· Proposals For Educational Reform
Within a short time of arriving in Istanbul Bediuzzaman was successful in having a petition setting out his ideas for educational reform in the Eastern Provinces presented to Sultan Abdulhamid, following which the Sultan granted him an audience. The text was later printed in The East and Kurdistan Gazette, dated 19 November, 1908. However, as the paper’s introduction to the article points out, Bediuzzaman’s meeting with the Sultan was to have unhappy consequences. In the short time he had been in Istanbul, Bediuzzaman had attracted a lot of attention, both favourable, and as far as the authorities were concerned, adverse. As was inevitable during those repressive times, being such a controversial figure, he was kept under close surveillance. He had also attracted the enmity of others in the same profession, jealous at his learning and fame. Bediuzzaman, however, had one aim: to serve the cause of Islam and the Empire, and he knew no fear in doing this. Then, having been given an audience with the sultan, he took the opportunity to put forward his ideas, and criticisms. Besides openly criticizing the apparatus of despotism, which as we shall see, Bediuzzaman considered to be one of the greatest obstacles to progress as well as being contrary to Islam, his main criticism of Abdulhamid seems to have been his failure to carry out the functions of Caliph satisfactorily: it was his prime duty as Caliph of the Muslims to have shown closer and more constructive concern for the question of education and the ulema institution, since this was the basis of the revitalization of Islam and the Islamic world. Bediuzzaman’s upbraiding Abdulhamid for neglecting Abdurresid Ibrahim’s calls for assistance, mentioned below, despite his Pan-Islamic policies, should be seen in this light. Unaccustomed as they were to such a forthright manner and outspoken remarks, however reasonable and good-intentioned, it is not surprising that the Sultan and Pasas should have reacted in the unfavourable manner that they did.
The text of Bediuzzaman’s petition was as follows. It is preceded by a few introductory words by the newspaper:
“We are proud to include the exact text of the proposal which Bediuzzaman Molla Said Efendi presented to the Palace, and as a result became the target of many misfortunes.”
“While, in order to be in harmony in progress like the other brothers in this world of civilization and age of progress and competition, the founding and construction of schools has been ordered as a Government service in the towns and villages of Kurdistan – and this has been witnessed with thanks – only children who know Turkish can benefit from them. Since Kurdish children who have not learnt Turkish consider the only mines of perfection to be the medreses [traditional religious schools], and the teachers in the mektebs [new secular schools] do not know the local language, these children continue to be deprived of education. Their resulting uncivilized behaviour and disorder invites the West to rejoice at our misfortune. Moreover, since the people remain in a primitive state, uncivilized and blindly imitating, they become prey to doubts and suspicions. And it as though these three points are preparing a ghastly blow for the Kurds in the future, and have caused suffering to those with insight.
“The remedy for this: three educational establishments should be set up in different areas of Kurdistan as examples to be followed, and as encouragement and stimulation. One in Beytussebab, which is the centre of the Ertusi tribes; another in the middle of the Mutkan, Belkan and Sasun tribes; and one in Van itself, which is in the middle of The Haydar and Sipkan tribes. These should be known by the familiar name of medrese, and should teach both the religious and modem sciences. Each should have at least fifty students, and their means of subsistence should be provided by the illustrious Government. Also, the revitalization of a number of other medreses would be an important means of securing the future life – both material, and moral and spiritual – of Kurdistan. In this way, the basis of education would be established, and together with making over to the Government this huge force which is now being dissipated in internal conflict, it would cause it to be expended outwardly. And it would demonstrate that they are thoroughly deserving of justice, and capable of being civilized, as well as displaying their natural ability.
Thus, Bediuzzaman was finally successful in presenting to the Sultan an outline of his proposals, the fruit of his own experience over many years. And, pointing out some of the damaging results of the system as it then was, he with foresight predicted problems of great magnitude in the future.
Bediuzzaman’s ideas on educational reform were far-reaching and innovative. They are in part described above and in Bediuzzaman’s `Conversation with the Doctor’ following this section. But due to their importance, before continuing with Bediuzzaman’s audience with the Sultan, we include a summary of them in their entirety.
The heart of Bediuzzaman’s proposals lay in reconciling “the three main branches” of the educational system, the medreses or traditional religious schools, the mektebs or new secular schools, and the tekkes or Sufi establishments, and the disciplines they represented. The embodiment of this rapprochement was the Medresetu’z-Zehra, which has been mentioned earlier. Bediuzzaman attached the greatest importance to establishing this university where the religious sciences and modem sciences would be taught side by side and “combined”, and pursued it till the end of his days.
