This article analyzes comparisons between Arabic and Turkish literatures in literary histories from the late Ottoman period, with a particular focus on works by Jurjī Zaydān (1861-1914). Drawing upon Alexander Beecroft’s concept of “literary biomes,” it argues that these comparisons overlooked intersections of Arabic and Turkish literatures in the “Ottoman literary biome” and depicted them as belonging to two separate “biomes.” I define the “Ottoman literary biome” as the transcultural space of the Ottoman Empire that allowed the circulation of a multilingual textual repertoire and cultivated a cultural elite. Through foregrounding the transcultural context of Ottoman literary biome, I demonstrate that modern Arabic and Turkish literatures morphed in a reciprocal entanglement. My work finally calls for the fields of Arabic literature and comparative literature to further flesh out the diversity of literary biomes in which Arabic texts circulated.
Shaden Tageldin notes that the nineteenth century witnessed “epistemological transformations that spurred the reinvention of Arabic literature … as a fundamentally comparative literature.”1 Here, Tageldin argues that translations from French to Arabic by Rifāʿah al-Ṭahṭāwī (1801-1873) testify to a moment when numerous nahḍah thinkers had started to view Arabic and French literatures as comparable with and translatable to each other.2 Social and political transformations in the beginning of the nineteenth century “compelled both French and Arabic literatures to rethink themselves in each other’s eyes, in translation: in short, to rethink themselves as comparative literatures.”3 While Tageldin analyzes the impact of Western imperialism on Arabic literature, my article takes an alternative angle that will further shed light upon the reinvention of Arabic literature as comparative literature. It examines literary histories of the late Ottoman Empire that compared Arabic and Turkish literatures—in particular works by Jurjī Zaydān (1861-1914) who has been studied as a pioneering figure of modern Arabic literature—to demonstrate that Turkish and Arabic literatures also often rethought “themselves in each other’s eyes, in translation.”4
Tageldin demonstrates that comparisons perpetuated a false sense of equivalence between Arabic and Western European literatures (French and English in particular) and thus overlooked unequal power dynamics in which the West had the upper hand. Comparisons in late Ottoman literary histories between Arabic and Turkish literatures also generated a sense of equivalence between the two. This sense of equivalence perpetuated the assumption in Arabic writings that Turkish literature, like Arabic literature, underwent a similar historical trajectory and experienced nahḍah in the nineteenth century after a period of slumber. This article especially pays attention to another impact of the sense equivalence that translations and comparisons may generate. Literary comparisons can be made based on the assumption that their objects of comparison circulate within the same kinds of “literary biomes.”
As an alternative to much of the scholarship that has categorized literatures in strictly national, chronological, or civilizational terms (e.g. Arabic literature, pre-modern literature, Islamic literature etc.), Alexander Beecroft uses the term “literary biomes” to refer to diverse cultural settings with “particular patterns of ecological constraints operating on the circulation of literary texts in a variety of different historical contexts.”5 Beecroft provides definitions of six ecologies: epichoric, panchoric, cosmopolitan, vernacular, national, and global.6 I focus for this article on his characterization of cosmopolitan literary biome which refers to “a vast, transcultural, translingual, transpolitical space within which a single literary language dominates.”7
I find Beecroft’s notion of the cosmopolitan biome useful for understanding the literary landscape of the Ottoman Empire. This article coins the term “Ottoman literary biome” to refer to the transcultural space of the Ottoman Empire that allowed the circulation of a multilingual textual repertoire and cultivated an imperial cultural elite whose intellectual formation was shaped by this repertoire. Ottoman literary biome has many characteristics of a cosmopolitan biome, but it is not shaped by a single literary language. Indeed, Beecroft notes that “many parts of the Middle East under Ottoman rule simultaneously inhabited the Arabic, Persian, and Turkish cosmopoleis.”8 This article opts to demonstrate that late Ottoman Arabic and Turkish literary histories often overlooked the fact that various intellectual elites of the Ottoman literary biome simultaneously inhabited multiple cosmopoleis (Turkish, Arabic, and Persian). In particular, it argues that these works depicted histories of Arabic and Turkish literatures as two trajectories that did not intersect with each other, contributing to the current conceptualization of classical Arabic heritage as the root out of which modern Arabic literature grew. It has become easier to envision Arabic texts as belonging only to a national biome, especially when Arabic literature is compared with Turkish literature or Ottoman literature, because “national literatures are from the beginning constructed as elements of an inter-national system of literatures; English literature, in other words, can only exist as such if it can be set against French literature, German literature, and so on.”9
My article foregrounds the transcultural context of Ottoman literary biome to reveal various entanglements between the histories of Arabic and Turkish literatures. Historians such as Axel Havelmann, Thomas Philipp, and Anne-Laure Dupont have already situated authors like Zaydān within such a context by noting that while Zaydān advocated a vision of Arab cultural nationalism, he did not call for Arabs to secede from the Ottoman Empire. He often advocated the unity of the empire because for Zaydān and other thinkers of his time such as Muḥammad Kurd ʿAlī (1876-1953) and Shakīb Arslān (1869-1946), “Arabism was and should be compatible with Ottomanism, i.e. political loyalty to the empire”.10 Yet historians have focused on these thinkers’ attitudes toward the Ottoman Empire as a political entity. I pay attention to their attitude toward cosmopolitan Ottoman culture in which Arabic has had important cultural capital. As Muhsin al-Musawi puts it, “Arabic was used and practiced since the mid-tenth century in the shadow of ‘world conquerors’ and non-Arab empires and dynasties” since leaders such as Timur could claim to become the rulers of the world when they had “knowledge of other tongues especially Arabic.”11 This article will show that for Namık Kemal (1840-1888), a crucial figure in the history of modern Turkish literature, Arabic had prestige and Arabic literature played a key role in his vision for Ottoman literature.
