Celebrating an Ottoman Intellectual: 2009 Year of Kâtip Çelebi

Kâtip Çelebi was arguably the most important Ottoman intellectual figure of the 17th century. Being the author of many works in the fields of bio-bibliography, geography, history and economics, he held reformist opinions and cultivated knowledge of both the classical Islamic tradition in science and culture as well as a relative familiarity with the European literature of his time. 2009 being the 400th anniversary of his birth, several meetings and conferences have been organised to celebrate him as intellectual and scholar. In the following article, we present an account of some of those events that were organised recently in Turkey, with a survey of Kâtip Çelebi's bio-bibliography.

+ Click to read the full article
- Click to close

Table of contents

1. Celebrating the 400th anniversary of Kâtip Çelebi

2. The world through the eyes of Pîrî Reis and Kâtip Çelebi

3. Biography of Kâtip Çelebi

4. His intellectual production

4.1. The major books
4.2. Translations and rewritings
4.3. Minor writings

5. References and further reading

5.1. Articles on Kâtip Çelebi on www.MuslimHeritage.com
5.2. General bibliography


1. Celebrating the 400th anniversary of Kâtip Çelebi

On the 400th anniversary of the birth of Kâtip Çelebi (1609-1657), the Turkish commission of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has declared 2009 year of celebration of this Ottoman intellectual. Kâtip Çelebi was a Turkish Ottoman scholar. Known as Kâtip Çelebi and Haji Khalifa, his real name is Mustafa bin Abdallah (1609, Istanbul - 1657 Istanbul). The son of a soldier, he himself was a soldier for ten years until an inheritance made him turn to a more contemplative life. He performed his Hajj in 1635. He became a government official (ikindji khalif) while continuing to write his encyclopedic contributions.

Figure 1: Dinner in Ankara to welcome FSTC's participation at the Kâtip Çelebi conference. From left: Prof. Salim Al-Hassani, Prof. Ahmed Rumeli (Middle East University), the "1001" inscribed on a large slice of Turkish bread, Prof. Ralph Salmi (California State University), Tuba Urcu (office manager to Prof. Karliga and interpreter), and Prof. Bekir Karliga (Bahcesehir University).

Among his chief works is the famous bio-bibliography book that he wrote in Arabic Kashf al-zunun ‘an asami ‘l-kutub wa'l-funn ("The Removal of Doubt from the Names of Books and the Sciences") which documents some 15,000 entries in alphabetical order. This work served as a basis for the "Bibliothèque Orientale" by Barthélemy d'Herbelot de Molainville. He was also the author of many works in the fields of geography, history and economics.

On the occasion of the celebrations of the Çelebi year, an international conference, with 30 scholars from around the world was organised in June 19-20 2009 at the Ankara State Painting and Sculpture Museum. Two FSTC members participated in the conference: Professor Salim T S Al-Hassani, Hon. Chairman of FSTC, and Dr Salim Ayduz, senior researcher at FSTC (click here to see photos of the conference taken by Dr Ayduz).

In his lecture on "The General conditions of the Islamic civilisation in the 17th century", Salim Al-Hassani states that honouring and commemorating educational scholars like Kâtip Çelebi brings us to a very important zone of knowledge: that is the lack of knowledge in the minds of people around the world in the major and strategic contributions such scholars have made to our present civilisation. There is in fact amnesia or a gap in public knowledge of the period of 1000 years that lasted until Kâtip Çelebi's time. A cursory survey of the traditional media, new media and school curricula revealed startling results. It begins from the time of the fall of the Roman Empire to the times of Kâtip Çelebi.

Figure 2: Dr Mehmet Aydin, the Turkish minister of state for Culture, and Professor Salim Al-Hassani, chairman of FSTC, during The Ankara conference on Katib Çelebi. In the middle is Prof. Bekir Karliga, conference chairman and on the right is Prof. John Dunktoff, Philadelphia University.

In the public perception, after the fall of the Roman Empire there was an extraordinary dark period that lasted for about 1000 years, from about 600 CE to the European Renaissance in the 16th century. This temporal segment in human history is portrayed as empty of any civilised activity and is generally called the "Dark Ages". In fact, such a conception of history is a misnomer, for during this precise millennium there was an exceptionally rich burst of civilisation that manifested itself in a dynamic scientific tradition and intellectual activity that radiated from Baghdad (after it was founded in 762 CE and became the capital of the unified Islamic World) and along a glittering crescent through Turkey, North Africa and into Spain and Southern Italy. For many years, people in the West associated Baghdad and Istanbul with stories such as the 1001 nights (or Arabian nights). In contrast, today there is negligible information in schools' curricula or in the media about the enormous number of inventions and innovations from that period that still affect our lives.

