Back to top

Science among the Ottomans

Science among the Ottomans
The Cultural Creation and Exchange of Knowledge

The first book on the topic in English in over sixty years, Science among the Ottomans contends that, contrary to the generally accepted belief that the Ottomans lost interest in science, science was a valued, dynamic, and sustaining force throughout the life span of the empire.

October 2015
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
262 pages | 6 x 9 |

Scholars have long thought that, following the Muslim Golden Age of the medieval era, the Ottoman Empire grew culturally and technologically isolated, losing interest in innovation and placing the empire on a path toward stagnation and decline. Science among the Ottomans challenges this widely accepted Western image of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Ottomans as backward and impoverished.

In the first book on this topic in English in over sixty years, Miri Shefer-Mossensohn contends that Ottoman society and culture created a fertile environment that fostered diverse scientific activity. She demonstrates that the Ottomans excelled in adapting the inventions of others to their own needs and improving them. For example, in 1877, the Ottoman Empire boasted the seventh-longest electric telegraph system in the world; indeed, the Ottomans were among the era’s most advanced nations with regard to modern communication infrastructure. To substantiate her claims about science in the empire, Shefer-Mossensohn studies patterns of learning; state involvement in technological activities; and Turkish- and Arabic-speaking Ottomans who produced, consumed, and altered scientific practices. The results reveal Ottoman participation in science to have been a dynamic force that helped sustain the six-hundred-year empire.

  • Preface
  • A Note on Transliteration
  • Introduction: What Is the History of Science?
    • The History of Science and Technology
    • The History of Islamic Science and Technology
    • The History of Ottoman Science and Technology History
    • Toward a History of Ottoman Scientific Experiences
    • On Inventiveness: An Ottoman Lesson
  • Chapter 1. Framing “Knowledge” in the Ottoman Empire
    • A Eurasian Matrix: The Multiple Cultural Sources of Knowledge in the Ottoman Empire
    • The Ottoman Concept and Epistemology of Knowledge: The Term cIlm
    • Classification of Knowledge in Muslim Societies
    • Amalgamation of Bodies of Knowledge in Muslim Societies
    • Tensions due to Fusion of Bodies of Knowledge: The Dispute regarding the Status of Pre-Islamic Sciences
    • Mediating Mechanisms of Reception
  • Chapter 2. Where and How Does Learning Take Place?
    • Pedagogy
    • New Educational Institutions and a New Type of Education in the Long Nineteenth Century
  • Chapter 3. Transfer of Knowledge to, from, and within the Ottoman Empire
    • Ottoman Literacy
    • Translations and Translators among the Ottoman Elite
    • Marginal Groups as Agents of Knowledge
    • The Passage of Travelers and Knowledge to and from the Empire
  • Chapter 4. State in Science: On Empire, Power, Infrastructures, and Finance
    • The Patron and the Scholar: Intisap and Waqf/Vakıf
    • Science and Technology and the Ottoman State Infrastructure
    • Science, State, and the State above It: The (Semi)Colonial Connection
  • Conclusion: Ottoman Science
    • A Teacher and a Student: Murtaḍá al-Zabīdī and cAbd al-Raḥmān al-Jabartī as Ottoman Scientists
    • Ottoman Patterns of Scientific Activity
    • Ottoman Innovation
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Tel Aviv, Israel

Shefer-Mossensohn is an associate professor of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University. She is an Ottomanist, working on both the Arabic- and Turkish-speaking domains of the empire. Her interests lie with medicine and science as a social encounter between scholars and laypersons, patrons and clients, readers and artisans, and the state apparatus and the individual.



What Is the History of Science?

The history of science has attracted lively scholarly discussion in the twenty-first century’s opening decades, in part because the very identity of its subject matter has been opened to new interpretations. Karl Popper (1902–1994), one of the greatest historians and philosophers of science of the twentieth century, knew that the history of science was the history of impossible dreams, of obstinacy, and of error. In other words, the history of science takes us back to past claims and beliefs, many of which we now know to be incorrect. Peter Dear, one of the leading historians of science of this generation, is less sure. He poses a provocative question: “What is the history of science history of ?” 2 The modern definition of “science” is embedded in an ideology that it is something natural and hence universal. This definition assumes a very specific historical process that led to the correspondence of “science” and universalism. Our challenge is to abstain from this impediment. Hence the working definition for “history of science” involves an attempt to understand changes in the body of knowledge about the reality of our lives. It investigates the categories of thinking, proving, and experiencing that create, determine, develop, and change scientific knowledge. It is in an attempt to understand why people living in a specific era thought and acted in one way or another with regard to all matters concerning systemized knowledge.

The History of Science and Technology

The historical analysis of scientific activity sprang from the self-perception of science as universal, aiming at the formulation of global generalizations. Those who share this view understand scientific work as an internal process tied solely by knowledge and science: ideas create new ideas, knowledge yields further knowledge. Historians of science, like scientists, regard the people who cultivate science and the institutions in which they work as external to knowledge, and thus they are not perceived as influencing the way in which science is practiced. “Pure” science is supposed to be uninfluenced by extraneous considerations, be they economic, social, or political. The world lies open before us for objective investigation, unfettered by outside influences.

