Turkish Schools and Colleges

Matthias Norberg

Matthias Norberg was born in Nätra, the Ängermanland province of north Sweden in 1747. In 1768, he enrolled at Uppsala University and obtained his Master of Arts in 1773. In 1774, he was awarded a Doctorate in Greek. After being educated at Uppsala, he traveled to Göttingen in 1777, where he met the biblical scholar Johan David Michaelis, the son of Christian Benedikt Michaelis, a prominent Lutheran theologian. Michaelis encouraged Norberg to study the pre-Islamic Mandaean religion and language. These studies laid the foundations of Mandaean textual study and began the theological discussion about the relation between the Mandaean religion and the Johannine writings of the New Testament. As Norberg was from a wealthy family, he was able to pursue Oriental and classical studies during extensive overseas trips to Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, England, France, Italy, and Turkey. In 1779, he arrived in Constantinople and studied Turkish, Arabic, and Persian with native speakers, an experience he shared with few Protestant scholars of Western Europe at that time.

In 1780, Norberg was appointed professor of Greek and Eastern languages at the University of Lund in Sweden. He subsequently published over 150 dissertations on various subjects from Arabic astronomy to Turkish warfare, from Arabic language and medicine to the concept of trimfirti in Hinduism. He also translated the seventeenth-century Ottoman scholar Kätip Qelebi’s well-known geographical work, Cihannümä, from Ottoman Turkish to Latin under the title Gihan Numa, geographia orientalis, ex turcico in latinum versa in 1818. In 1821, he was appointed a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. In 1822, his book Turkiska Rikets Annaler was published: the first European translation of the major Ottoman historical works by Gelibolulu Mustafa Äli Efendi (d.1600), Mustafa Naima (d.1716), Mehmed Räsid (d.1735), Qelebizäde Ismail Asim (d. 1760), and Ahmed Väsif Efendi (d. 1806). As an academic, Norberg enjoyed European fame along with other Swedish Lutheran theologians and scholars, such as Henric Benzelius, Johan Engeström, and Jakob Jonas Björnstähl. He died in Uppsala in 1826.1

Variant Names: Matthew Norberg, Matthias Nordberg, Matthias Norbergus, Matth. Norberg, and Matthiae Norbergi

Summary and Analysis

In the opening of his dissertation, Norberg dismisses the popular notion that the Turks are savage barbarians. He concedes that the Ottomans engage in brutality and plunder, but he admires their love of learning and education, which he thinks his Western contemporaries underestimate. Although he believes that the state of learning and education in the West is superior, it might be surpassed one day by the East.

Norberg begins his account of education in the Islamic world with the colleges of the early Caliphate. In these schools, students were taught about religion and law, rendering them superstitious and hostile to the humanities. This changed, however, when Arabs were introduced to the literature of ancient Greece and Rome, which “established virtue” among them, brought “great prudence in their counsel, and speed and clarity in their deeds.” Thus, for Norberg, Eastern or Islamic education was inferior until it incorporated Western education.

He says that exposure to material wealth from conquering the Arabs caused the Turks to degenerate into luxury and idleness. Consequently, the state of literature in the Turkish-dominated Islamic world also declined. He believes there is a difference in the physiology of the two races: the heat and sunlight of the Arab homeland stimulated the Arab mind, whereas the Turks came from a “middling climate” and, as a result, had a “middling genius.” The Arabs are independent and freedom-loving by nature, which spurred them toward studying the humanities, whereas the Turks, subjugated by a tyrannical sultan, had been conditioned to unimaginativeness. However, after the Ottoman sultans assumed the mantle of caliph, the Turks began valuing literature more highly, restoring ruined and abandoned Arab schools, and patronizing the humanities. Norberg quotes a speech by Osman I in which he exhorts his son to value learning above all else. He then outlines various contributions made to education by successive Ottoman sultans, including the establishment of schools and the financial support of scholars.

Norberg describes the two types of educational institutions in the Ottoman Empire: the mekteb (school) and the medrese (college). The former provides a basic education and the latter advanced studies. Education is free: the students and teachers are supported by the generosity of those who have left a bequest in their will. Teachers differ in their teaching styles and their level of commitment; the higher a teacher’s rank, the lazier and more unwilling to teach he is likely to be. Students in these schools learn Arabic grammar, dialectic and rhetoric, which is followed by a variety of subjects, including philosophy, religion, the natural sciences, and the art of reading and writing. Norberg criticizes the

Turkish Schools and Colleges 269 excessively practical orientation of Turkish attitudes toward education: many students, especially rich ones, focus on the study of law, which is quite lucrative, while scorning the natural sciences and philosophy as impractical and excessively difficult.