The first section of this article focuses on Jurjī Zaydān’s perspectives on Turkish literature. My focus on Zaydān is deliberate, since, as Michael Allan puts it, “[t]o this day, Zaydān’s historical understanding of Arabic literature remains a central influence on the formation of the discipline—as much for the methods he undertakes as for the meticulous cataloguing of sources his work provides.”12 I demonstrate that Zaydān’s works generate a sense of equivalence between Arabic and Turkish literatures as they highlight similarities between the two. I give a close reading of an article in the famous journal that Zaydān edited, al-Hilāl, on Namık Kemal, who is often regarded as a pioneer of modern Turkish literature. The article, like works by Rūḥī al-Khālidī (1864-1913) and Maʿrūf al-Ruṣāfī (1875-1945), describe Namık Kemal as a pioneer of a modern “Turkish nahḍah.” By describing Namık Kemal as a pioneer, this article could render the Ottoman cultural landscape familiar for Arabic readers and overlook Namık Kemal’s vision of a new Ottoman literature in which Arabic literature played a key role. I then focus on another article in which Zaydān writes about the “history of Turkish language arts” (tārīkh ādāb al-lughah al-turkiyyah) and point to similarities between this article and one of the most foundational works in the field of Arabic literature, Tārīkh ādāb al-lughah al-ʿarabiyyah (The History of Arabic Language Arts;13 first serialized in al-Hilāl in 1894 and 1895 and eventually published as a multivolume work in 1911-1914). These similarities reinforce the depiction of Arabic and Turkish literatures as akin to mirror images, which look alike but never intersect in the Ottoman literary biome.
The second section will examine literary histories by Jurjī Zaydān, Rūḥī al-Khālidī, and İsmail Hakkı [Eldem] (1871-1944). It will demonstrate that these histories establish a linear historical trajectory for both Arabic and Turkish literatures and emphasize relations of anteriority and posteriority between these literatures. In particular, Arabic literature in the works on Turkish literature exists only as a source of influence that existed prior to Turkish literature. To further substantiate these points, I analyze how these histories employ the term “classics” in their own writings. While classics is a “non-emic” term that did not originate in the literary traditions that these authors wrote about, they mobilize this term to stabilize Arabic and Ottoman literatures within a linear historical trajectory. My work demonstrates that debates on cultural and literary heritage in Arabic writings should be analyzed in conjunction with similar debates in Ottoman Turkish writings due to entanglements between the histories of modern Arabic and Turkish literatures. Furthermore, it suggests that histories of Arabic literature can further flesh out the diversity of literary biomes in which Arabic texts have circulated.
Jurjī Zaydān and the Turkish Nahḍah
Sooyong Kim notes that the incorporation of lands in which the majority spoke Arabic—Syria, Egypt, the Hijaz, Iraq, and much of the Maghreb—into Ottoman domains in the sixteenth century played a key role in generating a cosmopolitan Ottoman culture whose universalist aspirations strove to subsume the major Islamicate literary traditions, mainly Arabic, Persian, and Turkish.14 For Kim, crafting poetry served to consolidate the social identity of medrese graduates who insisted that good Ottoman poets needed to master Arabic and Persian as well. As Kim puts it, “[I]n emphasizing linguistic ability as the chief measure of a poet’s worth, the medrese-trained literati offered at once an exclusive and inclusive definition of what makes an Ottoman poet. That is, anyone can be an Ottoman poet, and by extension an Ottoman, who holds this qualification [of linguistic ability].”15
Kim focuses on the constitution of a cosmopolitan literary biome in the sixteenth century that allowed poets who mastered particular poetic and linguistic traditions to affiliate with an elite Ottoman intelligentsia. The late nineteenth century, however, witnessed changes in what Beecroft considered the “most important determinants” of literary biomes, which include linguistic situation, the political world, economics, cultural politics, and technologies of distribution.16 As Benjamin Forta and Nergis Ertürk have demonstrated, classical Arabic and Turkish works that were part of the repertoire that constituted the cultural formation of a literary elite circulated to a much larger audience in the late Ottoman Empire. This resulted from many socioeconomic changes such as: the establishment of large printing presses in Cairo and Istanbul, which led to the diffusion not only of Western novels but also compilations of Arabic and Ottoman Turkish poetry, the rise of an urban middle class that constituted an audience for these works, and the rising popularity of novels that were serialized in newspapers and written in a fairly accessible language.17 As Ertürk puts it, the “[c]ommunications revolution of the mid-nineteenth century, which freed ‘Ottoman’ from the cultural authority of Arabic and Persian, paved the way for its demise at the same time […]. The late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century rise of Turkish nationalism saw the recoding, through the Orientalist discipline of Turcology, of a ‘vulgar’ Turkic linguistic element (in counterposition with ‘cultivated’ Arabic and Persian) as the foundation of Turkish-speaking Muslim identity.”18
Another key transformation in the historical context was the rise of Ottomanism in the late nineteenth century, which emphasized that regardless of their ethnic and religious backgrounds, denizens of the empire all shared a political allegiance to the Ottoman Empire.19 This opened up new possibilities for people from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds in the Ottoman Empire to lay a claim to Ottoman identity without having to “master” a multilingual textual repertoire. For example, in one of his letters to his son, Zaydān praises his son Amīl because he has started to learn Turkish, “the language of [their] government” and notes in another letter to Amīl that his son Shukrī’s “patriotic duties demand” loyalty to the Ottoman Empire.20 At the same time, one finds discrepant and even contradictory understandings of the term “Ottoman” in late Ottoman writings, further testifying to historical shifts that would put the survival of the Ottoman literary biome at risk. For some writers, the Ottoman language was simply synonymous with the Turkish language. For example, Recaizade Mahmud Ekrem (1847-1914) insisted that the adjective “Ottoman” signifies not a culture but instead a political allegiance to the Ottoman dynasty; therefore, he notes that one should simply call the official language of the Ottoman Empire Turkish rather than Ottoman.21 Other writers considered Ottoman a hybrid language that resulted from the combination of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish languages. For example, Ahmet Midhat Efendi (1844-1912) complains that a minority that reads a hybrid language which is composed of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish rule a majority that does not understand this language. In other words, he thought that “the minority rules the majority,” as an Arab, Turk, or Iranian could never understand an Ottoman text.22
