The Harem in The Ottomans

Bunu Paylaş



Before discussing the institutions of male and female slavery in Islamic law, and their application and the Harem in the Ottoman Empire, it is essential to know that these subjects have been exploited by the enemies of Islam and the Ottomans. Mistakes made by individuals have been made to appear general, as though such situations always applied in Islam and in the Ottoman Empire. Furthermore, in the first years of the Turkish Republic, in addition to our external enemies, the discrediting of Islam was adopted as one of the aims of general education, and certain groups and publications in this country perpetuated the distortions and deliberate misrepresentation, as though regretting the passing of the publications of our external enemies. And these distortions still continue.

Anyone interested in seeing how the surgeon Cemil Pasha, who was a doctor in the Palace, was compelled to comply with the established practice in the Republican period of misrepresenting life in the Palace, and to distort things that happened in Harem life, which he had actually experienced, may refer to the section assigned to this matter in Ayşe Osmanoğlu’s book My Father, Sultan Abdülhamid. Unfortunately, since speaking ill of the Ottomans was a means of reaping reward in the first years of the Republic, the Harem was a rich source for those who made their pens a means to furthering their interests.

It should be stressed however, that the Ottoman state was a legal entity made up of human beings. It is not possible to claim that all the people making up the State were completely innocent and free of sin. Of course they had faults and disabilities. But at the same time, it did not consist entirely of sinful and faulty people as was taught to us for years. It would be fairer to reach a conclusion by weighing up and comparing its good points and evils.

I want now to give some examples of these distortions:

I. Distortions which Portray the Sultans as Infringing the Prohibition on Alcoholic Drink and Pursuing Unlawful Pleasures

At the present time, forces representing certain circles with dark interests ‘attack’ the Ottoman Empire, which was the longest-lived Islamic state, in two ‘wings,’ like the wings of an army:

The First ‘Wing’ are enemies of religion and history who do not state their hostility to Islam openly, but attack it under the guise of attacking the Ottomans. They display their hostility towards Islam, which they cannot display openly, by criticising the Ottoman state, which together with its faults endeavoured to practise Islam, and make it practised, in every area of life. It is most striking that the chief of this ‘wing’ are members of the minorities, who are non-Muslim, or certain dönme’s.*

The Second ‘Wing’ are simple-minded Muslims, who at that time became a burden on the Ottoman state in its duty of spreading Islam, and now due to their simple-mindedness are deceived by official propaganda, which aims to uproot Islam, and who are uninformed about their history. One of the most effective trumps that both these ‘wings’ play is the claim that the Ottoman Sultans completely disregarded the prohibition of the Islamic religion on alcoholic drink and were alcoholics. The question of the Harem too is embellished with these claims and put before the people of this country.

It will be useful to bear in mind the following facts:

(a) The individuals making up the Ottoman state were not exempt from sin and error. Just as among them were ‘friends of God’ like Mehmed the Conqueror and Abdülhamid II, so too there may have been individuals who drank and committed similar sins. It is a fact that some accepted all the rules of Islam and practised them, but it is also a fact that some opposed them and did not practise them. It is not possible to deny either of these. As with everything, there were both good things in the Ottoman state and bad. But it is a fact that for the six hundred years that it continued the good things outweighed the bad, for Divine Determining bestowed on it the rank of Standard-Bearer of Islam throughout that long period. When its evils came to preponderate over its good, this elevated position was taken from it, again at the decree of Divine Determining. The millions of documents in the archives prove that even in their worst times, it was not a question of opposing a clear injunction of Islam like the prohibition on drinking alcohol, but that the Ottomans made every effort to conform to the matters of the Shari‘a, even those matters which were open to interpretation (ijtihâdi).

(b) Regretably some people want to interpret some of the terms used in Ottoman history and literature as meaning that the drinking of alcohol was entirely unrestricted during the Ottoman period. I want to draw attention to some of these expressions. The chief of them is ‘êfl ü ‘iflret, which appears in the histories in such phrases as “padişah, iş ü ‘işreti severdi.” This is given to mean “the Sultan loved drinking and carousing.” Whereas the true meaning of ‘iş is “life and especially a happy, luxurious, or jolly life; or the pleasures of life,” and ‘işret is “enjoyment or social enjoyment.” Enjoying life and taking pleasure can be within the bounds of the licit, just as it can exceed them. Therefore, so long long as there is no other evidence to the contrary, it can only be the result of prejudice to interpret the phrase as referring to illicit activities. Nevertheless, if there is clear evidence that some rulers like Yıldırım Bayezid (791/1389-805/1403) drank intoxicating beverages, it would not be right to put any other interpretation on it.

Another word the meaning of which is distorted is sâki. The word denotes a person who distributes glasses of drinks on social occasions. However, a person who distributes sherbet at a religious recitation is called sâki the same as one who distributes wine in a tavern. Again it is only the result of prejudice to always give the word’s meaning as “one who dispenses glasses of intoxicating drinks.” There were certainly sâkis in the Ottoman court, but it is not fair to say that they were people who served alcoholic beverages freely and openly.

The word şarâb (wine) is the same. Originally this referred to any sort of beverage, but today it is used to signify wine, the drinking of which is prohibited, and the Arabic word for which is hamr. In Ottoman times, it referred to all beverages including water and sherbets, for which in present-day Turkish the word meşrubat is used. It would not have been possible for the officials who applied the penalties of the Shari‘a, called hadd-i şirb, to those who infringed the Islamic legal prohibition on intoxicating liquor, to themselves openly infringe it.

(c) On becoming Muslim, in principle the Turks gave up completely all their customs which were opposed to Islam. The clearest example of this are the following lines from the Kutadgu Bilig, which was inspired by Islam and written in the time of the Qarakhanid Dynasty (10th century), which was the first Turkish Muslim state. It says: “The bey (lord) should not drink intoxicating liquor or cause corruption; prosperity is lost as a result of these two activities. If the beys of the world taste wine, the difficulties the country and people suffer are indeed severe, for if the bey spends all his time drinking and carousing, what opportunity remains for him to think of the matters of state?”[1] The rulings of the Shari‘a in the books of fıkh (jurisprudence) that the subsequent Turkish Muslim dynasties accepted as their official legal codes, make clear their attitude towards intoxicating drinks.

The Ottoman legal authorities adopted exactly the same principles concerning intoxicating drinks as the Islamic authorities, and they stated that foremost wine (hamr) and all intoxicating beverages, in whatever amount, are prohibited, that is, definitely forbidden by religion. However, different views emerged in the definition of what constituted the offence of drinking intoxicants, which demands the penalty known as hadd, which Islam had laid down. Imam-ı A‘zam, Abu Hanifa, stated that drinking any amount of wine, or enough of other intoxicating beverages to produce intoxication, were offences demanding the hadd penalty. While other Islamic legal authorities stated that any amount of every kind of intoxicating beverage constituted an offence requiring the necessary penalty. Although Abu Hanifa differentiated between wine (hamr) and other alcoholic drinks, other authorities included them under the same ruling.

