In November, 1907, Bediuzzaman set off a second time for Istanbul with the intention of obtaining official support and backing for his Islamic university, the Medresetu’z-Zehra. He was now around thirty years of age. From his humble beginnings in the village of Nurs, he had established his reputation among the ulema of Kurdistan, and was a figure well-known not only for his unbeaten record in debate, extensive learning, and extraordinary abilities, but also for his pursuit of justice and defense of right, and his absolute fearlessness before anyone save his Maker. His ambitions matched his ability. This had marked him out from his earliest years. He had never been content with the status-quo, something within himself had perpetually pushed him to seek fresh, new, better paths. As his horizons expanded, this path became clear. As is described in the previous chapter, besides the continuing process of his study, two key events may be seen as being decisive in giving him direction. One was his realization of the extremely severe nature of the threats to the Qur’an by Islam’s perennial enemies, and that, through his learning, he should make the defence of it the aim of his life. And the second were the acquaintances he made in Mardin in 1892, and his learning through them of the struggle for freedom and constitutionalism, and of the movement for Islamic Unity and other issues concerning the Islamic world. Until the beginning of the First World War, it was with these issues that Bediuzzaman was chiefly concerned.
· The Constitutional Movement
What was the struggle for Freedom and constitutional government? What were the issues involved? Why should a young religious scholar from the remote eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire have embraced the struggle with such conviction? Primarily these questions find their answer in a further question, one that had been asked with increasing urgency as the power of the Ottoman Empire waned in the face of Europe’s development and expansion in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries: how can this State be saved? Bu devlet nasil kurtarilabilir? The great debate revolved around this question, and around the causes of the decline of the Empire and Islamic world.
The struggle for Freedom emerged as the response of a group of intellectuals and literary figures, namely Namik Kemal and the Young Ottomans, to the solutions to the above question offered by the Ottoman rulers. The late 18th and 19th century sultans had sought to reverse the Empire’s decline by a series of reforms, concentrating firstly on the army, then between 1839 and 1876 in the period known as the Tanzimat, on virtually every area of government, together with education and many areas of Ottoman life. The models for the reforms were all imported from the West, and were introduced largely under European pressure and advice.
Furthermore, the Europeans pressed on the Ottomans the idea that the only civilization was European civilization, and that it was only through espousing it that they could raise the Empire out of its state of relative backwardness. This false and pemicious idea came to be accepted more and more by the Ottoman educated classes.
Namik Kemal and Young Ottomans were not anti-Western per se, nor were they opposed to progress and reform. On the contrary, they opposed the Tanzimat reforms as being obstacles to progress and counterproductive in combatting the disintegration of the Empire. One of the main reasons for this was the increase., rather than decrease, in the autocratic authority of the Sultan as the result of the reforms, and thus of arbitrary and absolutist government. The Young Ottomans were the first to propose constitutional and parliamentary government as the means of solving the Empire’s problems, Namik Kemal, in particular, pointing out its compatibility with the Seriat, and demonstrating the parallels between such a system and the form of government practiced by the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) and his immediate successors.
The struggle was continued after Sultan Abdulhamid II’s accession to the throne in 1976. Despite substantial losses of territory, Abdulhamid, a master politician, succeeded in holding the Empire together for the thirty-three years of his reign by playing off against one another the Great Powers and opposing interests of those bent on its destruction. But the price was high. His successful foreign policies were paid for by internal repression of considerable severity. In the face of the lack of unity in the First Parliament, elected following the Proclamation of the First Constitution on 23 December, 1876, and many of the members representing the minorities, that is, Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Bulgars, Serbs, and others, pursuing interests other than those of the Empire, Abdulhamid was left with little alternative but to dissolve it, though the Constitution was not abrogated. Following this, the Sultan ruled as a despot from Yildiz Palace, supported by far-reaching intelligence networks, rigorous censorship, denunciations, and the like.