He claims that the state of education in the Ottoman Empire had declined from former times. He blames the decline on the Ottoman practice of imprisoning royal princes and denying them access to knowledge and books to prevent them from posing a threat to the reigning sultan. Later released, the princes were often sent to govern a province, where their ignorance and lack of learning defined their governing skills. Although the tyranny of the sultans and the decline of Turkish society into materialism lead educated people to hide their learning for fear of causing offence or arousing suspicion, Norberg ends his dissertation on a hopeful note, saying that if freedom and emphasis on education are reintroduced to Turkish society and openness to the outside world (presumably Western) prevails, then learning will flourish among the Turks and they will produce intelligent works again.

Significantly, Norberg’s dissertatio illuminates the importance of the Ottoman ruler (sultán), as he sets the tone for the level of engagement in education and liberal arts, and his policies influence the public engagement with education and liberal arts. Therefore, Norberg understands that knowledge is not an independent enterprise of scholars (‘ulemâ) separate from the state. Another interesting observation he makes is that as having a legal education in medrese became a lucrative source of income for students, the Ottoman Empire used positions in Islamic law to solidify power in the Empire. As noted by Norberg, many students, especially rich ones, focused on the study of law to the detriment of philosophy and liberal arts as they were more difficult career choices. Norberg’s dissertation also displays an intimate and in-depth knowledge of the Ottoman educational system. He is familiar with the Ottoman educational structure and medrese curriculum as he cites the disciplines the students studied in the Turkish colleges, such as grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic (âdâb al-bahth).2,

Turkish Schools and Colleges (Lund, 1792)

When I turned my attention to writing, I promised myself to find something that seemed worthy of the paper, the reader’s leisure, and the interest of learned men. I think that the present material is of great value, being long sought for and aptly unique. It is pleasing to know the geniuses, education and the types of literature the Turks have as unskilled men believe the Turks are hardly men, and the learned call them barbarians. My book focuses on this people’s humanities. Driving provinces into slavery, nations into defeat, and extracting wealth from their tribute is not the only virtue of the Ottomans; they also embraceacademic disciplines, welcome wise men, and found schools. Indeed, our world does not treat their learning and genius as equal, as I will discuss below. It is characteristic of a superior people to overlook the merits of its inferiors. The judgement that the Turkish race is unlearned and uncultured stands in the memories of our ancestors. Things go in circles, and the star that now illuminates the West will cross around the world to the East.

Since the birth of Muhammad’s religion, there has been no failure in its defense and expansion. Mosques consecrated to their new sacred relic were founded and the caliphs generously paid for the adjoining colleges (medrese). Just as God was worshipped through priests and ceremonies in the mosques, so were the youth taught divine and human law, the foundation of religion and power, in the colleges. Muslims did not include other disciplines [into the curriculum]: the more faithful they were to the superstition of their origins, the more intolerant they were of the humanities. However, abundance slowly brought satisfaction, and time and reason measured and tempered their insane error. Muslim study of the liberal arts resulted in the establishment of virtue among the Arabs during antiquity and the Middle Ages. The more they learned from the Greek and Roman literatures that relate to the glory of the republic in peace and its defense in war, the more time they devoted to the teachings of the ancients and their history. Therefore, there is great prudence in their counsel, and speed and clarity in their deeds. Coming from a martial origin, the Turks quickly conquered the Arabs. But material wealth produces vices: they descended from industry to idleness, from temperance to decadence, from good arts to shameful vows and wicked crimes. Therefore, their fortune waned, and the name of the Turks became famous not so much for their virtue as for the indolence of the Arabs. With the establishment of the Eastern Empire, Turks acquired the knowledge of Eastern doctrine. The Ottomans were equal to the Arabs in the greatness of their deeds, but inferior in the glory of their literature. I would like to understand the reasons and causes for this disparity. Let us consider both the environment and their differing ways of life. The position of the sun and its heat did much to stimulate the mental vigor and quickness of the Arabs. Not in fear of any threat of domination, the eternal freedom of the Arabs living in the fields and forests greatly nourished and roused their genius. Indeed, the beginnings of Islam were cruel and harmful to this unique and free race; they expended time and effort on wars caused by the orders of the Caliphate. Overcoming the oppression the ideology of the accursed Muhammadans had placed on their upright spirits and feeble minds, the Arabs turned more and more toward a good intellect, judgement and study of the ideal conduct/ethics [adab]. Consequently, the Arabs cared more about being sufficiently skilled men than seeming very religious. The Turks, on the other hand, acquired a middling genius from their middling climate, long formed in their ancient