According to the former view, which was the one favoured by the Ottomans, there are two elements in the offence of drinking alcoholic beverages (which is called şirb): the first of these is intoxication caused by drinking even a small amount of wine or other liquors. That is to say, although there is consensus that all intoxicating beverages are prohibited, there were minor differences concerning what constituted the offence requiring the hadd penalty. The second concerned intent and will. Enforced drinking of intoxicating liquor did not demand the penalty. If one of these elements was absent, the hadd penalty could not be applied, but the ta‘zir penalty, set by the state, would be applied. The hadd penalty was the flogging of the offender with eighty strokes of a rod, with no more and no less.[2]

Until the last ten years of the Ottoman Empire the Islamic penalty for drinking was applied to the letter in all Turkish Muslim countries, as is testified to by the judicial (Shar‘i) records and the Ottoman Kânunnâmesi (statute books). Although a European lawyer wrote that the Shar‘i rulings connected with this matter “were enforced until 1810. It may be said that these rulings were applied in theory, if not fully in practice,”[3] research has shown that they were applied up to the last ten years of the Empire. However, a law passed in the final years of the Empire, the Law for the Prevention of Alcoholic Drinks, provided alternatives for penalties for the drinking of alcoholic beverages, and gave the penalty of the Shari‘a as one of these. This law led to much debate both inside and outside the Empire.[4]

With very few exceptions, the Ottoman Sultans complied both in theory and practice with the Islamic prohibition on the drinking of intoxicating beverages, and they took the legal steps necessary so others would comply with it. I want to include here first the simplified text, then a facsimile of the original, of a decree given by Bayezid II (886/1481-918-1512), so that all aspects of this question will become clear:

“1. My Court was informed that wine is drunk openly in the cities, towns, and villages in your sancak (a subdivision of a province), in feasts, social gatherings, and on other occasions, and that various intoxicating beverages are imbibed and every sort of disgraceful behaviour perpetrated. It was said also that all Muslims and particularly religious scholars and the righteous are disturbed by the non-practice of the marks of Islam and the unlawful acts of the depraved.

“2. If the situation is thus, since it is incumbent on us to enjoin the good and restrain from evil, I have sent Hamza to attend to the matter and given him the below instructions:

“3. On receiving my command, you will pay great attention to the matter. For you are Bey of the sub-province, and the Kadı(s), (governor of a kaza). You will personally see to this matter and once again enforce with threats the prohibition on the people in the cities, towns, and villages of your kaza.

“4. After this, nowhere will the depraved gather together and perpetrate this wrongdoing openly; they will conform to the practices of Islam.

“5. You are the Bey of a sub-province; you will supervise this matter, and on the decision of the Kadı punish those who act contrary to my command, and ensure the injunctions of the Shari‘a and my commands are enforced.

“6. The police superintendents of these lands and their assistants will assist the Kadıs in this matter. They will help the Kadıs to abolish these unlawful practices, and not allow anyone to act contrarily to the injunctions of Islam at social gatherings and feasts. Those who do so, they will send to the courts and enforce their punishment as a result of trial.

“7. For you are all Kadıs; you will have this ferman (decree) copied in the rolls of the Shari‘a and you will always have it enacted. You will not neglect the matter nor be lenient in it. If it is heard that you do neglect it or are tolerant, you will not only be removed from your posts, you will suffer grievous penalties. You will inform me by means of the servant charged with the duty that this written decree of mine has reached you.

“You will know it to be thus and will trust in the illustrious signet.”[5]

How can it be thought in the face of this scrupulous compliance of the Ottoman Sultans with the Shari‘a, and these prohibitions, that they openly infringed the rulings of the Shari‘a? It may be understood from this example that the accusations of the Sultans being “drunkards” and having “depraved private lives” are total calumnies based on no documentary evidence.

II. Misrepresentations of the Court Pages (içoğlan)

This subject is discussed again later when it occurs. But because it forms a striking example of the lies, I want here to summarize the question and draw attention to the misrepresentations.

(1) The Distortion of the Words’ Meanings

As is well-known, everyone sees the world in his own mirror. Comparing them to themselves, some columnists and writers have imagined that the Ottoman Sultans indulged in perverted relationships and have repeatedly brought up the subject of the court pages, which has been studied at length by Ottoman historians. The term içoğlan refers to the boy servants who had been recruited according to the devşirme system,* and who worked in the Enderun, that is, Inner Palace, one of the three parts of Topkapı Palace. In other words, they were the Inner Palace servants, or in the language of today, the staff serving in the head of state’s residence. The same term was used for certain members of the Janissaries. Those interested may consult İsmail Uzunçarşılı’s book Kapıkulu Ocakları.[6]

It is necessary at this point to reply briefly to those who attach disgraceful meanings to the term court page, and offer the readers an example of their distortions.

Certain writers have shamelessly asserted that the Sultans kept beautiful youths in the Inner Palace, called içoğlan, with whom they had illicit relations, even making some of the veil their faces due to their jealousy, and that some of the Sultans had a passion for men only.[7] The things they claim about the Kabusnâme are complete nonsense like this.

Here, as evidence for this, I want to quote some lines from a letter written by the daughter of Yavuz Sultan Selim, Fatma Sultan, to her father about her husband Mustafa Pasha, which is taken from the Kâbusnâme, thus showing to readers how those who make the above claims distort them, and that they make other distortions similar to these.

They state that in addition to all the warped relationships in the Ottoman Harem, the Sultans and people of the Inner Palace had deviant relationships with both men and the boy pages known as içoğlan, and that Murad IV was one of these. Since illustrating falsehood leads simple minds astray, rather than reiterating their assertions, I want to reply to them. One of the principal proofs they put forward to support what they claim is this:

It is a sentence taken from the work entitled the Kâbusnâme, which was written in the style of the Nasihatnâme, which was written by Emir Kaykavus of the Ziyarids in 475/1082 for his son. They claim that one of the pieces of advice in the book, which was accepted as authoritative by the Ottoman Sultans, is the following, which is in fact about sexual relations with women: “In summer incline to women, and in winter to boys, then health and well-being will be found. For the bodies of boys are hot, and if two hot bodies come together in the summer it is detrimental to the health. And women’s bodies are cold, and if two cold bodies come together in the winter, it dries up the body.”[8] They state that it is recorded that foremost Murad IV and some other Sultans resorted with women in the summer and boys in the winter. They accept, however, that the Kabusnâme was translated by Mercimek Ahmed during the time of Murad II, Mehmed the Conqueror’s father, and that the idioms of that period are used.

They go even further, saying that it is known that these activities were practised also by the sons-in-law of the Sultans and that Yavuz’s daughter Fatma Sultan made complaints about this in connection with her first husband, the Bey of the Antalya Sancak, Mustafa Pasha. They try to prove these claims with a sentence they quote from a letter written by Fatma Sultan, to according to them an unknown correspondent. The sentence is this: “My Illustrious Father. I have no peace of mind. I have ended up with a person who does not regard me even as a dog. He wrongfully seizes youths (oğlan) from their parents, and immediately sets about them.”[9] They claim that these sentences refer to the Ottoman Beys and prove their relations with males. However, they agree that this letter was written in the 15th century, and we know from dictionaries that at that time the word oğlan referred to both boys and girls.

Here I have to state that it is very meaningful that at the beginning of the relevant distorted passage, one writer quotes the Qur’anic verse, “For you practise your lusts on men in preference to women.”[10]

Now, to explain the matter:

Firstly, a further matter should be explained: the Qur’anic verse quoted above is part of what Lot said about his own people, who practised sodomy. The whole passage is: “He also (sent) Lut. He said to his people: ‘Do you commit lewdness such as no people in creation (ever) committed before? * For you practise your lusts on men in preference to women; you are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds.’”[11] Following this the Qur’an states that Lot’s people made moves to drive him out of the country and that God Almighty meted out a terrible chastisement on them for their excesses in committing the sin of sodomy. It may be seen clearly that there is no connection between these verses and the matter under discussion.

