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An Ottoman response to Darwinism: İsmail Fennî on Islam and evolution

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 September 2015

Süleyman Şah Üniversitesi, Department of Sociology, Tuzla Leyla Dumankaya Kampüsü, Fatih mah, Eski Ankara Asfaltı, no: 28 34956 Orhanlı/Tuzla Istanbul, Turkey. Email:


The Scopes trial (1925) fuelled discussion in the United States on the social and political implications of Darwinism. For the defenders of the 1925 Tennessee law – which prohibited the teaching of Darwinism in schools – Darwinism was, amongst other things, responsible for the German militarism which eventually led to the First World War. This view was supported by İsmail Fennî, a late Ottoman intellectual, who authored a book immediately after the trial which aimed to debunk scientific materialism. In it, he claimed that Darwinism blurred the distinction between man and beast and thus destroyed the foundations of morality. However, despite his anti-Darwinist stance, İsmail Fennî argued against laws forbidding the teaching of Darwinism in schools, and emphasized that even false theories contributed to scientific improvement. Indeed, because of his belief in science he claimed that Muslims should not reject Darwinism if it were supported by future scientific evidence. If this turned out to be the case, then religious interpretations should be revised accordingly. This article contributes to the literature on early Muslim reactions to Darwinism by examining the views of İsmail Fennî, which were notably sophisticated when compared with those of the anti-religious Darwinist and anti-Darwinist religious camps that dominated late Ottoman intellectual life.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 2015 

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1 Cevdet, Abdullah, ‘Kastamonu'da Kurun-i Vusta’, İctihad (1913) 58, pp. 12711274Google Scholar, 1273.

2 Cevdet, op. cit. (1), p. 1273.

3 The Arabic alphabet was used for written Turkish until 1928, at which point it was supplanted by the Latin alphabet. Moreover, as part of this new policy, words of Arabic and Persian origin were replaced by newly introduced Turkish ones. This was mainly motivated by the view that Ottoman Turkish lacked the requirements of a modern language sufficient for enabling scientific progress. See Sabri M. Akural, ‘Kemalist views on social change’, in Jacob M. Landau (ed.), Atatürk and the Modernization of Turkey, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1984, pp. 125–152, 134.

4 İsmail Fennî, Maddiyyûn Mezhebinin İzmihlâli (The Collapse of the Materialist Creed), [İstanbul]: Orhaniye Matbaası, 1928, pp. 110–111.

5 See, for instance, Najm Bezirgan, ‘The Islamic world’, in Thomas F. Glick (ed.), The Comparative Reception of Darwinism, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1974, pp. 375–387.

6 Marwa Elshakry, Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860–1950, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013, pp. 104, 137–138.

7 İsmail Fennî's The Collapse of the Materialist Creed was published in 1928, five years after the establishment of the Turkish Republic. Still, it is reasonable to call it an ‘Ottoman response’ given that İsmail Fennî was sixty-eight years old when the republic was founded and that he had been working on the book for at least two decades.

8 M. Şükrü Hanioğlu, ‘Blueprints for a future society: late Ottoman materialists on science, religion, and art’, in Elisabeth Özdalga (ed.), Late Ottoman Society: The Intellectual Legacy, London: Routledge Curzon, 2005, pp. 27–116, 28–32

9 Charles Darwin to William Graham, 3 July 1881, Darwin Correspondence Database, at, accessed 25 March 2014.

10 Niyazi Berkes, The Development of Secularism in Turkey, 2nd edn, London: C. Hurst & Co. Publishers, 1998, p. 407.

11 M. Şükrü Hanioğlu, A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008, p. 185.

12 Büchner's Kraft und Stoff was one of the most popular books of the nineteenth century. It was translated into seventeen languages in less than two decades. See Frederick Gregory, Scientific Materialism in Nineteenth Century Germany, Dordrecht: D. Reidel Pub., 1977, p. 105. Some even argued that Büchner has served the cause of the popularization of science better than any university or academic. See Alfred Kelly, The Descent of Darwin: The Popularization of Darwinism in Germany, 1860–1914, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981, p. 33.

13 Ludwig Büchner, Force and Matter: Empirico-philosophical Studies (tr. J. Frederick Collingwood), London: Trübner & Co., 1864, pp. xi, 57.

