The Horizon of Katip Celebi’s Thought

by Bekir Karliga Published on: 16th June 2009

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The article of Professor Dr. Bekir Karliga on the horizon of Katip Çelebi's thought is a tremendous analysis of the reformist efforts deployed by the renowned 17th-century Ottoman scholar Katip Çelebi Mustafa bin Abdallah, known as Haji Khalifa. Striving to show the acute consciousness Katip Çelebi had of the intellectual stagnation that was occuring in the Islamic world, in comparison with the earlier centuries of Islamic civilisation and with the then ongoing growth of science in Europe, the author depicts a faithful picture of Katip Çelebi's warning to his contemporaries. Four centuries later the alert that Katip Celebi sounded still holds good.


Professor Dr. Bekir Karliga*

Table of contents

1. The historical context
2. The feeling of disaster
3. Katip Çelebi and the mission of reformation
4. A call for the cultivation of science and culture
5. Katib Çelebi’s books at the service of the reform
6. Comparative perspective with the rising Western world
7. Katip Çelebi thinker, historian and translator


1. The historical context

The title “Çelebi” (pronounced Chelebi) was given to distinguished, well-born, educated persons and used in Ottoman literature most often to refer to the sons of military men, to bureaucrats, learned men, palace secretaries and the Konya administrators of the Mevlevi dervish order. Katip Çelebi, a complete Istanbul çelebi (gentleman) in the full sense of the word, was without doubt an outstanding representative of Ottoman and Islamic science and thought in its later era.

The 17th century was an age when the Western world gathered up the fruits maturing during the Renaissance and Reformation movements and made the leap from the Middle Ages to modernity, institutionalizing modern thought in the intellectual sphere to virtually besiege creation anew. In the words of the French intellectual Jacques Attali, it was an age when “the giant chained for a thousand years”, Europe, awoke from its thousand-year sleep and galloped headlong to plunder unknown lands seized with unrestrained brutality and greed, transferring the wealth extracted to its own territory.

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Representation of Katip Celebi in an Ottoman manuscript (Source).

During that long century when Western imperialism audaciously assaulted the four corners of the world, carving up the earth, not hesitating to consider all fair game for its insatiable appetite, “The Sublime Ottoman State” suffered through the blunders of incompetent sultans—through the Young Osman affair, the vain struggles of Murad IV, the incredible shenanigans of Crazy Ibrahim, Mehmed IV’s obsession with hunting—and the quarrels of the Kadizades and the Sivasis, uprisings of seminary students, internal rebellions and wars with Austria, Germany, Venice and Moscow. Although rulers, religious officials, bureaucrats and intellectuals sought comfort by invoking the former glory of the “Eternal State,” almost everyone had begun, openly or secretly, to say that the Empire was like a giant plane tree rotting from within.

In the three great “Çelebis” of the period, we can see clearly this ambiguous state of mind, this call to glory and helplessness in the face of an inertia which had begun to be sensed at all levels of society. The master prose stylist Evliya Çelebi poured all the richness of his imagination into the mold of his mythologizing narrative, striving to charm the reader with the splendors of the past.

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Armillary sphere drawn by Ahmed Al-Kirimi. From Katib Celebi’s The book of Jihannuma published by Ibrahim Muteferrika (1732).

Katip Çelebi (Mustafa bin Abdallah, known as Hajji Khalifa, born in Istanbul in 1609 and died in the same city in 1657), who shared the same space of historical time with him, wanted to hold up a mirror to the troubles to come rather than comfort readers with the glories of the past. He seemed to consume himself with laying out before his readers the severity of the circumstances they faced, working day and night with all his strength to open the way to a new vitality. Unfortunately, the number of those who understood this effort of his and gave ear to his heart-rending cry was very few indeed.

Finally, after the Karlowitz treaty of 1699, Nevsehirli Damat Ibrahim Pasha (d. 1730) sought to disperse the black clouds over the Empire by sending another Çelebi to Paris as ambassador. Faced with the dazzling developments taking place in the “land of the infidels,” Yirmi Sekiz Mehmet Efendi Çelebi sought to provide comfort by recalling the saying of the Prophet Muhammed “The world is a prison for believers, but a paradise for infidels.”

2. The feeling of disaster

The Islamic world began to face the fact that there had been a gradual narrowing of its horizons and inhibition of intellectual activity from the 13th century on. It is not possible—unfortunately—to say that the great successes in the political sphere during the intervening periods were accompanied by commensurate intellectual developments. The meadrasa seminary institution, in particular, closed in upon itself and thereby formed an intellectual blockage throughout the geography of Islam. This inevitably resulted in a narrowing of horizons.