To come to the second matter: it is well-known that every era has its own idiom and way of speaking. That is to say, words bear different meanings in different ages. People from different regions also use the same words to express different meanings.

In this way, the word oğlan (youth), which is used both in the Kâbusnâme and in Fatma Sultan’s letter, is given the wrong meaning. Its meaning in Turkish texts of the 14th and 15th centuries is significantly different to its meaning today. From the sources we understand that in those centuries the word oğlan had two basic meanings. Firstly it referred to children and youths, both male and female, and secondly it referred to male children.

There are numerous instances proving this, but the best evidence is the following passage from a Turkish translation of One Hundred Hadiths by Mustafa Darir of Erzurum, which was written in the 14th century, the century the Kâbusnâme was translated into Turkish. It says: “The young girl (oğlan) should be fertile so that my community may be numerous. For I take pride in the great numbers of my community.”[12] Those who distort this matter cannot claim that at the time of the Prophet (PBUH) young boys gave birth too!

A further point that corroborates what I say is that the translators of both the Kâbusnâme and the One Hundred Hadiths lived in the same century, that is, at the time of Murad II, the father of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror. In any event, chiefly the ‘Tarama’ lexicon and other philological sources confirm what I have said. However, I do not have much else to say to those who want to slander history and Islam using word games. What really makes me unhappy is a scholar like Uluçay attaching any importance to the same baseless gossip and in his work Harem Hayatının İç Yüzü (The True Face of Harem Life), which he contradicted in his book Harem II, agreeing with it or quoting from it.

Another piece that further clarifies the matter is the following: “If the child (oğlan) is a girl, they have it suckled by a woman (‘avrat) who has given birth to a girl; or if it (oğlan) is a boy, they have it suckled by a woman who has (previously) given birth to a boy.[13] Thus, in the 14th and 15th centuries, the word oğlan was used for both boys and girls; and the word (‘avrat) for older women. So too in the Persian original of the Kâbusnâme the word ghulâm, the equivalent of oğlan, means “a child and young; the period from birth to youth.”[14]

Having seen these explanations, the expressions in the Kâbusnâme and Fatma Sultan’s letter are more readily understood:

As was stated above, the Kâbusnâme is a sort of Nasihatnâme; it consists of a ruler’s advice to his sons, illustrated with Qur’anic verses and Hadiths of the Prophet (PBUH) or the moral dicta of former notable persons. The Fifteenth Book of the Kâbusnâme consists of recommendations about marital relations. One of these recommends the following to his son, who has more than one wife as well as female slaves: “In summer, incline to ‘avret and in winter, to oğlan so that you may find health. For oğlans’ bodies are hot, and if two hot bodies come together in summer, it is detrimental to the body. And ‘avrets’ bodies are cold; if two cold bodies come together, it dries the body. Vesselam.”[15]

That is to say, if you have more than one woman, be together with the older ones in the summer and with the young ones in the winter, so you will find health and well-being. For the bodies of young women are warm, and if two warm bodies come together in the heat of summer it is harmful. And the bodies of older women are cool, and if two cool bodies come together in winter, it dries the bodies.

To distort this as meaning that he is advising his sons to have relations with men points only to lack of scholarship and knowledge of language.

As for Fatma Sultan, she was writing that her husband favoured the young female slaves rather than herself. “My Illustrious Sultan Father, I have no peace of mind. My lot is a person who counts me not even as a dog. He forcibly seizes the young girls from their parents, and immediately expends all his energy on them.” How can her complaining thus to her father the Sultan be explained as her husband having relations with other males?[16]

The writers who make these claims also know that it was actually forbidden for sons-in-law of the Sultan to take wives other than the Sultan’s daughter while married to them, let alone having deviant relations with men. This subject is discussed at greater length in the section on the Sultans’ marriages. But those who have not grasped the meaning of the above letter have tried to explain it as they understand it.[17]

(2) The Court Pages are a Subject about which has been Much Uninformed Discussion

It now becomes necessary to reply briefly to the above assertions in respect of the court pages’s (içoğlan) position in the organization of the Ottoman state.

Firstly, it is necessary to define the term içoğlan. The palace servants who were carefully chosen to work in the Inner Palace were called içoğlan. In Ottoman history, it describes the devşirmes (conscripts) who were trained in the palaces of Topkapı, Galata, İbrahim Pasha, and Edirne and in the course of time were employed in various official duties. They were also called saray ‘acemi oğlanları or celeb. There were also Janissary recruits who even if they were originally called içoğlan, were later called şadi in order to differentiate them from those in the Palace.[18]

Thus, içoğlan is merely a term. Oğlan does not necessarily mean a young boy chosen with evil intent. It denotes the recruits selected to work in the Inner Palace. The ‘İç’ that is, ‘Inner,’ refers to their place of work. These recruits were also trained in the Palace School (Enderun Mektebi), which at the same time fulfilled the function of training state officials. Numerous high-ranking officials were produced there, among whom were pashas, beylerbeys, and sancakbeys.

Secondly, the fact that some of the court pages who were trained to work in the Inner Palace were good looking was not in order to gratify the Sultan’s lusts, as some foreign travellers and historians inimical to Islam have suggested. It was rather a question of the careful choice of the staff who would work in the Inner Palace, that is, in the centre of government of the Ottoman Empire, which stretched at the time of its greatest extent over an area measuring twenty-four million square kilometres. Those who write these things know perfectly well that today even the staff chosen to work in a prime minister’s office or president’s palace possess attributes different to those of employees in ordinary government offices. Certainly, those employed in the Inner Palace had to be discreet, of presentable appearance, honest, and not inclined to treachery. In the Ottoman period there were various sciences like physiognomy to ascertain the characters of the candidates for the court pageship, just as today there are criminology and similar sciences. They could ascertain accurately a person’s moral character according to his physical characteristics. The court pages were chosen by people who were experts in this field. Another reason they were called gilmân or içoğlan was that no female staff were employed in this position, like today. This is discussed in greater detail in the relevant section.

Thirdly, it may have been the case that since the court pages in the Inner Palace were handsome youths, any striking ones among them were commanded to veil their faces, not for the Sultan, but to forestall any illicit situations arising among themselves. This was not because the Sultan was jealous, but was the application of a ruling of the Shari‘a concerning this matter. For there is a ruling in Islamic law which says: “A young teacher or tutor should not remain too long alone with young boys, for man’s instinctual soul prompts him to evil. Such youths may veil their faces and are called şâbb-i emred (beardless youths).”[19] Some of the Ottoman Sultans conformed to this injunction with its extreme courtesy, ordering some of the court pages to veil their faces. So is there any way this scrupulous adherence to a Qur’anic command can be correlated with those totally discourteous distortions, which conform only to the calumnies of Christian historians like Hammer?

Fourthly, I want to draw attention to another matter. As is described a little later, the court pages performed various duties, some of which were the duties of the Privy Chamber (Has Oda). This was not somewhere the Sultan could have indulged in any illicit relations with the court pages. On learning what the Privy Chamber consists of, it is not possible not to tremble at such a suggestion.

Originally, the Privy Chamber complex had been the most esteemed place in the Inner Palace, and had been built by Mehmed the Conqueror. Thirty of his pages lived here. The complex, which was not in the Harem but in the Inner Palace, was subsequently enlarged by other Sultans. The Mantle of the Prophet PBUH (Hırka-i Şerif) and other sacred relics were later housed there. The duties of the Privy Chamber pages were cleaning the rooms where the Mantle and other relics were kept, sprinkling them with rose-water and sweet scents on special occasions, reciting the Qur’an, and attending to the needs of the Sultan; that is, they were the Sultan’s personal servants inside the Palace.