Turkish Schools and Colleges 271 homeland, Tatarstan. They have strong bodies, serious faces, and weak minds. They walk, think, and talk slowly; they are the product of a colder sky, more invigorating air, and harder land. Long domination increased their indolence, weakening their judgment in action and their speed in thinking. The Sultan had a double persona: one civil, that of a prince, which was obtained by the glory of his lineage and the law of heredity, and the other holy and of a caliph, which was acquired by the virtue of his ancestors and by the custom of Muhammad’s race. He steadfastly held on to both for many centuries. Nothing existed at home or abroad that could challenge that two-sided man from taking the empire and usurping the Caliphate. The conquered races were weak and the neighboring peoples in disarray: due to this powerlessness and envy, this Caesar ruled not only his subjects’ lives and resources, but even their minds and thoughts. Indeed, his power was so great and so above any laws that it became an enemy to true reason, which should be the queen and mistress of all things.

However, the closer the Ottomans began to associate themselves with the Caliphate, the prouder of their literature they became. They were still intact, sincere, and not exhausted by the pleasures of the East, and it was the nature of their strong race to bear physical labors with composure. Nor had the Ottomans’ love of speaking fallen into oblivion as it had among the Arabs. They worked hard in private for the sake of the public. The Ottoman sultans spared no expense in restoring and renovating anything in the Arabs’ schools that had collapsed through time, been wrecked by violence and the sword, or lay forgotten through barbarousness and neglect. The Sultan’s virtue and doctrine, not his nobility or money, brought him authority among the men of power, and learning to the populace. Consider the following examples. Osman I, after whom the Ottoman Empire is named, highly valued literature; but despite the effort he spent on it, he was impeded by his ambitions and the cares of founding a new kingdom. This excellent speech to his son will show how much he valued the liberal arts:

Son! Hold back your tears: grief is empty, which this fatal necessity makes for you. It is the law to obey the divine plan, for which men are born. The fatal breath of the west wind savages every age and condition equally: young, old, citizens, kings. I concede my fate happily and make my brow calm, when I see the heir of my fortune and the successor to my power in you. But it will be pious and obedient of you to apply your ear to your most beloved father’s words, your mind to his advice, and effort to your vows. Take this scepter, so that you may hold power with a strong mind and temper it with justice. Let justice illuminate your throne with its rays, and may its splendor not be defined by narrow limits, but by the limits of the whole kingdom. Remember to hate violence and injustice, guardthe divinity of the Qur’an, spread the faith of the holy ancestor, nurture the noble arts, and be beneficent to men of proven religion and doctrine. As much as you become known to them for wisdom and probity, you will be stronger in yourself in respect and authority. May you always and everywhere walk the path that leads to fame, strength, and victory; and you will not stray in this if you prefer to follow my footsteps and imitate my arts. Material prosperity, resources, wealth, riches, armies and fleets are vanity. Study so that however much majesty and power you have, it will be subject to the sign of religion, and set up under the foundation of the Holy Law. May you always bear God, alone and eternal, before your eyes, who has ordered our arms not to increase our magnificence, but to protect the worship of His name and His worshippers. Let this be your concern and what you think about, which the health of your people, which the Divinity handed over to you to guard, demands from you. Finally, I would like to convince you that you were not born a prince and made an emperor, except to bring and show deference to the religious, fear to the enemy, love to the citizens, and justice, generosity, and mercy to everyone.

Succeeding to his father’s established state and paternal wealth, Orhan I had more leisure and time for the works of peace, quiet reflection, and the good arts. This is evidenced by the large gymnasium he built after he conquered Nicomedia; and that he allowed the defeated to use the literary works he had seized, which were glories for the victor. Mehmed II, after the siege of Constantinople, founded eight renowned schools in that city. He also funded quarters, wages, rooms, and assistants for the teachers and students to further the study of literature, which is an expensive art. However, these rulers alone do not deserve all the credit for the genius of this nation. Recently, other Turkish sultans have also patronized the literary arts. When in doubt, Murad and Bayezid sought the counsel of learned men, followed their best advice, and honored them in public. The Vizier of Mustafa III, Коса Mehmet Ragip Pasha, was a man of great genius and learning. Abdulhamid bestowed wealth and honors on poets that made their theme the power of his empire in poems and thanksgivings. These examples of generosity and patronage from the court excited much love and emulation. It is a virtue or a vice of servile men to align themselves to their Sultan’s habits, good or bad; fawning is an honor which the Ottomans also apply to their Caesars. These servile men flatter their princes whether they are just or unjust; they call theft power; they call charity and giving largesse and humanity. This humanity is very widespread. The rulers established quarters for learned men throughout the towns and countryside, providing a place for literature in the cities and villages.