Such amnesia has a negative impact on people's attitudes and tends to reinforce stereo-typing of Muslims and at the same time nourishes a superiority complex in the attitudes of non-Muslim Americans and Europeans. This gap reinforces the divide in that people in the Muslim world associate the "West" with negative traits and those in the West, especially Americans, say little or nothing or about the Muslim world. There is a worldwide hunger for dialogue, but the language used has, in the main, been confined to religious or political dialogue. This has unfortunately been met with limited success.

image alt text

Figure 3: Poster of the conference held in Ankara.

A new language based on cultural inter-dependence, especially the cultural origins of inventions, seem to bring a breath of fresh air into the atmosphere, creating new possibilities for mutual respect and at the same time inspiring a paradigm shift amongst the new Muslim generation.

To fill this gap, the Chairman of FSTC details some results of recent work carried out on "Curriculum Enrichment" in partnership with the Qualification and Curriculum Authority (QCA) and the Association of Science Education (ASE). An example of amnesia is the frequent jump in text books from Greek names of scientists to Da Vinci, Galileo and Newton.

He also highlights the dangerous gap of knowledge in the media and the social media, such as Google, Yahoo, U-tube, and discussion forums and blogs like Wikipedia or popular games like Second Life. An example of the huge imbalance in cyberspace may be witnessed by googling the name of Kâtip Çelebi (110,000 times) compared with the name "Da Vinci" (33.5 million and Isaac Newton 2.5 Million).

History tells us that Kâtip Çelebi was a moderate, a great scholar and educationalist at a time of moderation in Ottoman Islamic jurisprudence. It is said he died in 1657 with a cup of coffee in his hand, perhaps to the disapproval of some Imams in his time who disallowed both coffee and tobacco. That was the very time when coffee houses radiated from Istanbul to become the hubs for enlightenment in Vienna, Paris, Oxford, London and Boston.

Continuing with this line of analysis, Dr. Salim Ayduz spoke at the conference on "Comments and Observations of Kâtip Çelebi on the Ottoman Madrasas Curriculum", aiming to examine Kâtip Çelebi's ideas about the teaching system of his time. Arguments on the curriculum of the Ottoman madrasas have been continuing for a few decades. In certain contemporary studies undertaken up until quite recently it has been argued that the Sahn Saman Madrasas constructed under Mehmed II's orders resembled European universities and that Ali Kuscu, Grand Vizier Mahmud Pasha and Molla Khusraw developed a curriculum for the Madrasa. However, the most recent research on the subject has attempted to correct this mistaken impression about the Fatih Madrasas and their resemblance to a modern university and the claims put forth about their supposed curricula.

By the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, an argument fired up between the Ottoman intellectuals on the Ottoman Madrasas curriculum and the gradual decline of the madrasas. A number of Ottoman writers discussed this subject, viewing this decline as similar to that taking place in other state institutions. They agreed that toward the end of the 16th century, the performance of madrasas began gradually to fall below earlier levels mainly due to falling teaching standards. Gelibolulu Mustafa Ali attributed the decline of the madrasas to a decline in interest in scholarly studies, to the appearance of sons of senior members of the ulema and their rapid rise in position to enter into scholarly careers via special connections, to the enrolment of teachers and judges under the influence of bribes and to a poor differentiation then being made between real scholars and ignorant men as well as to a decline in the writing of scholarly works. Other Ottoman thinkers believed the decline of the madrasa system was due to such things as the overly large numbers of students trained and the irregularities in the way in which the teachers were ranked.

Figure 4: Professor Salim Al-Hassani presenting his lecture before the conference. (Source).

Kâtip Çelebi attributed the decline to the elimination from the madrasa curriculum of the rational and mathematical sciences. Although his intellectual training and personal readings covered the major part of the madrasa curriculum, Kâtip Çelebi never obtained an ijaza (diploma), nevertheless he continued to earn a living in the chancery, spending most of his relatives' inheritance on books, putting together what was probably the largest private library in Istanbul in his time. From this unique position, of being an eminent Ottoman intellectual from outside the teaching system, Kâtip Çelebi criticized the madrasa curriculum and contemporary scholars in terms of scholarly life in the Ottoman State.

