Keeping up the ideal state in the face of social changes
Question: Ahmet Cevdet Pasha divides Ottoman history into a few stages and remarks that Ottomans became truly civilized only after the time of Suleiman the Magnificent. In addition, he sees the corruption in the final years of the Ottomans as a natural process a society goes through. How do you evaluate these views?
Answer: Actually, the views of Ahmet Cevdet Pasha are more or less shared by historians, sociologists, and philosophers of history. Researchers such as Gibb and Renan, who lived in the recent past, also expressed this thought. I think Ibn Khaldun was the first to voice such considerations. The overall point they make is that, societies come to existence, mature, get old, and die just like people do. That is, all societies are destined to be buried in a grave awaiting them, sooner or later. If we apply this understanding to the case of the Ottomans, we can see their early period as an unsophisticated one. However, taking the Ottomans’ qualities into consideration, it is more suitable to refer to this period as their “semi-civilized” stage. In my opinion, their early period was a period of pure belief. People were pure and plain in terms of their feelings and ideas. They did not hold any hidden expectations for what they did. They simply walked on the path before them as their ideals required and tried to reach the target with determination and efforts. So those people were so pure and plain; they were free from considerations of worldliness and intent on seeking the good pleasure of God. Whatever ideal they pursued, they exerted themselves for the sake of realizing it.
The will to keep up the desired state
Different nations have their glorious periods in history. The Ottomans signify such a period in the history of the Turkish people. The first period, of one and a half centuries, was a particularly magnificent one. The founder of the Ottomans, Osman Ghazi, spent a humble life in tents and he gave his last breath in a tent. While he could enjoy a life of ease with the victories he won, he always preferred a simple life. It can be said that he followed the example of the first four caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali, may God be pleased with them all. So when the path taken is the same, then the result is the same. Osman Ghazi’s son Orhan Ghazi was no different than his father with respect to his zeal for serving the truth, spirit of striving in the way of God, and preferring simplicity. He almost spent his entire life on horseback. Sultan Murad I (Hudavendigar) was martyred on the battleground. Before he gave his last breath, he told his soldiers not to dismount; instead of making personal demands, he wished his soldiers to carry on with their responsibility without losing time for him. His example reflects a spirit of selfless devotion to the cause. That great sultan was not only a statesman and commander but also a saintly figure with a heart awakened to spiritual realms.
During that period of great figures, Ottomans presented a brilliant picture with flying colors in the history of humanity. This period, which we can see as the “youth” of the state, lasted until the conquest of Istanbul. After the conquest, the Western world referred to the Ottoman state as an empire. It would be too exaggerated to say that the inner purity and simplicity at the beginning was completely lost after that date. However, it is a reality that the victories won did have a dizzying effect on people. We should pay tribute to Sultan Bayezid II, who lived like an ascetic and tried to keep up the purity and simplicity of the early period. Then came Selim I, who tried to establish justice on earth and become a factor of balance among world powers. He represented the resolution, selflessness, and self-sacrifice required by such an ideal. After that great ruler, there came another important figure who kept up the state in the best way possible during his 46-year rule, with a speed coming from the centrifugal force of the action his father, Selim I, realized. However, when we take a close look into those periods with respect to social life, we will recognize the beginnings of a negative change. Apparently, the centrifugal force of the purity at the beginning had yielded a magnificent state admired by kings. On the other hand, it is a reality that a process of decay had also begun within. As a matter of fact, after Suleiman the Magnificent, neither Selim I nor Murad III nor others—with some exceptions—commanded the army. When Sultan Reşad (Mehmed V) visited the Balkans, the people rejoiced by taking it as a great event. A sultan’s living among the people and leading his own army bears great importance in terms of their morale. At the same time, it presents a powerful stance against possible enemies waiting for the right time to attack.