Literary histories also testified to these key shifts. In particular, Zaydān’s works often depicted histories of Arabic literature and of Turkish literature as akin to mirror images of each other that had parallel historical trajectories and never interacted with each other within a cosmopolitan Ottoman literary biome.23 I observe this kind of depiction especially in two articles in al-Hilāl that made comparisons between Arabic and Turkish literatures. One of these articles provides a biography of Namık Kemal.24 The other is a part of a series in which Zaydān shares his observations on Istanbul during a visit in 1909.25
Much of Zaydān’s works reinforced strict distinctions between Arabs and Turks.26 In her analysis of the representation of Turks in modern Arabic novels, Şükran Fazlıoğlu argues that Zaydān’s novels depicted Turks as the foreign other and even as the enemy.27 Indeed, Arab, Iranian, and Turk often seem clear-cut categories also in Tārīkh ādāb al-lughah al-ʿarabiyyah (henceforth referred as Tārīkh). Zaydān defines Saljuks and Ottomans simply as Turks and characterizes the Abbasid period between 232 AH-334 AH as the “Turkish age” due to the strong influence of Turks on state affairs.28 Like many Western thinkers such as Volney, Zaydān argued that the Turkish rule of Ottoman period had a negative impact on Arabic cultural production, since he claims that poetry and art underwent a significant decline during the Ottoman rule of much of the Arab world.29 In another article in al-Hilāl, Zaydān notes that if the Ottoman Empire had completely Turkified its population, one would not encounter the resurgence of interest in Arabic language and literature in the nineteenth century, suggesting that he may have considered the Ottoman Empire a potential future threat against the cultural revival of Arab world.30 At the same time, one needs to keep in mind that Zaydān did not openly call for overthrowing the political system and emphasized in many of his writings that the Ottoman Empire had to remain strong to defend itself against foreign intrusions.31
In fact, Zaydān was highly engaged with literary changes in the late Ottoman Empire. For example, the famous journal al-Hilāl dedicates an article to Namık Kemal and depicts him as a pioneer of a “modern Turkish awakening.”32 This article is part of a series that appears in almost every issue of al-Hilāl, “The Most Famous Events and Most Renowned People” (Ashhar al-ḥawādith wa-aʿẓam al-rijāl). M. Kayahan Özgül has recently called for overcoming the tendency to consider Namık Kemal the pioneer of modern Turkish literature. He has demonstrated that although earlier scholarship has described Namık Kemal as “the homeland poet” (vatan şairi) for popularizing certain sentiments such as love of the homeland among Turkish readers, many poets who lived before Namık Kemal had written about the homeland and called for important thematic and stylistic changes in Turkish literature.33 My article proposes that it was not just Namık Kemal’s peers or today’s literary critics who have considered Namık Kemal the pioneer of modern Turkish literature. Many “pioneers of modern Arabic literature” such as Jurjī Zaydān and Rūḥī al-Khālidī also viewed Namık Kemal as the pioneer of a modern Turkish nahḍah.
Namık Kemal indeed called for a new literature but this literature also had cosmopolitan characteristics that did not neatly fit into what we think of modern Turkish literature today. Although many Arabic writers considered themselves the heirs of a “highly developed literary, political, and religious culture that did not always conform to the culture present at the Ottoman court,” works in the classical Arabic poetic heritage constituted an integral element of the cosmopolitan literary biome that shaped the intellectual formation of thinkers such as Namık Kemal.34 He was drawn to the cultural capital of Arabic for his future aspirations of a new Ottoman literature. While Namık Kemal criticized Persian literature for its detrimental influence on Ottoman poetry, many of his writings, in particular his famous 1866 article “Lisan-ı Osmanîʾnin edebiyatı hakkında bazı mülahazatı şamildir” (Some Contemplations about the Literature of Ottoman Language) emphasized that Arabic literature would provide a good role model for the future of Ottoman poetry.35 In fact, Namık Kemal considers works from Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī and al-Mutanabbī the best examples of poems that display subtlety (incelik)36 and works from Imruʾ al-Qays the best examples of poems that excel in description (tasvir).37
Namık Kemal notes that “literature of Arabs” (edebiyat-ı Arab) includes works from the jāhiliyyah, Abbasid, and al-Andalus periods; however, he believes that the qāṣīdah poems that were written during his lifetime in Egypt and Tunisia do not belong to the “literature of Arabs” due to their egregious quality.38 His words testify to unequal power hierarchies within the Ottoman Empire, as Arabic can be worth contemplation for Namık Kemal only as works of an Ottoman cosmopolitan biome and not as the language and literature that many of his contemporaries, like Zaydān, drew upon to forge their own cultural visions.39 One can interpret this particular attitude of Namık Kemal as an author from the hegemonic “center” looking down on works from what some historians have considered the empire’s “periphery.”40
In contrast, Jurjī Zaydān notes that Namık Kemal has a special place in the history of Turkish literature and praises Namık Kemal as the pioneer of a Turkish nahḍah. In the beginning of his article on Namık Kemal, Jurjī Zaydān indicates that al-Hilāl has published an article on Mustafa Reşid Pasha (1800-1858) and will publish more works on other famous Ottoman writers.41 Zaydān then writes that he asked a friend who lives in Istanbul to write a biography of Namık Kemal, although the reader does not know who composed this article.42 Zaydān also notes that he is providing certain excerpts from this friend’s work. The article describes Namık Kemal not as a “Turkish” author but instead as an “Ottoman” author since he uses the term “one of the famous Ottomans” (min mashāhīr al-ʿuthmāniyyīn) to refer to Namık Kemal. At the same time, we read nothing in regards to Namık Kemal’s engagement with the classical Arabic heritage, which now seems to be under the purview of people like Zaydān who are considered pioneers of a modern Arab identity.