Even a scholar so great as Ibn Khaldun, pride of the Islamic world, preferred to keep to himself his thoughts about events in the homeland of his family in al-Andalus, which would be one of three great factors determining the future of the world of Islam. Although it is understood from his works that he knew of the swift progress of the Renaissance taking place beyond the Pyrenees, he showed almost no interest in developments there and devoted no more than a few lines to them in his renowned Muqaddima.

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Ottoman Statesman on a board of a ship during a ceremony. Image taken from: Kâtib Çelebi, Tuhfat al-kibâr fî asfâr al-bihâr, edited by Idris Bostan. Ankara: Prime Ministry Undersecratariat of Maritime Affairs, 2008.

If we put aside a few exceptional works such as the Book of Navigation by the renowned geographer Piri Reis, written to satisfy needs born of practical concerns, there seem to have been almost no scholarly or intellectual studies that aimed to go beyond the frontiers of Islamic countries and know, understand, and interpret the world as a whole.

Katip Çelebi is the last, and quite brilliant, example of a type of learned researcher which was quite common during the classical periods of the Islamic world but rare in the six hundred years from the 13th to the 19th centuries. He strove to take up Islamic science and thought as a whole and produce solutions to the major problems of the time in which he lived. He worked through each problem he took up thoroughly and tried to do the best that could be done in the field within the limitated circumstance of his day. As a result of his tireless efforts, in the space of a short lifetime of forty-eight years, he—astonishingly—managed to produce twenty-one books, most of them were used to be called “eternal” works, each thousands of pages long and still in use today.

The well-known historian Franz Babinger characterized him as “the greatest of Ottoman historians, whose knowledge spread over all the fields one can think of [1].” The renowned historian of science Adnan Adivar called him a representative of the scientific renaissance in Turkey [2].

3. Katip Çelebi and the mission of reformation

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Katip Çelebi was the first and sole Muslim scholar since the 13th century to give extensive information about scientific and intellectual developments outside of the Islamic world, Renaissance Europe in particular. As a result of his and his students’ tremendous efforts, an opening was achieved in the 18th century which—manifested in various ways—laid the ground for Ottoman modernization in the 19th. In this respect, he labored tirelessly in support of what was virtually a new movement of enlightenment in the Islamic world.

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An Ottoman warship “Göke”. Image taken from Tuhfat al-kibâr edited by Idris Bostan (Ankara, 2008).

Katip Çelebi saw the opportunities scientific discoveries had secured for the West and the dangers they would bring for the Ottoman state. He not only called attention to the objects of the imperialism they would bring forth, but enumerated the things which must be done in this regard. He said that it was absolutely necessary for men who lead the state to have knowledge of geography, and he continued: “Although it is no easy task to know everything about the entire Earth, one must at least know the shape of Ottoman territory and the surrounding countries with which it shares borders, so that when one must go on campaign and send troops to a place, one can provision the army accordingly. Only in this way is it possible to cross into enemy provinces and take the precautions to protect borders. It is not correct to consult with persons ignorant of this science on such matters, even if they are locals. For many a local is unable to know and describe his country well.

“And the following proof is enough to demonstrate the absolute necessity of this science: It was by valuing and taking these sciences seriously that the infidels, may the earth swallow them up, found the New World [America] and spread throughout the ports of Sind and India. A nation as base and contemptible as Venice—ranked among infidel rulers merely as ‘Duka,’ known amongst themselves by the title ‘the fisherman’—came as far as the straits of the Ottoman Empire [the Dardanelles] and resisted the noble state, ruler of East and West [3].”

A world map from of Katib Celebi’s Tuhfat Al-Kibar. Image taken from Tuhfat al-kibâr edited by Idris Bostan (Ankara, 2008).

A size comparison of the Ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria (PHAROS) between a 1909 study (Thiersch) and a 2006 study of the building (Shenouda) (Source)

Most of the works Katip Çelebi wrote were not only of scientific value but also bore witness to the times. And he wrote not only of Islamic religion and culture. He wanted to hold a mirror up to the world, like the Lighthouse of Alexandria (the “mirror of Alexander” or “world-displayer”). He was interested in almost all intellectual disciplines, from historiography to geography, from philosophy to astronomy, from Islamic law to Koranic commentary, from Sufism to literature. Like the intellectuals of the classic periods of Islamic thought, he had a holistic conception of nature, embracing all branches of universal culture. This great thinker, eager to know everything about the world he lived in, made every possible effort to study the knowledge of his time, particularly those scientific and intellectual activities developing in the West. He tried to make use of Latin and Greek sources. Although it is not possible to know for certain, one may interpret his statements to mean that he knew enough Latin and Greek to consult sources in these languages.

