Şehbenderzade Ahmad Hilmi: In search of the truth

Published 29.09.2017 21:48
Updated 01.10.2017 16:25
Şehbenderzade Ahmad Hilmi: In search of the truth

Born in Filibe, or modern-day Plovdiv, Ahmad Hilmi was one of the prominent political and intellectual figures of the Ottoman Constitutional Period. As a member of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), he was exiled to Fezzan Dessert in Libya, where he joined a Sufi order

The generation of thinkers of the late Ottoman and early Republican era had an eclectic approach to both philosophy and politics and chose separate ideas from various sources. Though we call them as Islamists, Westernists or Nationalists today, they all had ideas that exceeded their ideological stance.

Ahmad Hilmi, one of the most prominent thinkers during Sultan Abdülhamid II's reign and in the Republican period, is a good example of the aforementioned eclectic preference of ideas. He was an Islamist; however, his political writings had an apparent emphasis on Turks, while he was a serious opponent of Abdülhamid II. Since ideological cliches would give us a little help in understanding Ahmed Hilmi, we should directly come face to face with his life and works.


Ahmad Hilmi is generally called "Filibeli" (of Filibe, modern-day Plovdiv, Bulgaria) or "Şehbenderzade" (son of the consul), because he was born as the eldest son of Süleyman Bey, an Ottoman consul in Filibe in 1862 or 1863.

He received his initial education from the mufti of Filibe. Later, he graduated from the secondary school in Filibe. After Suleiman Beg moved his family to Edirne after the Russian-Ottoman War exploded in 1877, the family settled there and Suleiman Beg died. After that, they moved to Istanbul. While some historians accept that Hilmi graduated from Galatasaray High School in Istanbul, others think that he was an autodidact.

Hilmi began to work for the Ottoman Postal Service in 1888. Soon after, he moved to İzmir with his family where he continued to work for the postal service. Two years later, he became the manager of the İzmir Post Office before later becoming commissioned with the Beirut Post Office, where he met and created ties with the members of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP).


Though Hilmi's life in Beirut and his political activities, with or without the CUP, are very obscure for us in modern times, we know that he ran to Egypt from Beirut. Egypt was among the exile destinations for CUP members and other opponents running from Abdülhamid II.

While in Egypt, Hilmi joined the Ottoman Progress Association, one of the autonomic branches of CUP. He also published a Turkish humor magazine called Çaylak (Naive) in Egypt. In 1901, he returned to Istanbul, where he was arrested and directly exiled to the Fezzan Desert, in Libya. He should have been shocked and upset, because of his obvious efforts to reach the center of the Ottoman intellectual circle in Istanbul, instead being taken and sent to "nowhere."

Sufi philosopher

In Libya, Hilmi got attached to the locals and joined a Sufi order, namely the Arusi-Qadiri Lodge led by Sheikh Abd al-Salam Asmar, and some of his later works reflect his experience with Sufism. Hilmi was a man of deep thoughts and fantasies; however, he was obliged to act according to actual and real facts. He once wrote: "Life is like poetry to the youth. They believe in fantasies and love life. But, when the clouds of fantasy leave a man, he will face the naked ugliness of the truth. I am myself a man of heavenly fantasy fallen into the wasteland of the truth. This falling is an evolution, a progress. One becomes a thinker after falling from the clouds of fantasy to the ground of truth."

Fantasy occupies a large place in Hilmi's works. His most famous work "Amak-ı Hayal" (Depths of Fantasy) is a fantastic novel, which became more popular since being praised by postmodern literary critics. In "Amak-ı Hayal," Raci, a well-educated young man, tries to get to his goal of finding the truth. He explores various beliefs and philosophies, yet none of them satisfy him. Eventually, he meets a Sufi sheikh who makes coffee for him and plays the Sufi flute, which makes Raci fall into deep fantasies. The writer pens another story out of the fantasy of each character. Every story indeed reflects another section of the pantheistic Sufi understanding.

Back to Istanbul

After the 1908 Revolution, Ahmed Hilmi turned back to Istanbul and began publishing several periodicals along with some books. The most prominent periodical he published was "İttihad-ı İslam" (Union of Islam), in which he wrote Islamist articles and explained his political point of view.

According to Hilmi, Turks had succeeded in saving the union of Muslim groups at length, thanks to their non-nationalistic attitude. "The historical duty of the Turks is to serve the good of Muslims. Turkish identity would be demolished if the Turks stopped fulfilling their duty." He is obviously against Nationalism. Yet, he made slight changes in his thoughts from time to time as did other Republican era philosophers such as Ziya Gökalp, Rıza Tevfik, and others.

Though he was a member of the CUP, Hilmi did not show much obedience to CUP rule after the revolution. He criticized CUP leaders as he had criticized Abdülhamid II, who previously exiled him to the desert. The CUP censorship banned his periodicals several times; however, he managed to publish new periodicals each time. The CUP also exiled him and he was sent to Kastamonu before being allowed to settle in Bursa in 1911.

Hilmi was very productive during the Republican era. He wrote a special piece titled, "History of Islam" in order to stand against Dozy's "History of Islam." He published some interesting literary works in addition to "Amak-ı Hayal." He also wrote many political articles, which are among the major archives of Islamism in Turkey. He both criticized the past of Muslim societies and Western politics, as well. He offered an eclectic way of "choosing and adopting" necessary things from a well-developed and rich Europe, while turning back to the Muhammedan principles of Islam.

Hilmi died in Bursa in 1914 in a suspicious way. Some people think today that he was killed by members of the CUP or the freemasons, whom he severely criticized, but there is no proof for such claims. The only thing we know about his death is that it was sudden and seemed un-natural.

His grave is in the Fatih Mosque Cemetery in Istanbul.

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