The late Ottoman intellectuals generally did not take sides in the long debate between Sharia and Sufism. Instead, they tried to find a way of harmonizing the two. Only strict Westernists claimed that Shariah was the main obstacle against progress; thus, they backed Sufism believing that the Sufistic heterodoxy would help convince the Turkish people to leave the path of Shariah and became “humanists.”
According to the orthodoxy-heterodoxy approach, Sharia stands for an Islamic orthodoxy, which includes strict legal and moral boundaries, while Sufism represents heterodoxy and offers individual liberties. In fact, this modern approach is not purely philosophical given that it has links with the idea of progress, more precisely with the question of Western progress and Eastern backwardness. The early modern Ottoman thinkers and political advisers never thought of the Ottoman retreat with such parameters, and they never accused Shariah of causing a delay in progress because they asked for consistency of Ottoman power but not progress.
Such modern ideas as progress and liberty were imported into Ottoman territory after the French Revolution. However, the Young Ottomans, young reformist bureaucrats who emerged during Sultan Abdülaziz’s reign, adopted such ideas without abandoning the basic legal and ethical approach of their early modern ancestors. They generally tried to reconcile progress with tradition, religion with science and in particular, Sufism with Sharia, the latter becoming an archetype for all modern Muslim thinkers and social critics.
The reconciliation of Sufism with Sharia would continue during the Second Constitutional Era by such conservative authors as Ömer Ferit Kam, Ismail Hakkı Izmirli and Mehmet Ali Ayni. Ayni is especially outstanding for his abundant writing. He authored more than 30 volumes of monographs and histories of Sufism, where he reconciled not only Sufism with Sharia but also Islamic knowledge with logic and positive sciences as well.
Mehmet Ali Ayni was born in Serfiçe, the seat of the Sanjak of Serfiğe, in today’s Servia in Greece on Feb. 25, 1868, to Mehmet Necip Efendi and Refika Hanım. Ayni’s ancestors were known as “Konyar” by the local population of Serfiçe given that they were the sipahis (Ottoman cavalrymen who had the right to collect taxes for the sultan from the local people in exchange for their warfare services) who had transferred from Vilayet of Konya.
Although Ayni was first schooled in Serfiçe, he continued his education in Thessaloniki and Istanbul as his family moved from one to the other. He enrolled at Çiçekpazarı Junior High School before he was transferred to Sanaa Junior High School as his father was assigned to a post in Sanaa, Yemen. Meanwhile, he learned Arabic, Persian and French. Ayni graduated from Gülhane Military Junior High School before he was admitted to the Mekteb-i Mülkiyye, a higher education institution for civil servants.
After his graduation in 1888, Ayni began to work as a civil servant for the Consulate Writing Office at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was assigned to various positions including assistant professor at the School of Law, schoolteacher at Edirne High School, school principal at Dedeağaç and Aleppo high schools, director of education for Diyarbakır Eyalet and director of statistics at the Ministry of Education. After working for eight years at such educational positions, Ayni became a public administrator and worked for another 15 years for the Ottoman state. He worked as a governor for various provinces and subprovinces in Anatolia, Rumelia, Morea, Syria and Yemen.
Talat Pasha, the strongman of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) rule after the 1908 revolution, ordered that Ayni should submit his resignation, which ended his 25 years as a public servant and administrator. After that, Ayni became an educator rather than an administrator.
Authoring history of Sufism
Ayni began to work as a professor of philosophy at Darülfünun (today’s Istanbul University) upon the invitation of Şükrü Bey, the then-minister of education. Unfortunately, he left this job because the syllabus and academic staff were not sufficient for him. He returned to the school upon the insistence of Ziya Gökalp, the founder of the sociology department at Darülfünun.
He was very active at Darülfünun. Thanks to his long experience in administration, he undertook some positions in the university administration. He also helped the Darülfünun Faculty of Letters’ journal be published. He taught philosophy, history of philosophy, literature, history of Sufism, ethics and other subjects at various types of schools, including Çamlıca Girls’ School. He resigned in 1935 for the second time in his life. He became the chairperson of the Committee for the Classification of Istanbul Libraries in 1937 and remained in the position until his death on Nov. 30, 1945.
As an author, Ayni had always had some problems with positivist regimes (both during the CUP regime and the Kemalist single-party rule), though he never wrote on actual politics but authored texts of philosophy, Sufism, ethics, logic and history. The problem the regime had with his writings was the fact that he resisted positivism and offered spiritualist conservatism. On the other hand, as he worked in silence and never showed signs of political opposition against the actual rulers, he was allowed to work as a professor and man of culture.
Ayni wrote critiques on the contemporary philosophical writings of his peers, who translated and authored various philosophical works in the late Ottoman and early Republican eras. He also wrote some polemics against positivism and positivist claims such that theology was not a science and it was unnecessary to build a separate faculty of theology. On the other hand, Ayni’s legacy as an author lies in his works on the history of Sufism and the monographs of prominent Sufis such as Abd al-Qadir Gilani, al-Ghazali, Ibn al-Arabi and Hacı Bayram-ı Veli. He wrote more than 20 volumes on a variety of subjects including philosophy, logic, ethics, Sufism, philosophical critiques, higher education, democracy and nationalism.
Ayni formulated Sufism as the inner logic of Sharia, not a clashing opposite to it. Just like all other conservative thinkers of the modern era, Ayni, too, fought against materialism and atheism by defending a spiritualist understanding of existence and humanity. He also wrote a special volume against skepticism and pessimism, which he found was the basic problem of modern civilization. Ayni believed that skepticism and pessimism together were feeding atheism, which was demolishing humanity. He also criticized literary works pumping such skeptical and pessimistic views of life, which he thought affected young people and drove them to commit suicide.
Ayni represented Turkey twice, at the International Philosophy Congress held at Harvard in 1926 and at Oxford in 1930. He also sent a special article to the 20th Orientalists Congress in 1938. In 1935, Ayni became a member of the Societe Asiatique de Paris with the help of prominent orientalists, including Louis Massignon.