4. A call for the cultivation of science and culture

Katip Çelebi did not follow a systematic course of study in the madrasa educational institutions of the time, but rather educated himself by taking private lessons. He was less a systematic scientist than a curious intellectual. Madrasa graduates known as “official scholars” always looked down on him for this reason. As Adnan Adivar put it, “They looked at him askance [4].”

Katip Çelebi discussed at great length the scientific and intellectual stasis apparent in the Islamic world in general and the Ottoman Empire in particular, and conducted self-criticism as well. According to him, “after the Islamic conquests, philosophy was quite productive in Rum [Anatolia] up through the middle period of the Ottoman state. In those times, a person was noble to the degree that he acquired and comprehended the sciences based on reason and on learned knowledge. In those centuries, peerless scholars who united the sacred law with philosophy there, such as the learned Semseddin al-Fenari, the virtuous Kadizade Rumi, the learned Hocazade (Mustafa Muslihüddin al-Bursevî), the learned Ali Kusçu, the virtuous Ibnü’l-Müeyyed (Müeyyed-Zade Abdurrahmân Efendi), Mîrim Çelebi, the learned Ibn Kemâl (Semseddin Ahmed) and the virtuous Ibnü’l-Hannâî (Kinali-Zade Ali Efendi). Kinali-Zade was the last of these.

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Two maps from Cihannuma, the world atlas by Katib Celebi (published in Istanbul, 1245H/1732) showing respectively Transoxiana and a part of Central Asia and Asia Minor as far east as the Euphrates, shown “upside-down”, the map being oriented with south upwards. ©The British Library, MS Or. 80.a.10, p. 347 and p. 629. (Source 1) – (Source 2).

“With the coming of the period of decline, the winds of knowledge stopped blowing. Certain judges outlawed the teaching of philosophy, which was replaced with lessons in right guidance in religion, and thus science declined. Science was completely wiped out, except for certain official forms of it. As the literary scholar Mevlana Sihabeddin al-Hafacî said in his work Habâyâ al-Zevâyâ, the aforementioned was one of the causes of the collapse of science in Rum [Anatolia]. As Ibn Khaldun also said, this was a sign of the collapse of the state. Judgment belongs to God the great and sublime [5].”

Katip Çelebi made similar statements in his work Mizan al-hikma (Balance of Truth/Wisdom): “After the Islamic sciences had been compounded and fixed to preserve them from all degradation, the leading greats of the Muslim peoples saw that previous generations had outlawed that knowledge to this end. When it had been removed and the desired end achieved, the Muslim people, believing it very important to know the truths of things [in other words, to have philosophical knowledge], translated into Arabic the books pertaining to the old sciences. In every century, those possessed of sound nature and right reason have never neglected to study and learn them. True researchers in every century have united religion and philosophy while performing their research and writing their books, and have become famous and respected, and drawn attention [6].”

“Among Islamic scholars, the true researchers Imam Ghazzali and Imam Fahreddin al-Razi; the great scholar Adududin al-Iji and among his followers, Kadi Baydawî; the great scholar Qutbeddin al-Shirazî, Qutbeddin al-Razî; the great scholar Sa’dedin al-Taftazanî, Sayyid Serîf al-Jurjanî and among his followers, the great scholar Jalal Al-Din al-Dawwanî and his students, all performed profound analysis and research and were educated in more than one science.

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Top: A Venetian “Mavna” ship. Below: An Ottoman “Goke” ship belonging to the Bayezid II reign (1481-1512). Topkapi Palace Museum Library, Revan 1192, fol. 16ba. Image taken from Tuhfat al-kibâr edited by Idris Bostan. Ankara, 2008.

“But many are the mindless persons who, seeing reports of the prohibition of certain forms of knowledge for specific purposes during Islam’s first century, have frozen hard as rock in their preference for imitation and remained that way. They have indulged in rejection and denial without considering well the heart of the matter, and they have defamed philosophy. They have passed themselves off as learned when they know nothing of heaven and earth. Their ears have paid no heed to the warning in the Koranic verse, ‘Do they see nothing in the governing of the heavens and earth?’ [Qur’an 7:185], and suppose that a rational man’s contemplation of earth and heaven is no different than the gaze of an ox.