14 In Büchner and Vogt's materialism, philosophy only matters when it has any relevance to empirical science. Therefore materialism associated with them was considered to be different from the historical materialism of Marx. See Herbert Schnädelbach, Philosophy in Germany, 1831–1933, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, p. 96. Also see Hanioğlu, op. cit. (8), pp. 29–30.

15 Gregory, op. cit. (12), p. 178.

16 Indeed, when Vogt translated the controversial Vestiges into German, he was not even a believer in evolutionary theory. However, he thought that he could use Vestiges against the critics of materialism. See Rupke, Nicolaas, ‘Translation studies in the history of science: the example of Vestiges’, BJHS (2000) 2, pp. 209222CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 219. The primary reason that prevented Büchner and Vogt from defending natural selection was their belief in progress. They contended that unlike Lamarckian evolutionary theory, natural selection was not supportive of the idea that humanity would necessarily be better off in the future. See Gregory, op. cit. (12), pp. 184–185.

17 Pietro Corsi and Paul J. Weindling, ‘Darwinism in Germany, France and Italy’, in David Kohn (ed.), The Darwinian Heritage, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985, pp. 683–729, 693–694. Also see Mario A. Di Gregorio, From Here to Eternity: Ernst Haeckel and Scientific Faith, Gӧttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2005, p. 87.

18 Giuliano Pancaldi, Darwin in Italy: Science across Cultural Frontiers (tr. Ruey Brodine Morelli), Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991, pp. 157–158.

19 Kelly, op. cit. (12), p. 32.

20 Erik-Jan Zürcher, ‘The Young Turks: children of the borderlands?’, in Kemal Karpat and Robert W. Zens (eds.), Ottoman Borderlands: Issues, Personalities, and Political Changes, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003, pp. 275–285, 283.

21 Hilmi Ziya Ülken, Türkiye'de Çağdaş Düşünce Tarihi, 2nd edn, İstanbul: Ülken Yayınları, 1966–1979, p. 202.

22 Hanioğlu, M. Şükrü, ‘Garbcılar: their attitudes toward religion and their impact on the official ideology of the Turkish Republic’, Studia Islamica (1997) 2, pp. 133158CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 134.

23 Elshakry, op. cit. (6), pp. 59–61, 73–74.

24 Zürcher, op. cit. (20), pp. 276–7.

25 See Mardin, Şerif A., ‘Ideology and religion in the Turkish Revolution’, International Journal of Middle East Studies (1971) 3, pp. 197211CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 207; M. Şükrü Hanioğlu, Preparation for a Revolution: The Young Turks, 1902–1908, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 306; and Hanioğlu, op. cit. (8), p. 27.

26 Hanioğlu, op. cit. (8), pp. 27–28.

27 Cevdet, op. cit. (1), p. 1273.

28 Berkes, op. cit. (10), pp. 378–379.

29 M. Şükrü Hanioğlu, Atatürk: An Intellectual Biography, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011, p. 56.

30 Those books include materialist works like Büchner's Kraft und Stoff and Ernst Haeckel's conferences on ‘Monism’, as well as Reinhart Dozy's critique of the Prophet Muhammed, which was translated into Turkish as Tarih-i İslamiyet (The History of Islam). See Ülken, op. cit. (21), pp. 202, 239–241.

31 Hanioğlu, op. cit. (8), pp. 28–31.

32 Hanioğlu, op. cit. (25), p. 306.

33 Mardin, op. cit. (25), p. 208.

34 Abdullah Cevdet, for instance, even after translating Dozy's highly critical work on the Prophet Muhammed, argued that Dozy, as a man of knowledge, was closer to Islam than his critics since Islam praised knowledge and good deeds which would benefit all. See Hanioğlu, op. cit. (8), pp. 48–49.

35 For analyses of how Islam and science were reconciled by those authors' works see Yalcinkaya, M. Alper, ‘Science as an ally of religion: a Muslim appropriation of “the conflict thesis”’, BJHS (2011) 2, pp. 161181CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Özervarlı, M. Sait, ‘Alternative approaches to modernization in the late Ottoman period: İzmirli İsmail Hakki's religious thought against materialist scientism’, International Journal of Middle East Studies (2007) 1, pp. 77102CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Bein, Amit, ‘A ‘Young Turk’ Islamic intellectual: Filibeli Ahmed Hilmi and the diverse intellectual legacies of the late Ottoman Empire’, International Journal of Middle East Studies (2007) 4, pp. 607625CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 Yalcinkaya, op. cit. (35), p. 174–175.

