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Humans of the Ottoman Empire: Ulemas Provides An Insightful Ending To The Series

The Ulema in the Ottoman Empire was Discussed by Dr. El-Rouayheb and Dr. Sisman

Washington D.C. - On March 23rd, Yunus Emre Institute hosted over 100 viewers for the fourth and final edition of the Humans of the Ottoman Empire series. Moderator Dr. Cengiz Sisman was joined by Harvard University professor Dr. Khaled El-Rouayheb to discuss the members of the ulema, a special class of learned scholars who lived in the empire.

The ulema were a highly educated group of scholars and legal experts who were commonly religious scholars, but could include any learned person who had received an education in Islamic studies, grammar, and logic. Their education was not standardized except in the core areas of the empire, so a member of the ulema may have a different background based on their respective region. Generally education became more concentrated in cities as more prestigious madrasas moved to urban centers. They were expected to be well-rounded polymaths who could speak in three or more languages with ease. Over time, the ulema came to serve the Ottoman state as legal scholars and judges.

Dr. El-Rouayheb took time to deconstruct several misconceptions about the Ottoman ulema. He explained that recent research showed that the ulema would have studied a variety of natural and philosophical sciences in the madrasa. They were not a monolith and had a variety of opinions rooted in local traditions ranging from Algeria to North India. Additionally, ulema were innovative in their own right despite their reputation of being reactionaries who killed creativity in Ottoman society.

Dr. Sisman welcomed questions from the audience, who were very enthusiastic about the discussion. One guest was curious about whether the ulema impacted social policies and change. Dr. El-Rouayheb carefully explained that the ulema were always taken into account when formulating policies. Specifically, the ulema would sometimes act as the intermediaries between protestors or disgruntled groups and the government so their role in social change was critical. Another guest wanted to know what the interactions were like between the ulema and other religious scholars. Dr. El-Rouayheb discussed the fact that interactions between them happened but to some extent they were in parallel worlds and it was by no means normal. He elaborated that the ulema were interested in European learning and some of the Ottoman Christians provided translation services for them. Dr. El-Rouayheb concluded the event with a closing statement about the legacy of the ulema and the scholarly traditions of the Ottoman Empire that still have a place in modern society.

Yunus Emre Institute is a Turkish cultural center located in Washington, D.C. and around the world. The institute hosts events and programs that educate the public about Turkey’s culture, history, and language. For more information about the institute’s mission or online programs, please email or follow @yeewdc on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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