“From the beginnings of the Ottoman state to the time of Sultan Suleyman the Lawgiver, true researchers were famed for uniting the sciences of philosophy and sharia sacred law. Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror had the Eight Madrasas built, specifying in the foundation document that they should be occupied with the study of common law and courses of Hâshiye-i tajrîd and Sharh-i mawâqif. Later others condemned such studies as ‘philosophy’ and substituted lessons in right guidance in religion. But to limit studies to these subjects was not rational, and in the end neither philosophy nor right guidance survived.

“Thus traffic in the sciences slackened and its specialists began to disappear. Beginning students studying common law here and there in forgotten corners of the country where Kurds reside came to Rum [Istanbul] and gave themselves airs.

View of world map in Kâtip Çelebi’s Kitâb-i Cihân-nümâi, edited by Ibrahim Müteferrika, in Istanbul (1732). (Source).

“Seeing this, certain capable students in our time requested that I give them instruction in philosophy. While teaching and debating with them, this pauper encouraged the talented among them as Socrates did Plato, and as a legacy to them, and advice to all of them, I have discussed and expounded certain matters in this treatise [Balance of Truth], so that they may work to acquire knowledge of the exact sciences in so far as their circumstances allow. They will certainly be necessary. There is no harm in knowledge. And let them not defame and deny it. For to deny a thing will cause one to be far from and deprived of it [7].”

5. Katib Çelebi’s books at the service of the reform

Although such statements made by Katip Çelebi, the most noteworthy figure of the century in which he lived, whether in his Balance of Truth or Removal of Doubt, have led certain researchers to conclude that science and philosophy were completely prohibited during the Ottoman period, there was no official decision or decree to this effect. Katip Çelebi was emphasizing the negative atmosphere and insufficiency of knowledge growing at the time.

In his great work Jihannuma (Displaying the World), Katip Çelebi stated that it was by taking inspiration and encouragement from the Koranic verse, ‘Do they see nothing in the governing of the heavens and earth’ (Qur’an 7:185) that he began to study the universe. It pained him much when he saw that the Western world had recently made great strides in the exact sciences, particularly astronomy and geography, while the Muslims had been inactive and so become incompetent in these subjects. He stated that it was for these reasons that he devoted himself to those subjects, writing several works, in particular Displaying the World.

Celestial sphere from Katip Celebi’s The book of Jihannuma.

He continued: “While I, Mustafa Halife, the writer of this book, the humblest of creatures, have worked since birth and childhood in the school of ‘Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave,” bringing forth the lamp of thought and feeling with the oil of cleverness and natural intelligence into the morning of analogy and precepts, deriving benefit and use, I investigated the quiddities of affairs by means of the varied bounties which arrived one after another from God the Truth and Absolute Grace. I was not satisfied with the maturity achieved through the experience I’d gained from the changing circumstances of travel and rest and the passing of days and years, and in order to gain more knowledge and maturity I would study books of history and conduct. The Koranic verse, ‘Do they see nothing in the governing of the heavens and earth?’ invoked with regard to persons who view this world of material bodies as animals do, led me to study books concerning the science of astronomy; and the hadith saying of the Prophet Muhammed “Travel the earth and view the works of God’s power,” moved me to do research in books concerning the science of geography, and served as a means for me to begin. It always pained me to see the attention and skill with which the Christians had studied and put forth this science they derived from the Greeks, and the denial and neglect, the ignorance and passivity of the Muslims with regard to this subject. For I saw that the books about regions and cities and the books about the roads of countries written in Arabic, Persian and Turkish were all erroneous and confused [8].”

In Displaying the World, Katip Çelebi strove to explain and offer proofs that the earth was round in the shape of a globe, thus arguing against the view very widespread in the Islamic world at the time which, relying upon a hadith report narrated from Ibn Abbas, claimed that the earth rested on the horns of an ox and was flat. He stated that the hadith was not sound, and that even if it were, the words “ox” and “fish” should be understood to indicate the zodiacal signs Taurus and Pices. He stated that “the minds of persons who have had no share in the sciences of philosophy go no further than the distance their eyes are able to see, and since the place where they are located looks flat to them,” they suppose “the entire world to be flat.”

6. Comparative perspective with the rising Western world

Katip Çelebi considered the reasons why the first Muslims took an interest in subjects which had been a focus in Antiquity, and found they had done so with the aim of illuminating Muslims. And while doing so, they had employed the manner of philosophers, following the rule, “speak to people according to the level of their understanding.” But the fundamental duty of the Prophet and his Companions had been to transmit knowledge of religion to the people; scientific subjects—the explanation of the realities of material things—could not have been their main aim. It is interesting that in this regard Katip Çelebi emphasized the Prophet’s hadith “You know the affairs of the world better than I.” In Katip Çelebi’s opinion, it is not correct to assume that statements made by the Prophet and his Companions about practical and technical subjects are scientific truths which should be accepted in an absolute sense. It appears to us that Katip Çelebi was the sole Islamic thinker in those days to emphasize this hadith, which has often been invoked in modern times as an important point of reference.

