Mehtap Ozdemir


Edebiyat: Naming the Literary, the New, and the Secular in Ottoman Letters

Edebiyat [“literature”] has no homeland; if a thought is true [also meaning authentic or legitimate], it can totally produce the same effect in another language.

Namık Kemal, “Tiyatrodan Bahseden Arkadaşlara,” 1872

Whether new or old, Eastern or Western, edebiyat is one and the same in its essence. It comes from one origin, one source, and one inspiration. The context changes only its form. […] Our past, current, and future literature contains even the remainders of pre- historic times. Certainly, a monosyllabic word uttered from a dark solid corner of a cave, the first shelter of humankind, has its echo hidden in a contemporary poem and the link is never cut between the cries of first humans against wild animals and the exasperations of modern man in most shaking moments.

Süleyman Nazif, “Iki Söz Daha,” 1897

Does an edebiyat have to be enveloped by the flag of this nation or that nation? Aside from these [nationally-garbed literatures], is not there a literature of humanity, a literature such that whatever language it is translated into, if we leave certain features pertaining to details, it would read as if it was written in that language, and thus it would belong to the literature of humanity?

Halid Ziya, Diyorlar ki, 1916-1918


Articulated at various moments of the literary reforms in Ottoman letters in the long nineteenth century, these perspectives intimate a universalized vision of literature, transcending spatio-temporal borders and aiming for humanity, a vision shared particularly by those of Ottoman writers invested in demarcating a new way of literary world-making under the rubric of edebiyat-ı cedide (“new literature”). Conventionally coupled with the narrative of modernization in the late Ottoman Empire,1 this movement of renewal in literary practice is generally evaluated on the axis of an East-West encounter, deployinh translation as a convenient metaphor to explain the whole process of negotiation and transformation as a mere mimicry of European powers in cultural dependency. Here my aim is not to repeat this common story of Ottoman modernization, nor to offer a totally differing account that renders the presence of the West in Ottoman thinking fictitious. For such an undertaking is thwarted by the conditions of the world in which edebiyat emerged in translation, transporting what was conceptualized as “Western literature” and all the while creating “Ottoman literature.” Therefore, that Ottoman literati theorized modernity as a comparative project, unfolding alongside Europe, demands a reading of the emergence of edebiyat with attention to the dialectics between the “imperial/national” and the “inter-imperial/national” literary spaces.2 Within this framework, what interests me is the very process whereby the previously used ş’ir ü inşa (poetry and prose composition) was redefined in a new coinage, edebiyat, tied to the narrative of modernity and to the discourse of world literature, both registered under the umbrella of  “civilization” as translatable from one politico-cultural hub to another,3 both understood as conducive to stand in the world as more civilized and enlightened subjects, and both envisioned in “a meaningful and progressive temporality.”4 The task of Ottoman writers, promoting this new way, was to re-form the literary subconscious and the aesthetic subtext of Ottoman Turkish, with its distinct multilingual literary pedigree legitimized in religious epistemology, and to re-situate “Edebiyat-ı Osmaniye” (Ottoman Literature) in an expanding international literary world, rapidly becoming textualized, secularized, and institutionalized.

The idea of co-authoring a universal literature, translatable into any language with comparable effect, evokes Goethe’s famous dictum that calls for “the epoch of world literature” and urges everyone “to hasten its approach.”5 As such, we can presume that the Ottoman invocation of a universal literature joins Goethe in assigning a future task to literature, a task that aims to transcend borders and create a shared world of reading, accompanied by a common set of sensibilities and uniting various textual forms. However, this link between the Ottoman inscription of literature in the universalized singular and the notion of world literature with its assumed universality poses more questions than answers, since it only highlights the idealistic side of cross-cultural exchange, grounded in a translingual sharing of emotional experience in literature. To discern the other side of the picture that shows the limits of universality in comparison, it is enough to remember the uneasy position of the Ottoman Empire in Goethe’s overall poeticization of Islam. The aestheticized Arab-Persian Islam of the Divan and his willingness to “twin himself with Hafız” does not extend to his consideration of Ottoman Turks and their literature.6 In denying comparability and translatability to Ottoman literature, Goethe’s low regard for Ottoman literature partakes of a line of Orientalist scholarship, from William Jones (1772) to E.G.W. Gibb (1911), which privileges historical primacy as originality in comparative evaluations of cultures, relegating Ottoman history to a period of slumber and decadence,7 and reading its literature as a weak extension of Arabo-Persian heritage.

The marginalization of Ottoman literature within the cluster of Islamic literatures in Orientalist writing is a clear case that demonstrates the role of literature in consolidating hierarchies and structures that dominate the modern world.8 Codifying diverse textual traditions under a now-universal category, literature is a process of assimilating “heterogeneous and dispersed bodies of writing onto the plane of equivalence and evaluability,” only partially concealed by the use of vernacular names.9 As Derrida reminds us, literature, with its Latin and Christian filiation, “belongs to a language” and this belonging “travels, emigrates, works, and is translated.”10 Neither the process of owning a literature nor its travel occurs under conditions of exact commensurability. Within this framework, the establishment of edebiyat, tied to its French counterpart littérature and its etymological Arabic cognate adab,11 is not only a semiotic endeavor that partakes of the economy of translation on a translingual level, nor just as an anthropological process that enlists in the reorganization of literatures along structures of “nation-thinking” on a worldly scale, but also as part of the overall process of the differentiation of modern disciplines whereby literature is slowly and unevenly distinguished from scholastic and scientific domains.

To exemplify my point, I will refer to the preface of an Ottoman novel, İntibah (“Awakening,” 1874) written by Namık Kemal (1840-1888), a famous prose writer and poet. Here, Kemal responds to an ongoing debate between the supporters of the old literature and the new one in the journals Hakâyık (“Truths”) and Ceride-i Havadis (“Journal of News”).