These institutions bequeathed to the pious for the mind’s improvement have become widespread, making wisdom freely available. There

Turkish Schools and Colleges 273 is a great number of them in the large cities of two types: one is called a mekteb, which is a ‘school,’ and the other medrese, which means ‘college.’ The mekteb gives a less advanced education but is more generous to the students. Not only can they learn for free, but they can even live there free, making them open to the children of the poor. The teachers receive money and the students receive food from the goods left to them in wills. Although it is illegal for those who teach to charge money for their work, it is perfectly appropriate for a grateful mind to leave a legacy for the studious. These schools of literature are more concerned that boys become good men rather than distinguished citizens. While they learn the art of reading and writing, they learn the principles of religion and the elements of their native tongue, and each transforms himself from literate idleness to productive business. The students of the colleges (medrese) receive extensive praise due to the holiness of the place, the dignity of their studies, the vast extent of their learning. They are connected to mosques in the ancient way, so that the youths have reverence for the divinity, modesty toward their teachers, and act honorably and diligently. In this way, the colleges can better withstand the ravages of time and are less susceptible to fire. Each college has rooms in which the boys live separately to instruct them better in morals. But when there is not enough space because of their large numbers, a compromise must be made and two or three share one bedroom. Each gymnasium has its own teacher, whose role is to temper the leisure activities of the students with reason so that it is safer and their work with discipline so that it is more profitable. Their teachers’ title is Hoca, which means ‘old man’—a suitable name, and an apt description for the obedience which the students are expected to show to their elders. Their learning is mediocre and does not go beyond the basics: faith, works, virtue, auspices. However, those who have greater prestige are called ‘professors’ (muderris), a title which begets indolence. The law orders that these men put effort into educating their students. But they go unpunished and judge themselves to have done enough if they come to their schools once or twice a month! These days, their laziness is equaled by that of the High Priest (Mufti), who once considered it a sacred duty to dedicate himself to study and apply his mind in the gymnasium. The manner of instruction in the schools differs according to the inclinations of the teachers: some teach pedantically and dogmatically, whereas others teach liberally and philosophically. A teacher instructs students either individually, in small groups, or in large crowds.

Let us now consider the curriculum taught in these schools of wisdom. First, students learn the basics of Arabic and syntax. After this, they study dialectic [adab al-bahth], followed by rhetoric. Then the skill of explaining obscure points concisely is taught; afterwards, students learn the order and selection of words in a speech. Then the two types of theology are taught: scholastic and moral. Aside from this, studentslearn philosophy, astronomy, geometry, the Qur’an, the traditions of the prophet, ethics, chronology, medicine, the interpretation of dreams, astrology, the art of writing, and finally, poetry. But few students are willing or able to finish this whole course of study. In the old days, as is the case today, it was the tendency to focus on religious teachings and the elements of civil law. The material prosperity resulting from these studies makes them popular among the youth. In the other disciplines, there is little or no hope for titles and prestige, honors and opportunities, since these disciplines are difficult to study at an advanced level. The native languages also demand a lot of time and study. Turkish recalls an image of old simplicity; Arabic serves for majesty and abundance; and Persian adds beauty and elegance. Turkish is the common language learned in infancy even to those who are unwilling and has few foreign words from the other two languages. However, Arabic and Persian, more elegant scripts, are mixed with Turkish for the sake of magnificence and grace. Indeed, the more difficult a work is, the more Arabic and Persian words it has and the more intricate are its constructions, in such a way so that although someone may be born and raised with this speech, he cannot fully encompass its meaning and depth. Some obscurity always slows his reading speed, and he must interpret its ambiguous meaning. Obscurity is something barbarians think is beautiful; the less prolix the writing is, the more care is placed in the choice of words, so that while they do not speak with variety, they still seem to have spoken copiously and ornately.