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The five circles show the names of the directions and the winds in various languages. Drawn by Galatali Migirdic. From Katip Celebi’s The book of Jihannuma.

Katip Çelebi was aware that “the infidels have taken over the earth by means of these sciences, even posturing as heroes as they harass the Muslims, and in this respect they have no equals.” He considered the dangers this would give rise to in future and encouraged Muslims to take a greater interest in sciences which like astronomy and geography were undergoing new, speedy development.

He was aware very early on of the dangers in the discovery of America and access to India by way of the Cape of Good Hope. He described how the Muslims of India had sought help from Sultan Suleyman the Lawgiver against the Dutch and the Portuguese, saying that the Sultan had then sent such famed naval commanders to India as Piri Reis and Seydi Ali Reis. Katip Çelebi quoted from a work titled West India: “The author of West India says ‘Portuguese ships have been sailing from the West to the East Ocean since the 10th century, and most of them have reached the shores of Sind and India.

“‘By virtue of felicitous coincidence and prudent measures, they took over the ports of those provinces and occupied them. If they are left to act freely for much longer, they will find the way to the Red Sea and seize the shores of the Hijaz and Yemen.’

“This pauper says: Portuguese and Dutch ships have long since entered the Red Sea and reached the shores of Yemen and the Hijaz. They are now wandering those regions, seizing merchant ships when they can and blocking those routes. If a fortress were built at Jeddah and guards posted there, they would not be able to do further mischief, and if they left their ships they would not get further inland than a few miles. But that they do mischief and damage on sea is certain. The damage they do is greater than that done by enemies on land. In 1036 [C.E. 1626/7] the people of Yemen applied to Haydar Pasha, Governor of Yemen, for the 600.000 kurus loss suffered when Flemish Bretons seized merchant ships sailing from India. At a later date Bretons attacked and seized fourteen merchant ships sailing from India to Yemen, and after plundering them and enslaving their crew, weighed anchor along with English ships at the Maha dock. Many an event such as this occurs each year. But no power can put a stop to it.

“The same historian says: ‘It is a strange affair that one group of infelicitous persons is supported in this way and journeys from West to East, bearing with violent winds and the trials of the sea, but while the Land of Rum [Anatolia] is half-way there, none aim to conquer that land nor approach the Ottoman Sultan to force the surrender of the aforementioned places. But there are countless benefits to journeying there, and many reasons to seek to do so. If a navy were readied in Egypt to sail from Suez and soldiers sent, a competent commander would soon capture those cities and drive the infidels from those regions.'”

Resm-i Iklim-i Avrupa (The Continent of Europe): This map shows the countries and major cities of Europe and important rivers. From Katib Celebi’s The book of Jihannuma published by Ibrahim Muteferrika.

Katip Çelebi responded to this proposal by indicating that it would be a mistake for the state to throw itself into disasters whose limits were unknown: “What that historian proposed was carried out by this Ottoman State in the time of its strength. It is clear that to repeat the effort would lead to regret. The Crete campaigns of our era bear sufficient witness to that.”

Katip Çelebi had begun work on Displaying the World and written one section of it when he came to the section to be devoted to the British Isles and, seeing the Atlas Majeur of Abraham Ortelius, wished to consult it. But he could not obtain a copy of the work and lost heart, giving up on his book without finishing it. Just at that time, however, a certain Kara Çelebe-zade Mahmud Efendi, who worked in the Department of Foreign Affairs and owned a copy, died. While Katip Çelebi was trying to buy the work from the man’s heirs, he happened to obtain a copy of Atlas Mineur, a summary of it. He began studying this work immediately, but his knowledge of Latin being insufficient, was unable to understand it. In this same period—by a stroke of chance—he became acquainted with Ihlasî Mehmed Efendi, a convert to Islam who had recently come to Istanbul from France. They soon became friends. Mehmed Efendi read out the Atlas Mineur, explaining the meaning of the words to Katip Çelebi, who wrote it down in Turkish. In this way the two of them collaborated on a Turkish translation of the Latin work.

