Shibli’s Travelogue: System of Education and State of Educational Institutions in Constantinople

//Shibli’s Travelogue: System of Education and State of Educational Institutions in Constantinople

Shibli’s Travelogue: System of Education and State of Educational Institutions in Constantinople

In this segment, I present a series of episodes in which Allama Shibli shares his impressions about the prevalent system of education and the state of the educational institutions. Shibli had painstakingly documented the different levels of education by visiting the offices of the education department and culling out details from printed reports issued by the department. He even undertook visits to some of the most reputed colleges and spoke to officials and faculty members. The information Shibli provides is a rich primary source to those researching the evolution in the Ottoman empire during the late nineteenth century. The information provided also helps in understanding some aspects of Ottoman society during the said period.


In this segment, which will contain many parts, Allama Shibli, in his own words, says that he undertook the arduous journey mainly to study the details of the system of education in Ottoman lands. He details his findings of the system and lists a few prominent educational institutions in Ottoman Turkey. He narrates that he visited many schools and colleges, spoke to teachers and administrators, as well as authorities in the departments of education. His arrival in Constantinople was during the rule of the famous Sultan, Caliph Abdulhamid II. Shibli speaks glowingly of the strides made in the growth of schools and centers of higher learning under the patronage of the Sultan Caliph. The importance of Muslims undertaking journeys to Islamic lands majorly helps in correcting distortions deliberately spread by Western writers with the aim of demonizing societies that refused to succumb to their rule, as succinctly explained by the Allama in his introduction to his travelogue.

In this second episode on Education in Ottoman Turkey, Allama Shibli shares his delight on watching students of different schools marching out of their premises in an orderly fashion, at the end of the day. He is particularly impressed by the uniforms worn by the students. He notes with satisfaction that students, irrespective of their financial standing are treated equally. The expenses for deserving students are met by the Sultan himself or by the nobility. However, he mentions his disappointment at the fact that in most regions outside Ottoman Turkey, like Damascus, Beirut, Aleppo and Jerusalem, while there is a network of schools, there is none that can be classified as college. He finds this as an anomaly. Another critical observation is the total lack of any debating club in any of the schools and colleges he visited. The modernism of Shibli is evident when he asserts that the lack of debating clubs renders students incapable of delivering effective public talks. Among his other notable observations is the absence of private schools and colleges in Ottoman Turkey. He states, unequivocally, that government institutions stifle creativity and independent thinking which is disastrous for a modern society. He minces no words in saying that the educated class in Turkey lacks the liveliness and exuberance that is characteristic of people educated in an open educational environment. In Shibli’s opinion, a society in which the government controls all educational activities, people’s spiritual and mental faculties become bereft of life. He gives the example of Cambridge and Oxford which have forever resisted all forms of government take-over ensuring high standards of critical thinking and innovation. The writings in the travelogue on the state of education in Ottoman Turkey during the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid-II also call the bluff of his critics who claim that he had not given adequate attention to modern education. To the connoisseur, the chaste Urdu will is a delight to the ear.

کوں کی علمی حالت In the first part of this new segment, Allama Shibli gives credit to the Turks for not just preserving the Arabic language for imparting Islamic studies, as in other parts of the Muslim World, but points to a distinction they enjoy in this regard in that much of these classical Arabic works have been rendered in the Turkish language as well; which is not true of any other non-Arabic speaking countries. Shibli notes that he was surprised to find classical works like that of Ibn Khaldun, Tabari, Ibn Khaliqan, Makhrizi, etc. translated into Turkish, and some of these works run into several volumes. An acquaintance informs him that French novels, dramas, literary works are all translated into Turkish. This apart, all the latest works on science and technology are also translated into Turkish, on account of which, with one exception, all educational institutes teach science and technology subjects in the Turkish language. Having browsed some of the contents of the books on history written in Turkish, Shibli claims that with the exception of Arabic, such a vast repertoire is not available in any Asian language. Rather, he notes, Turkish historical works are better than the works in Arabic in one major aspect, that is, Turkish books on history focus on the philosophy of history as well. It is worth listening to his impressions on the voluminous books on history taught in the Mektab-i Mulukiya (Civil Services College). Shibli mentions of the books on biographies and an ongoing project on preparing an encyclopedia. The Arabic books referenced in the Encyclopedia are very reliable and rare, available only in Constantinople, he avers. He also speaks of the designing and printing of atlases which, in Shibli’s opinion, are in no way inferior to those produced in Europe. He ends this episode with a terse remark on the number of books being published on fiction, drama and other frivolous matters, as compared to serious literature.

