Dimitrios Giagtzoglou, M.A. (University of Crete)

The Ottoman “science of letters” in Theory and Practice: Principles, Methods, People and Sources

During the last fifteen years a good number of excellent books, articles and journals have dealt extensively with the various aspects and forms of Islamicate occult knowledge. Unfortunately, few of these studies have shed light on one of the most fascinating periods of the history of the Middle East and the Balkans, that of the Ottoman Empire. This project aspires to contribute in this new research field through the study of what seems to have been one of the most characteristic expressions of Ottoman occultism. The science of letters (‘ilm al-ḥurūf)  or Lettrism, as it is usually defined by contemporary scholars, could be briefly described as the attribution of mystical qualities to the letters of the alphabet. In the lands of Islam, the works of Muhyiddin ibn Arabi and Ahmed el-Buni are perhaps the most prominent and representative projections of an occult genre, which was expressed both on a highly philosophic and, at the same time, quite practical level. Many of the disciples of these great masters of the letters continued their legacy and had an impact on the courts of the various rulers of the Arab and Persian Lands. For the Ottoman sultans, who, from mid-fourteenth century, were trying to establish themselves as an important political power amongst the other Anatolian emirates, the production of lettrist knowledge was a useful tool in their effort to construct their imperial ideology and legitimize their political authority. Talismanic objects such as shirts and inscribed amulets were produced especially for the protection of the sultan’s family, while some of the most prominent members of the ulema provided the rulers with lettrist prophecies on major events of the near or distant future. At the same time, various sufi circles applied lettrist knowledge to interprete the Quran and understand the esoteric qualities and truths of the universe and the world around them. The project brings together all these different voices and sets off to describe, analyse and above all contextualise them inside the intellectual realities and the social and political dynamics of Anatolia and the greater Ottoman Empire.

Figure: Şücaüddin İlyas b. İsa b. Mecdüddin es-Saruhani, (d. 967/1559), Ferahnâme, Süleymaniye Kütüphanesi, Carullah MS 1539.