The First of the Modern Ottomans – The Intellectual History of Ahmed Vâsıf
Years ago, several mentors warned me against writing a biography. “Don’t do it,” they said. “You will get bogged down in the details and life-story.” I can see now that they wished to spare me from a good deal of effort and technical challenge, but also from the thorny questions that come with the genre. What is the scholarly value of biography? Why focus on an individual rather than wider groups and bigger historical problems? Can biography be “serious” history, anyway? These are valid questions – especially for so undeveloped a field as Ottoman history, where in many cases we still lack a basic grasp of the empire’s political, social, and cultural dynamics. Ottoman historians have so much legwork to do that biography seems like an unwonted luxury, a self-indulgence. Why produce one?
I have tried in my new book, The First of the Modern Ottomans: the Intellectual History of Ahmed Vâsıf, to write a biography that is also a deeper study of Ottoman culture, thought, and society. To be sure, it centers on an individual: the scribe, ambassador, and prolific historian Ahmed Vâsıf Efendi (ca. 1735-1806), one of the leading figures of the eighteenth-century Ottoman Empire, a man who rose from obscurity in Baghdad to travel the empire, fight its wars, advise its sultans, and, in time, write its history. The book retraces Vâsıf’s early life and education in Baghdad and his entry into Ottoman scribal service. It follows him to Aleppo as a student, to the war front with the Russian Empire, to St. Petersburg as a captive, to Madrid as an ambassador, and back to Istanbul, where he served out the rest of his career. I also explore Vâsıf’s contributions to Ottoman literature and thought, in fields like poetry, historiography, and political advice.
Vâsıf lived a full and well-documented life at a time of crisis in his empire, the late eighteenth century, but that alone does not justify writing his biography. Rather, Vâsıf serves as both a subject and a vessel for wider study. Scholarship on the late eighteenth-century Ottoman Empire is often wanting. The late 1700s proved a pivotal moment in the empire’s development, witnessing the first efforts at systemic political and military reform, especially under Sultan Selim III (r. 1789-1807) and his so-called “New Order” program. I have always been unsatisfied with these treatments, however, which tend to focus on the reforms as such, new technology, and the “impact of the West.” They present a one-dimensional view of the period still very much informed by the work of authors like Bernard Lewis and Niyazi Berkes, and mostly skirt the role of domestic actors and their concerns.
Perhaps the main reason I was drawn to Vâsıf is that his life offers a glimpse of these concerns and of his intellectual cohort, a group of like-minded Ottoman bureaucrats and reformers at the court of Selim III. Vâsıf spent his adult life with these men. He became one of their main spokesmen. His ideas formed and developed as they worked, talked, planned, quarreled, and very often died together. Vâsıf was a leading thinker, to be certain, but he was also fairly typical of this group and acted more as a systematizer of their ideas than as an innovator. His ideas, we can therefore say, are broadly representative of contemporary reformist thinking. In this way, The First of the Modern Ottomans is one of the first detailed intellectual studies of the early modern empire. Weaving together Vâsıf’s life and thought with the larger intellectual currents of his day – especially in Istanbul – it explores debates among the Ottoman ruling elite over Europe, political reform, war and peace, justice, and the empire’s renewal. Vâsıf’s life reveals a vital response to the empire’s challenges at the turn of the nineteenth century, one that was novel and deeply enmeshed in Islamic philosophy, ethics, and statecraft.
Contemporary debate about the nature of “reform” is one case in point. Scholars have not adequately examined Ottoman reform on its own terms, as a conceptual category that operated within larger understandings of the socio-political order. I argue, for instance, that Selim III’s “New Order” program referenced a specific discourse in which “reform” was really a type of restoration, the restoration of a divinely ordained and primordial “world order.” This framework largely excluded the notion of radical change, for there could be no alternative to “world order.” Vâsıf for his part shows the persistence of this discourse to the turn of the nineteenth century, yet also its erosion. While he and his peers never ceased to regard reform as a restoration of “world order,” they increasingly tinkered and pushed the idea to its logical limits. In a few decades, succeeding generations of Ottomans would abandon it completely. This is a pattern that Vâsıf and his peers repeated in a number of other fields, as well. They were in many ways a transitional generation that straddled old and new, men who bridged dramatic political and intellectual ruptures and whose children inherited a much changed empire – one reason for the book’s chosen title.
Was the reward ultimately worth the effort, then? The reader can judge if I have successfully evoked something of Vâsıf’s life and society, but I like to think that writing this book as a biography opened doors which would otherwise have remained shut. It would have been possible to write a strictly intellectual or cultural history of the period, or an account of Ottoman political reform, or a treatment of court politics and patronage, or a study of the empire’s foreign relations and wars. Instead, I was able to highlight all of these in the framework of Vâsıf’s life, sketching a panorama of his rapidly changing world. As an author, too, writing a biography allowed me to address an audience beyond just Ottoman historians. A life provides a convenient narrative structure, one that is accessible and can hopefully engage interested readers in other fields. Biographies give our material a closer and more intimate dimension, helping to connect us to human actors and their emotions, hopes, and fears. Lastly, they can simply tell good stories – something that is still at the heart of what historians do, and that we neglect at our own peril.
Ethan L. Menchinger is a historian of the Ottoman Empire. He was a EUME fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien in 2014-15, and later visiting scholar at the University of Toronto and lecturer in Early Ottoman History at the University of Michigan. His book, The First of the Modern Ottomans: the Intellectual History of Ahmed Vâsıf, was published in 2017 by Cambridge University Press. He is working this term on a new project in Ottoman theology funded by the Gerda Henkel Stiftung.
Citation: Ethan L. Menchinger, The First of the Modern Ottomans – The Intellectual History of Ahmed Vasif , in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 14.03.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/9275.