Reviewing Turkish literature, Shibli observes that modern Turkish writings resemble Urdu works in many respects. Older writings were, like in Urdu, highly decorative, infused with similes and rhythmic. But modern Turkish is simpler and shorn of all hyperbole. For those researching the subject, they will find the names of Turkish writers enumerated by Shibli to be a primary source for reference. His meetings with some authors and the lengthy discussions he had with them are instructive. Some of these authors are linguists with command over Eastern and Western languages. Shibli’s review of newspapers in Ottoman Turkey and his sharp criticism of the lack of freedom of press in Ottoman Turkey during the 1890s reveals his his commitment to free speech. Qualities of free-speech, he regrets, are sadly missing in Turkish newspapers which can only publish material favourable to the government of Sultan Abdul Hamid-II. Shibli’s reasons for the need for free-speech is summed up in the following forthright statement: “…how and by what means can loftiness of thought, power of description, force of diction, passion, and efficacy come into a language in which the element of freedom does not exist? Look at Arabic. As long as it was the period of the righteous caliphate and natures were free and headstrong, Arabic was brimming with passion and efficacy. From the time that the foundation of autocratic government was laid and the family of the Banu Umayyah trampled and crushed the freedom of Arabia with great power and force, neither that efficacy nor that passion remained. […] it is necessary for me to acknowledge that the newspapers’ lack of freedom is necessitated by Turkey’s political circumstances. The difference of religion among the citizens, the antagonism of foreign powers, interferences by adversaries, sensationalism in the newspapers, the proximity of European government—-these are circumstances in which even the freest of free governments would do the same as Turkey has done….” (For the English translation, I am indebted to Gregory Maxwell Bruce’s translation of the Safarnamah). Having said this, Shibli does take exception to the strict governmental rules governing the publication of books.


In this episode on Education in Ottoman Turkey, قدیم تعلیم اور مدارس قدیمہ Allama Shibli reviews the state of the madressahs in Constantinople imparting Islamic education. Shibli recounts the contribution of Turkish Islamic scholars in the field of Islamic sciences in the past. He mentions many Turkish scholars by name. However, the pain and anguish in his tone while narrating the present state of what he calls Qadeem Taleem is palpable. He notes, very poignantly, that the matter that ruined his mood the most during his travels was the dismal state of Islamic education in these lands. Shibli notes that while the impoverished state of the madressah in India was the natural result of a lack of government sponsorship, the same cannot be the reason why the Islamic seminaries in the Ottoman world, in Constantinople or Damascus or Jerusalem, are in a pitiable condition these days (in 1892), granted that the government was Muslim. Shibli is quick to point out that while he is all for modern education (Jadid Taleem), he is a strong votary of Qadeem Taleem, since the disciplines taught in these schools serve as the anchor for any Islamic society. An incidental observation that Shibli makes on this subject concerns the critique by modern-educated Muslims in India about the Islamic madressahs in their country. Shibli candidly remarks that this criticism is more in the nature of mocking the system and the people behind the madressahs, rather than constructive criticism. The low standards of teaching and the congested and stifling atmosphere of the premises in which Islamic education is imparted in Constantinople, with the exception of the large Madressahs established by the erstwhile Ottoman Sultans like Sulaiman the Magnificent, comes in for severe criticism from Shibli. His regrets that students of these madressahs, during their three-month long break starting from Ramadhan, are sent to the country-side and to other towns to collect zakat which funds sustain the students and their institutions for the rest of the year. Shibli recollects his meetings with some ulema in Constantinople and remarks that they discuss superficial issues and were not found capable of any intellectual discourse.

2021-10-12T19:02:54+05:30 October 12th, 2021|Uncategorized|

Leave A Comment