This positivist outlook of both past scientists and historians of science was also accompanied by the perception that science develops in a single direction of advancement and progress. Scientific development was viewed as a positive procession, brought about by shining heroes and full of success stories. As long as internal processes were free of alien influences from external powers, there were positive accomplishments. A leading proponent of this approach was Karl Popper, who described knowledge and science as evolutionary. As he perceived it, knowledge is accumulated and progressive; we constantly move forward knowing more and understanding more.

Nowadays, positivist conceptions of science and its narrative are considered naïve, maybe even dangerous. Historians of science fear that characterizing science as providing unconditional and mostly objective answers will sabotage the legitimacy of its products, which in most cases do not constitute a definitive answer or solution to a problem. Scrutiny may lead to contradictory observations, and different observers of established and fixed “facts” might suggest differing interpretations. The demand for “the truth” sets an unreasonable and unobtainable standard. Any scientific argument may be refuted on the pretext of being insufficiently scientific, less than wholly “true,” or somehow connected to public policy that the critics find objectionable.

The first significant change in this assessment should be ascribed to the work of Thomas Samuel Kuhn (1922–1996). In his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn declared that in some instances, knowledge changes quickly, dramatically, powerfully, and profoundly. Hence, knowledge does not develop in a continuous linear progression, yet Kuhn still refers to “development” in which science upgrades, improves, and marches forward.

Kuhn’s contemporary Paul Feyerabend (1924–1994) had already asserted that knowledge is not accumulated and does not necessarily progress linearly. A student of Karl Popper, Feyerabend was also influenced by Kuhn, but he cautioned that “positive” knowledge or the desire to reach “the truth” may also create something monstrous. Indeed, the historical and moral discussion of Nazi sciences and the fruits of their research deal with a similar point: is knowledge acquired by monstrous means worthy of being channeled in positive directions, or, perhaps, is the very existence of such frightful research enough to negate its right to be applied, no matter how useful its applications may be? In addition, Feyerabend indicates that scientists have no common tools or methods. His starting point was ethical: man’s creativity must not be restricted. The result is that scientific work is not even and orderly; on the contrary, it involves a chaotic dimension. Understandably, Feyerabend described his perception of knowledge as “anarchistic.”

Kuhn, Feyerabend, and other philosophers and historians of science demonstrate the change in the field. In the past, historical and philosophical writing about science dealt with people and with knowledge, focusing on important people and their intellectual activity. Since the midtwentieth century, however, the field has undergone extensive changes in the way scientific activity is perceived and, therefore, in the ways it should be studied. The kernel of the change involved awareness that theories may not last forever and the perception of science (and hence its study) as an interdisciplinary endeavor.

Science is tightly tied to philosophy, sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, psychology, economics, and other fields. Moreover, disparate spheres of knowledge are knit together in various deep and intrinsic manners. The ways in which knowledge is acquired in the various fields of science (physics, biology, chemistry, medicine, technology, and so forth) are similar to and influenced by one another. For this reason, it is impossible to learn the history of one field in a manner totally separated from the history of other fields of knowledge; the histories must be synthesized.

Michel Foucault (1926–1984) is among the thinkers who best demonstrate the multidimensional nature of scientific research, although he did not deal with science per se. Foucault was a French philosopher who analyzed social institutions and the theory of systems of thought, but his work helps to understand scientific activity and the function of knowledge in general. He came under criticism for his overgeneralized historical analysis, but Foucault’s central argument regarding power and knowledge formed a cornerstone in understanding how the ability to influence human behavior controls information and skills, and vice versa. Foucault was instrumental in understanding how institutions and bodies of knowledge such as medicine are used as a form of social control. Furthermore, he underlined how human discourse—the modalities and codes and signs embedded in conversation—shapes interaction; as a result, discourse is yet another tool to control communication, perception, and behavior.

Foucault’s influence was substantial partly because of opportune timing. His criticism arrived during deep revision in historiography between the 1960s and 1980s. First arrived the “Linguistic Turn,” a major development in Western philosophy that pointed out how language has the power to shape meaning: language is not transparent; rather, it is an agent in the comprehension and construction of reality. The “Cultural Turn” soon joined forces: this is a criticism from within the social sciences that shifted the emphasis toward meaning and away from realism.

The scientist’s personal characteristics (personality structure and values) and scientific priorities (such as the standard work methods or questions considered urgent in his era), and likewise factors external to the scientist himself or the field (political, economic, and social circumstances), sow the seeds leading to the growth or rejection of an original idea that on (rare) occasions manages to transcend the hypothetical and provide a practical answer to a problem. In fact, theories are actually proven or refuted by these internal and external factors, and not on account of the success or failure of a laboratory experiment or the wording of a formula and an equation.