So what possible relation is there between this and the calumnies mentioned above. To suggest that the servants employed in such elevated duties were the Sultan’s sexual partners is a slander not even the Devil could accept![20]

III. Some Distorted Facts about the Ottoman Sultans’


Private Lives

With effect from the Tanzimat, both because they feared to proclaim it openly and because they feared our people, Islam’s enemies within Turkey and outside it embarked on attempts to manifest their enmity through enmity towards the Ottomans. These efforts were centred on preventing our people learning their true history and as far as possible inculcating them with distorted history. The main means of increasing hatred of the Ottomans was the Ottoman Sultans’ private lives—in the words particular to Ottoman history, the life of the Harem. It is very striking that the great majority of those who tried to show the life of the Harem to be one of dissipation and unlawful pleasure were Jews, Armenians or Dönmes, who all played an important role in the breaking up of the Ottoman Empire. Unfortunately the books they wrote are printed in fine editions, and continue to be translated into various languages and to adorn the windows of booksellers both in our own country and abroad. And some well-intentioned academics and the people who read these publications merely add fuel to the fire.

It should be stressed that the Ottoman Sultans were Muslims and at least as much as the Muslims of this century, respectfully and scrupulously obeyed Almighty God’s commands and prohibitions. It is said there were many saints among them, but of course they were not free of fault. Some of them committed misdemeanours, and this is a bitter fact. Nevertheless, up to the beginning of the 19th century, female slavery was an institution included in almost all legal systems just as it was in Islamic law—though bound by particular conditions; yet no one reasonable can claim that any Ottoman Sultan openly committed depravities like adultery or drunken orgies. There may have been Sultans who abused the institution of female slavery, but it cannot be said that any Sultan openly infringed the Shari‘a rulings by holding illicit orgies and other debaucheries. This question is studied in greater detail in other sections of the book, so here we cut the discussion short. However, I want to show together with documentary evidence how the facts in one source describing the Ottoman Sultans’ private lives has been distorted and what the original was.

1. The Distortion of İdris-i Bitlisi’s Writings

İdris-i Bitlisi was an important Islamic scholar and Ottoman historian, and was a close advisor of Yavuz Sultan Selim (918/1512-926/1520). Benefiting from a work called Siyâset-i Şer‘iye by some Islamic jurisprudents, he composed a work entitled the Kânun-ı Şehinşâhi, which studies the political, moral, and family lives of the Caliphs and Sultans. According to one view, he dedicated the work to the august Sultan Yavuz, while according to another, on Yavuz’s early death, he dedicated it to Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. What interests us here are the mistranslation and corruptions of passages connected with the Ottoman Sultans’ private family lives.

A scholar of Iranian extraction translates the heading of the relevant passage: “Fourth Rule: the organization of social gatherings and of banquets for wine drinking, enjoyment and good company.”[21] Another academic summarizes this passage as “Here, permission to indulge in pleasure (wine, women, and song) is given to the Sultan, on condition it does not exceed the bounds.”[22] Anyone seeing these quotes would suppose that the Ottoman Sultans held drinking parties with women and that these were lawful.

However, the true meaning is this: “This is about the organizing of social gatherings for conversation and enjoyment, excursions, and assemblies for polite company.” As is known, ‘işret means social enjoyment and a pleasurable life; this may be within the bounds of the licit, or it may exceed those bounds. It is quite wrong to translate this as meaning “a drinking party.” For the piece then dwells on the fact, supported by Qur’anic verses and Hadiths, that what is lawful is sufficient and the Sultans should content themselves with taking pleasure within the bounds of the licit. So how can “gatherings for conversation and enjoyment” be thought of as being “Pleasure-seeking with wine, women, and song, so long as they are not excessive.”[23]

It will be useful here to quote İdris-i Bitlisi’s explanations of the subject in order to understand better the difference between the two and the rules the Ottoman Sultans had to conform to in their marital relations. In this way we may learn from the pen of a qualified religious scholar the basic principles of this matter.

2. İdris-i Bitlisi’s Advice Concerning the Sultans’ Private Lives


In the Fiftieth Matter of the treatise, entitled Kânun-ı Şehinşâhi, which in all probability he dedicated to Yavuz Sultan Selim, he summarizes as follows the rules for the Sultans’ private lives:

“50th. Fourth Principle: This is about the organization of social gatherings for conversation and enjoyment, and excursions and assemblies for polite company. All the reasonable agree that it is essential that just Sultans hold social gatherings for conversation and enjoyment, both public and private. The holding of private family gatherings are necessary so that the Sultan may air his private views and relieve his mind, that is, express what he has within him. The ordering of physical life in a seemly and lawful way, and the administration of the household in orderly fashion are among the laws and rules pertaining to the Sultan.[24]

“It is incumbent on everyone to do whatever is necessary in the most suitable fashion for the continued existence of themselves and their children. This is especially true for the person who is the means of the order and smooth running of society; that is, the Sultan.

“God Almighty says in connection with His setting up the palace called man and the continuation of the human race: ‘And [have We not] created you in pairs, * And made your sleep for rest, * And made the night as a covering?’[25] And alluding to this, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said: ‘Doubtless, your self has rights over you.’

“Yes, if the body is not strengthened with food and drink, and the soul is not restrained through licit marital relations, everything comes to a standstill. The character is weakened, and as Adam (Upon whom be peace) said: ‘If the soul is over-forced, it becomes blind.’ It is for this reason that God’s Messenger (PBUH) said: ‘I love three things in your world: fragrant smells, women, and my most loved thing, the five daily prayers.’

“On occasion he prevented the people of Islam from continually fasting, to preserve their strength. He said: ‘A year’s fasting is not fasting.’ And sometimes he called on people who practised asceticism for the sake of their souls to be moderate, saying that ‘there are no monks and priests in Islam.’ For the Religion of Muhammad is the religion of justice and moderation. Excess and negligence are forbidden for Muslims.

“The Sultans have been commanded to abstain from those things forbidden by the Shari‘a in order to maintain their bodily health; but in order to restrain their souls, they have to comply with those things required by Divine wisdom. Excessive comfort and laxity is not to be recommended in councils of state and social gatherings, especially for Sultans. There has to be moderation in everything. Other bounties and pleasures may be compared to this. It was the practice of the Prophet (PBUH) to live an informal life and avoid formalities and customs. A verse was revealed so that the Prophet should not include the ordinary people in his private assemblies: ‘Enter not the Prophet’s houses until leave is given you.’[26] Today the important matters concerning the people at large are bound to particular customary procedures, and are in accordance with the laws of tyrannical rulers like Caesar and Chosroes. Certainly at a time such as this the Sultans have to have private councils and meetings at which they may discuss private matters and state secrets.

“It should be understood that in their private gatherings the Sultans have to strictly avoid anything prohibited by the Shari‘a and restrain themselves from doing anything forbidden. In the event of the evil-commanding soul taking over the reins of the will from the reason and the powers of animal passion and anger gaining the upper hand, the very least a person should do is conceal opposition to the prohibitions of the Shari‘a. Concealing opposition to the Divine commands and prohibitions shows fear of God. While to commit sins openly tells of obduracy and perversity, which in the Sultans would be the cause of their subjects and army being insolently disrespectful towards the Divine commands.