Katip Çelebi wrote that his intention in translating the 683-page Atlas Mineur had been to be able to finish writing Displaying the World, and continued: “In the first days of the month of Safer in the year 1065 [1654/55]—which are the first days of the month of Kanun-i Evvel [December], when I came to the translation of the work’s page 438, devoted to the land of Bavaria in the country of Germany, I began again to write this book Displaying the World, making a clean copy. I was hoping to be granted a felicitous finish. The topics of the subsequent sections of the translation will be transferred entirely over into my book, except for inappropriate information regarding infidel lands, which will not be included. In this way the criticisms and assaults of worthless persons will be somewhat lessened. For the Atlas was translated fully, and so it was necessary to speak over and over again of the works pertaining to infidel lands, the names of military personages and writers, matters concerning wine, pig flesh and churches. But in this work inappropriate quotations have been skipped.

“In all of this my aim has been the empowerment of Muslims, and so it is hoped that my sins will be forgiven. ‘Truly God does not decrease the reward for those who do good work.’ For the infidels have by means of these sciences occupied a great many places on earth, harassing the Muslims and posing as heroes, and it is not possible to deny that they claim to be unrivaled in this regard [9].”

Katip Çelebi stated that the French convert Mehmed Efendi, called Ihlasî, whom he characterized as a very capable person versed in the science of geography and knowledgeable in the intricacies of the Latin language, quickly gained sufficient fluency in Turkish as well, and that after they had read the Atlas Mineur together and thought over its meaning at length, they began the work of translation, writing down phrases which put forth the author’s intention, in the middle of the month of Muharrem in the year of 1064 [December 1653]. He stated that they titled it Levâmi‘ al-Nûr fî Zulmat Atlas Minor (Flashes Illuminating the Darkness of Atlas Minor), thinking this appropriate to its topic.

Resm-i Afrika: This map of the African continent in the Book of Jihannuma is done in the manner of Mercator, with the lines of latitude and longitude intersecting at right angles. From Katib Celebi’s The book of Jihannuma published by Ibrahim Muteferrika.

In his Atlas Mineur translation, Katip Çelebi often, particularly in notes he wrote in the margins, emphasized the author’s biases and stated that since most of Mercator’s writings about Islam and Muslims contained nothing more than opinion and supposition contrary to fact, he’d not even felt the need to reject and disprove them [10].

In a note in the margin of the section explaining the drawings in the Atlas, Katip Çelebi was unable to refrain from making this interesting comment: “O wise reader aware of the finer points, consider by analogy with these all of the ignorance and foolishness of infidels, and all the vain intentions and indications pertaining to the symbolic aspects of the drawings. It was considered appropriate to expound upon them here so that those who see them may not suppose there is great significance to these drawings and forms [11].”

7. Katip Çelebi thinker, historian and translator

Beyond his efforts to grasp the world as a whole, Katip Çelebi was a thinker who tried to achieve a global comprehension of what was happening on earth. It was with this aim that, unlike other Islamic thinkers and writers, he made every effort to know world history completely and correctly, whether in terms of chronology or in terms of separate events, and with this aim that he tried to benefit to the utmost from Ihlasi Mehmed Efendi’s knowledge of Latin and Western languages when he found the opportunity to befriend him. Other translations came out of their collaboration as well.

One of them was Târih-i Frengîn, (History of the Franks), the Turkish translation of a work by Johannes Carion titled Chronicle which was published in Paris in 1548. It begins with the creation of the world and discusses the Roman Empire and men of state and popes up to 1530. Katip Çelebi gives the following brief information in the introduction to his translation: “This history is the transfer and translation from the language of Latin to Turkish of the summary book written by the engineer Cuvannes Karyo. It contains the sum of noteworthy events occurring in the times specified. The book in question by the aforementioned historian was completed in the year 1531 of the Birth and printed in 1548.

“[Ihlasi] Seyh Muhammed and Haci Halife [Katip Çelebi], author of these lines, translated this book in the year 1065 of the Hegira in the city of Constantinople in order to add it to the other Islamic histories [12].”

He stated that he translated and added the book included in the same collection here and titled Tarih-i Konstantîniyye ve Kayâsira, also known as Revnaku’s-Saltana, from various Byzantine historians, and he continued: “A few summaries and supplements have been added following the book in question. Because the fundamental aim of this translation was not translation but rather that it later be transmitted and added again to other works, it was written as is without attention to matters of the beautification of style and the conformity to the order of linguistic rules. For God willing, deficiencies coming about during narration will be corrected during transmission [13].”

Iklim-i Asya (The Continent of Asia): From Katib Celebi’s The book of Jihannuma published by Ibrahim Muteferrika.