Later, the author identifies the audience as “readers of Arabic and Turkish languages” (qurrāʾ al-lughatayn al-ʿarabiyyah wa-l-turkiyyah).43 Such an identification suggests that the article addresses linguistic communities rather than national or ethnic ones such as “Arab people.” It also suggests that their shared “Ottoman subjecthood” (al-tābiʿiyyah al-ʿuthmāniyyah)44 necessitates the intensification of cultural interactions between them. Thus, the author promises to provide the audience more information on other “prominent Ottomans,” such as Şinasi Efendi, Ahmet Midhat Efendi, and Ebüzziya Tevfik in upcoming issues.
Akin to works that establish a sense of stark rupture between classical and modern Arabic literatures, the article on Namık Kemal posits a stark rupture between classical and modern Turkish literatures. The anonymous author notes that Tasvir-i Efkar, the newspaper which Namık Kemal edited, initiated the modern Turkish nahḍah (al-nahḍah al-turkiyyah al-ḥadīthah) and that Namık Kemal was the pioneer of a new Turkish prose style (al-inshāʾ).45 While the article mentions that Namık Kemal can recite poetry in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and French, it overlooks the fact that Namık Kemal called for a new Ottoman literature that would build in part upon works by poets like al-Mutanabbī and al-Maʿarrī.46 Furthermore, the article indicates that Turkish language arts (al-ādāb al-turkiyyah) entered a new age with Namık Kemal as prose branched (nawwaʿa) into new directions, while Turkish writers before him showed no innovation in either their prose or their ideas over the past six hundred years.47 Many years later, Zaydān would himself praise Namık Kemal as someone who had “a special significance in the history of Turkish language arts” (shaʾn khāṣṣ fī tārīkh ādāb al-lughah al-turkiyyah), in particular for his role in initiating a Turkish nahḍah.48
Once certain cultural transformations in the late Ottoman Empire are described as “the modern Turkish nahḍah,” the history of modern Turkish literature no longer describes a foreign, unfamiliar literary landscape, but could function like a mirror image that further reinforced the idea among Arabic readers that Arabic literary history had a similar narrative and was undergoing a stark rupture and its own nahḍah. Unlike Namık Kemal who quotes from classical Arabic poetry and ignores modern Arabic works, Arab intellectuals such as Rūḥī al-Khālidī, Maʿrūf al-Ruṣāfī, and Jurjī Zaydān did engage with Namık Kemal’s works.49 I propose that Arabic literature becomes reinvented as comparative literature because writers like Zaydān and al-Khālidī translated the “Turkish tanzimat” into an “Arabic nahḍah” as they described changes in the Ottoman literary landscape as a modern Turkish nahḍah.50
Thirteen years after the article on Namık Kemal was published, Zaydān writes about what he calls “the history of Turkish language arts” (tārīkh ādāb al-lughah al-turkiyyah), which has notable similarities with his more famous Tārīkh ādāb al-lughah al-ʿarabiyyah. This history of Turkish language arts is part of a series of articles in which he shares his observations on the Young Turk Revolution. Zaydān travelled to Istanbul in 1909 to share his observations about this revolution and wrote extensively about his trip in al-Hilāl.51 He informs readers about various aspects of Istanbul, including its geographical location, monuments, palaces, museums, and political situation. In the beginning of the section “Its scientific and literary condition” (ḥālatihā al-ʿilmiyyah wa-l-adabiyyah), Zaydān notes that one needs to study Turkish language arts to understand Istanbul’s cultural landscape since Istanbul is a Turkish place (balad turkī). Furthermore, Ottoman becomes a marker of a particular Turkish identity when Zaydān notes that one needs to distinguish Ottoman Turks (al-atrāk al-ʿuthmāniyyīn) from other Turks like Uzbeks.52 Upon defining Turkish and Ottoman in clear terms, Zaydān starts to generate comparisons between Arabic and Turkish literatures.
While Zaydān does not write extensively about what he calls “the history of Turkish language arts” (Tārīkh ādāb al-lughah al-turkiyyah) in contrast to the voluminous Tārīkh ādāb al-lughah al-ʿarabiyyah, both works share many characteristics. They both describe not just works of “literature” in the modern sense, but also of historiography, geography, and philosophy. If Tārīkh ādāb al-lughah al-turkiyyah emphasizes numerous times that Turkish language arts has recently entered a nahḍah after a long period of slumber, Tārīkh ādāb al-lughah al-ʿarabiyyah emphasizes that Arabic language arts has entered its last nahḍah after a period of decline.53 Al-nahḍah functions as a point of rupture also for Turkish language arts (ādāb), and this is evident in the titles of sections, such as “Turkish language arts before the last nahḍah” (ādāb al-lughah al-turkiyyah qabla al-nahḍah al-akhīrah).54 Arabs experienced nahḍahs during certain moments in the Abbasid period and Turks experienced a nahḍah during the reign of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520-1566).55 Furthermore, the “last nahḍah” (al-nahḍah al-akhīrah) of both Arabs and Turks corresponds to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and displays similar qualities such as deeper engagement with Western language arts (ādāb al-ifranj) and aspects of modern civilization (ʿawāmil al-ḥaḍārah al-ḥadīthah).56 Both works list libraries, journals, and printing presses in their histories of “the last nahḍah” of Turkish and Arabic language arts. Zaydān’s writings envision Turkish language arts and Arabic language arts as two parallel trajectories that do not, despite their deep similarity, ever meet in the cultural admixture that constituted Ottoman literary biome.
