Early Modern Science in the Ottoman Empire

Early Enlightenment in Istanbul

B. Harun Küçük

A persistent theme in European scholarship is how Enlightenment thinkers approached Islam, but no one has yet asked whether and how Muslims engaged with Enlightenment thought.  In my dissertation, “Early Enlightenment in Istanbul,” I showed that under the reign of Ahmed III (1703–1730) Ottoman naturalists joined the Sultan in forging a new religious, political, and philosophical order in line with Enlightenment ideas and ideals. I also argued that the Ottoman court was an indispensable element in both the Neo-Hellenic Enlightenment and the autochthonous Islamic enlightenment of the eighteenth century.

I also showed how, as part of this early enlightenment movement, the University of Padua’s naturalistic interpretation of Aristotle came to replace Islamic Avicennism; how Ottoman physicians reacted against Galenic medical orthodoxy and the strictures Islam placed on their discipline, some of them going so far as to deny the immortality of the soul; how sociability helped Ottoman thinkers valorize experimentation as a reliable method for creating new knowledge; how philosophy became an essential part of the statesman’s education; how the first Ottoman printing press, founded in 1729, represented the ideal that learning should be universally accessible and that the dissemination of knowledge was integral to a sound social order; and how, finally, Parisian Cartesianism threatened to supplant Ottoman scholasticism—all within the space of some thirty years.