It should be stressed, however, that this was not a bloody despotism. And it was not from the ordinary people that opposition came, but from the intellectuals, students educated in the new educational establishments, and particularly from army cadets in the military academies. Despite his vigorous criticisms of Abdulhamid’s absolutist government and its consequences, Bediuzzaman referred to him as “compassionate”. In the thirty-three years of his reign, he only signed the death-warrant for three or four criminals, pardoning even those who made attempts on his own life, including the Armenians who placed a bomb in his carriage. Others he sent into exile, rather than spilling their blood
The Young Turk movement emerged at this time. Its members, which included former Young Ottomans, represented a wide spectrum of ideas, and were united only in their common opposition to Abdulhamid’s internal despotism and their desire to see fundamental social and political reforms and the restoration of the Constitution. The Committee of Union and Progress, which led the Constitutional Revolution of 1908, formed one group within the movement. They saw representative government and freedom from despotism to be the essential conditions for preserving the unity of the Empire, particularly in the face of the nationalist aspirations of the minorities, and for securing its material progress. So long as the CUP adhered to these aims, they continued to enjoy Bediuzzaman’s support, as they did in continuing to pursue Abdulhamid’s Pan-Islamic policies, but when, as they progressively gained tighter control over the government, they created a worse tyranny than the one preceding it, Bediuzzaman did not hesitate to oppose them. In a newspaper article which appeared in April 1909, in reply to the question: “In Salonica you co-operated with the Committee of Union and Progress, why did you part from them?”, Bediuzzaman wrote: “I did not part from them; it was some of them that parted. I am still in agreement with people like Niyazi Bey and Enver Bey. But some of them parted from us. They strayed from the path and headed for the swamp…
As we examine Bediuzzaman’s writings and activities, it will become clear that not only did he see tyranny and despotism to be a root cause of the Ottoman Empire’s decline and material backwardness relative to the West, and also to be in no way compatible with Islam, but also did he demonstrate the solutions for its recovery and progress to all lie within Islam. He pointed out the dynamic nature of the Seriat and Islam’s predisposition for progress, both materially, and morally and spiritually, an important element of which is the fact that Islam enjoins the exercise of basic liberties and rights, without which progress is not possible. Further to this, at that time of defeat and disintegration for the Islamic world, he saw the future – the age of science, technology, and reason – to be nothing less than a golden age of Islamic civilization. For him the achievement of this was the logical consequence of the comprehensive, universal nature of the revealed religion of Islam and of the trend of events in the world, that is, the decline of Western civilization.
Maintaining unity within the Empire was one of the major problems of the time. Bediuzzaman argued also that Constitutionalism and Freedom within the framework of Islam was the way to preserve unity. Just as it created suitable conditions for strengthening Islamic Unity and brotherhood. However, “Unity cannot occur through ignorance. Unity is the fusion of ideas, and the fusion of ideas occurs through the electric rays of knowledge.” Thus, education was an area in which Bediuzzaman expended great effort, particularly for his native Kurdistan. Quite contrary to the accusations of his enemies subsequently that he was a Kurdish nationalist, the aim of all Bediuzzaman’s endeavors for the reform and spread of education in Kurdistan, and for its material and cultural development, was the strengthening of the Ottoman Empire and Islamic world. It was with this intention that he had set out a second time for the Ottoman capital in November, 1907.
Let us now return to 1907, and Bediuzzaman’s arrival in Istanbul.
· Tahir Pasha’s Letter
The Governor of Van and Bitlis, Tahir Pasa, who had provided Bediuzzaman with so much encouragement and support, now wrote him a letter of introduction to the Palace, pointing out Bediuzzaman’s fame and position among the ulema of eastern Anatolia, and requesting the Sultan’s favour and assistance in securing medical treatment for Bediuzzaman. This medical treatment was for a form of mental exhaustion brought about by his extreme mental exertion over a long period of time. Bediuzzaman’s nephew, Abdurrahman, notes that it was the competitive solving of mathematical problems in particular that had exhausted his brain, and that for a period of some three years during his stay in Van, he virtually give up debating of this kind and would only speak when necessary. The following is a translation of Tahir Pasa’s letter:
“A request from His most humble servant.
“Since Molla Said, who is famous among the ulema of Kurdistan for his brilliant intelligence, is in need of medical treatment, seeking refuge in the compassion and kindness of His Excellency the Shelter of the Caliphate, he has set out at this time for His Exalted Excellency.
