Ercüment Asil Presented a Paper in MESA 2020


Our department member, historian Ercüment Asil attended the panel organized by Monica Ringer, titled “Late Ottoman Modernity as a Project of Translation: Science, Morality, and the Secular” organized as part of the MESA 2020 meeting. His presentation title was “Is There Life Outside Earth?: Negotiating Religious and Scientific Authority in Late Ottoman Periodicals.” You can find the abstract of his presentation below:

This paper rethinks the inflow of Western ideas into the Ottoman Empire through the metaphor of ‘cultural translation,’ which conceives of ‘translators’ as active ‘negotiators’ rather than simple transmitters. These ‘translators and negotiators’ also defy the binary of advocates or rejectors of new ideas. This paper will focus on the reformist ulema as both ‘translators’ of the prestige of modern science and as ‘negotiators’ of scientific authority vis-à-vis religious authority. To depict the complexity of the process of translation and negotiation, I focus on the debate surrounding extraterrestrial life. Its largely speculative nature reveals the ideological assumptions of the negotiators. Unlike more concrete discussions, the debates surrounding extraterrestrial life reflect the complexity of the discursive and rhetorical aspects of nineteenth-century-Ottomans’ perception of European science, its prestige, and authority vis-à-vis Islam.

Since the Copernican revolution, the belief in the multiplicity of habitable worlds spread such that by the end of the eighteenth century, life in other planets was almost taken for granted by the Western reading public. However, while belief in extraterrestrial life started to fade in the West from 1860s onwards, it continued to draw increasing attention among the Ottomans. Relevant articles on this issue appeared from the 1870s to 1920s in Ottoman popular journals such as Hadika, Ulum, Hikmet, Mahfil, Malumat, and Resimli Kitap.

In 1909, the issue of life outside earth received direct attention of the ulema in the pages of the prominent Islamist journal Sırât-ı Müstakîm, where two opposing religious scholars engaged into a fierce debate. The scientistic or progressivist one held that the Qur’an included verses on extraterrestrial life though authoritative exegetes failed to acknowledge them. The conservative one, however, rejected this position inasmuch as it attempted to question the authority of earlier prominent ulema. Obviously, such an attempt must have been based on strong reason and solid evidence. In their defenses, both the scientistic and the conservative scholars appealed to the traditional Islamic epistemology and methodology and adapted them to discuss a modern scientific issue, which renders the debate as a case that resonates with the metaphor of ‘translation’ of a ‘foreign’ debate into a ‘native’ one. This paper uses concepts of ‘translation’ and ‘negotiation’, to explain ways in which science, theology, and exegesis crosscut each other. The two seemingly contradictory positions functioned equally as two different modes of resisting cultural imperialism and Western supremacy.

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