The collection narrates events from the creation of the universe to the year 1579 and includes Turkish translations from the Latin translations of the chronicles of such Byzantine historians as Johannes Zonaras, Nichytas Acominates, Nicephoros Gregoras and Ladonycus Chalcondyles which were are placed at the end of the Frankfurt edition of Johannes Carion’s Chronicle [14]. Although it is stated at the beginning of the work that sections have been included from the History of Iran by Petrus Birazus, The Iranian War by Henricus Porcius, and History of Holland by Guicciardini, the extant manuscript ends with Chalcondyles’s work.

It is understood from inscriptions in the margins that the section of the work covering the Byzantine Emperors from 801 through the time of Alexis Comnenus was taken from Zonaras’s history. The following section up to page three hundred and twenty was taken from Nichytas [15], and the rest translated from Chalcondyles work titled Turkish History [16]. Chalcondyles’s work covers the history of the period from the founding of the Ottoman state to the conquest of Crete under Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror [17].

It is apparent that Katip Çelebi wished to know the West through the important Western sources of his time and in a way concordant with them. He did not hesitate to transmit unaltered the historical errors and even biased interpretations in the works he translated. When we look at his work, whether Lavâmi‘ al-Nûr, Tercüme-i Tarih-i Frengîn or Revnakü’s-Saltana, we might easily reach the conclusion that he was not very knowledgeable about Islamic science, thought or history. In all three he sometimes wrote the name Mehmed as Muhammed, Maomet or Meomet. He spelled the name Umar according to its Turkish pronunciation (Ovmer) rather than the Arabic. He spelled the word Palestine according to its Latin pronunciation, Falestiya, the name Selahaddin as Saladinus, the title Çelebi as Kalepinus, the name Musa as Moizes, Mustafa as Muvstefa, Ahmed as Ehmed, Timur-Lenk as Tamerlan, Osmanli as Otoman, Osman Gazi as Otomanus, Orhan Gazi as Orhanes, and the word Arabistan as Arabya [18].

His translations were done in a fluid, readable Turkish and these errors might have been due to his imperfect knowledge of his subject. But when he transferred certain sections from these works into his own books, he corrected these errors and wrote the words correctly. This may be another sign of his scientific rigor.

In a brief fifty-eight-page work titled Irshad al-Hiyârâ ilâ Tarîh al-Yûnâni va al-Rûmi va-‘lNasârâ, Katip Çelebi wrote directly about Greek, Roman and Christian men of state and the manner of governance in their states. As he said, the Muslims were not in possession of sound information about these states and societies. The information they gave was usually not in accord with the facts. Thus Katip Çelebi made great efforts to gain access to reliable sources, and in this work gave information about the religious and administrative structure of European nations, discussed their customs and laws, and expounded upon certain forms of government such as aristocracy, democracy and republicanism. Katip Çelebi seems to have been the first Muslim writer to touch upon these subjects since Ibn Rushd.

In his work Dustûr al-Amal li Islâh al-Halal, Katip Çelebi stated that all now accepted that the signs of deformation in the Ottoman Empire were obvious, and he drew attention to the indifference of men of state. He wrote that he was working to fulfill his responsibilities as an intellectual to his state, his nation and his Creator, and he continued: “The long-lived Ottoman state has reached its three hundred and sixty-fourth year in the year of the Hegira 1063 [1653], and in conformity with divine custom and humanity’s nature, signs of abnormality have become apparent in the temper of this sublime state and traces of fracturing in its natural powers. For this reason and in accordance with the saying, ‘Sovereigns are inspired,’ our Padishah—may God support and strengthen him— has issued a decree to which all the world must conform and a judgment which must be absolutely obeyed: ‘Let elect personages of long life and members of the Council with long experience gather and take the pulse of this patient and prescribe the cure for this disease, so that it may not—God forbid—occasion a yet more difficult end [19].”

Katip Çelebi thus indicated what had to be done immediately to reorganize the financial and administrative affairs of state and said, in the context of the theory of the four elements expounded by Aristotle and Galen, that like the human body the state has a bodily chemistry, and each organ of the state corresponds with one of the four elements: “The human body comes into being with four commixtures of the four elements. It rules itself by means of feeling and power. In the same way, societies are compounded of four basic fundamentals and by means of the administrators of state, who are equivalent to feeling and power, they are bound to the rule of the sublime Sultan, who occupies the station of self-governance and control of the reins. By the four fundamentals we mean the religious officials, the military, merchants and the common flock.”

Having made these significant distinctions, Katip Çelebi drew attention to a very important point: “According to the dignitaries of state and sultanate, and as is well known, crisis in this sublime state is not new; although in the past confusion was created on several occasions by power struggles within the sultanate and at one time the evil wrought by Timur, and later the emergence of the Jelalis, it was resolved with the help of God and the taking of appropriate measures.”