2. The world through the eyes of Pîrî Reis and Kâtip Çelebi

Within the framework of the Çelebi year, Bahçesehir University Civilization Studies Center organised an exhibit The Ottoman Worldview from Piri Reis to Kâtip Çelebi. The exhibit aims to reach a wide international audience during the years of 2009 and 2010 through a travelling exhibition of maps depicting the Ottoman worldview from Piri Reis to Kâtip Çelebi who made some of the most significant contributions to Ottoman geography and cartography (click here to see some of these maps)

The collection of Ottoman-era maps of the two great Ottoman Turkish cartographers of the 16th and 17th centuries Admiral Pîrî Reis and scholar Kâtip Çelebi was on display at Istanbul's Dolmabahçe Palace Art Gallery.

Figure 5: Dr Salim Ayduz during his lecture. (Source).

"The Ottomans' Worldview: from Pîrî Reis to Kâtip Çelebi" includes detailed maps from the two prominent men who made some of the most important contributions to Ottoman geography and cartography together with works from other geographers from the same era. The exhibition, organized by the Istanbul-based Bahçesehir University Civilization Studies Center (MEDAM), aims to show the perspective of the Ottoman Empire from 1650 to 1660. The exhibition also features maps from other geographers of the 16th and 17th centuries as well as maps of Ottoman territories from various European geographers of the time.

The exhibition was located at the Dolmabahçe Palace Art Gallery in Istanbul, and it is scheduled to travel to other locations in Turkey and abroad later this year. Conferences on the work of Kâtip Çelebi will be held to accompany the show.

3. Biography of Kâtip Çelebi

The primary source of information on the life of Kâtip Çelebi is the autobiographical sections in many of his works, such as Sullam al-Wusul, Cihannüma and Mizanü'l-Haqq. Kâtip Çelebi was born in Istanbul. Sullam al-Wusul records the date of his birth as Dhulqada 1017/February 1609. His father was a member of the cavalry and a scribe in the fiscal administration. The sizable sum of money he inherited from his mother and from a wealthy merchant suggests that his mother came from a wealthy family in Istanbul.

After his initial instruction in Istanbul, Kâtip Çelebi joined his father in the chancery as his apprentice in 1032/1622. In 1034/1624 father and son went on campaign with the army against Abaza Pasa of Erzurum (d. 1044/1634), continuing with the campaign to recapture Baghdad (1035/1625-26) and a second campaign against Abaza Pasa (1037/1627-28). Both his father and his uncle died during the retreat from Bagdad in 1036/1626. Whereas his account of these campaigns occasionally reflects his personal involvement, there is hardly any personal reminiscence regarding events in the capital, such as the downfall and murder of Osman II (r. 1027-31/1618-22).

image alt text

Figure 6: An 18th-century copy of the Cihan-numa, a manual on geography of the earth by Kâtip Çelebi, preserved in the Leiden University Library (MS Or. 12.363). (Source).

Following his return to Istanbul, Kâtip Çelebi's career as a scribe was stalled due to the death of his father. The decisive turn in his intellectual career came when he made the acquaintance of Qadizade Mehmed Efendi (d. 1044/1635) and began to take lessons with him. After two more campaigns, first to Iran then again to Baghdad (1038-40/ 1629-31), Kâtip Çelebi began his serious studies on central works of kalam and fiqh with Qadizade, as well as on al-Gazali's Ihya' ‘ulum al-din and Birgivi's al-Tariqa al-Muhammadiyya. These lessons ended when Kâtip Çelebi was called to military service in 1042/1633. Although it is clear that Qadizade's strictly rational and legalist understanding of the scripture impressed Kâtip Çelebi, there is no indication that he sympathized with the Qadizade movement's actions against dervish lodges. At a later time, he in fact distanced himself from Qadizade's activism. He shows respect, albeit no veneration for Ibn al-Arabi, whereas his self-denomination as israqiyyü'l-mesreb, i.e. as follower of Suhrawardi's philosophy of illumination, deserves further study.

Kâtip Çelebi used the campaign of 1042/1633 to rummage through Aleppo's bookstores, which provided the basis for his later bibliographic efforts, and to go on the pilgrimage during the winter season. The campaign took him to Yerevan (Revan) and Tabriz; he returned to Istanbul in late 1044/1635. He excused himself from the following campaign in 1047/1638 and there is no evidence that he left his hometown again. Despite his travel experience and his eye-witnessing of political and military events, his historical and geographical works are almost exclusively based on written sources or testimonies.

