The Ottoman Canon and the Construction of Arabic and Turkish Literatures: Personal and Scholarly Reflections on My Book

By C. Ceyhun Arslan

When we study Arabic or Turkish literatures, we often assume that these literatures modernized under the influence of Western literature in the nineteenth century. Likewise, before it modernized, Ottoman literature is assumed to have been under the influence of Arabic and Persian literatures. However, these claims – which shape the way our literary traditions are taught at high schools and universities – often overlook the process in which Arabic and Turkish literatures were started to be seen as literatures that one could compare with Western literatures to begin with. The Ottoman Canon and the Construction of Arabic and Turkish Literatures analyzes this process: It lays out how Arabic and Turkish literatures started to be seen as national literatures that one can compare with other national literatures of the world. As I show throughout the book, this new perspective on literature also played a key role in laying the basis for new national identities shaping the Middle East and North Africa. Ultimately, my book undermines what Christopher Markiewicz has called “a twentieth-century concern with nationally circumscribed historiographical fields that privileges the linear evolution of distinct monolingual literary traditions, whether Turkish, Persian, or Arabic.”[1]

Ottoman Studies have already studied extensively how Arabic and Persian languages have influenced the Ottoman intellectual circles. However, The Ottoman Canon tried to identify specific Arabic and Persian texts that these circles quoted and wrote about in their works. That is why, for example, I paid attention to references to al-Ḥarīrī’s (d. 1122) al-Maqāmāt in late Ottoman and even post-Ottoman Turkish works. Likewise, I counted how many times Ziya Pasha (1829–80) quoted different poets, such as Abū Nuwās (d. c. 813–15) and Ibn al-Fāriḍ (1181–1235), in his anthology Harabat (AH 1291–92 [1874/75–75/76]). These references to “classical Arabic masterpieces” in many Ottoman works led me to think about how we study Arabic literature. Often, al-Ḥarīrī would be studied within classical Arabic literature departments. If a work decides to study al-Ḥarīrī in a comparative context, then it would emphasize how al-Ḥarīrī’s works consolidated a cosmopolitan Arabized community and/or Islamic republic of letters. These approaches are highly valuable; at the same time, they can sometimes lead to too much importance being attached to the original context in which a work was created. However, the more I researched, the more I discovered that the Ottoman literati would sometimes quote excerpts of different Arabic verses without putting them in chronological order or even providing information on their authors, as one can observe in entries in the Ottoman Turkish newspaper Malumat. The original context in which these works were produced did not matter as much to these Ottoman writers as it does to today’s scholars of Middle Eastern and comparative literature.

This shift in perspective about the work’s original context also changes how we study literature. Perhaps it is easy to understand that all national literature is a construction since much of the humanities today tends to demonstrate how things that seem natural to us – like gender identity or national identity – are narrative constructions. At the same time, the terms, “Turkish literature” or “Arabic literature”, do not merely refer to literatures composed in Arabic or Turkish only. They also embody a particular approach to literature. We tend to make literary categorizations based on historical periods, such as “Umayyad Arabic poetry,” “classical Ottoman literature,” or “contemporary Arabic novel.” This particular way of approaching literature is now so widespread and internalized that when one says “Arabic literature” or “Turkish literature,” it is not just the linguistic tradition that comes to one’s mind. These terms have now become almost inseparable from this very particular “historical” approach to literature. As a result, as I discuss in Chapter 4, it becomes harder to imagine that an Abbasid-era Arabic poem can become “Ottomanized” as the poem is used to bolster the Ottoman hegemony over Iraq and its poet crying for an Ottoman sultan.

That is why I decided to conceptualize the Ottoman canon as a “reservoir,” which included “streams” from different linguistic traditions, such as Arabic and Persian. I have shifted attention from “Ottoman literature,” a term that has often been used to study the literatures produced in the Ottoman Empire, to the “Ottoman canon” in order to focus on “non-Ottoman” or “pre-Ottoman” works as constitutive elements of the Ottoman cultural landscape. For example, I observed throughout my research that Ottoman Turkish texts would not quote Arabic works produced in the Ottoman Empire, even though their authors could actually read Arabic. This made me think more about the hierarchies and exclusions that shaped the Ottoman cultural and literary milieu. I knew, for instance, that women writers had always been excluded from literary circles. However, we see that more women, such as Zaynab Fawwāz (1860?–1914) and Fatma Aliye (1862–1936), started to produce narrative and literary works that would receive praise from their peers during the late Ottoman period. However, it was almost always the male authors who were considered the modernizers of their national literatures. Therefore, even when women entered literary circles, they were not seen as “pioneers” by their male colleagues.