“Although the above-mentioned is a person to whom everyone in these regions has recourse for solving problems concerning knowledge and learning, since he considers himself to be a student, he has not as yet consented to change his dress.
“Together with his being a faithful and sincere servant of His Excellency the Supreme Benefactor, the above-mentioned is by nature gentlemanly and satisfied with little, and in the opinion of this most humble servant, whether in regard to good moral qualities or loyalty and worshipfulness towards His Excellency the Shelter of the Caliphate, among the Kurdish ulema who up to this time have had the good fortune to go to Dersaadet [Istanbul], is a person distinguished for his devoutness and is most worthy of benevolence. It is therefore boldly submitted that if he is made the object of special favour and facility in the matter of receiving treatment, it will be considered by all the students of Kurdistan to be an eternally unforgettable gracious kindness of the dynasty of His Excellency the Sultan.
“In this and in every matter the command belongs unto him to whom all commanding belongs.
· The ‘Sekerci Han’
There is no record of this letter having evoked the desired response. In any event, Bediuzzaman’s first task when he arrived in Istanbul was to establish himself among the Istanbul ulema, to attract attention towards the problems of the eastern provinces, and publicize his ideas on educational reform. Indeed, by way of spurring him on, Tahir Pasa had said to Bediuzzaman: “You can defeat in argument all the ulema of eastern Anatolia, but you could not go to Istanbul and challenge all The big fishes in that sea,” knowing that Bediuzzaman could not let such a challenge remain unanswered. Thus, on his arrival, Bediuzzaman established himself in the religious centre of Istanbul, Fatih, in large building known as the Sekerci (Sweetmakers’) Han, which served as a hostel for many of the leading intellectual figures of the time. The poet Mehmet Akif, and Fatin Hoca, the Director of the Observatory, were among its inhabitants. There are many contemporary descriptions of Bediuzzaman. The following, written by Ahmed Ramiz Efendi, owner of the Ictihad Publishing House, describes his arrival:
“It was in 1323 (1907) that the news spread around that a person of flashing brilliance – a rarity of creation – called Said-i Kurdi,’ having risen like the sun over the rugged, precipitous mountains of the East, had appeared on the horizons of Istanbul….
“Said said: `I have come here in order to open schools in my native land, I have no other wish. I want this, nothing else.’ In other words, Bediuzzaman wanted two things, to open educational establishments in every part of the Eastern Provinces, and to receive nothing in return…”
Bediuzzaman cut a striking figure in Istanbul. On the door of his room in the Sekerci Han he hung a sign which read:
“Here all questions are answered, all problems solved, but no questions are asked.”
The following are the impressions of some of his visitors to the Han and those who saw him at that time. The first, that of Hasan Fehmi Basoglu, later a member of the Consultative Committee of the Department of Religious Affairs.
“About the time the Second Constitution was proclaimed I was studying in the Fatih Medrese. I heard that a young man called Bediuzzaman had come to Istanbul and had settled in a han, and that he had even hung a notice on his door which said: “Here every problem is solved, all questions are answered, but no questions are asked.” I thought that someone who made such a claim could only be mad. But hearing nothing but praise and good opinions concerning Bediuzzaman, and learning of the astonishment of the many groups of ulema and students who were visiting him, it awoke in me the desire to visit him myself. I decided that I would prepare some questions on the most difficult and abstruse matters to ask him. At that time I was considered to be one of the foremost members of the Medrese. Finally one night I selected a number of subjects from several of the most profound books on the theological sciences, and put them into question form. The following day I went to visit him, and I put my questions to him. The answers I received were quite astonishing and extraordinary. He answered my questions precisely, as though we had been together the previous evening and had looked at the books together. I was completely satisfied, and understood with certainty that his knowledge was not `acquired’ (kesbi ) like ours, it was `innate’ (vehbi ).
