The Development and Decline of Ottoman Madrasas

by Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu Published on: 21st April 2004

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The development of madrasas was greatly influenced by the impact of a strengthened central state authority and the resulting political stability and economic well-being it brought to the society. Toward the end of the sixteenth century the performance of madrasas began gradually to fall below earlier levels for various reasons.

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The development of madrasas, the educational and scientific institutions of the Ottomans and in a more general sense, of scientific and cultural life, was greatly influenced by the impact of a strengthened central state authority and the resulting political stability and economic well-being it brought to the society, all of which encouraged the best scholars from the Islamic world to come and work in Istanbul as well as the establishment of wealthy wakifs.

A number of Ottoman writers discuss the gradual decline of madrasas toward the end of the sixteenth century and start of the seventeenth century, a decline similar to that taking place in other state institutions. They are in agreement that toward the end of the sixteenth century the performance of madrasas began gradually to fall below earlier levels as a result of behaviour contrary to teachers’ regulations, and that this had an impact both on the teachers, the curriculum of study and on the students. Historian Gelibolulu Mustafa Âlî Efendi (1541-1599) attributes the decline of the madrasas to a decline in interest in scholarly studies, to the appearance of sons of senior members of the ulema (mevâlizâde) and their rapid rise in position to enter into scholarly careers via special connections, to the assignment of teachers and kadis 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.[1] Kâtib Chelebi attributes the decline to the elimination from the madrasa curriculum of the rational and mathematical sciences.[2] Many 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.

In order to better evaluate these “criticisms” from within and to have a clearer, more balanced understanding of the development of Ottoman madrasas these perspectives should be considered along with contemporary “observations” coming from outside the system. A number of European observers of Ottoman scholarly-scientific and educational affairs undertook some partial comparisons between Ottoman and contemporary European science and education. These comparisons provide us with the opportunity to better evaluate Ottoman education. The Italian nobleman Comte de Marsigli who lived for eleven months in Istanbul between the years 1679-1680 indicates that:

“Education and instruction among the Turks in general takes place in a practical way based on doing exercises. That is why when many Christians state that the Turks are illiterate and do not understand the Qur’an, this is based on imputations without any foundation in truth. The reason we have accepted such baseless notions is attributable to our lack of knowledge of Oriental languages. In our universities the analysis and study of Oriental languages only began after the sciences had become more broadly developed. However, our forefathers did not pursue education in that area. As a result, we have come to believe a number of things that are lies and obviously false, and this situation defames our sciences and the state of our knowledge. Our readers would be protected from misinformation if they were to know that in Istanbul and in other Ottoman cities as well as among the Persians and the Arabs there are virtually no men of learning and science who do not know three languages (Turkish, Arabic and Persian).”[3]

Comte de Marsigli did not hesitate to criticize the Turks on certain matters and in his analysis of the differences between science and education among the Ottomans and in Europe he also puts forth his views on education.

We note that the Italian Abbe Toderini had the opportunity to get to know the madrasas very well, possessed the same complimentary thoughts about Ottoman educational institutions as mentioned Comte de Marsigli. Both of these individuals lived at a later time than the Ottoman scholars we have referred to above, they visited the empire and wrote about their observations of the Ottomans. It is important to make note of the following complimentary words Toderini has to say about Ottoman scholars: “What makes Ottoman scholars knowledgeable and reliable is the fact that there are no underdeveloped academic pursuits to be found among them and that they all know Arabic and Persian.” Toderini, who attempted to examine all of the areas of scholarly activity among the Ottomans, had a number of very important observations to make about the madrasas, which he refers to as “academies”, and about the courses of study they offered. Toderini examined the administration of the madrasas and the wakifs and noted “they are more advanced than those in all of the nations in Europe with respect to libéralité and grandeur.”[4]

Ottoman intellectuals who had become aware of the problems facing the institutions in their own society were in search of solutions at the same time that were registering their criticisms. On the other hand, as we have indicated with the examples given above, foreigners were very complimentary about Ottoman institutions and looked upon them with admiration. Engaging in a comparison of these two perspectives is surely an important vehicle for gaining an understanding of the problems facing Ottoman institutions.

The appropriate conditions for the development of science and scholarship in the Ottoman Empire began, with the seventeenth century onwards, to move gradually in the opposite direction. A number of factors had a negative impact on scholarly activities. Among these were the weakening of the central government, increasing economic instability, a decline in conquests, the continuous loss of territory, the flooding of Europe with American silver and the impact of that on Ottoman economic and social life, a decrease in the real income of the empire, the emergence of economic and social pressure and the resulting state of economic and social decline. As the factors, which had in earlier times encouraged scholars to engage in their work, began to disappear, these individuals came to be replaced with those who had an overriding concern for subsistence.

The coincidence in the timing of the troubles facing both scholars and the madrasas and those confronting the Ottoman state apparatus and its institutions has been taken by some to mean that the former factor was the cause of the decline of the empire. However, as we have attempted to indicate above, the coincidence of the decline of the scholarly class with that of other state institutions can be attributed to various underlying political, economic and social factors.

[1] I. H. Uzuncarsili, Ilmiye Teskilati, 2nd ed., 67-71.

[2] For Kâtib Çelebi’s ideas with regard to the decline of the madrasas see Kâtib Çelebi, Mizanü’l-Hakk fi Ihtiyari’l-Ehakk ed. O. Saik Gökyay, (Istanbul 1972); C. Baltaci, XV.-XVI. Asirlar, 61-71; S. Tekindag, “Medrese Dönemi,” in Cumhuriyetin 50. Yilinda Istanbul Üniversitesi, (Istanbul 1973), 20-21.

[3] L. F. Marsigli, Militare dell’Imperio Ottomano = L’Etat Militaire de l’Empire Ottoman (Amsterdam 1732), 2 sections, (Graz, 1972), 1:39.

[4] A. Toderini, De la Littérature des Turcs , 3 vols., (Paris, 1789), 2: 1-2.

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