The second main area of Bediuzzaman’s proposals lay in completely restructuring medrese education and were extremely `modem’ in their approach. These consisted of what might be described as the democratization of the medrese system, and its diversification so that “the rule of the division of labour” could be applied.
A third area concerned the preachers, who “guided the general public”.
While the role the Medresetu’z-Zehra was to play was seen by Bediuzzaman to be vital for securing the future of Kurdistan and unity of the Empire as well as acting as an important centre for the eastern Islamic world, the general principles it represented were applicable to all medreses. Several of the conditions Bediuzzaman considered to be essential were mentioned in the petition: the Medresetu’z-Zehra and its two sister establishments should be known by the familiar name of medrese and the instruction should be in a language known by potential students. In another work, Münâzarat, Bediuzzaman stated that they should be tri-lingual, with Arabic being “compulsory”, Kurdish “permissible”, and ‘Turkish “necessary”. In the same work, he also stated that Kurdish scholars who were trusted by Turk and Kurd should be selected as teachers, as well as those who knew the local languages, and that it was necessary to take into account the capacity and cultural level of the community they were to serve. Also these `medreses’ should be on an equal footing with the official secular schools, and like them, their examinations should be recognized. The basis of the system Bediuzzaman was proposing, however, was the combined teaching of the religious and modem sciences.
In the course of time, the medrese syllabuses had become narrow and sterile, with modem developments in science being rejected altogether. So that at the beginning of the twentieth century, the medreses were producing ulema who believed, together with the Europeans, that there was a clash and contradiction between certain `externals’ of Islam and certain matters of science – matters as basic as the Earth being round. This false idea had caused feelings of hopelessness and despair, and had shut the door of progress and civilization. “Whereas”, pointed out Bediuzzaman, “Islam is the master and guide of the sciences, and the chief and father of all true knowledge.”
On a human level, Bediuzzaman saw religion as representing the heart and conscience, and science, the reason; both were necessary for true progress to be attained. He explained it as follows: “The religious sciences are the light of the conscience, and the modern sciences are the light of the reason. The truth becomes manifest through the combining of the two. The studcnts’ endcavour will take flight on these two wings. When they are separated it gives rise to bigotry in the one, and wiles and scepticism in the other.”
On a wider scale, the Medresetu’z-Zehra would unite the three traditions in the educational system by representing “the most superior mekteb by the ” reason, the very best medrese by the heart, and the most sacred zawiye by the conscience.” As a result of its unique value for the Islamic world, it ; would in time gain financial independence by reason of the donations and pious bequests it would receive.
The benefits of such a system would be manifold. Just as it would ensure the future of the ulema in the eastern provinces, at the same time it would be step towards the unification and reform of general system. So would it deliver Islam from the bigotry, superstitions, and false beliefs which had encrusted parts of it over the centuries. And, importantly, would be a means of introducing modern learning into the medreses in a way which would allay the ulema’s suspicions concerning modern science. Also, it would “open the door to spreading the beneficial aspects of constitutionalism.”
Bediuzzaman wished for Islam to function like a consultative council, that is to say, through the mutual consultation (sura) of “the three divisions of the army of Islamic education”, those of the medreses, the mektebs, and the tekkes, so that “each would complete the deficiencies of the other”. His aim was for the Medresetu’z-Zehra to be an embodiment of this.
According to Bediuzzaman, this transforming the medreses from being `single-faculty’ institutions into being `multi-faculty’ and putting into practice `the rule of division of labour’ was in accordance with wisdom and the laws of creation. The failure to practise it in previous centuries had led to despotism and the exploitation of learning in the medreses, and The teaching being undertaken by those not qualified to do so. It had headed the medreses towards their destruction.
In many places, Bediuzzaman stresses the need for students to specialize in one subject for which they have an aptitude, and in addition only study subjects which complement it. Since it is described in some detail in his `Conversation with the Doctor’, together with the need for creative study, debate, and a return to the study of the essential religious sciences by the students, we shall leave the description to there. Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that specialization in particular represented a radical break with traditional methods.