Despite the death of his former teacher Qadizade, Kâtip Çelebi continued with wide ranging but eclectic studies, including reading chronicles and - at a later time – geography and maps, but also all kinds of topics, from law and theology to astronomy and mathematics. Among his teachers were Kürd Abdullah Efendi (d. 1064/ 1654), Keçi Mehmed Efendi (d. 1054/1644), Veli Efendi (d. ?), a student of the Egyptian scholar Ibrahim Laqani (d. 1041/1631), Arec Mustafa Efendi (d. 1063/ 1653), the future seyhülislam Abdürrahim Efendi (d. 1066/1656). Although his readings covered the major part of the madrese curriculum, Kâtip Çelebi never obtained a diploma, but continued to earn a living in the chancery, spending most of his mother's inheritance on books, putting together what was probably the largest private library in Istanbul in his time.

Figure 7a-b: Illustrations from one of Kâtip Çelebi's books.

From 1052/1642 onward, Kâtip Çelebi was giving lessons himself, on law, tefsir, and kelam, but also mathematics and astronomy, focusing on fundamentals rather than the intricacies of the higher levels. His earliest works have to be seen in this context. Despite his low rank in the Ottoman bureaucracy and the lack of formal education, he appears to have been well accepted in the upper ranks of Istanbul's intellectual elite. His companions and patrons included seyhülislams Zekeriyazade Yahya Efendi (d. 1054/1644), Abdürrahim Efendi, Ebu Said Efendi (d. 1073/1662), and Beha'i Efendi (d. 1064/ 1654?). Abdürrahim Efendi also secured a promotion in the chancery for Kâtip Çelebi in recognition of his historical work Taqvimü ‘t-tevarih.

Kâtip Çelebi certainly knew prominent intellectuals of his time, including historian Hüseyin Hezarfenn (d. 1103/1691). Western scholars like Antoine Galland (d. 1715), Ferdinando Marsili (d. 1730), and Levinus Warner (d. 1665) are known to have been in personal contact with these circles. There is no evidence that Kâtip Çelebi ever met Evliya Çelebi (d. 1683), although it is not unlikely, given common acquaintances. In addition, Kâtip Çelebi shows great sympathy for political figures associated with attempts at political reform. Since his work is one of the major sources for the period, it is not clear if their political program aroused his sympathy, or if his ties to them caused him to depict them as reformers. Several of his works are directly related to political developments. He knew Kemankes Qara Mustafa Pasa (executed in 1054/ 1644), and expressed sympathy for Tarhuncu Ahmed Pasa (d. 1063/1653). His last work, Mizanü ‘l-Haqq, includes a cryptic homage to Köprülü Mehmed Pasa (d. 1072/1661).

According to a later note in the flyleaf of one of the Cihannüma autographs, Kâtip Çelebi died of a heart attack on 27 Dhulhijja 1067/6 October 1657. Many of his major works remained unfinished. The only attested son had died young. Parts of his library were sold in 1069/1659, presumably after the death of his wife. Several volumes were purchased by Levinus Warner and today constitute a part of the Legatum Warnerianum at Leiden University. Others were acquired by a former friend, Visnezade Mehmed Izzeti (d. 1092/1681), and passed on to geographer Ebu Bekr Behram el-Dimisqi (d. 1102/1691), and further to printer Ibrahim Müteferriqa (d. 1158/1745).

Throughout his work, Kâtip Çelebi appears as an eager reader and compiler in the service of a broad contemporary audience, although comparison with impulses of early Enlightenment should be used only with caution. He certainly was not a scientist or philosopher seeking radical departures from current ideas. Rather, he seems to be largely representative of the intellectual currents of his age, including his openness to knowledge from Europe. He continues to perceive knowledge as an exogenous category, albeit strictly subject to rational criticism. His worldview is thoroughly theocentric, as he sees the cosmos as ordered by divine creation. Causation of historical events follows inner-worldly regularities, which however are suspended by divine will. Despite his familiarity with Western scholarship, there is no trace of the heliocentric world view in his work. Kâtip Çelebi can be considered a turning point in Ottoman intellectual history, as in his historical and geographical works a unified perspective emerges, which is interested in the world not as an indication of divine omnipotence (as was the case in classical cosmography), but seeks useful knowledge to cope with economic, military, and political challenges.

Celebrated in the Turkish Republic, especially upon the 300th anniversary of his death in 1957, as a forerunner of Westernization, Kâtip Çelebi has not attracte