A practice of comparison that designates Arabic and Turkish as two distinct traditions of two separate biomes becomes necessary for Zaydān to lay the groundwork for his vision of Arabic language arts. Because of this centrality of comparison, I call for analyzing the histories of modern Arabic and Turkish literatures in conjunction with each other. I find the concept of “entanglement” useful to undermine narratives of emergence that have characterized the typical understanding of these histories. Meliz Ergin builds upon Jacques Derrida’s concept of entanglement for her ecocritical reading of modern Turkish and American literatures and defines the concept in the following terms: “[E]ntanglement is embedded with relational difficulties, and has both constructive and destructive implications. It entails both a risk and a promise, because it roots identity in reciprocal relationships and perceives the mutual dependence between self and other as a productive and irresolvable tension rather than a moment of deviation exterior to their relation.”57 Interactions between Arabic and Turkish literatures in the late Ottoman Empire did not constitute “a moment of deviation exterior to” that relationship. Rather, modern Arabic and Turkish literatures morphed in a reciprocal entanglement, making the histories of their “emergence” intertwined with each other.
Arabic Literature and the Debate on Classics
Even if many of their writings may have de-emphasized the cosmopolitan characteristics of the Ottoman literary biome, authors like Zaydān were part of its translingual and transcultural space. Some authors who are today considered pioneers of modern Arabic literature read works of turāth during their time in Istanbul. Maḥmūd Sāmī al-Bārūdī (1839-1904), who is “recognized and (re-)created as the founder of Arab nationalism, coinciding with the revitalization of the utopian vision of this movement,”58 worked as a civil administrator in Istanbul. Miṣbāh al-Sharq, the Arabic newspaper which was founded by Muḥammad al-Muwayliḥī (1858-1930) in 1898, included “extracts from Arabic literature, including essays by al-Jāḥīz and poems by Abū l-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī, which Muḥammad had transcribed in Istanbul’s Fatih Library during his stay there.”59 One of the most prominent figures of the nahḍah, Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq (1805-1887) also made extensive use of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish works in Istanbul. As Geoffrey Roper notes, “His assiduous work in the libraries of Europe and Turkey enabled him to study, appreciate, copy, and later edit great works of the Arabic literary heritage, many of which had not yet been published and had lapsed into obscurity in their homeland.”60 Many Orientalists encountered what they considered classical masterpieces of Arabic literature in Istanbul’s libraries. For example, Rūḥī al-Khālidī notes that the prominent Orientalist Richard Boucher discovered the works of al-Farazdaq at the Ayasofya Library in Istanbul, before providing a commentary on them and translating them into French.61
Zaydān also drew upon Arabic texts that shaped Ottoman literary biome. Dupont remarks that Zaydān’s travel to Istanbul in 1909 provided him with the opportunity to become acquainted with both Turkish and Arabic works in Istanbul’s libraries that he would use for the Tārīkh.62 She also notes that Zaydān started to learn Turkish to keep up with the latest political developments in the empire.63 Furthermore, Zaydān himself observes during his visit in Istanbul that most works in Istanbul’s libraries are in Arabic.64 He notes in the beginning of Book 3 of the Tārīkh that Aḥmad Taymūr (1877-1930) provided him with books in several languages from Istanbul.65 The Arabic sources that Zaydān consulted for the Tārīkh include the tenth-century al-Fihrist by Ibn al-Nadīm as well as works that played a key role for the formation of Ottoman intellectuals such as Kashf az-ẓunūn by Katib Çelebi (1609-1657) and Miftāḥ al-saʿādah by Taşköprüzade Ahmed Efendi (1495-1561).66
Situating the Tārīkh within the context of an Ottoman literary biome can allow critics to reassess its role in the history of Arabic literature. Based on the conceptual repertoire that Beecroft’s work provides, I would reframe the Tārīkh’s crucial role as contributing to the constitution of a literary biome in which Arabic language and literature played a central role. This biome carried some characteristics of vernacular and some characteristics of national biomes.67 Zaydān may be seen in many ways as one of what Beecroft called “founding authors of the vernacular” who are “likely to be situated within the cosmopolitan ecology, if frequently on its periphery”.68 He notes that these “founders” also have a deep understanding of the cosmopolitan ecology. Furthermore, unlike many authors of national literary biomes, Zaydān did not call for Arab political sovereignty and hence did not advocate a vision of Arabic literature that would serve the goal of political sovereignty.
At the same time, national biomes advocate a break with the cosmopolitan past and emphasize “evolution over autochthony” as they pick certain works from the past as a part of this national literature and interpret them as the beginnings of a linear and national literary history.69 In this respect, the Tārīkh is akin to the foundational texts of national literary biomes. I analyze the use of the term “classics” in literary histories from the late Ottoman period to analyze how these literary histories designate certain texts from the past as a part of the evolution of their national literatures. Thought to be first used by the late antique writer Aulus Gellius (130-180), the term “classics” eventually came to signify a work of first quality among Roman thinkers and retained this signification to this day. In this sense, the term has a wide appeal, since writers such as T. S. Eliot defined classics as works that represent the apex of a nation’s linguistic expression. Furthermore, since many Western European intellectuals sought in ancient Greek and Roman works their cultural roots, they also eulogized these works and have continued to categorize them as classics.70
Ultimately tied to the project of canonization, debates on classics in Arabic and Turkish writings also attempt to project their respective literatures as akin to Western literatures that also had their own classics. Many intellectuals who are today viewed as pioneers of Arabic and Turkish literature, such as Zaydān and Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar (1901-1962), forged their visions of “classics” as they engaged with Western literatures. Works by these authors often mobilized the term “classics” to demarcate the canon of texts that their readers should master. For example, as this article will show, many Ottoman Turkish writings treated Arabic writings as their classics while Arabic works such as the Tārīkh also classified these works as the classical pedestals of a modern Arabic literature.
