Physiognomy (ʿilm-i firāsat) and Ottoman Statecraft: Discerning Morality and Justice

In: Arabica
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  • 1 University of Chicago

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In the tenth/sixteenth century six treatises on physiognomy (ʿilm-i firāsat)—a science widely considered able to predict inner moral dispositions (aḫlāq-i bāṭina) based on external appearances (aḥwāl-i ẓāhira)—were written for the Ottoman court. In a world in which statecraft and politics were ultimately based on questions of morality (aḫlāq), physiognomy was presented as a particularly useful skill for the Ottoman court due to its ability to evaluate inner moral character with scientific precision. Based on such knowledge, a partial conception of justice could be implemented with an instrumental coating of impartiality. Moreover, men with prized moral qualities could be selected for the ruling elite. The science also offered the sultan and his court a modus operandi for attaining self-knowledge and, if combined with moral self-disciplining (riyāḍat), a way to acquire divine characteristics.