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Ersoy, Mehmed Âkif

By:
M. Naim Turfan, Roberta Micallef
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Ersoy, Mehmed Âkif

Mehmed Âkif Ersoy (1873–1936) was a TurkishIslamist poet. Born in Istanbul of devout parents, Ersoy received a secular education, graduating first in his class (1893) from the Civil School of Veterinary Sciences. He was a gifted linguist in Arabic, Persian, and French, but it was through unrivalled mastery in his native Turkish that Ersoy was to convey his poetic vision of the ideal Muslim society, based on his study of Islamic doctrine and the Qurʿān. Possessed of conviction and whole-hearted commitment, he encapsulated the brooding restlessness of his time—the bitter disillusionment and gloomy introspection of the Muslim world and especially of the Muslim Turks of the Ottoman Empire. His competent though undistinguished veterinary career (to 1913) was subordinated to his poetic calling, but it nevertheless brought him into close contact with the peoples of the Rumelian, Anatolian, and Arabian provinces, providing valuable insight for his social poetry.

Although publishing from 1893, Ersoy was long unable, during a period of strict censorship, to put into print his maturing, poetic, social commentary—instead he disseminated it privately. The restoration in 1908 of the 1876 constitution, however, ushering in the Young Turk era, initiated his literary career proper in verse and prose. Ten days after the declaration of the Second Constitutional Period he joined the Committee for Union and Progress. Already Ersoy was interpreting the crisis of the Ottoman state's struggle for survival, under variform attack from Christendom, on the religious plane as an issue encompassing the entire Muslim world; his writing consequently aimed at an order for Muslim society within the ideal of Islamic unity.

His perspective on the disorder in Ottoman society led him to blame not Islam but rather those aspects of the Muslim world created by Muslims and therefore open to correction by them; thus he attributed the failure of education to society's losing sight of the intellectual in Islam. While viewed as conservative, Ersoy was so mainly in the sense that he set his revolutionary Islamic thinking within the framework of traditional poetic expression. His magnum opus, the seven-volume Safahat (Phases, 1911–1933), transmuted the lives of real people into a stylized social novel in verse form, composed throughout in polished classical prosody and style and displaying a talent for the use of vignette to inveigh against societal ills. Ersoy's poetry is seen as a bridge between the poetry of the Tanzimat period and that of the early decades of the Turkish Republic. The central theme of his poetry reflects an ideal of unity through Islam. Some of his poetry reached epic proportions. Although it has been criticized for its lack of eloquence, it is admired for its lyrical content and use of colloquial Turkish.

Ersoy's pessimism increased during World War I in response to the collaboration by some Ottoman Muslim Arabs with the Christian powers. His Turkish patriotism shocked into being by the loss of empire, he worked as an educator and preacher in the National Struggle (1919–1922) toward the foundation of a new Turkish state, but he was distressed by the emergence of a nationalist, secular republic serving its Muslim citizens, rather than his desired Muslim Turkey leading the community of Islam. He went into voluntary exile in Egypt where he was given a position as professor of Turkish language and literature at Cairo University. He was, however, persuaded, despite misgivings, to translate the Qurʿān into Turkish under commission from the Turkish government. This work he eventually completed but retracted, fearing, in his isolation from events, that it might be misused in the state policy of Turkification of the language of worship. He returned to Turkey in 1936 for health reasons. He died in Istanbul, where he was buried shortly thereafter.

Ersoy was not, nor did he wish to be, aloof from the thinking of his day; he challenged the current ideologies of Turkism and so-called Westernism. Yet his strong sense of Turkish identity, as in his emphasis on Turkish idiom and vocabulary in composition, manifests itself clearly despite the uncompromising Islamist message of his writing. Few religious and patriotic poets of this century have surpassed Ersoy in spiritual depth and nationalist passion, expressed, for example, in the Istiklâl Marşı (Independence March), his award-winning poem that was adopted as the Turkish national anthem on March 12, 1921. In 2007 March 12 was declared “the Mehmet âkif Ersoy commemoration and the acceptance of national anthem day.”

What endures is the sincerity of the Islamic belief of this Turkish patriot, a man now seen as symbolizing the conjunction of Turkish nationalism and Muslim internationalism. As such, Ersoy satisfies the yearning of both learned and unlearned in Turkey in their increasingly defensive reaction against the perceived hostility of the non-Muslim world.

See also ISLAMISM, subentries onCONCEPT AND DEBATES and SOURCES; OTTOMAN EMPIRE; TURKEY; TURKISH LITERATURE; and YOUNG TURKS.

Bibliography

  • Enginün, Inci. Cumhuriyet dönemi Türk edebiyatı. Istanbul, Turkey, 2001.
  • Ersoy, Mehmed Âkif. Açıklamalı ve lûgatçeli Mehmed Âkif külliyatı. Edited by Ismail Hakkı Şengüler. 10 vols.Istanbul, Turkey, 1990–1992. Complete works of the poet, with a modern Turkish glossary.
  • Ersoy, Mehmed Âkif. Safahat. Prepared by M. Ertuğrul Düzdağ. Istanbul, Turkey, 1987. Definitive edition of the Safahat, which has seen numerous editions and printings. Düzdağ also prepared a critical edition for the specialist.
  • Iz, Fahir. “Mehmed ʿĀkif.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, edited by P. J. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, E. van Donzel, and W. P. Heinrichs, new ed., vol. 6, pp. 985–986. Leiden, Netherlands, 1960–.
  • Iz, Fahir. “Mehmed Akif Ersoy (1873–1936): A Biography.”Erdem4, no. 11 (May 1988): 311–323. Useful introduction in English, given the paucity of non-Turkish works on Ersoy.
  • “Mehmet Akif Ersoy, Fikir ve Sanat Vakfı.” www.MehmetAkifErsoy.com.
  • Tansel, Fevziye Abdullah. Mehmed Âkif: Hayatı ve eserleri. 2d ed.Istanbul, Turkey, 1973. Arguably the best study to date of the poet's life and works.
  • “Turkish Cultural Foundation Official Web Site.” www.Turkishculture.org.
  • Yalçin, Murat, ed.Tanzimattan bugüne edebiyatçılar ansiklopedisi. Istanbul, Turkey, 2001.
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