With the growing perception of science as a complicated, integralistic, or holistic, process, the research about science becomes richer. Contemporary research outlines the circumstances that enable (or restrict) scientific activity and freedom of thought, including social connections, economic potential, religious concepts, cultural values, and political maneuvers. In other words, the history of science now deals with social networks, connections among ideas, institutions, and professional organizations. The current research ties the lone scientist into his social and professional environment, ideologies, and their influences on science. (Nationalism, for example, argues for involving science with questions of honor and national competitiveness rather than merely individual ambitions.) In addition, other aspects, such as power games, legitimacy, funding, knowledge, and applicability, have affected the history of science as well. Instances of double meanings and even scientific theoretical contradictions are all intermingled. This complex reality requires a completely different kind of investigation into scientific activity.

Recent research trends have given attention to marginal groups and previously marginalized sites of scientific activity—for example, the East. One example is the work of Kapil Raj, who demonstrated that modern science is not an exclusively European and Western creation. Raj clarified that a great part of “Western” knowledge between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries was actually created far away from the European centers, in the New World or the colonies in Asia. In medicine, cartography, engineering, and other fields, the help of locals in sharing knowledge, skills, and tools enabled European university graduates to learn and improve their knowledge and then export it to Europe itself.

Another example is a feminist reading of scientific research. In 1990 Dorothy E. Smith, a sociologist and feminist theoretician with interests also in education, claimed that women’s experience of knowledge is radically different from the male hegemonic one. Fifteen years later, in the introductory essay of a special Signs issue devoted to feminist approaches to social science methodologies, Sandra Harding and Kathryn Norberg called for transformation of the methodologies and epistemologies of scientific disciplines. Their concerns about conventional standards for “good research,” and whether and how customary approaches to knowledge promote or obstruct the development of a more ethical research, are applicable to all fields of scientific works.

The current discourse within the history of science and technology wishes to go further and integrates in a meaningful way the nonhuman factors in scientific process. David Bloor and the Strong Program, initiated in the 1970s in Edinburgh, regards the existence of a cooperatively functioning scientific community as an essential condition for scientific activity and argues against the philosophical view as a principle of scientific activity.

The Bath School and Harry Collins are less historical and more social: Collins is a sociologist of knowledge in general, not specifically of science. He and his school focused on microsocial case studies of, for example, laboratories and experiments to show how scientists obey rules while performing experiments. In this way, norms, traditions, and patterns shape scientific activity.

Bruno Latour, a French philosopher, anthropologist, and sociologist of science, contested both these British schools. He was one of the developers of actor-network theory and maintains that scientific activity is the product of associations of people, ideas, and objects. In other words, the act of science includes semiotic as well as material and physical actors. The relationships between the elements are continuous and ever-changing. His contribution is the insistence on the momentous role of nonhuman entities alongside human actors: only when they come together is there a scientific meaning. Protocols, machines, and materials are also crucial factors determining scientific outcomes. Latour explained that physical entities are not radically different from a context made of colleagues, rulers, money, instruments, or body practices.

In the Middle Eastern context, a posthumanistic influence (together with environmental postcolonialism) may be seen in Timothy Mitchell’s analysis (influenced by Latour) of modernity, state formation, and economics and technology in twentieth-century Egypt. The opening essay of his Rule of Experts on Egyptian political and economic processes in the postcolonial phase of the twentieth century posits the question, “Can the mosquito speak?” He then examines how malaria and other nonhuman agents, which include artifacts as well as natural events, shaped forms and manifestations of power.

Khaled Fahmy is another example of posthumanistic writing, here coming from a Foucauldian influence in the Middle Eastern context. Fahmy too is a historian of Egypt, albeit of an earlier period: his focus is nineteenth-century modernization and colonization. Fahmy traces political, legal, and social transformations in Egypt through the changes in the human body: physical, medical, aesthetical, and so on. He presents a revisionist narrative to the modernization, colonization, and cosmopolitanism of nineteenth-century Egypt by looking at the physical human body which moved, breathed, heard, and smelled—that is, the physical functions and senses that make up human activity and experience.

A very recent example of posthumanistic writing is On Barak’s monograph on transportation and communication in twentieth-century Egypt. Barak demonstrates how universal technologies (here: steamers, railways, telegraphs, tramways, and telephones) perform differently in various sociocultural contexts: in the West they were associated with standardization, promptness, and expediency, while in Egypt the very same technologies contributed to construction of a different sense of time. His current research on the “coal-ization of the Middle East” situates the adoption of coal and the steam engine in a global context. It explores how the percolation of British coal into the Middle East simultaneously fueled the region’s uneven modernization and, by offering new markets and coaling depots, enabled developments in steam navigation and politics in the colonies and metropolis alike, albeit along very different trajectories.

My own position is meant to strike a balance between approaches that invest agency in nonhuman factors in scientific action and an anthropological influence that regards “culture” as a crucial category of analysis. Artifacts are not outside history; they are dependent on cultural context, and with it they change.

Having started with “culture,” I note how cultures laid the foundation for different and parallel trainings about knowledge and scientific endeavors, attached multiple goals to knowledge, and indeed accepted several modes of knowing that are the basis of how we assess evidence and reach conclusions. The exact varieties might differ from one culture to another, but the plural experiences of science and knowledge seem to be a recurring theme.