The way in which Zaydān uses the term “classics” reveals the manifold comparisons that he makes for situating Arabic literature within a global literary field. The term “classics” comes up twice in Zaydān’s work, both in volume two. In the first instance, he uses the term to describe how a style that became prevalent in the late Abbasid period was imitated by later generations:
يمتاز هذا العصر بنضج العلم على الإجمال، وفيه تكونت المعاجم اللغوية واستقر الإنشاء على أسلوب أصبح قاعدة يقلدها أهل العصور التالية بما يعبر عنه الافرنج بقولهم“ كلاسيك”71
This era is distinguished by the full maturation of arts and sciences, including the composition of large lexicons and the establishment of prose style that became the norm for the following centuries, in a way that Europeans call “classics.”
Zaydān puts a quotation mark around the word “classics”, suggesting that this concept, which is a European (ifranj) expression, was foreign to his audience. Zaydān indicates that although his audience may be unfamiliar with the concept “classics”, this concept could describe a particular style in Arabic writings.
Zaydan also uses the term “classics” to emphasize the high quality of particular Arabic works and compares these works with Greek and Roman classics for emphasizing the important role they play for the cultural formation of their respective communities. Below is an example from the Tarīkh that makes such an emphasis:
صار للإنشاء في هذا العصر طريقة اتخذها أهل العصور التالية نموذجاً نسجوا على منواله. وهي الطريقة المدرسية في اصطلاح الافرنج( كلاسيك) وبعبارة أخرى إن الطريقة المدرسية للترسل العربي نضجت في هذا العصر كما نضج الإنشاء الروماني في عصر شيشرون ثم أخذ في التقهقر.72
Epistolary (prose) writing of this age became the style that later generations took as a model to be pursued. It is the scholastic style that is called in the words of Europeans (classics). In other words, the school of Arabic epistolography reached its fullest expression in this age just as the Roman prose style reached its fullest expression in the age of Cicero and then began to decline after that.
Here, Zaydān notes that prose writing achieved its golden age in the final years of the Abbasid Empire. This classical tradition that Zaydān is referring to has various features such as rhymed prose (sajʿ), paronomasia (jinās), and rhetorical embellishment (badīʿ).73 Because the word “classics” is put in parenthesis, this paragraph again suggests that the word “classics” is a concept that Zaydān’s readers are not familiar with. At the same time, Zaydān also emphasizes that even if Europeans and Arabs may have come up with different expressions to describe a particular style, they share similar historical trajectories. Zaydān notes that a European expression that may sound foreign to his readers actually captures the characteristics of a particular style in Arabic prose. Zaydān, like numerous literary historians of the late Ottoman Empire, did not only use the term “classics” simply to mark their relationship vis-à-vis the past but also to signify an affinity with the Western civilization which also had its own classical heritage.
Furthermore, Zaydān does not use parentheses or quotation marks when using the terms naḥw (science of grammar) and al-Jāhiliyyah to describe certain aspects of Greek or French writings throughout the Tārīkh.74 Indeed, Zaydān constantly emphasizes similarities between Greeks and Arabs to show that Arabs, like Greeks, belong to an important civilization. He notes that both debated extensively about the talent of their poets; both share a period of jāhiliyyah; both developed naḥw.75 Like Zaydān, many influential authors such as Tawfīq al-Ḥakīm (1898-1987), Ṭāhā Ḥusayn (1889-1973), and Sulaymān al-Bustānī (1856-1925) would frequently compare their communities with Greeks and Romans.76 Thus, many modern Arabic writings uphold Zaydān’s vision of Arabic culture and heritage that found shape through manifold comparisons.
Just as “the nahḍah,” according to Tageldin, “unfolded in translation” by transporting “French and English into Arabic [and thus] appearing to ‘preserve’ Arabic—all the while translating it,” “Ottoman poetry,” as Veli N. Yashin puts it, “becomes (new Turkish) literature, inasmuch as it can be recognized in European terms—fitted into its form and translated into its history.”77 I consider the use of the term “classics” in late Ottoman writings a similar act of translation that we have already observed in Zaydān’s writings.78 I propose that the term “classics” also served to shape these authors’ attitudes toward Arabic literary heritage since it helps these authors to envision Arabic texts as predecessors of Ottoman Turkish writings rather than an integral part of an Ottoman literary biome. The term “classics” foregrounds relations of anteriority and posteriority that this biome did not emphasize in such stark terms. Indeed, Fatih Altuğ has argued that Arabic, Persian, and Turkish literatures intertwined in the Ottoman cosmopolitan tradition in a manner that is heterogeneous and centerless (heterojen ve merkezsiz), making it hard to separate these traditions.79 Altuğ’s observation on the intertwinement of these traditions would resonate well with the description of the Ottoman language in the famous anthology Harabat (Tavern, 1291-1292 AH [1874/1875-1875/1876]) by Ziya Pasha (1825-1880). The anthology depicted the mixture of Persian and Turkish as akin to the “mixture of sugar and milk” and Arabic, Persian, and Turkish languages as akin to streams that intertwine in the “Ottoman ocean.”80 Harabat is often interpreted as one of the last works in the late Ottoman Empire that defended tradition; indeed, unlike Harabat, many late Ottoman texts “stabilize” Arabic and Ottoman Turkish literatures such that Arabic literature always predates Ottoman Turkish literature as a source of influence.
İsmail Hakkı, one of the first Ottoman literary historians to use the term “classics,” uses the term to characterize Ottoman literature’s relationship vis-à-vis Arabic literature:
غرب ادبياتي ايچون قلاسيكلر، يونان وروماليلردن بدأ ايتديكي كبى بزم ادبياتمز ايچون دخى عرب وعجم شعراسندن باشلار81
Just as, for Western literature, the classics begin with the Greeks and Romans, for our literature, they start with Arab and Persian poets.
