresaw the Ottoman conquest of the Arab lands. As Ahmed Zildzic, who studied in great detail the Shajara and its commentaries, has noted (Zildzic 2012, 85)

[t] he oldest existent copy of al-Shajara comes from the first half of the XVII century, and if we accept that the date is not a later interpolation, we can conclude the text of al-Shajara as it reached us originated more than a century later than the events it discusses. What is evident, however, is the universal acceptance of the work in the Ottoman cultural and intellectual context.

22For our purpose here, the important point is that the late anonymous author used the term al-Dawla al-ʿUthmāniyya in the title of the treatise to indicate that it originated in the early 13th century in the Arabic-speaking lands. Indeed, one could argue that the invocation of the term was quite antiquarian.

23As I have already suggested above, Taşköprüzade was interested in writing an Arabic biographical dictionary that would commemorate the names and deeds of jurists and Sufi masters who were affiliated with the Ottoman dynasty. Clearly, he sought to be part of the Arabic historiographical tradition. Fittingly, the work is replete with references to that tradition and the conventions of the genre of the biographical dictionary. He even decides to call the Ottoman political project al-Dawla al-ʿUthmāniyya.

24Several decades later, during the reign of Murad III (r. 1574–1595), a third author, Mustafa Cenabi (d. 1590/1591), chose to pen a work in Arabic, a universal history from the creation of the world to the Ottoman dynasty. Cenabi devoted chapters to the various dynasties who ruled the world, from the ancient Persian kings to his patrons, the Ottomans. Throughout, Cenabi (Cenabi Tarihi) selectively employs the term dawla: the Ḥasanī dawla of Mecca, the Hāshimīi dawla of Medina, the Circassian dawla (the Mamluks), the ʿAlawī/Ḥasanī dawla of Tabaristan and Jurjan, the Samanid dawla, the dawla of Chinggis Khan, the Uzbek dawla, the dawla of the Ak Koyunlu and the Ottoman dawla. Indeed, this list of dawlas seems to reflect the “trans-regional hierarchy of (West-Asian or even wider) legitimate political leadership” (Steenbergen 2016, 55) that one finds in Mamluk sources and the sense that dawla can be divided among rulers and dynasties.

4.0. Conclusion

25The macaronic nature of the language that is commonly referred to as ‘Ottoman Turkish’ is quite well known and frequently mentioned in handbooks for students of the language. Students of ‘Ottoman Turkish’ are encouraged to study Arabic, Persian, and Modern Turkish/Turkic language and, based on this knowledge, to understand the logic of ‘Ottoman Turkish’. This is, of course, an anachronistic perception of languages in general and of ‘Ottoman Turkish’ in particular, as it assumes fairly well-defined linguistic traditions or languages which are macaronically intertwined. But both Persian and Turkic languages have accumulated over the centuries numerous words that are morphologically Arabic. In many cases, the words retained their ‘original’ Arabic lexicographical meaning. But this has not always been the case. This linguistic entanglement raises an intriguing question: Where does ‘Arabic’ end and ‘Ottoman Turkish’ begin?

26This short essay is an attempt to explore these complex dynamics between ‘Arabic’ and ‘Turkish’ in the Ottoman lands. My goal is not, to paraphrase Nile Green’s (2019, 2) comment on Persian in the introduction to the recent volume on the Persianate world, “to promote Arabic […], but rather to analyze Arabic as a field of sociolinguistic contact, and in doing so recognise the roles of hegemony and competition […].” Indeed, as Murat Umut Inan (2019, 88) argues in his essay on Persian in the Ottoman world in the same volume, the history of Persian—and, one may add, of Arabic—in the Ottoman context is “intertwined with multiple histories of the empire.” Much like Persian, Arabic afforded Rumi writers a range of possibilities to promote political and intellectual claims, but also engendered anxiety and envy. The manner in which Rumi writers employed the terms al-Dawla al-ʿUthmāniyya and the anecdote with which I opened this essay capture these possibilities and anxieties.

27Furthermore, the tension between devlet and dawla, which draws on the distinction between different linguistic/historiographical traditions, poses a translation challenge: how should one translate al-Dawla al-ʿUthmāniyya into, say, English? This translation challenge is what got me interested in exploring the relationship between devlet and dawla in the first place. Moreover, as I have argued elsewhere (Burak 2015, 94–98), in his al-Shaqāʾiq al-nuʿmāniyya, Taşköprüzade employed Mamluk (and Arabic) historiographical conventions to legitimise and record the history of the Ottoman learned hierarchy and the Sufi masters that were associated with the Ottoman domains. Accordingly, the narrative arc of the Shaqāʾiq diverges in terms of its historiographical and, indeed, political assumptions from those of Mamluk biographical dictionaries. Most notably, the Ottoman dynasty is the organising principle of Taşköprüzade’s work. Further, when Taşkörüzade’s Shaqāʾiq was translated by Mehmed Mecdi Efendi (d. 1591) into ‘Ottoman Turkish’, al-Dawla al-ʿUthmāniyya entered ‘Ottoman Turkish’ historiography. This Turkified expression raises yet another, though related, translation question: how should one translate the 16th-century expression Devlet-i ʿOsmaniyye into English?



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1  On al-Nahrawālī see Blackburn (2012). See also the Introduction in Blackburn (2005). On Semiz Ali Paşa, see Mantran (2012). Al-Nahrawālī left two reports of this encounter: in his travelogue (Blackburn 2005, 168–69) and in his chronicle; for the latter see al-Nahrawālī (2004, 310–11).

2  On Kinalizade see Tezcan (1996) and Köker (1999). Kinalizade’s familiarity with the Arabic scholarly traditions may have been one of the reasons for his eventual appointment, in 1562, to the chief judgeship of Damascus. On his encounters with the Damascene scholars see Pfeifer (2015).

3  For the treatise on the Ottoman construction projects see Burak (2017, 315 n. 2). On the Duʿa-name, which was authored by the famous chief mufti Ebuʾs-Suʿud Efendi (d. 1574), see Kaleli (2014).

4  The literature on 15th-century historiography in the Ottoman lands is quite vast. See, for instance, Mengüç (2013) and the bibliography therein. See also the section on historical writings in the palace library of Bayezid II: Fleischer and Şahin (2019, 569–96).

5  On ‘Ruminess’ see Kafadar (2007).

6  For an English translation of this section, see Rosenthal (1968, 530– 35).

7  The Ottoman authors were drawing on a well-established use of the term dawlat in Persian sources from the Ilkhanid period onward (Allsen 2009, 1–7). I am grateful to Yoni Brack for bringing this piece to my attention and for an illuminating discussion on the use of the term dawlat in the Ilkhanid context.


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