As I also paid attention to particular choices that the Ottoman literati made as they forged their multilingual Ottoman canon, I started to study works from authors such as Rūḥī al-Khālidī (1864–1913) and Jurjī Zaydān (1861–1914), who have also shaped how we study Arabic literature. These authors often viewed “classical Arabic heritage as the root from which modern Arabic literature grew.”[2] Like many authors of the late Ottoman Empire, they were highly conversant with the Orientalist scholarship of their times. It is, however, easy to assume that they merely copied what they read in Orientalist literary histories. As I mention throughout my book, the authors I studied often did not simply regurgitate what they read in Orientalist books. Instead, they appropriated and “translated” what they saw in Orientalist works as they generated their vision of literary heritage. For example, like many Orientalist scholars, Zaydān would generate a linear, chronological history for Arabic literature; he would also pay attention mainly to the original historical context in which a work is created. At the same time, he would also not hesitate to use Arabic terms like naḥw to describe ancient Greek literary terms. Therefore, he would also draw on his knowledge of the classical Arabic heritage (turāth).

I also relied on the recent rising interest in the field of world literature as I paid attention to how texts, like al-Mutanabbī’s poems or Saʿdī’s (c.1213–91/92) Būstān, attained “a new life” in the Ottoman context. At the same time, I did not want to write a “typical world literature book” that merely mapped out textual circulations and translations between Arabic and Turkish. The past few decades have witnessed a rise in scholarship that has examined the circulation of different linguistic traditions, such as Greek and Armenian, in the Ottoman Empire. This interest in different linguistic traditions corresponded to a decade of scholarship that posed a distinction between a repressive homogenous nation-state and a multilingual cosmopolitan Ottoman Empire. We should still continue to flesh out the multilingual and multicultural character of the Ottoman literary landscape. However, the rise of neo-Ottomanism in the past few years also made me cautious towards approaches that romanticize the Ottoman past to alleviate disappointments in the current situation of modern nation-states. That is why I did not merely pay attention to who read what; I also wanted to understand how texts generate cultural communities and how this process involves hierarchies and unequal power dynamics.

C. Ceyhun Arslan

Perhaps scholars have also overlooked these hierarchies because postcolonial studies have shaped how we study imperialism. Literary critics have paid most of their attention to the French and British empires, which imposed their national languages on the people they subjugated. Therefore, for many critics, an Ottoman poet quoting al-Mutanabbī was often seen as an Arabized author. Orientalists, such as Gustave Le Bon (1841–1931), would repeat in their works like La Civilisation des Arabes (The Arab Civilization, 1884) that while the Ottomans could have ruled over the Arabs, the Arabs ultimately established hegemony over the Ottomans, as they quoted and drew upon Arabic works. However, this perspective stems from a modern, postcolonial understanding of imperialism that often pays attention to how Western empires imposed their languages and literatures over the rest of the world. As my book has shown, when these authors quoted Arabic or Persian, they did not necessarily feel a sense of subjugation. They quoted these works to assert a sense of imperial grandeur.

This shift of perspective ultimately led me to reflect on “the Persianate turn.” Since many Ottoman texts quoted and made references to well-known poets of Persian literature, such as Saʿdī, I also engaged with recent, exciting scholarship on the Persianate world from scholars such as Aria Fani, Alexander Jabbari, Samuel Hodgkin, and Mana Kia. As I examined how Ottoman authors quoted verses from poets such as Ṣāʾib Tabrīzī (1592–1676), I also reflected often on whether we can see them as part of the cosmopolitan Persianate world. As I elaborate in a forthcoming article for a Forum for Alexander Jabbari’s The Making of Persianate Modernity (2023)in Comparative Literature Studies, I call for shifting our attention from “the Persianate world” to “multiple worlds of the Persianate.” As a term, “the Persianate world” had a highly productive heuristic function; it helped scholars of Persian literature to study Persian works produced in different parts of the world, such as South Asia. However, the term itself sometimes risked overlooking the diverse communities that Persian texts could have cultivated, like the Ottoman literati, who did not necessarily see themselves as part of a Persianate community. After all, the Ottoman poet Nefi (d. 1635) claimed that his poems spread tremors in India and ; he did not see himself as a part of the Persianate community.

