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Preface by the Translator

By:
Abdullah Cevdet
Document type:
Articles and Essays

Preface by the Translator

Abdullah Cevdet

Commentary

Abdullah Cevdet (Turkey, 1869–1932) was a leading publicist and freethinker who used Islam to promote modernization and materialism. Cevdet was a devout Muslim and had even written a eulogy of the Prophet, until his education at the Royal Military Academy in Istanbul turned him toward European materialism. According to Cevdet, “science is the religion of the elite, whereas religion is the science of the masses.” He therefore argued that materialism should be promoted in Islamic terms—“stitched onto an Islamic jacket,” as he put it. In 1889, he helped to found the Ottoman Union Committee, later called the Committee of Union and Progress, whose opposition to Ottoman absolutism led to their exile. In 1904, he founded the journal İctihad (Rational Interpretation) in Geneva, Switzerland, later moving it to Cairo, Egypt. While Europeans considered the journal Islamist, it faced considerable opposition from Ottoman Muslims, culminating in the unprecedentedly negative reaction to Cevdet's Turkish translation of Reinhart Dozy's controversial work on the history of Islam. This translation—whose introduction is presented here—was banned, and all existing copies were confiscated. Despite having founded the organization that came to power in the Constitutional Revolution of 1908, Cevdet could not return from exile until 1911. In subsequent years, Cevdet became increasingly open in his campaign against religiosity, including a notorious article ridiculing prayer. In the Turkish Republic, Cevdet's closest associates entered parliament, while he was stigmatized as a collaborator of the European Allies’ occupation of Istanbul after World War I, and as a Kurdish nationalist.1 M. Şükrü Hanioğlu, Bir Siyasal Düsünür Olarak Doktor Abdullah Cevdet ve Dönemi (Doctor Abdullah Cevdet: A Political Thinker and His Time) (Istanbul, Turkey: üçdal Neşriyat, 1981); Karl Süssheim, “‘Abd Allah Djevdet,” Encyclopedia of Islam, Supplement, edited by M. Th. Houtsma et alia (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1938), pp. 55–60.

History, in effect, is like a motion picture that transmits the conditions and transformations of the world to vision, through reading; to the sense of hearing, through listening; and to the center of perception and consideration, which we call consciousness, through one or both of these.

To put it in another way, history is similar to a photographic plate that has not been touched up, the lines and details of which are neither toned Sup or down, a photograph exactly reflecting the original. Real history is like that, and must be like that. Other books that are not like this and yet are still called history are either negligently written works or take advantage of negligence. It was necessary to bring into existence a “History of Islam” that truly possesses the requisites and specifics of a real work of history, and to submit it to the attention and consideration of our brothers in religion. I deliberately use the words “bring into existence” because I have verified that there is no such history [of Islam] in the three major Islamic languages, Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. The reason for this deficiency should be sought mainly in the absolutism of Muslim rulers. History is the most eye-opening branch of the sciences. It is obvious that open eyes cannot coexist with absolutism and disinformation. People with open eyes can discern oppression and freedom and will develop a desire for justice and truth. The folly of Muslim tyrants who claim to be the shadow of God and whose tyranny and treachery overshadow the most cruel and treacherous of creatures is best summarized in the awful truth embodied in the following couplet of Shaykh Sa‘di [Iranian poet, 1184– 1292]:

The distress of mind of one who seeks justice Can overthrow the king from his realm.

We strongly sensed the Muslims’ need for a “History of Islam.” We have found a “History of Islam” that possesses the required qualities among the superb works of the famous Dutch Orientalist, Professor Doctor [Reinhart] Dozy [1820–1883]. We have restricted ourselves to the judgment of “wisdom is the believer's stray camel: wherever one finds it, one appropriates it.” We have translated this work [first published in 1863], which is a product of an absolutely impartial good sense, and which possesses the qualities of enormous erudition and thorough research, into Turkish from its French version entitled Essai sur l’histoire de l’islamisme [Essay on the History of Islam].

“The author is from the Netherlands, a non-Muslim, thus a stranger to the religion [of Islam]. So is it possible to trust what he says?” To this inevitable question we respond in the following manner: Being a Muslim does not consist in [having a Muslim] name, fasting, and performing the prayers. “Religion is social relations (mu‘amala)” [a hadith, or tradition of the Prophet]; religion is nothing other than social relations. Learned, virtuous Doctor Dozy, who spent his entire life in teaching and study, and who strove to enlighten the minds of God's people and to be beneficial to them, is a thousand times more Muslim than vagabond Hamids [a reference to the Ottoman sultan, Abdülhamid II, reigned 1876–1909], whose deeds and desires are nefarious. It is our own Prophet who says, “The Muslim is one from whose hand and tongue people are safe,” “The best of men is he who is the most useful to people,” and “One hour's search for knowledge is better than a thousand years’ acts of worship.” Every learned and virtuous person is a Muslim. An ignorant, immoral person is not a Muslim even if he stems from the lineage of the Prophet. Culture and virtue will reduce all religions to one religion, that of justice and truth, and are already doing so:

The warring of 72 sects ignore. Failing to find the truth, mere fables they explore. [Hafiz, Iranian poet, circa 1325– 1390]

Doctor Dozy has covered the history of Islam down to about forty years ago. The history of Islam during these last forty years is reproduced from our erudite friend A. Guy's article entitled “Islam in the Last Forty Years.” Mr. A. Guy is a young Orientalist. He has such a high degree of knowledge of Islamic affairs and of the obscurities of the Islamic religion that it would be appropriate to say that he has no match among the ‘ulama’ [religious scholars] of Islam.

