Turkey lost one of its greatest scholars in Serif Mardin, who was one of the first scholars to grapple with difficult topics like the role of Islam in public life, and the limitations of secularism, topics he began writing about in the 1960s.
Serif Mardin, one of the giants of Ottoman and Turkish sociology, passed away at a private hospital in Istanbul last Wednesday. He was 90.
Mardin split his time between Turkey and US during his studies and teachings, but most of his life had been dedicated to researching Turkey’s identity issues, social experiences, and the transition from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic. He wrote a number of books, examining the crucial relationship between religion and politics in both the Ottoman Empire and Turkey.
Mardin had worked in prestigious American universities. Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, and Syracuse were among those institutions. In Turkey, he taught at the prestigious Bosphorus, Sabanci, and most lately Istanbul Sehir, universities. He served as the chair of Islamic Studies at the American University in Washington DC from 1988 until 1999.
Like Mardin during Ottoman rule, his paternal great-grandfathers were also professors in Kasimiye Madrasah in Mardin, a city which borders Syria, in Turkey’s southeastern region. The city has had a sizeable Arab population. Serif Mardin’s ancestors were of Arab descent, tracing back to the Prophet Muhammad. His family were local gentry, and so their surname comes from the name of the city. Mardin has long been known with its multilingual and multicultural aspects and is more typically Middle Eastern in style than many other Turkish cities, with its urban architecture made up of centuries-old stone houses and narrow streets.
Mardin’s maternal grandfather, Ahmet Cevdet, was the first publisher of a Turkish newspaper, Ikdam, in the late Ottoman era. His father, Semsettin Mardin, was a Turkish ambassador who was born and died in Egypt. His cousin, Arif Mardin, was a famous Turkish-American jazz musician working with Atlantic Records for a long time.
Mardin began his education at Stanford University where he received his undergraduate degree in political science. He stayed on to complete his Phd studies there too. Influenced by his family’s Ottoman heritage, Mardin was most fascinated by contentious topics such as the modernisation of the Ottomans, Turkish secularism, and the often conflicted relationship between Islam and statecraft.
His Phd dissertation, critiquing the influential thinkers of the late Ottoman period, was published by Princeton University Press in 1962 under the title of The Genesis of the Young Ottoman Thought.
He worked diligently in an attempt to decipher the complicated and often conflicted interplay between society and the political establishment in the Ottoman Empire and the new Turkish republic. His research left him deeply disillusioned with contemporary Turkish society and intellectual elites, and his findings were controversial. He described Turkish secular intellectual life as lacking any deep philosophical understanding of crucial issues, and as being preoccupied only with “preserv[ing] the state.”
That obsession obviously suffocated the development of all kinds of “speculative reason” (theoretical thought) in the country, he wrote in one of his earlier books, The Political Ideas of the Young Turks, which was first published in 1964.
“Under these conditions, we can dwell on a paradox that religious thought in its Sufi form has still provided the most feasible framework for speculative reason in the modern Turkey,” Mardin wrote in the book’s preface in February 1983.
Between religion and state
In order to reveal the potential power of religious thought, he picked up a contentious topic, Nurculuk (the movement of the light), a religious movement founded and led by Said Nursi, a religious philosopher who was persecuted by Turkey’s Kemalist establishment throughout his lifetime. The book’s cover, which showed a Turkish flag against a green background, with Allah in Arabic script on one side, and the six arrows of Turkey’s strictly secularist Republican People's Party (CHP) on the other, also symbolised the contentious nature of the topic.
The inspiration came to him from Cemil Meric, one of Turkey’s most creative intellectuals, a respected critic of the Ottoman and Turkish modernisation projects.
“Mardin and a Tunisian professor visited Meric in the late 1970s. They had talked about the movements like [the Tunisian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood known since the 1980s as Ennahdha] and Nur,” Muhsin Demirel, a follower of the Nur Movement and an assistant of Meric, told TRT World.
When Necmettin Sahiner, a biographer of Nursi, warned Meric that Mardin might twist the information about Nursi so it would find favour with the Kemalist order, Meric reassured Sahiner. “He is a very honest sociologist. He does not stray away from science,” Meric said of Mardin’s credibility at the time according to Sahiner.
Mardin researched the movement and Nursi for more than a decade, resulting in a book titled Religion and Social Change in Modern Turkey: The Case of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, published in New York in 1989. He managed to show in the book crucial connections between Sufi movements, particularly, the Naqshbandi order, and political Islam.