The word “just as” (gibi) suggests that Ottoman literature is comparable with and hence similar or even equivalent to Western literature. This sentence claims that just as the Western culture has its classics, so too do the Ottomans. Literature becomes a possession that contributes to one’s sense of identity, as is evident in the use of the phrase “our literature” (bizim edebiyatımız). İsmail Hakkı’s observation also generates a teleological trajectory, since for him Ottoman literature “starts with” Arab poets such as al-Mutanabbī and Abū Tammām. Implicit in this word choice is the fact that these poets are still considered part of Ottoman literature, even if they are now seen as distant ancestors. İsmail Hakkı claims that Ottoman literature starts with Arab and Persian poets rather than with Arabic and Persian literatures. This subtle and yet pivotal distinction suggests that İsmail Hakkı, unlike most authors after him, still does not categorize literatures based on ethnolinguistic grounds and considers Arab and Persian poets a part of what he calls “our literature.”
As with Zaydān, “classics” is a non-emic term for İsmail Hakkı and he feels the need to define the term whenever he uses it.82 Just like many European writers in the nineteenth century who studied the Mediterranean as the basin of a Greco-Roman heritage that gave birth to modern Western civilization, writers such as İsmail Hakkı also sought the roots of their “civilization” in Arabic and Persian works as their classics.83 Thus Ottoman literature could be resignified as Turkish literature and classical Arabic poetry as a source of influence that once shaped this literature and eventually can be set aside for the constitution of a new, modern culture.
Regarding the role of classical Roman and Greek traditions in the current imagination of Western culture and its use by the British imperial discourse, Mark Bradley writes: “For the self-conscious discourses of modernity, the classical world was both the ‘other,’ pushed back into the distant past, and the evidence of unbroken tradition evoked to bestow legitimacy on the present.”84 Although Bradley focuses on representations of classical Greek and Roman traditions in the nineteenth-century British Empire, his observations capture the dynamic between classical and modern works in literary histories that I have been examining. These histories relegate texts that they deem classical to a distant past while still maintaining a sense of continuity between the past and present. Even if numerous late Ottoman writings did not use the term “classics” per se, they share the same attitude with İsmail Hakkı toward Arabic literature. Faik Reşad also notes that Ottomans imitated Arabs in the same way that French imitated Greeks.85 Likewise, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, one of the most influential authors of modern Turkish literature, compares the influence of Arabic prose on Cevdet Pasha (1822-1895) with the influence of Latin on French writers.86
Like İsmail Hakkı’s work, Tārīkh ʿilm al-adab ʿinda al-Ifranj wa-l-ʿArab wa-Fīctūr Hūkū (History of the Science of Literature among the Europeans and the Arabs and Victor Hugo, first serialized in al-Hilāl in 1902 and its first edition published in 1904) by Rūḥī al-Khālidī also depicted Arabic literature as a past source of influence for Ottoman literature rather than an integral part of its biome. The publication of this work marked, according to H. Al-Khateeb, “the beginning of the study of comparative literature in the Arab world.”87 Al-Khālidī writes about the controversy around the anthology Harabat by Ziya Pasha:88
واقتفى أثر بوالو في انتقاد كلام المتقدمين الوزير ضيا باشا وألف مجموعة سماها“ الخرابات” خرب فيها كثيرًا من أشعار الفرس والترك والعرب المتقدمين عليه. وكانت وفاته في بروسة سنة1295هـ فجاء كمال بك إمام الأدب في اللسان العثماني وكتب عليه انتقادًا سماه“ تخريب الخرابات” ، ونشره في مطبعة أبو ضياء. فالغاية التي يتطلبها أئمة الأدب العثماني كاللذين ذُكرا، وعبد الحق حامد بك مستشار سفارة لوندرة، وأكرم بك، وسعيد بك من أعضاء الشورى، المعلم ناجي أفندي المتوفي منذ بضع سنين، وبقية النشأة الجديدة— هي تخليص لسانهم من مبالغات الفرس الأعاجم والسلوك فيه منهج بوالو وراسين وقورنيل ومولير وبقية أدباء عصر لويس الرابع عشر. لأن هؤلاء الأدباء يذهبون إلى أن التخيل الشعري ينبغى أن يكون مقرونًا بالتعقل.
The vizier Ziya Pasha followed Boileau’s footsteps in criticizing the old school and composed an anthology that he called “al-Kharābāt” [sic] in which he strongly castigated poetry by the Turks, Persians, and Arabs who preceded him. Ziya Pasha passed away in Bursa in 1295 AH. And then came Namık Kemal, the leader of adab in Ottoman language. To criticize Harabat, Namık Kemal wrote Takhrīb al-Kharābāt [sic] and published it from the Ebüzziya Press. Leaders of Ottoman adab, like the two hitherto mentioned [Ziya Pasha and Namık Kemal], Abdülhak Hamid Bey who is an embassy counselor in London, Ekrem Bey, Said Bey, who is among the members of şura-yı devlet [state council], Muallim Naci Efendi, who passed away a few years ago, and the rest of the new generation all sought the aim of getting rid of foreign Persian exaggerations from their language. In doing so, they follow the stylistic approach of Boileau, Racine, Corneille, Moliere, and other litterateurs (udabāʾ) from the time of Louis XIV who asserted that the poetic imagination must be accompanied by reason.
Like Zaydān, this paragraph “translates” the Ottoman literary landscape in several ways and renders it familiar to its Arabic readers. First, it calls Ziya Pasha’s anthology al-Kharābāt using the Arabic definite article and then uses the Arabic iḍāfah construction in reproducing the title of Namık Kemal’s work as Takhrīb al-Kharābāt rather than the Turkish Tahrib-i Harabat, further endowing a sense of familiarity to these works for Arabic readers. Second, al-Khālidī “misreads” Harabat by claiming that the anthology criticizes old poets. Many critics have noted that Harabat defends classical poetry at a time when many late Ottoman intellectuals such as Namık Kemal were harshly critical of it and calling for a new literature. Finally, al-Khālidī classifies diverse figures such as Reşad Ekrem, Muallim Naci, and Abdülhak Hamid Bey as “new writers” and overlooks discrepancies among them. Also like Jurjī Zaydān, al-Khālidī describes Namık Kemal as “the leader of literature in Ottoman language” and has nothing to say about his engagement with Arabic literature.