“A further important point is the necessity of the Sultans abstaining from intoxicating liquor and illicit amusements. For law and order are dependent on their minds. Anyone who wants to be able to distinguish between good and evil needs a clear mind. The Sultans have to comprehend all their lands with their minds; they are bound to do this. The least harmful of prohibited intoxicating beverages is wine, if they are bold enough to indulge in this. Others are more harmful even than drugs. Anyone with any sense knows that they are detrimental to the faculties of reason and perception.

“If the Sultans consume excessive wine in unlawful fashion, it will open up the way to the destruction of their lands and empires; it will leave religion and the people open to revolution. This is not only agreed upon by religious scholars and good sense, but has been proved by numerous crises and experiences. The non-Muslim rulers who consistently drank caused the ruin of their own religions and lands.

“Those who spend their lives indulging in illicit pleasures waste their time. Also, there is no end to gambling. All these pleasures are fleeting and life too goes for nothing. God Almighty says: ‘Intoxicants and gambling, [dedication of] stones, and [divination by] arrows, are an abomination—of Satan’s handiwork; eschew such [abomination], that you may prosper. ’[27]

“When it comes to relaxing by listening to the saz and similar stringed instruments and to beautiful voices, this is in keeping with the laws of Greek philosophy. The scholars of the Shari‘a also have permitted certain sounds. The chief of these is the recitation of the Qur’an with a fine voice. The Qur’an states: ‘And recite the Qur’an in slow, measured rhythmic tones.’[28] The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) corroborated this with the Hadith: ‘Anyone who does not recite the Qur’an well is not one of us.’ It is also lawful to recite odes and poetry. The Prophet permitted this too. Most of the authorities of the Shafi‘i School permitted certain instruments like the tambourine and the flute. Some Shafi‘i scholars stated that the ‘u\\d (lute) and kânun (zither) were permissible (mubâh). This is stated in the books of fetvâs. Some of the saints and the pious considered the semâ‘ and similar religious activities to be permissible. I personally have written an article showing, with evidence, that certain musical instruments like the lute and flute are permissible.

“As for the Sultan’s marital relations and their restraining the desires of the soul suitably to the verse ‘Marry from among women such as are lawful for you, two, or three, or four,’[29] this is acceptable, lawful, and in conformity with nature. If this is insufficient for them and they wish for young girls, the licit way of this is female slaves. Examples of this lawful way are Solomon (Upon whom be peace), who had numerous wives and female slaves, and David (Upon whom be peace), who had nine wives and numerous female slaves.

“Doubtless, the Sultans and Caliphs sitting and conversing with their wives and daughters, and their retiring into privacy with their lawful wives and slaves is necessary in order to curb the appetites of the soul and satanic desires. But it would not be appropriate for the Sultans to spend all their time with them and to discuss with them the matters of state and religion and to consult them on these. It would be to misuse their time to spend too much of it with their lawful wives and slaves.

“In regard to their satisfying the soul’s appetite for food, drink, and pleasure, for sure all licit foods and drinks are permissible within the bounds of moderation. All kinds of bounties may be experienced, only wastefulness is forbidden, even if the bounties are permissible. The reasonable condemn consuming food and drink in excess of need. Divine wisdom requires that a person consumes less food so that they may rise to lofty matters; it is therefore said: ‘Hunger is Divine food.’ The purpose of food is the continued existence of the body. Excessive consumption of food and drink is harmful for the body, opening up the way to all sorts of indispositions. That is, it is harmful in regard to both worldly life and religion.

“In short, the Sultan’s hearts should be places for the remembrance of God, where infinite effulgences are received. For this reason, they should spend any free time on elevated matters like worship, reading the Qur’an, mentioning God’s Names, prayer, and good works. Their companions in private conversation should be saints and scholars so that their souls may be purified, and they may benefit from true knowledge and learn the conduct of the Shari‘a. Then they may run the state and religion beneficially, and not waste their time on frivolities.”[30]

It will be useful at this point to quote for those interested in taking a look at the daily life of the Ottoman Sultans the following pieces of advice from the Siyâsetnâme, which will also answer those who say that they left aside the matters of state and immersed themselves in pleasure:

The greater part of their daily lives is specified. Out of twenty-four hours, it is appropriate that they spend three hours on worship and recitation [of the Qur’an]; two hours reading books of history and similar matters; four hours discussing matters of state with ministers and other officials of “sound reason and moderate temperament;” and six hours on hunting and other excursions “that will gladden the royal heart;” and nine hours on leisure and sleep; that is, with their wives and families.[31]

3. Misrepresentations of the Sultans’ Private Lives, Made in the Early Years of the Republic


The things we read in the history books at all stages of school and even university and particularly what the history teacher taught us untiringly in Gaziantep İmam Hatip High School (1974-5) as though they were the principles of some holy religion, that everything to do with the Republic was good and everything to do with the Ottoman period was bad, always stuck in my mind in the form of doubts and questions. They said the Ottoman Sultans handed over the country to foreign powers while they themselves lived lives of pleasure. It was especially and bitterly stressed that Sultan Vahideddin (1336/1918-1341/1922) was a traitor. That Abdülhamid II (1293/1876-1327/1909) had committed untold atrocities and acted contrary to the Shari‘a was related enthusiastically as though recounting some great victory. But the following questions started bothering me: how was it that the Ottoman Sultans who for centuries won victory after victory against the Byzantine and European states and gained these sacred lands with the blood of martyrs leaving them to us in trust, could suddenly sell this country, for which they had sacrificed their lives for six hundred years and died defending it on the battlefield? How could these people who had been exemplars of virtue before the world suddenly come to lead a network of treachery? Our reasons, hearts and minds shouted out that they could not be traitors. But we were compelled to write what the teacher said in order to obtain full marks.

The time came when I reached a level of cultural development whereat I could consult the archives. I took a look at some of the newspapers and magazines in the National Library, published in Ankara and in the first years of the Republic. I saw that just like our history teacher, these newspapers were full of news against the Sultan in Istanbul and all the Ottomans. There was another source that did what these newspapers were doing, supporting our history teacher and the Ankara newspapers, and even outdoing them in their insults against the Ottomans, and these were the European newspapers, published in 1919 and 1920. The combined goal of all of these was to inform public opinion of every sort of corruption the Ottomans had perpetrated, and to impress upon the public mind that the Ottoman Sultans were traitors and immoral.

See how the matter is distorted in a book called ‘Abdülhamid ve Devr-i Saltanatı, Hayât-ı Hususiyye ve Siyâsiyyesi (Abdülhamid and the Period of His Rule, His Private and Political Life), which was written on the orders of the Committee of Union and Progress, the precursor of the Republican Peoples’ Party before the foundation of the Republic. The book’s author was an officer sympathetic towards the CUP called Osman Nuri. Let us read what he writes about Abdülhamid II not performing the five daily prayers and what he was doing even during the ceremony of the Friday Prayers, while the people were praying:

“While the Friday Prayers were going on, two guards waited at the door of the sovereign’s section of the mosque. On entering, the Sultan would sit at the table (what was a table doing in a mosque?), light a cigarette, and read the reports of his secret agents and informers. When everyone thought he was praying, he was busy with his own work, probably frightened of prostrating despite his numerous body-guards.”[32]

These are lies that would shame even Satan. Even the Devil could not imagine that someone like Abdülhamid II, whom certain persons like Bediuzzaman Said Nursi considered to be a sort of saint, would do such a thing, and during the Friday Prayers.