His massive volume “Sources of Islam,” soon to be published in French, will make it clear how tireless a researcher this young Orientalist is, and what an outstanding zeal for understanding he possesses.

The method that we have followed in translating this essay is the same method that we have always used with a religious scrupulousness; it is nothing other than preserving the textual integrity of the original. There are only four letters which we have added to the text, placing them in parentheses: they are “S.A.” for salla’llahu alayh wa sallam [May God bless him and grant him salvation], and “R.A.” for radiallahu anh [May God be well pleased with him].

Some of our observations and additions are given at the bottom of the pages as footnotes; they have been differentiated from the footnotes of the author by appending to them the initials “A.C.”

We are of the opinion that today there is no book more beneficial to the Muslims, none the attentive reading of which would be a more absolute necessity, than the History of Islam. The times for naive or misleading works full of silly tales and deceptions is long passed thanks to the enlightenment of evolution.

We should possess the courage to face the truth regardless of how harsh it is and how strongly it contradicts our former beliefs and feelings. Bravery is not only just exposing ourselves to the bullets of the enemy. We must possess the power to abandon the undignified dignity of our ignorant selves in the face of the divine magnificence of reality and truth, and of adorning ourselves with the decoration of the sublime grief of truth. We should demonstrate our bravery by displaying a moral courage of this kind. If we seriously consider the hadith of the Prophet, “Religion is social relations”—which, as we have said, states that religion is nothing other than social relations—then it is plain how far most of us Muslims are inadequate in our religion, or even lack it altogether. The best acts of worship are those aiming to benefit and save all God's people, beginning with one's own self, or even sacrificing oneself.

Those ignorant pietists who are not aware of this subtle social aspect of the exalted religion of Islam can only confirm the truth of the famous couplet by Maulana Jalal al-Din al-Rumi [Iranian poet, 1207–1273]:

With head on the ground and backside in the air, He considers to be God the place of his prayer!2 [Cevdet used this couplet in other writings as well to criticize Islamic fanaticism, for example Dilmesti-i Mevlana (Rumi's Language of Spiritual Intoxication) (Istanbul, Ottoman Empire: Orhaniye Matbaas1, 1921), pp. 17–18.—Trans.]

True Islam cannot coexist with ignorance and oppression. If we take into consideration the fact that the word “Muslim” is derived from the word “salvation,” it may be easily understood that Islam cannot live in places where ignorance and oppression prevail, and that ignorance and oppression cannot take root in places where Islam rules supreme.

Here then is the aim of the study of history: by examining the affairs and changes of the past and drawing on the adventure of our fathers and grandfathers, to reach a life-giving conclusion, and to derive a salutary lesson of awakening.

We repeat and confirm that the aim of translating and publishing this work is to present for the understanding of the Muslims a book the study of which could provide such a lesson.

“Peace be upon those who follow right guidance!” [Qur'an, Sura 20, Verse 47]3 [In the Qur'an, Moses and Aaron are instructed to speak these words to the Egyptian pharoah, and they have become a conventional nongreeting to unbelievers at the end of letters. Here Cevdet's intention must be to exclude Muslim fanatics but include Dozy and Guy.—Trans.]

Bibliography references:

Abdullah Cevdet, “İfade-i Mütercim” (Preface by the Translator), in Reinhart Dozy, Tarih-i İslamiyet (The History of Islam) (Cairo, Egypt: Matbaa-i İctihad, 1908), volume 1, pp. 3–8. Translation from Turkish and introduction by M. Şükrü Hanioğlu.

Notes:

1. M. Şükrü Hanioğlu, Bir Siyasal Düsünür Olarak Doktor Abdullah Cevdet ve Dönemi (Doctor Abdullah Cevdet: A Political Thinker and His Time) (Istanbul, Turkey: üçdal Neşriyat, 1981); Karl Süssheim, “‘Abd Allah Djevdet,” Encyclopedia of Islam, Supplement, edited by M. Th. Houtsma et alia (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1938), pp. 55–60.

2. [Cevdet used this couplet in other writings as well to criticize Islamic fanaticism, for example Dilmesti-i Mevlana (Rumi's Language of Spiritual Intoxication) (Istanbul, Ottoman Empire: Orhaniye Matbaas1, 1921), pp. 17–18.—Trans.]

3. [In the Qur'an, Moses and Aaron are instructed to speak these words to the Egyptian pharoah, and they have become a conventional nongreeting to unbelievers at the end of letters. Here Cevdet's intention must be to exclude Muslim fanatics but include Dozy and Guy.—Trans.]

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