The History of Islamic Science and Technology

Islamic science history has a long history of its own. Comparing the historiography of Islamic science in western Asia to the historiography of Chinese science in eastern Asia is illuminating because of some basic similarities, at least during large parts of the twentieth century. The principles that governed these histories in the mid-twentieth century were text-based narratives of heroes, successes, and discoveries, of progress and the improvement of the quality of life. However, while the Islamic history of science is still a rather conservative field, whose discourse is shaped to large extent by these principles, the history of Chinese science is today at a very different place.

The study of science in Muslim societies did not have a central towering figure like Joseph Needham (1900–1995), the undisputed don of the history of Chinese science thanks to his series of monographs on Chinese science and culture. The study of Islamic science, in contrast, was decentralized, characterized by a dialogue between several key scholars specializing in various bodies of knowledge in Muslim contexts.

Past and present scholars of Islamic science have also asked the question that Joseph Needham posed at the heart of his work: why did the West surpass the regions of Islam (or China) in science and technology despite the latter’s much more promising historical start? They seem not to follow further the historiography of Chinese science and technology. Here Nathan Sivin introduced a new path of inquiry in his concentration on what happened within the Chinese scientific realm rather than on what was lacking. He further urged scholars to understand the different nature and meaning of “science” in the Chinese context. His call for reflection was met, for example, by Benjamin A. Elman, who analyzed scientific contacts in the realms of astronomy, geography, mathematics, and medicine between Chinese literati under the Manchu dynasty and Jesuits and Protestants. His task, as he explained it, was to unify late Imperial China and early modern China, each of which was characterized by a distinct scientific impact, either Jesuit or Protestant. He titled his monograph In Their Own Terms to reflect his conclusion that despite the many borrowings, the Chinese produced their own science.

Scholars of the Islamic world apparently did not engage with the postNeedham historiography and chose to focus on the “why not” question; they did so within the paradigm of decline. “Decline theory” centered on the theme of total Muslim weakness compared to that of the Christian West. According to this paradigm, after the Islamic golden age and the Abbasid dynasty in the Middle Ages, which were characterized by intellectual curiosity and innovative research, the desire for renewal was lost. Seclusion and introversion characterized all aspects of life and led to political decline, continuing through religion and economics and ending in culture and science. The decline did not stop except for a relatively short time during the so-called Ottoman golden age around the sixteenth century and during the rule of “Suleiman the Magnificent.” (The title is, of course, connected to the way the period is perceived among the generations that followed.) According to this view, Western penetration into the Muslim world in the nineteenth century forced Muslims to shake themselves free from their apathy and join modernity. This notion asserts that without an external Western force, Muslim ignorance would have continued into the modern period.

A further claim in current scholarship on Islamic science, however, ties the European success to Islamic origins and maintains that the West’s scientific breakthrough could not have happened without the decisive contribution of Muslim science. In this spirit, scholars study the Islamic sources of mathematics, astronomy, and European cosmology of the Renaissance period. This claim is heard in both academic and public spheres, as in the popular 1001 Inventions exhibition, created by the British-based Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (fStc). It is evident that many both within and outside of academia think in terms of “breakthroughs,” “enduring legacies,” and “leaving a mark on the world.” 

Like Needham, who discussed failures in the development of Chinese science toward modernization—and unlike Sivin—scholars of Islamic science focused on limitations in scientific achievements. They identified the roots of obstructions to scientific advances in different spheres of life. Some considered Islam to be a restraint that imprisoned science in mental chains from which it could not be liberated. Other scholars who shared the view of decline but did not necessarily tie it with religion per se pointed to external reasons that created a burden on Islamic science and technology, like the “infiltration” of “strangers” (meaning non-Arabs). In this context, scholars discussed the Turks’ entrance into and domination of the Islamic world. Their starting point was the establishment of the institution of military slavery, the Mamluks, during the ninth century. The incursion of the Mongols in the mid-thirteenth century was described as the final blow, turning the Islamic world into a wasteland from which it was never able to recover.

The perception in such studies that non-Arabs contributed to the decline of science and technology in the Islamic world is connected to the scholars’ academic specialization. They were Arabists in their training, orientalists in their outlook, and, sometimes, they were also armed with Arab-nationalist ideology. As far as they were concerned, Islam and Islamic culture were, in essence, Arab. Interestingly, these Western academic scholars reflected the Islamic-Salafi stances of the figures they studied, like the Egyptian Muḥammad ʿAbduh (1849–1905) and other Muslim intellectuals and reformers, and blamed non-Arab figures for the relative inferiority of the Islamic world in the modern era: foreign intruders diminished the splendor of Muslim culture and adapted it to their inferior dimensions. These academics did not master Turkish and therefore were unable to read the relevant manuscripts in the Muslim-Turkic languages (like Ottoman and Chagatay). In their view, this obstacle was not a limitation. They did not value the scientific contribution of Muslim Turks and Persians from the start; thus, they did not expect to find significant new discoveries in the treatises they had written. In their opinion, the renunciation of such texts was insignificant.

The Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science, edited by Roshdi Rashed—one of the important scholars of Islamic-Arab mathematics— is one example of many of the trends described above. The encyclopedia is a comprehensive compendium containing no less than thirty essays by leading scholars. It is organized into three volumes: astronomy (theory and practice); mathematics and physics; and technology, alchemy, and life sciences. These general titles reflect the inclusion of essays on optics, music, botany, marine navigation, and more. The scope is truly impressive, and as a collection of essays, the encyclopedia serves as a good starting point for examining scientific activity in Arabic. The title is a clear declaration of the importance of scientific activity in Arabic in particular and of its contribution to global science in general. Even so, this collection, which was published in 1996 (although a large number of the essays had been written in the 1980s and were not updated), still almost completely ignores scientific essays in Persian, Turkish, and other Islamic languages. Likewise, Rashed’s current project, the “Scientia Graeco-Arabica,” is a series of publications that includes the addition of key texts and intellectual biographies of role models in the transition of science and philosophy from ancient times to the Arab Islamic world (my emphasis), and thus traces the ongoing tradition from ancient to modern times, conducted apparently only in Arabic.

As this survey reveals, in most cases the scholarship of Islamic science gives the impression that terms like “beginnings,” “progress,” and “demise” dominated the historiography. The usual narrative was a linear history of either progress or decline. In recent years more and more scholars have called for a more critical examination of Islamic pursuit of science as both social and epistemological activity—a perspective that allows for multiple interpretations, approaches, and practices. In other words, the linear process is replaced by parallels and irregularities.

The History of Ottoman Science and Technology History

The survey of the historiography of Muslim science history explains why not too much has been done in the field of Ottoman science history. The decline thesis inhibited Western historians from dealing with Ottoman science, and while many Turkish scholars were seriously involved with Ottoman science, they read and wrote only in Turkish. The unfortunate result was that they functioned in a closed discursive group: their scholarship was inaccessible to most Western scholars, and the Turkish scholars, on their part, almost never followed up on research in Western languages. Moreover, many Turkish scholars internalized the orientalist discourse and accepted the premise regarding Muslim decline and religion’s responsibility for it. Such orientalist discourse found a place within nationalistic ideology, which openly advocated Turkish Western secular identity. Within this framework, Turkish academics related to the Ottoman past in science only from a very specific angle: the process of the Westernization of science or the infiltration of the West into the world of Islam via technology and science.

Adnan Adıvar’s work on Ottoman science from the late 1930s and early 1940s, which is still considered a basic Turkish-language textbook in the field,36 is a clear product of a national, Western, and secular political agenda. His monograph is aptly titled Osmanlı Türklerinde İlim (Science among the Ottoman Turks). It has been printed in numerous editions since it first appeared in the early 1940s. Interestingly, the Turkish book is not the original work but a translation, with additions, from a shorter 1939 monograph that Adıvar wrote in French while exiled in Paris. The book embraces a variety of fields of knowledge and is arranged chronologically.

Adıvar proposed a clear criterion for assessing the quality of science: Ottoman science should be evaluated only according to the extent of its exposure to the West and the Ottoman willingness to adopt it, while popular science was classified as no more than a collection of superstitions. Adıvar’s framework was widely accepted. Accordingly, two eras (and only two) were marked as worthy of study: the sixteenth century, considered the golden era, and the nineteenth century, during which accelerated modernization processes began.

Like many others of his generation and profession in the Middle East and worldwide, Adıvar was the product of a process that started during the nineteenth century: “science” as a global and universal endeavor had become equated with Western science, excluding both the Islamic East and Far East. The distinction (even antagonism) between “science”—that is, the higher order and systemization of truth—and “traditional knowledge,” which was now reduced to “belief,” did not appear before the nineteenth century.

In covering success, or prosperity, or the growing dependence on the West, other writers have employed similar research methods: the discussion is text-based, focused on “famous” figures and their discoveries, and on scientific institutions or publication of key texts. The available Turkish scholarship includes studies of hospital architecture, an illustrated surgical manual from the fifteenth century, and the history of the reconstruction of the observatory in Istanbul. (This latter study is a rather rare exception of a Turkish academic publication in English for the benefit of the whole academic community.)

A particularly prominent figure in our generation is Ekmeleddin
İhsanoğlu. In the 1980s he established the History of Science Department at the University of Istanbul, and he was the founder of, life of, and spirit behind the Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture (ircica) in Istanbul. Alongside his academic work, he has also been active since the 1980s in international Muslim organizations. Since 2005 he has served as general director of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (oic), an organization of fifty-seven Muslim countries for economic, political, cultural, and religious cooperation. İhsanoğlu is mentioned here thanks to a long line of studies and bibliographies, most of which are not in Turkish, in order to appeal to their international target audience and thereby enhance the status of Ottoman and Muslim science’s achievements.