Although this abusive writer utters such calumnies about Abdülhamid, he uses the following expressions about the Armenians, who were trying to cause the breakup of the Ottoman Empire by planning to kill Abdülhamid II, whom they considered to be an obstacle to their designs, and hatching the assassination plot towards the last days of his rule called the 9th July Bombing:

“Finally, truth prevailed. It was understood that this heroic act was carried out by our Armenian compatriots in order to save the Ottoman people from Abdülhamid’s tyranny. The bomb had been prepared with untold difficulties by our Armenian compatriots, Juris and his comrades, and was brought to close by the mosque together with the visitor’s carriages, who had come to watch Abdülhamid during the ceremony of the Friday address….”[33]

One cannot imagine that even the Armenians, who were Ottoman subjects, would have written such a thing. It is unthinkable that a person should display so much enmity towards history and the past due to political ambition.

A fair-minded journalist has summarized the common view of the Harem—that is to say, the Sultans’ private lives—over the past seventy years, as follows, even if it is a little discourteous:

“The Ottoman Palace was a forbidden city, in the most distant corner of which was an army of beautiful virgins. Every night a mighty Sultan whose shadow enveloped all God’s earth would summon to his bed one of those ravishing beauties, or several…

“Thus was the famous Ottoman Harem, which has never ceased to be described in a wide variety of works from memoirs of Western origin to serious historical studies, and from low-budget television series to vast film productions studded with superstars. One fact emerges despite the inadequacy of all the studies, the Harem was not an institution established to gratify the Sultans’ unbridled sexual appetites, as is supposed; there was no connection between the setting up of the Harem and sexual desires.”[34]

IV. General Distortions about Male and Female Slavery

As will be realized from the relevant section, those who in reality should be criticized in connection with male and female slavery are those Europeans who never tire of spouting about the religion of Islam and the Ottoman practices, and certain sycophants of Europe here. But the question has been completely reversed. They bring up the subject as though throughout history all European rulers and statesmen have been chaste and honourable and there was not even a whiff of slavery in Europe, let alone in America. It is exactly the opposite. Slavery continued to be practised in America until the 1960’s. And from the point of view of Blacks and Red Indians, so it continues.

We may quote here a bitter memory related to this subject from Ahmed Şefik Bey, who rose to the rank of Foreign Affairs Minister of the Egyptian Khediviate, which gained partial independence in the final years of the Ottoman Empire, and at the same time was a graduate of the Faculty of Law and Political Science in Paris. He wrote:

“By chance, in 1888 I was in the Church of Saint Supplice in Paris and heard an address given by Cardinal la Vie. The cardinal was describing to a large congregation the evils of the Central African slave-trade. He then spoke of the evils of slavery in the Islamic countries. The cardinal did not stop at blaming the Muslims, he said that the religion of Islam was the cause of slavery and captivity.

“Although these lies were completely baseless, the cardinal’s speech was published in some of the newspapers in Brussels and London. On seeing this, my love of truth drove me to study the injunctions on slavery in the books of law (fik≥h). With Allah’s grace, I was able to prove that the matter was not as the cardinal had said and the Qur’an did not look on slaves as animals, on the contrary, there were numerous Qur’anic verses and Hadiths commanding that they should be treated kindly, and freed.

“Up to now this was unknown by Europeans and also by foreigners residing in the East, and even if any did know, they were few and far between.

“In the 16th August 1888 number of the Brussels newspaper Ande Pandans Bilj, the cardinal’s speech was quoted together with the following piece:

“‘The cardinal could not restrain himself from saying that Muslims considered it a religious duty to hunt male and female slaves. Indeed, it is a right and duty for Muslims to hunt them, for they do not consider the black races to be part of humanity, but to form a class half-way between men and the animals. They even consider some of them to be lower than the animals.’”[35]

These lines make one’s hair stand on end, even to read them. What is the connection between them and the Hadiths of the Prophet (PBUH) we mention below, and especially with the mu’ezzin Bilal? The above statements rather reflect the European standpoint, ever since the time of Aristotle. But they believed these lies, and they made us believe them.


Regrettably, most of the articles and books written about the Harem in Turkey after the foundation of the Republic, which mostly take the form of fictional novels, have as their source the works on Ottoman history by Western travellers, officials, and researchers, which are mostly products of their imaginations. Western writers have so distorted the question and so confused it with the private lives of their own kings that the works they wrote outdo even the most outrageous erotic novels published today.

It is necessary to examine what European writers wrote about the Harem on two points:

I. Western Books about the Harem

The books Western writers have written about the Harem resemble erotic novels and are full of scenes that are entirely fictitious. Unfortunately, the first to write about the obtaining of female slave-concubines for the Harem were Western writers. The first of these, in the 17th century, was Thomas Dallan (1599), who described the Harem women of Mehmed III. He was followed by the Venetian Ambassador Ottaviano Bon (1606-9), Robert Withers (1650), Rico, Lady Montagu (1717-18), and the French manufacturer Flachat (1745-55). All subsequent Western writers unfortunately repeated the Venetian envoy Bon’s extravagant descriptions of odalisks being presented to the Sultans. I am ashamed to quote their lies, and none of extant documents and memoirs confirms what they say.[36]

To learn the truth of the matter and how Western writers have distorted the matter one should read what Mualla Anhegger, the wife of the French historian Robert Anhegger, wrote at the time of their working together on the restoration of the Harem in the 1960’s. She wrote:

“I realized that the Harem had no connection whatsoever with what Europeans had written about it for hundreds of years. The Harem was not an institution that had been founded so that the Sultan could sleep with whatever women he wished. It had not even been designed architecturally for this. It was not possible for the Sultan to see the female slaves and take those of his choice. The doors, rooms, and passages were not planned according to this. The female slaves slept in dormitories of twenty-five, under the strict supervision of the kalfa’s on the upper floor The Sultan’s mother in her own apartment, the Sultan’s wives in their apartments, and the Sultan in his. The Sultan’s mother could choose his wives and present them to him. If the Sultan had wanted to go to the slaves’ quarters, he would have had to become a bird and flown there!

“The Harem was conceived of as a university, with the female slaves as students. Anyway, it was written over their door: ‘O God! Open to us all doors of good!’ And in accordance with this, most of them were married off with the Sultan giving them their trousseaux. For the cariyes were not slaves, let alone sex-slaves. In my opinion, the best way of putting it is that the cariyes were the Sultan’s adopted children. And truly, it is understood that like adopted children, they were well-treated and well-educated. While planning the lay-out of the Harem, the aim must have been that no one had even a moment of spare time. Dancing, music, sewing, education… it was as though the Harem was a military organization. I was frequently aware of this military organization while restoring the Harem. Finally, I so lost myself in it that when for unacceptable reasons my wage was cut by the government I still continued to work from dawn till dusk. To put it briefly, I did not gain anything materially from restoring the Harem, but I succeeded in understanding an institution that had remained obscure, even if only by groping in the dark.