37 M. Şükrü Hanioğlu, The Young Turks in Opposition, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 11.

38 Zafer Toprak, Darwin'den Dersim'e: Cumhuriyet ve Antropoloji, İstanbul: Doğan Kitap, 2012, pp. 177–178.

39 Hanioğlu, op. cit. (8), p. 83.

40 In the first proverb, quoted in Berkes, op. cit. (10), p. 466, Atatürk uses the Islamic concept for ‘guide’, mürşid, which in the Ottoman context was associated with specifically religious guidance for salvation. The second proverb was quoted in Hanioğlu, op. cit. (29), p. 53.

41 Atila Doğan, Osmanlı Aydınları ve Sosyal Darwinizm, İstanbul: İstanbul Bilgi Üniversitesi Yayınları, 2006, pp. 180–181.

42 Toprak, op. cit. (38), pp. 339–341. The research started in 1937 as part of İnan's PhD thesis – which was pursued in Geneva University – and was completed in 1939. Prime Minister İsmet İnönü ordered the ministers of health and education to support İnan's research. Doctors, teachers and other government civil servants were trained and hired by the government to measure skulls. Nazan Maksudyan, Türklüğü Ölçmek: Bilimkurgusal Antropoloji ve Türk Milliyetçiliğinin Irkçı Çehresi 1925–1939, Istanbul: Metis Yayınları, 2005, pp. 94–96.

43 Mehmet Döşemeci, Debating Turkish Modernity: Civilization, Nationalism, and the EEC, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, pp. 63–65.

44 Ünver, Süheyl, ‘Büyük Üstad İsmail Fenni: Kendi Kalemiyle Hal Tercümesi’, İslâm-Türk Ansiklopedisi Mecmuası (1947) 73, pp. 1415Google Scholar. Following the Ottoman–Russian war of 1877–1878, Ottomans experienced a serious loss of territory in the Balkans, and Bulgaria became autonomous. This was a dramatic moment within Ottoman history, since the Balkans bore great importance for Ottoman intellectual and political life. Zürcher, for instance, noted that 48 per cent of the post-1908 Young Turk leaders were born in the Balkans. See Zürcher, op. cit. (20), p. 281.

45 Ünver, op. cit. (44), p. 15. For a detailed analysis of Ottoman language schools see Balcı, Sezai, ‘Osmanlı Devleti'nde Modernleşme Girişimlerine Bir Örnek: Lisan Mektebi’, Ankara Üniversitesi Dil ve Tarih-Coğrafya Fakültesi Tarih Araştırmaları Dergisi (2008) 44, pp. 7798Google Scholar, 87–88.

46 Ünver, op. cit. (44), pp. 14–15.

47 İsmail Fennî's major work The Collapse of the Materialist Creed was published in 1928. Küçük Kitapta Büyük Mevzular (Big Questions in a Small Book), which was published in 1934, was a shorter and simpler version of The Collapse of the Materialist Creed written in a dialogue form. Lügatçe-i Felsefe (Dictionary of Philosophy) was published in 1927, and comprised Western and Eastern philosophical traditions. Vahdet-i Vücud ve İbn Arabi (Unity of Being and Ibn Arabi) was another work Fennî penned to delineate his mystical interpretation of Islam. In HakikatNurları (Lights of Truth) he dealt with orientalist critiques of Islam and aimed to show the consistency of the Quran. Other than these books, Fennî translated several books into Turkish that could potentially equip Muslim elites and masses in their campaign against modern critiques of religion. The books he translated into Turkish were not limited to religion since he believed that an ideal Muslim should be informed about philosophy, arts and politics as well. The books he translated include Paul Janet's The Materialism of the Present Day, Oliver Lodge's Life and Matter, Montaigne's Essays, John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, and Aesop's Fables. However, those books were not published during his lifetime due to economic difficulties. See Osman Özkul, ‘İsmail Fenni Ertuğrul ve Felsefi Görüşleri’, MA thesis, İstanbul Üniversitesi, 1989, pp. 17–22; and S. Hayri Bolay, Türkiye'de Ruhçu ve Maddeci Görüşlerin Mücadelesi, Ankara: Nobel, 2008, pp. 161–162.

