The story of modern Islamic theology in Turkey is unfortunately little known in the West, and my recent workhas sought to make this history more accessible. One theologian in particular deserves prominent mention, and consideration of his work provides an excellent introduction to the story of modern Islamic thought in Turkey in general. İsmail Hakkı İzmirli (1868-1946) was one of the greatest Muslim theologians in Turkish history. His immense body of work encompassed both traditional Islamic learning and modern Western thought and spanned the transition from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic. Born and raised in Izmir, he was a prominent teacher, theologian, and administrator who served in a variety of prestigious academic capacities throughout his life, such as professor of philosophy at the madrasa of the imperial Süleymaniye mosque and the modern university of late-Ottoman Istanbul, the Darülfünun, where in 1931 he was appointed head of the Faculty of Theology.
In İzmirli’s day, Ottoman thinkers argued passionately for “reform” (ıslâh) and “progress” (terakkî) as ways to address the empire’s waning political strength and weakening social cohesion. One ideology in particular captivated the minds of Ottoman intellectuals: “vulgar materialism,” which asserted that the cosmos is ruled only by mechanistic physical forces, and that religious belief was therefore a delusional barrier to social progress. İzmirli’s answer to vulgar materialism’s critique propelled his theological project. At the beginning of his unfinished magnum opus, The New Theology (Yeni İlm-i Kelâm, 1923-1924), he cites al-Sayyid al-Sharīf al-Jurjānī’s (1340-1413) well-known definition of systematic theology: it is the discipline of knowledge concerned with God’s essence and attributes; and the nature of created being in relation to its ultimate origin and ultimate end (its mabda’ and ma‘ād); all according to the criterion (qānūn) of Islam. İzmirli argued on this basis that theology and science are in fact complementary: science teaches us how the physical forces of created being function, and theology teaches us the ultimate significance of created being.
İzmirli thus argued that a horizon of transcendent significance must frame modern knowledge. This led him to meditate intensely on God’s attribute of eternal wisdom (hikmet). According to İzmirli, all of God’s actions emerge from God’s wisdom. Whether God is acting according to God’s perfect justice, power, loving-mercy, or any other attribute, God brings into existence every occurrence in the universe in accordance with eternal wisdom and directed toward a discrete end (gâye– or, telos). İzmirli emphasizes that acting in this way is a consequence of the divine essence that characterizes God alone. Contra vulgar materialism, the universe is a product of conscious arrangement (tertîb) and it evinces clear harmony and order (nizâm or intizâm). İzmirli thus emphasizes the importance of arguments for God’s existence based on God’s infinite wisdom in the design of creation (hikmet) and God’s evident loving care for that creation (inâyet).
İzmirli also argues that a religious frame of reference is necessary for genuine human progress. Unlike the pure physicality of vulgar materialism, Islam provides for the “reform” (ıslâh) of the whole human individual as a simultaneously spiritual, social, and political being. To make this point, İzmirli cites a classic distinction between three basic types of Islamic religious judgments: creedal judgments, active judgments, and moral judgments. Creedal and moral judgments cannot undergo revision, as the truths they point to are immortal. Examples of these include, respectively, the oneness of God (vahdâniyet) and loving-kindness (şefkat) toward humanity. Active judgments, however, are of two distinct types: acts of worship owed to God; and acts of justice owed to other human beings. Acts of worship are not subject to revision, because God does not change. By contrast, acts that concern human social relations (such as political systems) are subject to revision in accordance with social change, because human life is by nature ever-changing.
Modern Turkish theology has developed along the main axes of İzmirli’s vision. 20th century Turkish Islamic theology is often described with reference to two general tendencies, which can be characterized as “analytical” and “constructive.” The former seeks to recover and analyze the great heritage of classical Islam systematic theology, led by the titanic scholarly legacy of Bekir Topaloğlu (1932-2016). The latter seeks to build new theological paradigms in response to social change, exemplified in the work of Hüseyin Atay (b. 1930). Both of these tendencies have roots in İzmirli’s grand vision, which attempted simultaneously to synthesize the classical Islamic theological legacy and recover its dynamism in the modern context.
İzmirli’s contribution is epitomized in his theology of wisdom. İzmirli suggests that the epistemic and social technologies of secular modernity (such as modern science and representative government) are complementary to the truth of Islam. At the same time, he stresses that genuine social progress is only possible within the horizon of Islam’s ultimate meaning. İzmirli’s work surveys the vast resources of premodern Islamic systematic theology, and from these components builds a grand vision designed to reconcile the apparent tensions between religion and modernity. The framework of God’s wisdom illumines the essential meaning of both divine truth and social change, and their interrelationship emerges as the key to the full advancement of humanity in the present age.