However, it is very difficult to go on a campaign on horseback for those who run to bed as soon as they feel a bit sleepy, who have their breakfast as soon as they wake up, then have some snacks and have a lunch, and who want to be with their family all the time. One becomes an addict of such habits in time. Since these cannot be done on horseback, they chose not to be their soldiers’ leader. Therefore, all of these signify a period of gradual decline. Actually, it is really so difficult to keep up the desired state at such a period when pleasures of the world smile at you invitingly. Maybe the Ottomans’ most fruitful achievement for keeping up the desired state was to raise people of deep spirituality in the Sufi lodges. At the same time, the powerful chief religious scholars (sheikhulislam) they educated were also important factors. It seems that if it weren’t for them, the process of decay may have started much earlier.
The efforts for elongation
The above mentioned considerations should not be taken as an allegation against the Ottomans. Such a process can be described as “conditional determinism.” Such periods of decline seem inevitable for societies. A matter of extending life is always possible in the hands of able physicians. Then God Almighty may change His decree about the issue, depending on effective measures taken by people. This may be the very point Ibn Khaldun and other historians missed. Now let us clarify the point we made: God Almighty decrees a certain time period for the revival, rise, and decline of societies. But we cannot know the exact length of the period decreed. For example, take the volunteers devoted to reviving hearts, who say “If we cannot revive others, we will have no share of a revival.” This may represent the first stage of a movement. As we cannot know the time limit decreed for them by Divine destiny, we cannot make a remark whether the movement will last for fifty years or more. Destiny is a manifestation of the knowledge of God, and we cannot know what this knowledge contains. Then no matter whatever stage we are going through, what befalls on us is to give our willpower its due and to try to make the good things in that period last longer. For example, there may be a decree about us as “If you behave such and such a way, you will experience a serious disintegration and will not be able to get back to your feet again.” And let us also assume that the first signs of a decline have appeared. On the other hand, you really did your best and presented an ideal state. For instance, in spite of the fact that high worldly positions—as an undersecretary, minister, or a general director—were offered to you, you said, “How strange, I only seek God’s good pleasure and try to glorify His Name, but these people are making irrelevant suggestions to me.” Let us say that you presented such a dignified stance as a requirement of your sincerity. Thanks to the effort you made for keeping up your true spirit, the Divine Decree about you will be changed by another Divine Decree and thus you experience a new period of revival during what had previously been a process of disintegration. I just tried to elucidate the issue; let nobody think that I take those positions lightly. They surely are important positions for a society, definitely needed in a state mechanism. However, those devoted to a very important ideal should never expect certain titles and worldly or otherworldly gains in return for the services they made; they should never leave a crack against such offers. As long as people keep up their ideal state and spirit, they can keep their vitality and add to the duration decreed as a certain society’s lifetime. For example, you witness the period when the devoted souls set about their marathon, and thought to yourself that “With such performance, these people will continue this task for fifty years at least, by God’s grace.” But if they keep up their state, receive good and correct spiritual nourishment, continuously attend contemplative dialogues, become oriented to seeking the good pleasure of God, and retain their heartfelt trust in God, then the fifty years may extend to a hundred. If their enthusiasm continues and their lives become pervaded by a spiritual vigilance it can even be a hundred and fifty years. Further than that, even at a period when the devoted souls become engaged in economic, political, and cultural life, and worldliness become dominant in different ways, as a period of culture where people seek consolation in arts and other activities, if people can still retain their state to a certain degree, then they can even survive—though sometimes by limping and sometimes under intensive care—for another hundred and fifty years. A new endeavor in this respect and turning to God anew can be a means of a new bestowal of God Almighty, and an extra blessing.
If we get back to the main subject, the case of the Ottomans, it is worthy of surprise not for its collapse but for having survived for so long, as a state surrounded by so many adversaries. Even the issue of some terrorist groups in the mountains has not been solved for twenty-five years. Imagine that the Ottomans were surrounded by adversaries from all sides, including the seas. It was very difficult for the Ottomans to rise up again as themselves while struggling against all of them. Against all odds, they continued their existence and fulfilled their historical mission to a certain extent. Taking all of these into consideration, we need to declare and confess the merits of the Ottomans, honor their memory, and ask forgiveness from God for them. As they were exposed to continuous attacks by their adversaries from the East to the West, being located in a very strategic location where so many routes intersected, their continuity for six centuries is a surprising fact, in my humble opinion.
 Ahmet Cevdet Paşa, Tarih-i Cevdet, 1/124–125
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