48 Özervarlı, op. cit. (35), p. 93.

49 İsmail Fennî Ertuğrul, İman Hakikatleri Etrafında Suallere Cevaplar, İstanbul: Sebil Yayınevi, 1978, p. 65.

50 Although far from being dominant among Islamic scholars, such a position was shared by several nineteenth-century intellectuals such as Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Hasan al-Attar, Al-Tahtawi and Muhammad Abduh. They had similar opinions on the level of the trust one should invest in science and also on the reconciliation of science and religion. See Riexinger, Martin, ‘Responses of South Asian Muslims to the theory of evolution’, Die Welt des Islams (2009) 2, pp. 212247CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 217–219; and Livingston, John W., ‘Muhammad ‘Abduh on Science’, Muslim World (1995) 3–4, pp. 215234CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 216–220.

51 Fennî, op. cit. (4), pp. 449–450.

52 Fennî, op. cit. (4), pp. 422–423.

53 İsmail Fennî, Hakikat Nurları, İstanbul: Sebil Yayınevi, 1994, p. 390.

54 Fennî, op. cit. (4), pp. 419–422.

55 Ironically, just before the publication of The Collapse of the Materialist Creed, in 1927 Lemaitre proposed a theory later to be called the ‘Big Bang’ which would blur the distinction between ‘metaphysical’ and ‘empirical’ questions.

56 Cevdet, op. cit. (1), p. 1273.

57 Hanioğlu, op. cit. (22), p. 134.

58 Sometimes they were mistaken about the content of Darwin's theory. Abdullah Cevdet, for instance, inaccurately claimed that Charles Darwin witnessed the enlargement of a friend's head, once the friend started reading books. Toprak, op. cit. (38), p. 298.

59 Doğan, op. cit. (41), p. 213.

60 Ludwig Büchner, Force and Matter, or Principles of the Natural Order of the Universe with a System of Morality Based Thereon, New York: Peter Eckler, 1891, pp. 164–165.

61 Büchner, op. cit. (60), pp. 178–179.

62 Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, London: John Murray, 1859, p. 189.

63 Fennî, op. cit. (4), pp. 89–90.

64 Fennî, op. cit. (4), p. 90.

65 Fennî, op. cit. (4), p. 104.

66 Fennî, op. cit. (4), pp. 91–92. As Sepkoski noted, Darwin himself was not satisfied by the evidence based on the fossil record. Indeed, palaeontology was not used to evidence Darwinian mechanisms and processes until the mid-twentieth century. See David Sepkoski, ‘Evolutionary paleontology’, in Michael Ruse (ed.), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Darwin and Evolutionary Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013, pp. 353–360, 353.

67 Fennî, op. cit. (4), pp. 92–93.

68 Fennî, op. cit. (49), pp. 22–24.

69 Fennî, op. cit. (4), pp. 464–465. It must be noted that by using the concept of sünnetullah (God's way), İsmail Fennî implies that natural laws are not self-sufficient but rather dependent on God. For a brief discussion on the nature of ‘creation by law’ in Islamic theology see Frank Griffel, Al-Ghazālī's Philosophical Theology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 133–141; and David B. Burrell, ‘Creation’, in Tim Winter (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008, pp. 141–160.

70 Fennî, op. cit. (4), pp. 478–479.

71 Fennî, op. cit. (49), p. 22.

72 Fennî, op. cit. (4), p. 93.

73 Fennî, op. cit. (4), pp. 111–112.

74 In a similar vein, in his The Incoherence of the Philosophers, eleventh-century, Muslim philosopher Al-Ghazālī claimed that an attempt to refute scientific theories with references to, and in the name of, religion could be inimical to religious faith. Al-Ghazālī, The Incoherence of the Philosophers (tr. Michael E. Marmura), Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 2000, p. 6.

75 Martin Riexinger, ‘Religion: Islam’, in Ruse, op. cit. (66), pp. 499–504, 499–500. For discussions on the compatibility of evolutionary theories and the Quranic verses see Nidhal Guessoum, Islam's Quantum Question, London: I.B. Tauris, 2011, pp. 303–323; and Caner Taslaman, Evrim Teorisi, Felsefe ve Tanrı, 6th edn, İstanbul: İstanbul Yayınevi, 2013, pp. 327–376.