But he paid a heavy price for his discovery and the book itself. Turkey’s strictly secularist university establishment at the time didn’t like the topics he was taking. His study on religion and Sufi orders, and particularly his work on Said Nursi, which were leading texts at the time, led the staunchly secularist university establishment to alienate the world-famous sociologist.
“His membership to the Turkish Academy of Sciences had always been prevented though he was one of the most instrumental academics to promote Turkish academy in the world,” recalled Fuat Keyman, a political science professor at Istanbul's Sabanci University and coordinator of the Istanbul Policy Centre, who attended Mardin’s funeral.
Keyman and Mardin had worked together in the past. “The secularist academy ostracised him. He only received honours very belatedly. But his legacy will live on regardless, as an academic and a reference point,” Keyman told TRT World during his funeral last Thursday.
Mardin was also a critic of Turkey’s strictly secularist Kemalist ideology which he thought failed to provide society with either a genuinely viable and satisfactory political option (traditional Kemalism was too insular and wary of foreign countries, in his view), or a rich and sustainable cultural life.
"After working hard and long on Kemalism, you easily understand how much of an empty ideology it is. This ideology had not given society anything positive, beautiful, and right," Mardin said during a rare television interview in 2008.
But he also praised some of the Republic’s achievements, such as the education of girls, and the participation of women in Turkish public life. Overall, he remained optimistic about the future of Turkey. “If I were not hopeful, I would commit suicide,” he said during a TV interview in 2010.
One of his masterpieces was the centre-periphery analysis about how Muslim identity, despite Kemalism trying so hard to tame, secularise and modernise it, had somehow remained a mediating force between society (a peripheral force) and statecraft (a central force) in the late Ottoman times and modern Turkey.
Although it was published in 1971, the analysis correctly predicted the emergence of Turkey’s new, conservative middle class decades later, along with its political expression through the Justice and Development Party or the AK Party. He foresaw too the transformation Turkey had been going through in the last 15 years, Keyman pointed out in an interview with TRT World as the imam of the mosque recited Quranic verses ahead of Mardin’s funeral.
“The prime minister [Recep Tayyip Erdogan] is an intelligent man,” Mardin said, reflecting on changes to Turkish politics in an interview given in late 2011.
“He is coming from Naqshbandi tradition, but he wants to establish a technologically developed Turkey. At the same time, he wants to have a disciplined society. A lot of leaders want to establish a disciplined society. Then, things could work easily.”
He was also the first Turkish academic, and one of the earliest internationally, to predict the resurgence of Islamic thought and the emergence of political Islam as a force in Turkey and other Muslim countries.
“He was a pioneer of Islamic studies. His emphasis on religious identity in the interplay between ideology and religion has been crucial,” Keyman stressed.
“If you read his books, you can understand why the Arab Spring movements, which began in Tunisia and Egypt, failed. You can understand the dynamics of the process from Tahrir [where Egyptian protesters rose up against the Mubarak regime] to Rabaa [where the Muslim Brotherhood-led protests were massacred by pro-coup security forces] through his texts.”
A humble funeral for a humble man
Much like his career in Turkey, Mardin’s funeral was an understated ceremony with few attendees for a man of his stature. Some of the state officials including the former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, several prominent followers of Said Nursi, and a number of young students, who drew great inspiration from the elderly academic’s life of integrity and discipline, were there to pray and say their final goodbye to him.
“He was the lighthouse for us,” said Soli Ozel, an academic at Kadir Has University and a longtime friend of Mardin’s.
“He was pretty serious on his work. But at the same time, he was always excited with the topics he picked up. When he talked to you about the topics he worked on, he was always able to make you excited too,” Ozel told TRT World when he was waiting for the funeral to proceed in Istanbul’s Yenikoy Mosque in Sariyer located close to the coast of Black Sea. Mardin had lived close to the mosque.
He was honest, curious and serious, but he was also humble.
Twenty years ago, the professor bought a computer from Suleyman Ozdil, the chairman of the board of Turkey’s Halkbank, who owned a computer company at the time.
“We gave him a PC,” Ozdil told TRT World. Then, next day Mardin called him to say that he was “an old and illiterate man who knows nothing about computers. He needed assistance to proceed the machine.”
“We were surprised with his humbleness and the frank recognition of his shortcomings,” Ozdil recalled, as the attendees of the funeral were heading to the cemetery.
Mardin left behind a son, Osman, which was also the name of the first founder of the Ottoman state, a managing director of Sardis Capital in London. Both President Erdogan and the main opposition CHP leader have called the son to convey their condolences, according to Turkish press.
Even in death, he represents the tension between the leading currents in Turkish political and public life.