All of these works cumulatively have accrued vast knowledge, allowing the academic community to assess and analyze Ottoman scientific activity in political, social, cultural, and economic contexts. Recent questions touch upon science and state, science and society, science and international relations with Europe and Muslim countries in Asia, science and gender, and more. An encouraging sign is the long list of articles dealing with Ottoman science and technology included in The Turks. This encyclopedia of six thick volumes was published in Ankara in English in 2002 (obviously targeting an international audience). The encyclopedia lays out the history of Turks from the Asian plains of the Paleolithic era up to the collapse of the USSR and the founding of the Turkish Moslem republics in central Asia. Two of the six volumes are dedicated to Ottoman history. They contain a variety of articles written by Turkish and non-Turkish scholars about the relationships between Ottoman science and the world around the Mediterranean Basin, between the economic system and scientific activity, and between European travelers to the empire and local science. The encyclopedia also chronicles Ottoman attempts at aviation and constructing automatic motor vehicles, as well as other inventions.

Toward a History of Ottoman Scientific Experiences

This book is about the social and cultural logistics that produced Ottoman science. Instead of focusing on “what”—that is, the finished product (unambiguously formulated, solid knowledge)—I focus on “how”: the processes by which Ottomans were engaged with knowledge and the value invested in these procedures. There are many forms of knowledge and multiple ways of knowing. What was worth knowing for Ottomans in various times and places? How did Ottomans go about learning them? The book traces the different answers to these questions, the challenges to them, and the various sites of learning. The narrative here suggests that tracing the experiences Ottomans had with systemized knowledge serves as a guide to define what is behind the label “science” in the context of the early modern Middle East. It is thus a possible answer to Dear’s challenge presented in the beginning of this introduction: “What is the history of science history of?”

I focus on producers and consumers of knowledge in elite circles but also outside of them. I approach this task by discussing the various types of Ottomans involved in scientific activity: Ottomans of different religious and ethnic affiliations; Ottomans living in diverse geopolitical locations, in the imperial center as well as in the provinces; and Ottomans from different social echelons. Additionally, I explore gender and discuss women as patrons of science and scientists, as well as female modes of learning. I also approach different experiences of knowledge: the theoretical sort that scholars or scientists gain through reading and writing, and the artisanal knowledge gained through practice and labor.

The structure of the book follows the various stages in the nonlinear processes that different Ottoman communities used to create and justify, transmit and transform, and use and manage knowledge for various purposes: concepts of knowledge, patterns of learning, transfer and transmission of knowledge, and state involvement in scientific and technological activities. Within each thematic chapter the narrative carefully notes changes along chronological lines. I also reflect on both subtle adjustments and moments of rupture in scientific experiences, along with continuation of such experiences through the Ottoman centuries.

The first chapter identifies the various sources of knowledge that nurtured the Ottomans over the years and the mechanisms of legitimation. It moves on to classify the bodies of knowledge following Ottoman epistemological criteria of theory and practice, religion and intellect, while also classifying the classifications and explaining their meaning. The chapter situates Ottoman scientific experiences at the center of a Eurasian scientific hub made up of the Islamic world, the Turkic-Mongol world, the Byzantine world, the Mediterranean world, and western Europe. My aim is to demonstrate that the Ottomans absorbed varied and multiple traditions from various geocultural sources.

The second and third chapters analyze the various people who were engaged in processes of creation of knowledge and then its dissemination: their social, geographical, religious, professional, and gender identities. Chapter 2 charts the institutions of learning, the pedagogy of teaching, and the professional groups involved in the various bodies of knowledge. Chapter 3 locates the intermediary agents who were the human carriers of knowledge across time and space, and explains how the processes of transference were implemented in the Ottoman context.

The fourth and final chapter connects scientific activity and the state by examining the personal contact of patronage and infrastructural projects, which were always controlled by the Ottoman state. The main issues in this chapter are power structures, the composite nature of formal and informal relationships, and modes of financing of Ottoman scientific experiences.

The discussion culminates in the conclusion with the question, “What was Ottoman science?” With the drive toward writing a global history of science gaining momentum, the book helps to note the distinct features of Ottoman scientific experience. The careers of two eminent Ottoman scholars serve as a platform to distill the patterns of scientific experience that were unique to the Ottoman scene, and at the same time called for contacts and connections with other Islamic and non-Islamic sciences. The binary categories from the school of “the west of the rest,” in the form of “west” and “east” or “indigenous” and “global,” are not helpful in explaining the Ottoman situation.

The following narrative relies on evidence found mainly in archival documents, scientific treatises, and various literary genres. This type of evidence is the product of states and elites wishing to perpetuate themselves. As such, the figures and their actions are not typical of common non-elite practices. In other words, the sources do not lend themselves easily to reconstructing Ottoman scientific experience from below, which is the aim of this book. Nonetheless, these sources reveal “the Ottoman mentality,” to borrow Robert Dankoff ’s phrase from his lifelong study of Evliya Çelebi (ca. 1611–1682), the renowned Ottoman traveler of the seventeenth century. “Ottoman mentality” is used here in the sense of the French term mentalités, which includes mindsets and social attitudes at the juncture of the individual and the collective.

The sources expose prevalent patterns of conceptions and attitudes in Ottoman society, including the scientific and technological realms. Hence, although the heroes in the sources are usually unique individuals, they were in fact typical Ottomans of their day. They thus provide a view of the Ottoman mind from the inside.

