This piece originally appeared in Foreign Affairs on February 8, 2017
Anyone in Washington trying to understand the relationship between religion and politics in Turkey today could do worse than starting with a visit to the Smithsonian’s Sackler gallery. On display there, until February 20, is “The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.” The exhibit features a number of lavishly decorated Korans collected by the Ottoman Empire during its six-century rule over much of the Muslim world. One, seized by Suleiman the Magnificent from the tomb of a long-dead Mongol ruler, has sprawling gold medallions set amidst lines of multi-colored calligraphy. Another, read with unknowable results for the salvation of Selim the Second’s soul, features whimsical foliage-like shapes interlocked above a deep lapis lazuli background.
The Smithsonian website offers a set of interactive maps showing the “long-distance travels” that brought the books in the exhibit from the diverse cities where they were first created to the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, where they now reside full time. “Ottoman sultans, queens, and viziers acquired some of the most precious [Korans]… through purchase, gift, or war booty,” the curators explain, then “endowed these cherished works to public and religious institutions to express personal piety and power and to secure prestige.”
In the late nineteenth century, the leaders of the Ottoman state saw their once vast empire being eaten away by nationalist rebellions and European land-grabs. To stem these losses, Sultan Abdulhamid II sought to strengthen the empire through a combination of centralization, modernization, and Islamic piety. At the same time as the government built new railroads and telegraph lines to hold the empire together, Abdulhamid highlighted his role as Caliph in order to win the loyalty of his Muslim subjects. Building a stronger state and seeking enhanced religious legitimacy sometimes went hand in hand. In the early 1900s, for example, Abdulhamid began construction of a railway stretching from Istanbul to Mecca. In Ottoman rhetoric, the project served as a way of facilitating the transport of pious pilgrims to Islam’s holy city. But, as Americans may know best from Lawrence of Arabia, the railroad was also intended to help the empire exert military force in far-flung and possibly rebellious provinces as well.
So where do the Korans come in? In 1908, revolutionary Ottoman military officers, known as the “Young Turks,” took control of the empire. Leaving the Sultan in power as a figurehead, they continued his state-building policies, but with an added emphasis on Turkish nationalism and secular modernization. Several years after coming to power, this new government set out to collect the finest Korans in the empire—still in the possession of the various mosques, tombs, and religious foundations to which previous sultans had donated them—for display in a new museum in the imperial capital.
The creation of this collection, whose highlights are now at the Smithsonian, was both an act of secular state-building and of public piety. In the most literal sense, the state was seizing control of important religious objects and taking them out of the hands of religious institutions. Collecting important objects of all sorts in national museums was also understood as the kind of thing governments had to do if they wanted to be modern, civilized, and European. But at the same time, this effort was presented as a celebration of the empire’s Islamic identity, and the newly created Museum of Islamic Foundations was opened with an elaborate ceremony attended by Sheikh-ul-Islam Urguplu Hayri Efendi, the head of the Ottoman religious establishment.
Following the Ottomans’ defeat in World War I, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk rebuilt what survived of the empire’s government and territory as the Republic of Turkey. The ideology of Ataturk’s new state was now even more focused on Turkish national identity and less focused on religion, but in the government’s approach to displaying religious art, there was continuity as well as change.
Istanbul’s Museum of Islamic Foundations quickly became the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Works. The new name brought an added emphasis on Turkishness, but Islam was, quite literally, still there. As Ataturk worked to make Turkey more secular, decorated Ottoman Korans became, in official rhetoric, evidence of Turkish artistic genius rather than of Islamic piety. But at the same time, this new language nonetheless offered a way for the new regime, and some of its more pious members, to continue to pay homage to the ongoing role of religion in the new country’s identity.
Skipping ahead to the present, the meaning of an Ottoman Koran is still more flexible than it might appear. In January 2002, one came to Washington under somewhat unique circumstances. Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, a left-wing intellectual and committed secularist, brought U.S. President George W. Bush a small sixteenth-century Koran. In the aftermath of 9/11, the gift seemed an unremarkable gesture from the secular leader of a predominantly Muslim country who was eager to dissociate Islam from terrorism. For Ecevit, who in a different context had reminded Americans that Turks, “whether one likes it or not,” were Muslim, the Koran was as much an acknowledgement of reality as a celebration of faith.
Not surprisingly, today’s Smithsonian exhibit, made possible by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s current Islamist government, is very much a celebration of faith, with the Koran’s Islamic content emphasized alongside its artistic legacy. More intriguingly, the exhibit seems to have provided Erdogan’s erstwhile secular rivals an opportunity to join in the celebration. Alongside the Turkish Ministry of Tourism, another of the exhibit’s sponsors is the Dogan Group. A part of Turkey’s traditionally secular business community, Aydin Dogan owned several newspapers that were once quite critical of Erdogan. Through a series of politically motivated legal actions, ranging from a 2.5 billion dollar tax fine to the arrest of high-ranking employees, the government brought Dogan’s newspapers to heel. For secular businessmen to offer their financial support to such an enthusiastically religious museum exhibit reveals the contours of Erdogan’s success in blending power with piety and incorporating former rivals into his new regime.
Korans, visitors to the Smithsonian learn, were routinely used across the Islamic world as diplomatic gifts to cement political and military alliances. The ones currently on display served over the years to build relationships between Ottomans, Safavids, Abbasids, Ismailis, Mongols, and Mamlukes. Given the array of bilateral challenges facing the U.S.-Turkish alliance today, it could certainly use some cementing. If the history of these Korans can hint at a more complex relationship between Islam and secularism than some in Washington seem to envision, perhaps they might, in some small way, do their part to help.