Katip Çelebi believed that several measures had to be taken immediately with regard to the four classes of men in order for the Empire to be saved from the troubles that had befallen it: “It is not possible for the common flock to pay taxes. If one year’s revenue be obtained through the world-supporting Padishah (may God keep him safe), let him abolish extraction and interference and surrender the wealth he will obtain to a trustworthy servant on condition he will undertake to pay gradually. To have one year’s revenue would create great strength for the treasury. Every undertaking would bring wealth.

“The troubles connected with the overpopulation of the military, as mentioned before, will be removed by scrupulous selection of soldiers and well-considered measures. For example, taxes which increase revenue and are beneficial for the treasury do away with the overpopulation of the military.

“And as a recourse with regard to abolishment of expenditure, it is necessary to reduce gratuitous expenditures in departments and then appoint, in several departments which are pillars of the treasury, experienced, devout and honest persons. In this way the troubles brought about by excessive expenditure will be prevented within a few years.

“A recourse for the people’s powerlessness will be to reduce a portion of certain taxes on them and then, by refraining from taking funds from state officials, keeping experienced and honest men in office for an extensive period and punishing oppressors, within a few years the common flock will be strengthened and the land of the Ottomans will flourish in the desired manner [20].”

The works of Katip Çelebi, one of the most prominent thinkers of the seventeenth and perhaps all the Ottoman centuries, were translated into Western languages a short time after his death. As far as we know, while there has been much translation into Western languages of Islamic thought up through the 16th century, little has been done of works written in later periods. The works of only three 17th– and 18th-century Ottoman scholars and thinkers have been translated into Western languages. One is Katip Çelebi, and the other two are Hezarfen Hüseyin Efendi and our renowned historian Naima. But Katip Çelebi must be the sole Ottoman scholar and thinker of the latter periods to have more than one of his works (Kashf Al-Zunûn, Jihânnumâ, Tuhfat al-Kibâr fî Asfâr al-Bihâr and Takvîm Al-Tavârîh) draw the attention of Western scholars and be translated, whether into classical languages such as Latin, or modern languages such as French, English and German.


[1] Franz Babinger, Osmanli Tarih Yazarlari ve Eserleri, Turkish translation by Coskun Üçok, Ankara 1982, p.215.

[2] Adnan Adivar, Osmanli Türklerinde Ilim, Istanbul 1982, p.151.

[3] Kâtip Çelebi, Tuhfetü ‘l-Kibâr fî asfâri ‘l-Bihâr, Istanbul 1329 H, p.3.

[4] Adnan Adivar, ibid, p. 140.

[5] Kâtip Çelebi, Kashf Al-Zunûn an Asami al-Kutub wa al-Funun, vol. I, p. 680.

[6] Kâtip Çelebi, Mîzânü’l-Hakk fî Ihtiyâri’l-Ehakk, Istanbul: Ali Riza Matbaasi, 1286 H, pp. 6-7.

[7] Kâtip Çelebi, ibid, pp. 8-10.

[8] Kâtip Çelebî, Jihânnumâ, Istanbul: Ibrahim Müteferrika baskisi, Matbaa-i Amire, p. 9.

[9] Kâtip Çelebî, Jihânnumâ, pp. 9-10.

[10] Kâtip Çelebî, Lavâmi‘ al-Nûr, pp. 261, 11.

[11] Kâtip Çelebî, ibid, p. 11.

[12] Kâtip Çelebî, Ravnak al-Saltana, Konya: Koyunoglu Kütüphanesi, MS 14031, p. 1.

[13] Kâtip Çelebî, ibid, p, 1.

[14] Kâtip Çelebî, Tarih-i Konstantîniyye ve Kayâsira, Konya: Koyunoglu Kütüphanesi, MS 14031, p. 271.

[15] Kâtip Çelebî, ibid, p. 296.

[16] Kâtip Çelebî, ibid, p. 320.

[17] Kâtip Çelebî, ibid, p. 371.

[18] Kâtip Çelebî, Lavâmi‘ al-Nûr, pp. 274, 286, 287, 289, 297.

[19] Kâtip Çelebî, Dustûr al-Amal, li–Islâh al-Halel, Istanbul: Tasvîr-i Efkâr Matbaasi, 1280 H, p. 1.

[20] Kâtip Çelebî, ibid, p. 5.

*Prof. Bekir Karliga, Chairman of Civilization Studies Center (MEDAM), Bahcesehir University, Istanbul, Turkey.

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