Finally, a further point which could be thought of as radical was Bediuzzaman’s view that “public opinion” should prevail among both the ulema and the students. That is to say, he believed that it was “scholastic despotism”, an offspring of political despotism, “which has opened the way to blind imitation (taklid) and barred the way to searching for the truth.” For the problems of the modern age to be grappled with and progress to be secured. “constitutionalism among the ulema” should be established “in the ulema state.” In the same way, among the students, “public opinion” or the prevalent ideas emerging from debate and the exchange of ideas between students of varying disciplines should be taken as master. Bediuzzaman predicted that this would provide a strong stimulation and incentive for progress. Thus, “Just as public opinion predominates in the state, so too should the prevailing opinions of the ulema be müfti, and the prevailing opinions of the students be master and teacher.”
Thus, during his audience, having given Sultan Abdulhamid first-hand information about the state of the Eastern Provinces and explained lhese idcas and the importancc of his proposals, especially concerning the founding of the new schools, in his capacity as a man of religion, Bediuzzaman went on to remind the Sultan of the petition made to him by The famous traveler and scholar Abdurresid Abraham.
Abdurresid Ibrahim had sought asylum in Japan after having been exiled in 1904 from his native Uzbekistan by the Russians. and travelling both there and in China, had expended great efforts for the spread and revitalization of Islam. Seeing the ignorance and poverty of the many Muslims in China, he had sent requests to Sultan Abdulhamid for both material assistance and for religious scholars and instructors to be sent there. At the time, the Sultan was giving great importance to his Caliphate Policy, that is, Pan-Islamic policies, and had apparently responded favourably, instructing the Seyhü’l- Islam, Cemaleddin Efendi, to do everything necessary for its implementation. A certain time must have elapsed, however, for with unheard-of boldness, Bediuzzaman addressed the Sultan, saying:
“The rank of the Caliphate is not restricted to the official ceremony of the Friday prayers. Just as the Caliph possesses moral power, so too will he have material power, and guarantee and be responsible for all the dealings of the Muslim community in every corner of the world. Abdurresid Ibrahim Efendi is a great striver in the way of Islam. It is a grievous sin to let his request remain fruitless. Even if the office of Seyhu’1-Islam has no power, praise be to God, there are many men of religion in this country ready to sacrifice themselves for this cause. Why has this request not been proclaimed and broadcast throughout the Ottoman lands?”
Bediuzzaman then went on to criticize to the Sultan’s face the denunciations and networks of spies and agents for which his regime was so notorious. Bediuzzaman had been the subject of such a report in 1906. As someone who never hesitated to speak out in the cause of freedom in that time of repression, it was inevitable that he should have been. He said to Sultan Abdulhamid:
“Despotism has no place in Islam. To give a ruling on a person is the right only of courts acting openly and within the justice of the Seriat. These rulings may not be given according to reports made by persons of unknown identity, which throw no light on their true faces and conceal their intrigues…”
The Seyhu’l-Islam, Cemaleddin Efendi, who was present, later told his son, Muhtar Bey: “Until today, I have never encountered anyone who voiced his opinions in the Sovereign’s presence with such boldness.” This boldness, however, only led Bediuzzaman to be brought up before the Yildiz Palace Court Martial. And the unhappy consequences of Bediuzzaman’s audience with Sultan Abdulhamid were not restricted to the court martial, for he was to be sentenced by it to a term in Topkapi Mental Hospital in Uskudar. The judges in the court were at a loss as to how to deal with this case, and the mental hospital was the solution they came up with. “To which Tatar tribe do you belong? I am an Ottoman. My being Kurdish is only on account of the name given to the people of the place where I was born and grew up.” And he went on to repeat what he had said to the Sultan. On hearing this, the Public Prosecutor, Sururi Efendi, asked him:
“How can you say such insulting words about His Imperial Majesty the Sultan?” Bediuzzaman replied:
“I said the same things to the Caliph himself. If you do not believe me, go and ask him?”
In the face of all this, the judges were worried that if Bediuzzaman was exiled to Fezzan, Tripoli, or Yemen, as was the usual sentence, he would continue to spread his ideas. So, in order to be rid of him, on the recommendation of Zuluflu Ismail Pasa, the Inspector of Military Schools, they got five doctors, two Jewish, one Greek, one Armenian, and one Turkish to draw up of report saying that Bediuzzaman was not in his right mind, and then sent him to Toptasi Mental Hospital.
Years later, Bediuzzaman wrote: “Born in the village of Nurs in the province of Bitlis, as a student I entered into contests with all the scholars I encountered, and continuing through Divine Grace to defeat in scholarly debate all who challenged me, I continued the contests in this calamitous fame, and as a result of the incitements of my rivals, on orders from Sultan Hamid, was dragged as far as the mental hospital.”