Three intertwined themes run through the book, all connected with the Ottoman pursuit of science: movement and mobility of people, hybridization of identities, and crossing of boundaries.

People make knowledge moveable when they transmit, circulate, transfer, transform, ignore, forget, translate, erase, add, distort, and correct knowledge. Knowledge is ever-changing. It has to be “concerted” in order to be localized and thus succeeds in bridging the gaps of time, distance, and language. This amazing phenomenon was created by two interrelated aspects of scientific activity: the cultivation of a variety of formats of intellectual exchange and the existence of numerous human agents of exchange. Knowledge was transmitted through translation, copying, circulation of texts, or even citations. Such practices provided a powerful site of contact and exchange and contributed to the shaping of a cosmopolitan sphere that was closely connected with the broader, universal Muslim community while rooted in local identities.

Human agents through their very lives acted as a link between scientific networks, sometimes unintentionally. There were numerous causes, reasons, or circumstances that transformed various groups into de facto hybrids that were able to act as go-betweens and undermine the drive for purification of categories. Steven Epstein’s Purity Lost shows how the islands of the late medieval eastern Mediterranean were sites of cultural exchange that framed self-identity in multicultural communities. In addition to geographical pockets such as islands, linguistic skills, confessional or ethnic kinship, and unique political circumstances—all of which appeared in the Ottoman case—allowed and even called for mixed alliances.

Hybridization goes hand in hand with a related theme of crossing boundaries. Two opposite processes are discerned in the Ottoman scientific system: the erection of boundaries and categories, on the one hand, and the crossing of the very same boundaries, on the other. Several types of boundaries separated premodern scientific cultures and distinguished between disciplines and methods. At the same time, such borders were eradicated temporarily, made elastic, or at least modified to permit the acceptance of an alien type of scientific knowledge. The outcome was movement of people and their artifacts and thoughts across civilizations and countries. When movement was restricted (such trials were initiated on both sides of the border), these attempts proved futile in most cases. There was no real way to prevent leakage of knowledge from one side and its assimilation on the other side.

Cultural domains are not exclusive. Modern historiography ignored this fact for many years, but this is changing with a wave of scholars showing European contacts with the late medieval and early modern Muslim worlds. The themes vary: some relate to geography and worldviews;48 others concern the cultural-mercantile contacts in the eastern Mediterranean,49 the cultural configuration of the Renaissance,50 or military technological rivalry.51 But the leitmotif is the same: civilizations in Europe and Asia have crisscrossed each other in the eastern Mediterranean and central Asia for centuries. There was no iron curtain between East and West.

On Inventiveness: An Ottoman Lesson

A crucial argument that runs through this book is that scientific excellence and innovation are not necessarily identical with “invention” as we mean it today—that is, a cutting-edge, patent-like creative breakthrough. Modern society created, accordingly, the concept of “intellectual property” and the legal mechanisms to protect it. The Ottomans, however, relied on exogenous forces science-wise while being quite independent in production. The term generics—referring to products that are comparable to patented brands in performance—is very useful here to conceptualize Ottoman preoccupation with science (terms like borrowing or imitation are left aside as less helpful).

The Ottoman case brings the following lesson: innovation and creativity in science manifest themselves in many ways. This statement goes beyond discarding modern and Western dualistic reconstruction of innovation versus tradition as too simplistic and polarized. Even a call for a more nuanced look at Ottoman scientific experience is quite simplistic, as it ignores the powerful forces (whether social, financial, political, religious, etc.) that intentionally reconstruct this collision and nurture it. To make things even more complicated, the supposed collision between old and new is not new at all. Ottomans used it as well. Fifty years ago, Bernard Lewis discussed early modern Ottoman observers who used the antonyms “old” and “new” to criticize what they viewed as disappointing contemporary realities.

It is common to start discussions regarding Islamic inventions, or lack thereof, by referring to the Muslim concept of bidʿa (innovation and, more precisely, a belief or an act that is unprecedented in the time of the Prophet Muḥammad). Bidʿa is the opposite of sunna, the lifestyle of Muḥammad, a model demanding emulation. A commonplace notion posits that the world of Islam is sealed to the West and purposely rejects any innovation or invention out of the desire to preserve text-based conservative tradition. In this spirit, a particular hadith is often quoted: “the most evil things are innovations; every innovation is an invention; every invention is a mistake; and all mistakes lead to Hell.” This is a religious and theological statement, which was also practiced in daily life: conservative circles could use it as a pretext to reject coffee, printing, clocks, telephones, and female suffrage.

Such conservative rejection did not always succeed. In reality, the consensus in Muslim societies as to what constitutes a forbidden and dangerous innovation (bidʿa sayyi’a or bidʿa madhmūma) and what is a desirable innovation that is worth adopting (bidʿa ḥasana or bidʿa maḥmūda) changed from time to time. Today’s bidʿa have often turned into tomorrow’s sunna. Muslims throughout the centuries developed an extensive literature dealing with the different kinds of innovation—an attempt to distinguish between different types of innovation by means of complicated criteria. The aim was to enable a dynamic and flexible approach that could answer the changing needs of society.