As I was on the verge of finishing The Ottoman Canon, I became aware that my experiences inevitably shaped my scholarly approaches. When I attended or presented at panels in Ottoman studies, I realized I was often the only person who did not have a PhD in history. In many high literary theory panels, almost all speakers specialized in Western European literatures, such as German or French. When I attended panels in Middle Eastern literatures, I was often the only person who worked on Turkish; other presenters or audience members usually specialized in Arabic or Persian. At times, these experiences exacerbated my insecurities and fears, leading me to think that I could never find an audience who would understand me. But eventually, these experiences became my guide when I wrote The Ottoman Canon: without abandoning my original formation and training, I had to find a way to reach out to Ottoman historians, scholars of Arabic and Persian literature, and critical theorists. The book, therefore, is based on my training in literary studies and at the same time on my deep engagement with the works of the three audiences mentioned.

As I wrote The Ottoman Canon, I felt an incredible sense of sadness when I read all the late Ottoman texts that expressed a genuine hope and belief in a better world to come. Many authors I studied, such as Zabel Yessayan (1878–1943), Namık Kemal (1840–88), and Jurjī Zaydān, sometimes thought they were on the verge of a social utopia. Their optimism was heart wrenching as I observe how the Middle East and North Africa continue to suffer from poverty, authoritarianism, genocide, populist Islamism, and Western imperialism. At times, writing The Ottoman Canon felt like witnessing an imminent car crash. The authors I examined seemed to be happily enjoying their rides amidst a dizzying modernization, hoping to drive into a bright future ahead, but the car’s brakes were faulty, and it was going full speed into an irrevocable dystopia. I felt helpless, as I wanted to shout out to these authors to get out of the car. But I could not travel back in time and instead lamented the gap between the sincere hopes that these authors had and the humiliation and suffering I was witnessing.

The current conditions in the MENA region ultimately helped me reassess the time period: I no longer saw the late Ottoman period as the exciting beginnings of a utopian present; instead, I started to see the time period through the lens of loss. It is no coincidence that my work thus draws frequently upon Karim Mattar, Stephen Sheehi, and Jeffrey Sacks, who all theorized loss in the Palestinian context. Their perspectives on an irretrievable loss that one cannot put into language—a situation that has recently been exacerbated due to the horrific losses of the Palestinian genocide—also shaped my perception of the late Ottoman period.

Ultimately, I began to see some of the claims often repeated in late Ottoman works, such as the claim that the Ottoman society had westernized or entered a new age, as coping mechanisms. These claims did not capture the reality on the ground. Instead, late Ottoman authors “claim[ed] to identify and speak about what exactly they left behind – ‘tradition’, ‘old literature’, ‘classical genres’, or ‘classical literature’ – rather than confront modernity’s losses and deterritorialisations that one cannot represent through language” (110). Here, I drew upon Stephen Sheehi and Nergis Ertürk, who made excellent use of psychoanalytic theory to understand the modernization experience of the late Ottoman Empire. Drawing upon their scholarship, I ended up arguing that Western colonialism, imperialism, and hegemony created such a deep sense of deterritorialization and displacement that we can no longer really understand what the “tradition” is truly like. What we often describe regarding this period is a narrative that late Ottoman and post-Ottoman authors perpetuated to cope with a sense of loss: They made us believe that their societies left behind the tradition or old literature and instead accepted modernity and new literature. Therefore, we thought we had a good idea about what this tradition or old literature looked like since these authors repeated constantly in their works that they managed to let go of these burdens. For instance, Halide Edib (1884–1964) defined what the old Turkish literature looked like in the following words: “The admirers and imitators of the Persian culture were entirely enslaved and chained by its form as well as its spirit, and any slavery to form creates rigid and conventional artists. Once caught in such a formal school, any new and freer personal expression of beauty is stifled and killed. And this was what happened to the old Turkish literature.”[3] As I discuss in Chapter 3, these authors thus described modernity more as a matter of changing clothes or appearances rather than a sense of loss that one cannot put into language. Some historians may want to bring clarity to the events of the time; however, as a literary critic, it was fine for me to simply state that what actually happened during this period can never be put into words. Not even our best scholarly apparatus can help us here.