Promoting the new literature, Kemal clarifies that his critique of classical Ottoman literature does not extend to Arabic and Persian, for the literatures of these languages proved themselves with their great poets and writers who gained recognition among civilized nations. Subscribing to the idea of a linguistically-differentiated Islamic literary heritage and valorizing the European opinion, Kemal laments that Ottoman literature possesses none [of this greatness] to enter into a competition with Western literatures, echoing the Orientalist degradation of Ottoman literature. Yet, there is a caveat to his eulogy of Arabic, not Persian, literature: it only applies to the literature produced from the Jahiliah Period through the Abbasid Caliphate to the fall of Andalusia. Kemal does not consider current literary practices appearing in Egypt or Yemen worthy of the name Arabic literature. A second point of clarification concerns the link between ethics and literature. In response to a view that advances texts like Ahlâk-ı Alâ’i,12 or al-Maqāmāt13 as proper conduits of moral instruction, Kemal proposes an interesting comparison between Ahlâk and Télémaque14: while receiving one’s training in moral matters from Ahlâk corresponds to being rehabilitated in a prison cell, benefiting from Télémaque resembles to studying in a well-tended garden. In this chain of similes, Kemal differentiates between ethics and literature by introducing the element of pleasure in a reader’s experience with a literary text, the usefulness of which is reformulated as an integral part of one’s pedagogical training.

Kemal identifies the worth of the new literature in its attempt to analyze human nature, coupled with the previous garden image and implying a correspondence between well-shaped nature and well-educated human nature. Ascribing the high level of Western literatures to their examination of such affective conditions in romantic style, Kemal nevertheless desists from recognizing the West as the ultimate referent of supremacy. Resorting to a temporalized progressive scale of literary formation, Kemal argues that since Europeans imitated Indian, Greek, Arabic, and Persian literatures in using the faculty of imagination, as they did in other sciences, the particular literary style known as “romantic” originated in the East. Legitimizing translation as a valid way of self-empowerment, Kemal urges Ottoman writers to follow the method of translation adopted by Europeans, a method that selects texts and rules compatible with reason and morals. In defining edebiyat as different from ethics, yet still, tied to moral education, drafting a global cycle of translatio studii that gives primacy to the East and rationalizes the Western ascendancy, envisioning a universalized literary genealogy that subsumes the Arabo-Persian heritage as the differentiated unit of Islamic literary past, and discrediting Ottoman Divan literature on the basis of some received ideas of originality, Kemal’s conceptualization bespeaks that the very break between old and new regimes of knowledge was not natural or neutral in Ottoman letters. As such, the establishment of edebiyat partakes in the process in which distinctions that play out in tension between the literary and the non-literary, the old and the new, and the religious and the secular are secured in the narrative of modernity.


1 Within modern Turkish historiography, the nineteenth century figures as the period of Tanzimat, that is, the time when the empire responds to the calling of modernity in the form of state-sponsored political, economic, and structural reforms, spurred by massive territorial losses, peripheralization in world economic networks and persistent questioning of political legmacy and authority. For more on the political, economic, and cultural history of the nineteenth century, Carter Findley (1980), Karen Barkey (2008), Selim Deringil (1998), and, Şükrü Hanioğlu (2008).

2 As a much contested and debated term, modernity has produced as many questions as theoretical frameworks. For critical and insightful perusals of the term, see, for instance, Arjun Appadurai (1996), and Timothy Mitchell (2000).

3 See on the dynamics of civilization and modernization, Tuncer Baykara (1992) and Einar Wigen (2015).

4 Nathalie Melas (2007).

5 “Conversations on World Literature,” p. 22-23.

6 See Ian Almond (2010), p. 71-89.

7 Ironically, the Orientalist marginalization of Ottoman literature in Asian literatures extends to the consolidation of the tropes of stagnation and decay in ethnocentric nationalist historiography and to the current compartmentalization of Middle Eastern Studies in the academy. See Gabriel Piterberg (1997), Stephen Sheehi (2004), and Hasan Kayalı (1997).

8 Walter Andrews (1996) defines Ottoman literature as “an at least thrice marginalized” one: “Ottoman poetry is cast in a role in an “Islamic Evolutionist” narrative that, on the one hand, depicts it as almost entirely anticipated by its origins in Persian and Arabic, and on the other hand, identifies it as primary culprit in the so-called decline of “Islamic Civilization.” Ottoman poetry is also cast in a similarly negative role in the narrative of the “Turkish Nation” which sees Ottoman culture in general as a dark age of rather shameful mongrelization intervening between the purities of pre-Islamic “Turkic” culture and “post-Islamic” Turkish culture. In addition, and in part as a result, Ottoman literature has assumed a low status, low reward position in an institutional economy of scholarship and teaching that privileges and values, first, the originary texts of “Islamic culture”—predominantly, Arabic texts—and, second, the culturally and temporally prior texts of Persian literature” (281-282).

9 Aamir Mufti (2016), p. 80.

10 Demeure, p. 20. (Emphasis is in the original.)

11 Adab encompasses a broad spectrum of meanings, ranging from manners, good breeding, and erudition, to belles-lettres. See Jeffrey Sacks (2007), Nadia al-Bagdadi (2008), and Shaden Tageldin (2012).

12 Written by Kınalızade Ali (1511-1571), it is the first Turkish book on ethics.

13 Al-Maqāmāt is a collection of tales by al-Ḥarīrī (1054-1122).

14 Published by François Fénelon in 1699, Télémaque is one of the most translated novels into the languages of the Middle East and highly praised for spreading morality and enlightened ideas.


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