A PORTRAIT OF A DISSIDENT: THE LAST OTTOMAN SHEIKH AL-ISLAM MUSTAFA SABRİ EFENDİ

Mustafa Sabri Efendi left the scholars of his time astonished with the Arabic works he wrote in Egypt. He was recognized for his superior knowledge and the might of his pen. He dedicated his life to the struggle for the values ​​he believed in.
20 Temmuz 2022 Çarşamba
20.07.2022

 

Recently the naming of a school in Tokat (a Turkish city) after one of the last sheikh al-Islams, Sabri Efendi, drew a lot of backlash since he was one of the leading dissidents of the Ankara movement. The Ministry of National Education apologized immediately, explaining that it was a mistake. Sabri Efendi would probably not want a republican institution to be named after him.

Perhaps no one would have noticed if they had named the school Hoca Sabri. However, there are many schools, libraries and so on in Turkey that bear the names of other dissidents such as Kazım Karabekir, Ali Fuad Cebesoy, Rauf Orbay, Refet Bele, Enver Pasha, Mehmet Akif Ersoy, Said Nursi and even Rıza Nur.

A photo of Mustafa Sabri Efendi
A photo of Mustafa Sabri Efendi

Among the late Ottoman scholars, Sabri Efendi is one of the most famous. He is also one of the renowned politicians of recent history. Knowledge, courage, and politeness are the three most significant characteristics of Sabri Efendi.

He had been the staunch dissident of the Ankara movement from the very beginning. Like a basis of faith, he maintained this attitude until his death. Since this dissidence is based on religious principles rather than below the belt or personal ends, it has always been taken seriously and refrained from.

A photo of Sabri Efendi as a deputy of the Ottoman parliament
A photo of Sabri Efendi as a deputy of the Ottoman parliament

The Youngest Member

Sabri Efendi was born in Tokat (a town in the middle of Northern Anatolia) in 1869. After memorizing the Qur'an al-karim, he studied with famous scholars in Kayseri and Istanbul and received his ijazah (diploma) at the age of 22. He married the daughter of his teacher, Âsım Efendi.

He gave lectures at Fatih Mosque. Sultan Abdul Hamid II appointed him as the instructor of Huzur Dersleri (Qur'anic exegesis-focused lectures for palace officials and guests) held in the palace during Ramadan. He was the youngest member of these lectures. He also became the librarian of the sultan.

He became a professor at the Suleymaniye Madrasa, roviding postgraduate education, and then became the Mufti (a Muslim legal expert) of Silistra. He wrote articles in newspapers.

A photo of Mustafa Sabri Efendi
A photo of Mustafa Sabri Efendi

During the Second Constitutional Era, he was elected as the deputy of Tokat. He published the journal Beyanü'l-Hak and wrote editorials in this period. With his increasingly dissenting attitude, he seemed to support the members of the CUP (The Committee of Union and Progress) and turn his back on Sultan Hamid, like most of the scholars of the time. He believed in the Constitutional Monarchy for religious reasons.

However, within a few months, he became one of the first to see the members of the CUP in their true colours. When the CUP members dissolved the elected deputies of the parliament and replaced them with their own men, Sabri Efendi engaged in a relentless opposition to them.

He was one of the founders of Hürriyet ve İtilaf Fırkası (The Freedom and Accord Party). He intimidated his adversaries with his sharp tongue. He accused the members of the CUP of murder. He likened the army's covetousness for political power to a servant trying to rule over the master.

After the raid on the Sublime Porte in 1913, when the members of the CUP began to arrest the dissidents, he fled from them to Egypt and then to Romania. However, he was brought back to the country by force and exiled to Bilecik (a small Turkish city).

A photo of Sabri Efendi with his student Ali Yakub Cenkçiler (later mufti of Bursa) in Egypt
A photo of Sabri Efendi with his student Ali Yakub Cenkçiler (later mufti of Bursa) in Egypt

Wrong Horse

After the fall of the CUP, he became the deputy of Tokat again. Sabri Efendi served as sheikh al-Islam twice during the reign of Sultan Vahideddin for short periods of 7 and 2 months. He acted as grand vizier when Damad Ferid Pasha went to the Paris Conference.

He objected to the sending of Mustafa Kemal Pasha to Anatolia. He resigned from his post by complaining to the sultan about Ferid Pasha, whom he accused of being negligent in taking the necessary measures against Ankara.

He never believed in the Ankara movement, which he deemed as the continuation of the CUP. He thought that one day it would destroy the Ottoman sultanate and the foundations on which it was based.

He believed that by making a peace agreement, the country would have been saved and that the Kemalists were provoking the enemy. However, due to the rebellion against the Caliph, the next sheikh al-Islam, not Sabri Efendi, gave the death fatwa about the Kuvâ-i Milliye groups (irregular Anatolian militia forces).

After the abolition of the Ottoman Sultanate, the British took him, his wife and 4 children from their home in Yeşilköy (San Stefano) and took them to Alexandria by ship. Thereupon, the Ankara government included Sabri Efendi and his son, muderris İbrahim Efendi, among the 150 people exiled for their loyalty to the old regime.

A photo of Mustafa Sabri Efendi
A photo of Mustafa Sabri Efendi

Gandhi On Hunger Strike

At that time, Mustafa Kemal Pasha was considered by the Muslims of the world and all Egyptians as a hero who defied the imperialists. Therefore, Sabri Efendi suffered a lot and was harassed on the streets. Ankara demanded his deportation. For this reason, he went to Lebanon and answered this with his book called Al-Nakir 'ala Munkiri al-Ni'ma min al-Din wa-al-Khilafa wa-al-Umma.