Many of us still attempt to bring up this authentic tradition, and this attempt takes many forms.  Occasionally, scholars based in MENA and/or working on the region criticize human rights movements as products of Western imperialism, and any scholar of Arabic or Turkish literature who uses a theoretical concept that does not originate from the cultural communities in which they have studied, or any student of Middle Eastern literatures who cannot speak the language they study without an accent. These attitudes sometimes reinforce the belief that an authentic, traditional way of existence is always within reach. However, The Ottoman Canon demonstrates that Orientalism is not just what Western scholars have produced; it has also shaped the paradigms and concepts through which all of us understand the world. Although it is easy to demonstrate how authors who advocated Westernization relied on Orientalist discourse, it is equally important to show how authors such as Hacı İbrahim (1826–88), who is often considered a “traditional” author, also drew on Orientalism. Perhaps it is impossible to go back to “pre-Orientalist” times when our concepts and cultural paradigms were not shaped by Orientalism. Instead of looking for a “golden age” in which our communities were “authentic,” we can learn from late Ottoman authors, who “translated” and reinterpreted the Orientalist discourse to form their cultural and political vision.  

Ultimately, a book that first sought to understand the main concepts and paradigms that have shaped how we study Arabic and Turkish literatures helped me reflect on the modernization experience that the MENA region has undergone since the nineteenth century. The Ottoman Canon appeals to scholars of Middle Eastern literature; at the same time, I also think that it will be helpful to any scholar who wants to think about how we can categorize literature in new ways. We often assume that communities – often national ones – produce a literature that then becomes our object of study. The Ottoman Canon undermines the “institutional biases in literary studies today that […] assumes that texts have a single cultural identity circumscribed by the time and place of their production” (31). Instead, it demonstrates how literary texts create diverse communities, such as the Ottoman literati.


[1] Christopher Markiewicz, “Books on the Secretarial Arts and Literary Prose,” in Treasures of Knowledge: An Inventory of the Ottoman Palace Library (1502/31503/4), ed. Gülru Necipoğlu, Cemal Kafadar, and Cornell H. Fleischer (Leiden: Brill, 2019), 658.

[2] C. Ceyhun Arslan, The Ottoman Canon and the Construction of Arabic and Turkish Literatures (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2024), 57, hereafter cited by page number.

[3] Halide Edib Adıvar, Memoirs of Halidé Edib. 1926. New Introduction by Hülya Adak. (Piscataway: Gorgias Press, 2004 [1926]), 183.

About the Author

C. Ceyhun Arslan is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Koç University and Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation at the Forum Transregionale Studien and Saarland University. His works have appeared or are forthcoming in journals and edited volumes such as Journal of Arabic LiteratureThe Routledge Handbook of Arabic Poetry; Middle Eastern Literatures; Cambridge History of Middle Eastern ModernismComparative Literature Studies; Journal of Mediterranean StudiesMiddle Eastern Literatures; Routledge Handbook to Global Literature and Culture in the Romantic Era; Sea of Literatures: Towards a Theory of Mediterranean Literature; Utopian Studies; and Convivium: Exchanges and Interactions in the Arts of Medieval Europe, Byzantiumand the Mediterranean. His first book, The Ottoman Canon and the Construction of Arabic and Turkish Literatures, has just been published by Edinburgh University Press. He is working on his second book project entitled Becoming Mediterranean: Views from Arabic, French, and Ottoman Literatures.

Further Reading

C. Ceyhun Arslan, As I Worked More in Academia, I Have Come to Realize that Each Methodology Has a Cost.” – 5in10 with C. Ceyhun Arslan, 09.04.2024.

Citation: C. Ceyhun Arslan, The Ottoman Canon and the Construction of Arabic and Turkish Literatures: Personal and Scholarly Reflections on My Book, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 05.07.2024,

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