When the minds of the youth have been sufficiently softened in the colleges by the rigor of discipline, they are transferred into the sacred and civil offices of the Empire, as if from a nursery. Sometimes those from poorer backgrounds pursue a higher rank of dignity, while those born rich demand this for themselves. For the children of the rich tend not to be educated in a school, where praise or blame for their hard work is particularly strong, but at home, where the mind luxuriates or grows torpid in front of a negligent parent and away from their unknowing instructor. Nor do they learn the necessities as much as they can follow their pleasures. They consider it too laborious to pursue more obscure studies, but they are eager to embrace more practical ones. They seem clever enough and fit for the administration of the state if they have learned certain life lessons from moral philosophy and examples of prudence from Eastern history. The sublimity of astronomy and geometry, the subtleties of dialectic [adab al-bahth], and learning the secrets of their own and of the outside world does not please rich children in their idleness or the slave class in its servitude. However, this race of men is not so barren of virtues that they have not given eminent examples of themselves. There are many who either excelled in the erudition of their own race, or benefited from foreign learning. Those familiar with them will praise their resources and hard work, and those who read them will not berate their art and prose.

Turkish Schools and Colleges 275

The study of wisdom among the Ottomans used to be more widespread than it is in these times. There are many causes for this present inactivity and ignorance; the origin of this problem lies with the court. The first crime of a new Sultan is to throw a son or a brother into prison. In order that the prisoner’s mind may not perceive such a great injustice clearly and look around eagerly for a chance of escape, he is shut away not only from light and contact with men, but he is also denied the use of books. In this loneliness, in these silent places, living like a caged beast, he forgets virtue. When he is later freed and brought into daylight out of darkness and chains, the light blinds him as he limps into office. Thus, the evils of ignorance are born in court and slowly spread to the provinces. Out of imitation of the Sultan, the negligence of parents, the idleness of youths, and the neglect of old disciplines are now common vices in the cities. Self-love and contempt for strangers have developed. The example of their ancestors seems pious and honorable to them, and they are content not to be exposed to new ideas in literature or the arts. They care only for their own property and their present circumstances; there is no desire for anything deeper, no deep thought. It is not easy to persuade them to advance their studies beyond the threshold, to follow the reputation of the greatest men, to seek out monuments of literature, and to be mindful of their subjects. They think that they are rulers over mortals in their strength and virtue, law and religion, judgement, and speech. Those who value intelligence and virtue do not have the ability to remedy the evils that the state labors against. They prefer to keep up the old ways rather than try something new out of fear of causing offence, arousing the envy of their superiors, and public unpopularity. But, let this be granted to this superstitious and unskilled race. I think that, if education and conformity with doctrine replace their distinguished indolence; if freedom, which nature imparts to every living thing, and virtue, which is man’s peculiar benefit, is regained so that everyone may say what they feel; if besides this, contact with the outside world is reestablished—if all these things occur, just as their genius is not inherently deficient, so too the works of Turks’ genius will not be deficient.


1 Norberg’s short biography was compiled through the following sources: Matthias Norberg, Selecta opuscula academica, ed. J. Normann, 3 vols. (Lund, 1817-19); Christian Callmer, In Orientem: svenskars farder och forskningar i den europeiska och asiatiska Orienten under 1700-talet (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1985), 82-90; Christer Westerdahl, Fran Norrtjarn till Konstantinopel: Matthias Norberg (Stockholm: Ornskblds-viks Museum, 1990); Jerker Blomqvist, “Matthias Norberg and the Modern Greek Language,” in Filia: Studies in Honour of Bo-Lennart Eklund, eds. V. Sabatakakis and P. Vejleskov (Lund: Wallin & Dalholm Boktryckeri, 2005), 41-74; Karin Berner, “Communities, Limits and the Ability to Cross Borders: Two Swedes’ Experiences in Constantinople During the Eighteenth

Century,” in Traces of Transnational Relations in the Eighteenth Century, eds. Tim Berndtsson, Annie Mattsson, Mathias Persson, Vera Sundin, and Marie-Christine Skuncke (Uppsala: Uppsala University Library, 2015), 53-73; and Bernd Roling, “Arabia in the Light of the Midnight Sun: Arabic Studies in Sweden between Gustaf Peringer Lillieblad and Jonas Hallen-berg,” in The Teaching and Learning of Arabic in Early Modern Europe, eds. Jan Loop et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 93-132.

2 On adcib al-bahth and its significance in the Ottoman educational system, see Mehmet Karabela, The Development of Dialectic and Argumentation Theory in Post-Classical Islamic Intellectual History, Ph.D. dissertation (Montreal: McGill University, 2010), 118-39 and 177-89.

Part IV

Muslim Sects

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