The Ottoman example laid out in the following pages demonstrates how a Muslim society actually coped with the question of innovation on the levels of both theoretical beliefs and practical daily life. The Ottoman attitude included aspects that we may categorize as acceptance and resistance simultaneously. Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq, the Hapsburg ambassador to the Ottoman court in the mid-sixteenth century, wrote that there was no other nation that displayed greater willingness to adopt practical inventions to fulfill its needs; at the same time, its citizens were filled with superstition, and it was impossible to persuade them to accept inventions that they considered to be compromising the principles of their faith or the authority of their religious leaders.

Maybe de Busbecq’s description should be taken more broadly to hint at a situation of “not only/but also,” in contrast to the dichotomy of “either/or.” Or maybe modern and Western dualistic categorization did not occupy the Ottomans too much (unless the discussion bore on theological issues). The bidʿa discourse is too narrow a prism to evaluate inventiveness in general, and the Ottoman case in particular. Industrious and imaginative minds and active production can manifest also in translations, adaptations, and improvements, and these are crucial as well to sustaining dynamism.

Methodologically, I draw on Keith Krause’s model of scientific diffusion, but with a twist. Building on his research on Western military technology, Krause formulated the following process: innovations in science and technology and their diffusion are like waves; the wave starts in a period of rapid and intense changes. In the second stage, the innovations spread further to agents who adopt that knowledge and adapt it to their own requirements. The adapted knowledge is then passed on to third actors, who produce imitations with no claim to innovation or change. The final tier consists of the consumers of imported and finished products. Like waves, the exponentiation of knowledge starts with energy and fades toward the end, and like waves, the process is cyclical and happens again and again.
Krause formulated this model to explain patterns in the transfer of knowledge, production, and commerce for military purposes. His model stresses that scientific activity and transfer of knowledge are complex processes that include different levels of action and creation. Krause’s threetier theory of military technology was criticized for sounding suspiciously like a substitute for “first” and “third” worlds.57 I have no intention of reinvoking a simplistic hierarchy between supposedly homogeneous worlds. Instead I refer to Krause’s model in order to highlight that any given society sustains different modes of engagement with scientific and technological activity; inventors and end users coexist. Indeed, very few Nobel laureates and outstanding, brilliant inventors exist. The end users, however, are countless and important partners to the circle of scientific activity. Krause’s model helps us to evaluate Ottoman scientific activity as a whole and locate it along the scientific wave. The Ottomans did not invent many significant things. They did not revolutionize science and technology. They also did not stand out for making singular improvements to existing ideas and techniques. However, once they realized the efficiency and utility of a skill or the accuracy and veracity of an idea, they had the flexibility to assimilate those techniques and knowledge, and offer local production.

The ability to adopt and adapt science and technology was not even, however, in all fields of scientific activity or during all six hundred years of Ottoman existence. Ottoman self-sufficiency eroded during the nineteenth century. Ottomans moved consciously in some cases—for example, in their armaments policy—to importation of finished goods and reduced their attempts to domesticate technology. The reasons were apparently weak industrial and financial foundations in time of rapid change (rather than lack of expertise or materials), but either way it led to Ottoman vulnerability and eventually dependency.

This book celebrates diligence, consistency, and independent thinking in small and large technologies. There is much more to science and technology than high-tech, and much to say in favor of popularization— perhaps even vulgarization—of avant-garde science and technology.


“The main argument of Science among the Ottomans is actually quite simple—there was such a thing as ‘Ottoman Science.’ This statement entails a major task. In order to establish the historicality of Ottoman science, one must differentiate it from Western science and discuss it on its own terms. This requires a discussion on the broader aspects of the history of science as a field and a discussion of the concept of ‘science’ itself. In addition, one should engage the question of non-western scientific traditions and, above all, present and discuss the subject of Islamic science and its history. Shefer-Mossensohn does all the above, and more, admirably.”
Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, Professor of History, Middle Eastern, and Islamic Studies, New York University; author of The Ten Lost Tribes: A World History and The Dao of Muhammad: A Cultural History of Muslims in Late Imperial China; and editor of Modern Middle Eastern Jewish Thought: Writings on Identity, Politics, and Culture 1893–1958

Science among the Ottomans will fill what has been a major lacuna in the history of science—namely, the lack of a comprehensive study of the role of science and learning in Ottoman culture. Science among the Ottomans is not just a significant contribution to the field but a major and unique one. No other study has attempted to place scientific learning during the Ottoman period within the wider cultural frame. Miri Shefer-Mossensohn reflects the best of the current trends in modern historiography, applying them to the sphere of Ottoman scientific and technological activity. The conclusions drawn are significant.”
Emilie Savage-Smith, Emeritus Professor of the History of Islamic Science, Oriental Institute, University of Oxford; editor of Magic and Divination in Early Islam and The Year 1000: Medical Practice at the End of the First Millennium; and coauthor of Medieval Islamic Medicine, Science, Tools and Magic Parts I and II, and An Eleventh-Century Egyptian Guide to the Universe: The Book of Curiosities