76 Fennî, op. cit. (4), p. 112.

77 Fennî, op. cit. (4), pp. 112–113.

78 Adrian J. Desmond and James R. Moore, Darwin's Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins, London: Allen Lane, 2009, p. xix.

79 Stephen Jay Gould, Bully for Brontosaurus, London: Vintage, 2001, p. 421.

80 Fennî, op. cit. (4), pp. 113–114.

81 Fennî, op. cit. (4), p. 114.

82 Fennî, op. cit. (4), pp. 110–111

83 It might be that İsmail Fennî's views on freedom were, at least partly, shaped by John Stuart Mill. As mentioned before, Fennî translated Mill's On Liberty into Turkish as part of his project of enlightening Muslims. Mill, in this monumental book, warned against the threat of ‘the tyranny of majority’, and reminded the reader that ‘the majority of the eminent men of every past generation held many opinions now known to be erroneous’. See John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1863, pp. 13, 41. Although Mill did not refer to such, his concerns could also apply to scientific theories. Modern views concerning the scientific status of any theory, one might argue, could be altered by future evidence, and thus scientific theories should not be banned by the current power holders, even if they represent the majority of society. Indeed, Jennings Bryan's first speech in the Scopes Trial exemplifies the relevance of the concept of the ‘tyranny of majority’ to the debates about evolution, since he frequently referred to majority's disapproval of Darwinism to fortify his case. See Jeffrey P. Moran, The Scopes Trial: A Brief History with Documents, Boston: Bedford/St Martin's, 2002, p. 119.

84 Fennî, op. cit. (4), pp. 110–111.

85 Elshakry, op. cit. (6), p. 175.

86 Throughout his works, İsmail Fennî tried to refrain from commenting on political discussions in Turkey. Still it must be noted that İsmail Fennî published most of his works in the early decades of the republic during the period of a one-party dictatorship. Such an atmosphere would not have provided favourable conditions for a writer who defended the Islamic creed given that Atatürk, and the early cadres of the republic, were heavily influenced by the Young Turk attitudes towards religion. Yet one should not jump to the hasty conclusion that İsmail Fennî's views on teaching Darwinism in schools must have been shaped by political concerns, especially once his steadfast anti-materialistic ambitions are taken into consideration.

87 Hanioğlu, op. cit. (8), p. 81.

88 See Cevdet, op. cit. (1), pp. 1271–1273; and Doğan, op. cit. (41), p. 336.

89 As Numbers notes, Turkish creationism, which has a substantial impact on the Muslim anti-Darwinian camp, is based on American evangelical creationist literature – excepting, of course, the biblical references. See Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993, p. 335. Also see Guessoum, op. cit. (75), pp. 314–323.

90 Hanioğlu, op. cit. (8), p. 28, argues that ‘blatant plagiarism’ defines the dominant writing practice of the age.

91 Riexinger, op. cit. (75), p. 501. Also see Peker, Deniz, Comert, Gulsum Gul and Kence, Aykut, ‘Three decades of anti-evolution campaign and its results: Turkish undergraduates’ acceptance and understanding of the biological evolution theory’, Science and Education (2010) 68, pp. 739755Google Scholar, 741.

92 See Sebil Yayınevi, ‘Takdim’ (Foreword), in İsmail Fennî Ertuğrul, Materyalizmin İflası ve İslam, İstanbul: Sebil Yayınevi, 1996, p. 7.

93 For İsmail Fennî's impact on Gülen's thought see Hamdullah Öztürk, ‘Fethullah Gülen'in Kaynakları’, Zaman Gazetesi, 13 December 2004, at, accessed 13 May 2014. Also see M. Fethullah Gülen, Yaratılış Gerçeği ve Evrim, İstanbul: Nil Yayınları, 2003, p. 15, for Gülen's reflections on Islam and Darwinism.

94 Recent studies reveal resistance to evolutionary theories in Turkey. Surveys conducted in thirty-two European countries, Japan and the United States on the public acceptance of evolution have shown that Turks are the least likely to accept a biological evolutionary theory. See Miller, Jon D., Scott, Eugenie C. and Okamoto, Shinji, ‘Public acceptance of evolution’, Science (2006) 5788, pp. 765766CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

95 Ülken, op. cit. (21), p. 241.

96 Elshakry, op. cit. (6), p. 72.