Upon the invitation of Sharif Hussein bin Ali, he went to the Hejaz. Here he got dysentery. In order to discuss with Sultan Vahideddin about what could be done, Sabri Efendi went to San Remo. However, seeing the despair of the sultan, he went to Dobruja, where Muslims lived in Romania. When the Ankara government disturbed him here too, he settled in Komotini, his father-in-law's hometown, in 1927.

He continued his opposition by publishing a newspaper called Yarın (Tomorrow). He published a fatwa that he prepared together with the Mufti of Komotini Mehmed Nevzad Efendi and the Mufti of Didymoteiho, Hacı Veliddin Efendi, in the newspaper Yarın on March 15, 1930, which denounced the Turkish government as murtad (apostate). Upon Ankara's request from Venizelos, who was visiting Turkey, the newspaper was shut down. Sabri Efendi was exiled to Mora.

A frontpage of newspaper called Yarın (Tomorrow) that Sabri Efendi published in Xanthi (İskeçe)
A frontpage of newspaper called Yarın (Tomorrow) that Sabri Efendi published in Xanthi (İskeçe)

He arrived in Alexandria in 1932 with the help of the Egyptian ambassador in Athens. After losing his wife here, he settled in Cairo. He lived on the help of the Muslim community wherever he was since he was penniless. The cheapest thing to eat in Egypt was beans. He would buy a sack of them. They would cook it in the teapot, which was their only pot, and eat it for months. He complained saying, "People are taking a stand because Gandhi is on hunger strike; Ottoman sheikh al-Islam is hungry with his family, nobody cares".

Academy Of Islamic Sciences

While apprenticing with an Armenian cobbler and taking care of his family, his son Emin died as a result of an accident at a young age. The family was given a small salary from the Bureau of Imperial Administration of Awqaf. He refused this, saying that it should be given to Zâhid Kevserî, who was an exile like him and was in a more dire situation. The Bureau paid him a salary as well.

The works he wrote brought him a reputation once more. He became a professor at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. He formed friendships with many scholars. His house became an academy of Islamic sciences full of students.

The Egyptians had already regretted a lot by seeing what was going on in Turkey. He wrote articles about Islamic sciences in newspapers. When his work al-Qawl al-Fasl, which defended the belief against positivism, was published, Melik Fuad complimented him highly.

A photo from the last days of Sabri Efendi
A photo from the last days of Sabri Efendi

I Won't Forgive!

In 1938, he did not return to his homeland after the amnesty for 150 exiled people. “He forgave me, but I won't forgive him,” he said. While the opposition to the Turkish reforms is evident in his works, everyone is in agreement that he was one of the last of the great scholars.

He spent his last days in the house of Shahzade (Prince) Şevket Efendi, who was in exile in Cairo. He died in Cairo in 1954 at the age of 86. A large crowd of academics, politicians and the public attended his funeral.

Sabri Efendi saw with his own eyes the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the last hope of Muslims. He put his life on the line by resorting to every means necessary to prevent the collapse of Islamic civilization in the face of the West.

He defended the Ottoman Empire by responding to Arab historians who were publishing against the Ottomans.

His knowledge far exceeded his political stance. He left the scholars of his time astonished with the Arabic works he wrote in Egypt. He distinguished himself among his peers with the superiority of his knowledge and the power of his pen.

He fiercely fought not only Kemalists, but also Islamic modernist and Salafist views. He became a staunch defender of Ahl as-Sunnah.

A photo from the funeral of Sabri Efendi
A photo from the funeral of Sabri Efendi

Why Was He A Dissident?

He was a master at poetry. There was no one better than him at defending his ideas in this way. Following verses of his poem, which he wrote upon seeing the Turkish nationalism claim of his opponents in 1927 with the name of “Türklükten İstifa” (Giving Up Turkishness), are famous. “To remain only as a Muslim and a human being with honor and dignity in the presence of Allah, I gave up being Turkish; I Repent, O Lord for my Turkishness, do not resurrect me (in the hereafter) with the Turkish.”

The four-volume book of Sabri Efendi, called Mawqif al-'Aql wa-al-'Ilm wa-al-'Alim min Rabb al-'Alamin wa-'Ibadihi al-Mursalin (The Position of Reason, Knowledge, and the Scholar in regards to the Lord of the Worlds and His divinely Sent Servants) is very famous. When he arrived in Egypt, he wrote this as a response to those who denied the Ottoman service to Islamic sciences in the Arab world.

A photo of the tomb of Sabri Efendi in Abbasiye
A photo of the tomb of Sabri Efendi in Abbasiye

In this book, he complains that the Islamic modernists approached the science of kalam with modern methods and went so far as to deny the miracles of the prophets. He explains at length both the situation of the Islamic world in the hands of Islamic modernists in the last century and the reasons for his opposition to the Ankara movement.

It was translated from Arabic to Turkish by his son İbrahim Sabri Efendi; however, it was not published because he did not accept it to be published in Latin letters. On the other hand, printing it in Islamic letters was against the law in Turkey. His books such as Turkish “Dinî Müceddidler” (The Reformers in Islam) responding to Musa Beykiyef and his peers, “İslâmda İmâmet-i Kübrâ” (Caliphate in Islam) and “Savm Risâlesi” (The Book of Fasting) were published. His articles on the disputed fiqh subjects were printed under the title of “Meseleler” (The Problems).