“The women in the Harem were extremely well-trained and educated, intelligent and capable. Those that were not only beautiful but also clever wanted to rise through the government ranks. I don’t see anything extraordinary or wrong in this. Like self-confident men, the women of the Harem played their hands to the last. Contrary to what is thought, there is no need to be beautiful in order to rise in the world. Those that took best advantage of their education, who wrote well and spoke well, started this race with an advantage. It is for this reason that in some periods the Harem laid its hands on political power, which was quite natural. Certainly some pitiless and ambitious Sultans emerged from the Harem. But I see the women of the Harem to be people who tried to create chances for themselves, and just like men, sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed, and when conditions demanded could be as pitiless as men.”[37]

It would have been possible to make the above passage the summary of this book. Truly, “The works foreigners have written are mostly the products of imagination. They are nothing other than the written and pictorial representation of hearsay. None of these works has delivered the Harem from its being a dark and mysterious world of the imagination. There are various reasons for this, the chief of which may be explained by our Muslim women avoiding men, being veiled out of doors, and not taking part in mixed company. There are numerous pictures, statues, and writings about the lives, dress, and appearance of the wives and daughters of European rulers, yet with the exception of a few ambassadresses’ meetings in palaces and pictures of them, there are no such sources for our women here.”[38]

II. Pictures of Naked Women Asserted to be of the Harem

Pictures of naked women published in books and magazines as illustrations of the Harem also have absolutely no basis in truth; they too are the product of Western writers’ imaginations. For some Western writers employed artists to depict the life of the Harem as they imagined it, and published these pictures with complete disregard for whether they were lawful or unlawful. Especially pictures of the Sultan bathing in milk surrounded by a bevy of naked câriyes, they are entirely the product of fancy.[39] The clearest such picture extant in Ottoman sources is that included in the Hubâbnâme depicting the scene at a birth. In any event, so long as it remained in the private circle, it was not unlawful.[40]

At this point we should listen to what an expert has to say on the question of these pictures of the Harem:

“The fact that most of the travellers who visited Turkey did not know Turkish, and spent all their time with the minorities since they were Christian, and did not in any way verify the information they gave them, which most of the time was inaccurate, led them to make gross errors. You can estimate to what degree the judgements passed on us by the foreign travellers and artists would be correct, and the pictures they drew and books they wrote, for they could not converse with Turkish men, let alone Turkish women. You think and decide.

“Does this not force us to consider whether or not the various portraits of Hurrem Sultan and her daughter Mihrimah Sultan, and Gülnuş Sultan in the picture gallery in Topkapı Palace are authentic?”[41]

All the unlawful pictures in books about the Harem of the Republican period, or which form their covers, are the fruits of Western artists’ imaginations. For example, the picture of a naked woman on the cover of Meral Altındal’s book Osmanlı’da Harem (The Ottoman Harem) is by Karl Bruillov, while that on the cover of her book Osmanlı’da Kadın (Women in the Ottoman Empire) is by Camille Rogier.[42]

The Western writers who cast aspersions on the Ottoman Sultans with these fanciful pictures know perfectly well how their own kings and emperors acted unlawfully and they make analogies between them and the Sultans. For instance, what I saw on visiting the Imperial Palace in Vienna truly astonished me. For the emperors who inhabited it had erected on the parapet of the palace roofs the statues of their various women. That is to say, the proof of the shameful lives the emperors lived in the palace is not fanciful pictures like those of the Harem, but the concrete statues of the women on the palace roof, which are still to be seen there. I want to include a picture of these as evidence, so long as it is not contrary to good manners.


A further point which is the cause of confusion is that Islam is attacked as though there was no slavery, male or female, before Islam, and Islam introduced it. However, there are two sorts of injunctions in Islamic law:

The First are injunctions which, not existing in previous legal systems, Islam laid down as principles for the first time; that is, Islam established them, like zekât and the shares of inheritance. Islamic scholars state that these are one hundred percent for the benefit of mankind. They also contain many instances of wisdom and purposes, even if people are not aware of them.

The Second are injunctions which Islam did not introduce; they were already existent and Islam modified them. That is, Islam did not lay these down for the first time, rather, they were part of the law systems of other societies and were applied in savage form. Since it would have been contrary to human nature to suddenly completely abolish injunctions of this kind, it modified them, changing them from a barbaric into a civilized form.

Polygamy is one of the injunctions Islam modified. Islam did not introduce this when it was non-existent. Polygamy was practised before Islam, and in a barbaric form. Islam put this into civilized form. That is, Islamic law did not raise the number of possible wives from one to four, but reduced the number to four from eight or nine. It introduced particular conditions which if not met, demanded certain penalties. The verse “Then marry from among women such as are lawful to you — two, or three, or four; but if you have reason to fear that you might not be able to treat them with equal fairness, then (only) one ”[43] states this.

After the revelation of this verse those of the Companions of the Prophet (PBUH) who had more than four wives were ordered to choose four and divorce the rest. For example, Gaylan b. Umayya chose four out of his ten wives and divorced the remainder. And Harith b. Qays, who had eight wives, did the same thing.[44]

The same is true for slavery. Islam did not introduce slavery when it was non-existent in other societies; it rather accepted it and modified it.

I have tried to summarize here what Bediuzzaman wrote, and because of its importance, below is quoted a piece in question and answer form which he wrote on the subject:

“Some foreigners raise questions like polygamy, captives, and slaves, and cause doubts about Islam in respect of civilization?

“The injunctions of Islam are of two sorts.

“One, the Shari‘a established [for the first time], and this sort is pure, true good.

The second, the Shari‘a modified. That is, it took this sort from being in an extremely savage and cruel form and made it into a form that was the lesser of two evils, amended, and in conformity with human nature and with time and place, so that [in time] it might take on a form that was pure good. For suddenly to abolish something that completely dominates man’s nature means completely changing his nature. Thus, the Shari‘a did not establish captivity slavery, it rather modified it from being in a most savage form to a form which might lead to freedom.”[45]

Truly, when Islam appeared, nearly half the people in the Arabian Peninsula were slaves. Nearly half the people of every household were slaves. If Islam had suddenly abolished slavery, it would have caused grave difficulties both for the slave owners and for the slaves themselves. It would have been as difficult for the masters to suddenly give up keeping slaves, which they had done for centuries, as it would have been difficult to change their very natures. It might well have given rise to objections to Islam, as well as to cruelty. And since most of the slaves had no families or family life, they would have been like abandoned orphans. It would have meant social and economic disaster.

As will be seen in Part Three, in Ahmed Cevdet Pasha’s words: “To own slaves in Islam is to be a slave.”[46]

What should be realized here is that Islam did not introduce slavery. So how was slavery practised in other societies and religions? How did other religions and peoples act towards slaves? Since “Everything is known through it opposites,” it is essential to know this in order to understand male and female slavery in Islamic law and the Harem in Ottoman society.

Here, I want to mention a Hadith of the Prophet (PBUH) which expounds the Qur’anic verse about the agreement for ransoming slaves—which is discussed later— and comprises and very important truth:

The Prophet’s (PBUH) reply to the question of why Islamic law did not abolish slavery at one go since its aim was to abolish this and similar institutions in the course of time, has much importance from the socio-economic point of view. In the verse, the condition for the ransoming of slaves is “If you know it will be good for them.” The Prophet explained this as meaning “Make the agreement if they have a craft or skill and can secure their own livelihoods. Do not otherwise set them free on the people like wild dogs.”[47]

That is to say, to free slaves whether by agreement on a set price or by other means is not always beneficial. Think of a society fifty percent of which are slaves. Imagine if they had all been set free and were wandering empty-handed in the streets. The life of society would come to a standstill. If people who for years and perhaps whose forefathers for centuries had worked for others and never experienced an independent life are suddenly left to their own devices, it would mean only that they are being driven to social and economic disaster. One of the most important instances of wisdom in the gradual abolition of slavery is this.

Let us therefore take a brief look at the position of slaves in other societies, for “everything is known through its opposites” is a universal rule. Because some works about male and female slavery in Ottoman history give the idea that no such thing existed in Europe or in other societies.

[1] Yusuf Has Hacib, Kutadgu Bilig (trans. Reþid Rahmeti Arat), 157-8.

[2] Qur’an, 5:90; Molla Hüsrev, Dürer ve Gurer, ii, 69-70.

[3] BOA, YEE, 14-1540, pp.53-4.