“Afterwards he got out a map, and explained the necessity of opening a university in the Eastern Provinces, pointing out its importance. At that time there were Hamidiye regiments in the Eastern Provinces, it was being administered in that way. He explained to us convincingly the deficiencies of this form of administration, and that the region had to be awakened from the point of view of education, industry and science. He explained that he had come to Istanbul to realize this aim, and he said: “The conscience is illuminated by the religious sciences, and the mind is illuminated by the sciences of civilization. ‘
And another account, from Ali Himmet Berki, a former President of the Court of Appeal:
“During those years I was a student in the Medresetu’I-Kuzat [Law Faculty]. I was ahead of the other students. Bediuzzaman’s name and fame had spread throughout Istanbul; everyone was talking about him in all the scholarly circles. We heard reports that he was staying as a guest in a har: in Fatih, and that he answered every sort of question that anyone put to him. I decided to go with some fellow students, and we went to visit this famous person.
“That day we heard he was in a teahouse answering questions. We went there immediately. There was quite a crowd, and he was wearing unusual clothes. He was wearing not the dress of a scholar, but the local dress of eastern Anatolia.
“When we got close to him, Bediuzzaman was answering the questions being asked him. He was surrounded by scholars who were listening to him in rapt silence and wonder. Everyone was satisfied and pleased with the answers they received. He was replying to the assertions and ideas of the Sophist philosophers. He demolished their views with rational proofs.
“That was the first time I saw and met him. What I gathered about him was this: he knew all the dictionaries. Whatever word you asked him from the Arabic dictionaries, he would answer immediately and give its meaning. Then in theology there was no one superior to him. In these two sciences his knowledge was endless. He knew Arabic literature, Persian literature, Eastern and Westem literature. And there was another piece of information about him that was well-known: as a man of religion he did not accept gifts, money, etc., from anyone. He could have owned lots of things if he had wanted. He did not own a stick in the world.”
And Abdullah Enver Efendi, known as the Walking Library, gave the following account in an interview with Necmeddin Sahiner:
“Harbizade Tavasli Hasan Efendi, a teacher in the Fatih Medrese, was a scholarly and respected figure. He lived into his nineties, teaching right up until his last days. He was someone who never missed a day at his duties; there was not one day throughout his whole teaching life that he did not go to teach. But that day Hasan Efendi said to his students: `I cannot come to teach today, because someone from eastern Anatolia called Bediuzzaman has arrived, and I am going to visit him.’ He left the Medrese and went to visit Bediuzzaman in the Sekerci Han. On his return, he expressed the astonishment and love he felt, saying to his students: `Such a person has not been seen before, he is a rarity of creation. The like of him has yet to appear.”
Forty years later Bediuzzaman himself recalled in a defence speech in court how the Istanbul ulema had sought his assistance. He said. Forty years ago and the year before the proclamation of the Constitution I went to Istanbul. At that time, the Japanese Commander-in-Chief [of the Army] had asked the Muslim ulema a number of questions conceming religion. The Istanbul ulema asked me about them. And they questioned me about many things in connection with them…”
And finally, an anecdote from Haci Hafiz Efendi, who used also to be present in the discussions held in the Fatih Medrese at that time of lively and vital debate. It was recorded by Necmeddin Sahiner exactly as related by Haci Hafiz’s son, Visali Bey, from his father’s memoirs.
“One day, some ulema were debating a subject in the courtyard of Fatih Mosque, but they could in no way convince one another and solve the question.The subjeect did not become clear and evident at all. The debate continued. At that point, Bediuzzaman appeared dressed in simple and humble clothes, with a shawl, and furcap on his head. I recognized him and knew of his knowledge on scholarly matters, so I observed the situation, and listened.
“Bediuzzaman said to the scholars: `What is this matter you are discussing? May I know? Would you please tell me?’
“Seeing his humble dress, the scholars replied: `See here, shepherd efendi! You would not understand these matters. Off with you, and attend to your own business!’
“Bediuzzaman was not the least offended at this. He learnt what the matter was, then explained and solved it so beautifully with verses from the Qur’an and Hadiths that everyone’s mouths dropped open in amazement. All those religious scholars were completely convinced of the subject. He explained the verses so masterfully that it was as though he had been at the Prnphet (PBUH)’s side when they had been revealed. And the scholars declared: `Your years are few, but your knowledge is great. Allow us to kiss your hand.’
“Bediuzzaman replied: `There is need for that’, and took his leave in a most modest and unobtrusive manner.”