The era of Sultan Abdülhamid II was an age of controversy and perplexity in Turkish history. Abdülhamid II himself was a man of inconsistencies. Though he is generally portrayed as a religious and conservative sultan, he had a private opera theater in his palace. More significantly, he was the founder of modern schools that aimed at educating Turkish youth, mainly the minority to be raised and recruited by the state, with the contemporary scientific knowledge of the West.
Following the modernization of Turkish schools, a new question emerged in intellectual circles: the dichotomy of science and religion, which had been a familiar one for Western Europe since the groundbreaking 17th century. The Young Turks, who were generally educated at the schools founded by Abdülhamid II, adopted an expressive position toward science, while the classical Ottoman ulama and the Islamists refused the dichotomy and tried to prove that Islam was not an obstacle for progress.
In fact, there was a third position, not taken by many, ideologically useless but philosophically defendable, which was that science and religion cannot and need not merge and that the so-called dichotomy between the two rose from the attempts to syncretize them. Adnan Adıvar, the first science historian and health minister of modern Turkey, defended such ideas in his articles and books, which have been generally considered a refutation of the ideological claim by Kemalism that the Ottomans were living in complete ignorance of science and the Ottoman religious system prevented them from realizing the scientific progress of the West.
Abdülhak Adnan Adıvar was born on Oct. 6, 1882, in the town of Gelibolu (Gallipoli) on the Dardanelles Strait in northwest Turkey to a notable scholar family. His family tree reaches back to Aziz Mahmud Hüdayi, a 17th-century Sufi leader who lived in Üsküdar district of Istanbul. Adıvar’s father, Mektubizade Bahai Efendi, was a jurist, and his grandfather, Abdülaziz Efendi, was a member of the Encümen-i Daniş, the first Ottoman science academy.
Adıvar was first schooled at the Numune-i Terakki Mektebi (literally, the “Sample School of Progress”) before he enrolled at the Dersaadet Idadisi (today’s Vefa High School). In 1899, he was admitted to the School of Medicine in Istanbul. He moved to Berlin to work as the assistant to professor Friedrich Kraus in 1905.
After Sultan Abdülhamid II announced the Second Constitutional Era as a consequence of the Young Turk revolt, Adıvar returned to Turkey and began to work as a chief medical doctor at the School of Medicine Hospital. In 1911, he worked in Libya as an inspector of the Hilal-i Ahmer (today’s Türk Kızılayı or the Turkish Red Crescent) during the Italo-Turkish war from 1911-1912. After the war, he returned to Istanbul, where he was elected as the chairman of the Hilal-i Ahmer association.
Adıvar became the general director of public health before World War I. He joined the army with the rank of major and worked as the deputy director of the Military Health Department. Meanwhile, he married Halide Edip, the famous author and politician, who would become a legendary figure after she and her husband left Istanbul to join the national struggle led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Ankara.
Famous conservative poet Yahya Kemal Beyatlı wrote that Adıvar was a small figure who walked in the shadow of his legendary wife Halide Edip. Though it’s a fact that Halide Edip is more famous than her spouse, Yahya Kemal’s evaluation seems to be merely personal. Adıvar was not a weak person being dominated by his wife. Instead, he was a liberal man who supported her political activism.
On the other hand, Adıvar, too, was an active politician from the start of the War of Independence until the Progressive Republican Party (TCF), of which he was among the founders, was closed by the Kemalist regime in 1925. He protested the Kemalist government’s anti-democratic actions and left Turkey with his wife for London in 1926.
Adıvar carried the solemn, gentle and grave character of his family ancestry, which helped him to conduct scientific studies despite the political waves in Turkey. He wrote about the history of Ottoman science in French in 1939 and rewrote the book’s Turkish version a few years later. He also published a second volume on the dichotomy of science and religion. In 2020, about 100 essays and columns by him were collected and published as the third volume of his studies.
After London, the Adıvar couple moved to Paris, where Adnan taught Turkish at the School of Oriental Languages for eight years. In 1939, after Atatürk’s death, they returned to Turkey. Upon his return, he was assigned as the editor-in-chief for the "Encyclopedia of Islam," the Turkish version. He also authored many articles on historical Muslim scientists, including Ali Kuşçu, Al-Farabi, Ibn Khaldun and Kınalızade Ali Çelebi.
Adnan Adıvar died on July 1, 1955, in Istanbul. His grave is at Merkezefendi Cemetery in the city’s Zeytinburnu district.
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