[4] Cin and Akgündüz, Türk Hukuk Tarihi, Konya 1989, i, 267-8.

[5] Original of Ferman, Bursa Şer‘iyye Sicilleri, A 33/21, Vrk. 338/B.

[6] Uzunçarşılı, Kapıkulu Ocakları, i-ii.

* For the devþirme system, readers may refer to Part Four of the present work. [Tr.]

[7] For example, see, Altındal, Meral, Osmanlı’da Harem, İstanbul 1993, 163-5.

[8] Altındal, Osmanlı’da Harem, 163; see also, 37-40.

[9] Altındal, Osmanlı’da Harem, 37-40, 163-4.

[10] See, Uluçay, Osmanlı Saraylarında Harem Hayatının İç Yüzü, Istanbul 1959, 76-8; Altındal, Osmanlı’da Harem, 37-40. See also, Qur’an, 7:80-4.

[11] Qur’an, 7:80-1.

[12] The complete text of the Hadith as translated into Turkish in the stated century is according to the narration of the Companion Ma‘qil b. Yasar, and contains many words proving what we say: “A person came to the Messenger (Blessings and peace be upon him) and said: ‘Rasulallah! I have found a woman (‘avret) who is both pretty and sweet-tempered, but who cannot have children (oğlan). Should I marry her? What do you say?’ God’s Messenger said: ‘Do not take the woman.’ Some time later the same person came and again asked: ‘Should I marry the girl, O Messenger of God?’ He again did not give permission. The person later came a third time and asked: ‘Should I marry the girl?’ This time God’s Messenger said:

“‘Marry those women (‘avret) who will not leave their husbands; the girl (oğlan) should be fertile, so that tomorrow on the Day of Resurrection I may take pride in the large numbers of my Community.’”

Mustafa Darır bin Yusuf, Yüz Hadis Tercümesi, Millet Kütüphânesi, ‘Ali Emiri, Şer‘îyye Bölümü, No: 1287/1, Vrk. 24/B-25/A; Tarama Sözlüğü, Türk Dil Kurumu, v, 2923-6.

[13] Eşref bin Mehmed, Haza’inü’s-Sa‘adat, Topkapı Sarayı Kütüphanesi, iii. Ahmed, No: 557, Vrk. 10/B; Tarama Sözlüğü, Türk Dil Kurumu, v, 2923-6.

[14] Agha Sayyid Muhammad ‘Ali, Farhang-i Nizam, iii, Haydarabad 1934, 737.

[15] Emir Keyka’us, Kabusnâme (Trans. Mercimek Ahmed at the command of Murad II, prep. for publ. Orham Şaik Gökyay), Ankara 1974, 112-3.

[16] See, Uluçay, M. Çağatay, Padişahların Kadınları ve Kızları, 31. Unfortunately, although Uluçay studied the Harem in depth, he made the same error and described Fatma Sultan’s husband, Mustafa Pasha, as a sexual pervert. Whereas in fact they separated because Mustafa Pasha spent his time with young slave girls and neglected her. Uluçay, Osmanlı Saraylarında Harem Hayatının İç Yüzü, 49 ff. See also, Altındal, Osmanlı’da Harem, 37-40, 163-4.

[17] See, Uluçay, Osmanlı Saraylarında Harem Hayatının İç Yüzü, 49 ff.

[18] Sertoğlu, Osmanlı Tarih Lügati, İstanbul 1986, 159; Uzunçarşılı, Saray Teşkilatı, 297 ff.

[19] See, Ibn al-‘Abidin, Radd al-Mukhtar, Cairo 1967-8, Karahiyya wa İstihsan, vi, 382.

[20] ‘Abdurrahman Şeref, Topkapı Saray-ı Hümâyunu, Ta’rih-i ‘Osmani Encümeni Mec-muası, fasc. 7, 393 ff.; Sertoğlu, Osmanlı Tarih Lügati, 142-3; Uzunçarşılı, Saray Teşkilatı, Ankara, TTK, 1984, 322-335.

[21]22. Tavakkolî, Hasan, İdris-i Bitlisî’nin Kanun-ı Şehinþâhî’sinin Tenkidli Neþri ve Türkçeye Tercümesi, İstanbul Üniv. EF-DT. No: X37, 105.

[22]23. Uğur, Ahmet, Osmanlı Siyâsetnâmeleri, İstanbul n.d., 101.

[23]24. Akgündüz, Ahmed, Osmanlı Kanunnâmeleri, İstanbul 1990-4, iii, 12-13.

[24]25. It is unfortunate that Hasan Tavakkolî and some other academics who have followed him have translated “Meclis-i ‘İşret” as a “drinking party,” and have completely falsified the meaning of these passages.

[25] Qur’an, 78:8-10.

[26] Qur’an, 33:53.

[27] Qur’an, 5:90.

[28] Qur’an, 73:4.

[29] Qur’an, 4:3.

[30] Akgündüz, Osmanlı Kanunnâmeleri, iii, 77.

[31] Akgündüz, Osmanlı Kanunnâmeleri, viii, Hırzü’l-Mülûk, 36-7.

[32] ‘Osman Nuri, ‘Abdülhamid ve Devr-i Saltanatı, Hayat-ı Hususiyye ve Siyasiyyesi, İstanbul 1327, ii, 493.

[33] Ibid., iii, 1135.

[34] Nokta Dergisi, 2 Nisan 1989, cover story, 49-50.

[35] Ahmed Şefik Beğ, Er-Rıkku fi’l-İslâm, İstanbul 1314, 4-6.

[36] See, for example, Penzer, N.M., The Harem, 178-182; Lady Montagu, Şark Mektupları (Turk. trans. Ahmed Refik), İstanbul 1933; Withers, Robert, A Description of the Grand Signior’s Seraglio, London 1650, 42-3; Uluçay, Harem II, 26-9.

[37] Nokta Dergisi, 2 Nisan 1989, cover story, 52-3; Mualla Anhegger is also the author of Topkapı Sarayında Padişah Evi, about the Harem. Like her, I describe the Harem as the ‘Sultan’s home’ (Padişah Evi).

[38] Uluçay, Harem’den Mektuplar, 10.

[39] Nokta Dergisi, 2 Nisan 1989, cover picture; Tempo, 10-16 Kasım 1994, No: 175. The subject matter of virtually all the pictures in the latter is pure fantasy, taken from the books of Western writers.

[40] Uluçay, Harem II, picture 25.

[41] Uluçay, Harem’den Mektuplar, 11. For a striking example, see, Hans Dernschwam, İstanbul ve Anadolu’ya Seyâhat Günlüğü (Trans. Yaþar Önen), Ankara 1992, 59, 82, 83, 88, 89, 93 ff., 184. This book was published by the Turkish Ministry of Culture as part of its World Literature Series; even in the parts that were not censored and were published, the author attacks the Turks and Muslims, offering explicit examples of the distortions mentioned.

[42] Altındal, Osmanlı’da Kadın, İstanbul 1994, 2; Altındal, Osmanlı’da Harem, 2.

[43] Qur’an, 4:3.

[44] Qurtubi, Muhammad b. Ahmad, al-Jami’ li Ahkam al-Qur’an, Beirut 1965, 17-18.

[45] Nursi, Bediüzzaman Said, Münâzarât, İstanbul 1977, 68-9.

[46] Miras, Kâmil, Tecrîd-i Sarih (Sahih-i Buhari Muhtasarı Tercümesi) vii, 465-7.

[47] Qasani, al-Bada’i al-Sana’i, iv, 134.

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