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Young Turks

Feroz Ahmad
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Young Turks

Europe designated as the “Young Turks” the opposition to Sultan Abdülhamid II's regime (1876–1908) that restored the constitution on July 23, 1908, and ruled the Ottoman Empire until its destruction in 1918. This opposition movement was the successor to the “Young Ottomans” who had been responsible for the promulgation of the first constitution in December 1876. But after Abdülhamid shelved the constitution in February 1878 and dissolved the New Ottoman Association, the movement went underground or into exile.

In 1889 a new body was formed, calling itself the Committee of Ottoman Union; it soon became famous as the Ottoman Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). It was active mainly in Europe and Egypt, and its members came from virtually every ethnic and religious community in the empire. Turks, Arabs, Kurds, Albanians, Armenians, and Greeks united under the umbrella of Ottomanism in opposition to Hamidian autocracy. In 1906 certain officials and military officers formed the secret Ottoman Freedom Society in the port city of Salonika (Thessaloniki). The following year, the two bodies merged under the established name of the CUP, but it was the Salonika group that led the revolution and forced the sultan to restore the 1876 constitution.

After July 1908, the Young Turks were divided into two broad groups, both determined to maintain the integrity of the Ottoman Empire, but by rather different methods. The Unionists emphasized unity and modernization under a centralized state as the way to progress. The liberals, who formed the Liberal Party (Ahrar Fırkası) in 1908 and the Liberal Union in 1911, favored a decentralized polity with substantial autonomy for the non-Turkish, non-Muslim communities. Both groups stayed away from religion as much as possible, a difficult task in an empire still organized on essentially religious lines in millets or religious communities. In fact, the Young Turks had to undermine the traditional privileges enjoyed by the non-Muslim millets in order to create a modern state. One such privilege permitted foreign states to act as protectors of particular millets; thus Russia protected the Greek Orthodox community and France the Catholic, giving these nations power to interfere in Ottoman affairs and violating the state's sovereignty.

The goal of maintaining a multinational, multireligious empire forced the Young Turks to adopt a dynasty-based ideology of Ottomanism and to shun both nationalism and religion. There were, however, both nationalists and Islamists in their ranks: Said Halim Pasha was an Islamist and Ziya Gökalp a nationalist, and both were prominent in the CUP. Initially they were kept in the background, and Islam became the instrument of the conservative and reactionary opposition; yet even the liberals exploited it during the insurrection of April 1909 led by the İttihad-i Muhammedi Cemiyeti. After this traumatic event, the Unionists became more cautious about fostering social reform that might alienate Islamist opinion influenced by such journals as Sebilürreşad and Sirat-i müstakim. Thus they emphasized the religious element in the ceremony of girding the sword of Osman when Sultan Mehmed V succeeded the deposed Abdülhamid. On May 10, 1909, Mehmed Reşad was taken to the mausoleum of his ancestor at Eyüb and, in the presence of civil and religious notables, Abdülhalim Efendi, the leader of the Mevlevî order who traced his line to Mevlana Jelâl ed-Din Rumi (Ar., Mawlānā Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī), girded the sword on the new sultan.

After the abortive insurrection of 1909, the two factions of the Young Turks competed for political supremacy under the watchful eye of the military high command under Mehmet Şevket Pasha, the general who had crushed the rebellion. In July 1912, while Istanbul was at war with Italy over Libya, a military coup brought the liberals to power, and it seemed that the CUP's days were numbered. But the Unionists took advantage of the defeats suffered by Ottoman armies at the hands of the Balkan states (Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, and Greece) in the war that broke out in October 1912. In the political chaos in the capital they seized power in January 1913 and consolidated it in June by destroying the liberal opposition.

The wars with Italy and the Balkan states weakened the multinational, multireligious character of Ottomanism while strengthening its Islamic and nationalist elements. Italy's attack and occupation of Libya, an Arab province, boosted Islamic solidarity. The loss of virtually all territories in the Balkans followed by the expulsions of much of their Muslim population left the empire with a predominantly Muslim-Turkish Anatolia and the Arab provinces. This trend continued during World War I with the massacre and deportation from eastern Anatolia of the Armenians as well as the arrival of Turks from the Caucasus.

In 1913, following the example of the Jacobins in the French Revolution, the nationalist faction of the CUP organized the Committees of National Defense and Public Safety to facilitate the conduct of war. To appease Arab opinion, Mehmet Şevket Pasha, who was born in Baghdad and claimed he was Arab, was appointed grand vizier in January 1913. Following his assassination in June 1913, the Egyptian prince Said Halim Pasha succeeded him and led the government until February 1917—the longest grand vizierate of the Young Turk period. Ottomanism strongly tinged with Islam had now become the ideology of the Young Turks.

The Islam of the Unionists, however, was ideologically different from that of the Islamists. This is apparent from articles that appeared in Islam mecmuası (Journal of Islam), first published in February 1914. Unlike the Islamists, the Unionists argued that nationalism was not contrary to Islam but complemented it. Moreover, religion had to conform to the needs of everyday life; this idea was summed up in the words on the journal's masthead, “A Religious Life and a Living Religion.” Islam had to be interpreted in terms of the new conditions confronting Muslims in order to be of living significance. The writers in Islam mecmuası went so far as to propose the separation of religion from the state. Only this reform, they claimed, could make Islam a vital part of a Muslim's everyday life; religious reform required taking measures to make religion a matter of conscience while subordinating the legal aspects of Islam to secular legislation. The first step was the concern of religious leaders and institutions, while the second was the job of the state. Some of these ideas were put in action by the Unionist government during the war; they were adopted wholesale by Atatürk's republic and provided the foundations for its policy of secularization.



  • Ahmad, Feroz. The Young Turks. Oxford, 1969. Useful for the politics of the period 1908–1914.
  • Arai, Masami. Turkish Nationalism in the Young Turks Era. Leiden, Netherlands, and New York, 1992. Original analysis of nationalist thought with a most useful chapter on Islam mecmuası.
  • Berkes, Niyazi. The Development of Secularism in Turkey. New York, 1998. Superb study of Ottoman and Turkish intellectual history.
  • Hanioğlu, M. Şükrü. Preparation for a Revolution: The Young Turks, 1902–1908. New York, 2001.
  • Hanioğlu, M. Şükrü. The Young Turks in Opposition. New York, 1995.
  • Kayali, Hasan. Arabs and Young Turks: Ottomanism, Arabism, and Islamism in the Ottoman Empire, 1908–1918. Berkeley, Calif., 1997.
  • Lewis, Bernard. The Emergence of Modern Turkey. 2d ed.London and New York, 1968. Authoritative account of political and intellectual changes in post-Kemalist Turkey.
  • Ramsaur, Ernest Edmondson, Jr.The Young Turks. Princeton, 1957. Still the best account in English on the period before 1908.
  • Shaw, Stanford J., and Ezel Kural Shaw. The History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey. Vol. 2, Reform, Revolution, and Republic: The Rise of Modern Turkey, 1808–1975. Cambridge, London, and New York, 1977. Useful survey of Ottoman and modern Turkish history, with an excellent bibliography.
  • Turfan, M. Naim. Rise of the Young Turks: Politics, the Military, and Ottoman Collapse. London, 2000.
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