Al-Khālidī’s comparison between French and Ottoman writers again depicts Arabic as a source of influence that predated the emergence of Ottoman literature but never existed as a part of its literary biome. Al-Khālidī notes that Ziya Pasha and Namık Kemal “followed the footsteps” of Boileau (1636-1711) who also called for a stark separation between ancient and modern literatures and established what al-Khālidi referred to as a style that is “scholastic (classics)” (madraṣī [kilāsīk]). Al-Khālidī compares the period of Louis XIV with the period of Augustus and time of Pericles of Greeks.89 By comparing Ottoman writers with poets from the reign of Louis XIV, al-Khālidī generates a sense of equivalence between authors like Ziya Pasha and Namık Kemal and their French counterparts like Boilleau, Racine, Molliere. He also notes throughout his book that French authors “followed the footsteps” (iqtifā athar) of earlier Arab writes from al-Andalus and the Abbasid empire and then writes that Ziya Pasha followed the footsteps (iqtifā athar) of Boilleau.90 Arabs first contributed to the emergence of classics as they influenced French authors like Boilleau, who ultimately shaped the intellectual formation of authors such as Namık Kemal and Ziya Pasha. Al-Khālidī thus generates a particular genealogy which starts with Arabs and ends with Ziya Pasha through his use of the term “classics” and the French act as a temporal bridge between the two.
This particular use of classics establishes comparisons between Arabic and European literatures, as it also stabilizes the classical Arabic heritage within a linear historical trajectory in works by both Jurjī Zaydān and Rūḥī al-Khālidī. “The similarities between Zaydān’s position and Khālidī’s are striking but not surprising,” Haifa Saud al-Faisal notes, “considering that the two men moved in the same circles. In addition, Khālidī’s writings were frequently published in Zaydān’s Al-Hilāl.”91 In the Tarīkh, Zaydān notes that all the communities that belonged to the Islamic civilization (al-tamaddun al-islāmī), including Turks and Iranians, became “Arabized” (taʿarraba) and produced Arabic works in diverse fields such as language arts, grammar, history, medicine, science, and philosophy.92 Both Rūḥī al-Khālidī and Jurjī Zaydān then meet on common ground with İsmail Hakkı as they all describe Arabic literature as a source of influence that always existed before Ottoman literature rather than simultaneously as a crucial part of the Ottoman literary biome. Unlike Zaydān’s writings on Namık Kemal that de-emphasize the cultural intersections between Arabic and Turkish literatures, the Tārīkh seems to acknowledge here the influence of Arabic texts on Ottoman writers. However, the Tārīkh depicts Arabic works mainly as a source of influence that Arabized Ottoman writers and not as works of a cosmopolitan biome that were read to forge a cosmopolitan Ottoman identity. Therefore, like Zaydān’s writings on Namık Kemal, the Tārīkh encourages readers to imagine Arabic texts as belonging to biomes that cultivate only Arab or Arabized cultural communities. Furthermore, İsmail Hakkı, like Zaydān and al-Khālidī, also mobilized the term classics to foreground relations of anteriority and posteriority between Arabic and Turkish literatures.
Classics then is a shared term in late Ottoman Arabic and Turkish writings that contributes to the eventual stabilization of “classical Arabic heritage” exclusively within the history of Arabic literature and Namık Kemal exclusively within the history of Turkish literature. Such stabilizations in both Arabic and Turkish writings stands for cultural negotiations that would eventually reinforce the current disciplinary divisions between classical and modern as well as among Arabic, Turkish, and Persian literatures in the study of Middle Eastern literatures. At the same time, my article has revealed various entanglements between the histories of modern Arabic and Turkish literatures, especially since both Arab and Turkish intellectuals wrote on the same poets who were starting to be seen as members of a classical tradition. Therefore, the history of modern Arabic literature—and classical Arabic literature that this modern literature defined itself against—cannot be written without reference to debates on language, literature, and heritage in Ottoman Turkish writings.
Yet my work does not simply call for analyzing “primary sources,” i.e. Arabic and Turkish literary texts and their histories, in conjunction with each other for reassessing the history of modern Arabic literature. A more nuanced understanding of what literary critics have called nahḍah and tanzimat texts can emerge through a synthesis of “secondary sources.” In the past few years, numerous critics such as Shaden Tageldin, Tarek El-Ariss, and Elizabeth Holt have provided nuanced frameworks of interpretation for the study of the nahḍah while numerous critics such as Jale Parla, Veli N. Yashin, and Fatih Altuğ have done the same for the tanzimat. Nevertheless, theoretical works on al-nahḍah rarely engage in dialogue with theoretical works on the tanzimat. My article calls for more works that synthesize the perspectives of these scholars for a more nuanced view on Arabic and Turkish literary modernities.
Finally, this article’s focus on “the reinvention of Arabic literature as comparative literature” resonates with recent works which have recontextualized Arabic literature within global literary networks to move away from nationalistic frameworks that have shaped its study. To reflect more on the reinvention of Arabic literature as comparative literature will provide a new direction for this attempt to “globalize” Arabic literary studies. Emily Apter notes that “in globalizing literary studies, there is a selective forgetting of ways in which early comparative literature was always and already globalized”93 In a similar vein, recent attempts to globalize Arabic literature should not overlook diverse cross-cultural entanglements that “reinvented Arabic literature as comparative literature.” To globalize Arabic literature also necessitates mapping diverse literary biomes in which Arabic texts have manifested and can again manifest in the future. This mapping requires practices of comparison that do not generate a sense of equivalence that levels out the diversity of literary biomes.
This work received support from the Koç University Visiting Scholar Program and Marie-Skłodowska Curie Actions (Grant No 795465) under the Horizon 2020 Framework of the European Commission.