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Wagner, Esther-Miriam (ed.), A Handbook and Reader of Ottoman Arabic

Cambridge Semitic Languages and Cultures 9, Cambridge, Open Book Publishers
Colinda Lindermann
Bibliographical reference

Wagner, Esther-Miriam, A Handbook and Reader of Ottoman Arabic, Cambridge Semitic Languages and Cultures 9, Cambridge, Open Book Publishers, 2021, 463 pp., ISBN 978-1-78374-941-6.

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1This volume promises to provide “unprecedented access to Arabic language history” through sources that have “often been viewed as corrupted and not worthy of study” and have been “almost completely neglected in university courses.” This and the title of the book, A Handbook and Reader of Ottoman Arabic, foreshadow a helpful theoretical and practical introduction to “Ottoman Arabic,” Arabic in the Ottoman period, suitable for advanced students of Arabic and Islamic Studies. The PDF of this Open Access publication is freely downloadable; the paperback can be purchased for £18.66. The volume consists of an introduction (pp. xii-xx), a six-chapter Handbook (pp. 1-140) and a Reader with 36 text samples (pp. 143-463).

2The introduction, which touches on concepts such as “Middle Arabic” and “Koineisation,” identifies “Ottoman Arabic” as a transformation of Classical Arabic that “follows on from changes in the Ayyubid and Mamluk period, but occurs on a much larger scale and extends to a much larger number of vernacular features” (p. xii). These changes do not run along confessional borders, but rather depend on genre and, especially where they concern orthography, on the alphabet that is employed: Wagner gives some examples from Judaeo-Arabic (Arabic written in Hebrew script) and Garshūnī (Arabic written in Syriac script). While the Reader aims “to make a large number of short 15th-20th-century Arabic texts available and easily accessible to students and scholars of Arabic”, the Handbook “gathers articles intended to educate about a wide range of topics pertaining to literacy and education in the Ottoman Empire” (p. xvii).

3Michiel Leezenberg’s opening chapter “Vernacularisation in the Ottoman Empire: Is Arabic the Exception that Proves the Rule?” seems to confirm the initial impression that we are dealing with a linguistic introduction to Ottoman Arabic: however, after briefly discussing Charles Ferguson’s theory of diglossia and its modifications, the author proceeds to argue that the Ottoman Empire went through several waves of vernacularisation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (the languages he discusses include Bosnian, Greek, Armenian, Ladino [“Judaeo-Hispanic”], and Albanian). He poses the question how these parallel developments can be accounted for. Leezenberg rejects the “rise of mercantilism” and the influence of European Enlightenment as explaining factors, rejects printing as a decisive development, and finally discusses the rise of vernacular grammars, ascribing to them an important role for vernacularisation on account of their use in state education. Arabic and Greek (the two examples of diglossia used by Ferguson in 1959) were not subject to this process, probably on account of strong language ideologies. The author does not go into the question of language ideology in the Ottoman Empire, nor does he refer to Yasir Suleiman’s seminal work on Arabic language ideology at large. At the end of this chapter, the reader is left to wonder why the opening chapter of a Handbook of Ottoman Arabic does not discuss Arabic. Perhaps because of the “lack of relevant expertise” the author, a professor of Philosophy of Science, attests himself (p. 16)? If this is so, it may have been more fruitful to have a linguist write the opening article.

4The second chapter by Nezmet Kizilkaya, “From Means to Goal: Auxiliary Disciplines in the Ottoman Madrasa Curriculum,” sets out to discuss which textbooks were used for the auxiliary disciplines in the Ottoman medrese, which are identified by the author as “ṣarf ‘morphology’, naḥw ‘grammar/syntax’, manṭiq ‘logic’, ādāb al-baḥth wa-l-munāẓara ‘dialectic’, waḍʿ ‘philosophy of language’, and balāgha ‘rhetoric‘” (p. 25). While Kizilkaya equates “auxiliary” with “preparatory,” he does not clarify why, in his arrangement, learning the Arabic alphabet and the rules of tajwīd, or memorising Juzʾ ʿamma and a versified Persian dictionary (Tuḥfa-i Shāhidī) precede the “auxiliary disciplines” instead of being part of them. Other omissions of the author do not inspire much faith in the accuracy of the other data: he fails to notice that “Birgili Mehmed Efendi” (p. 27) and “Muhammad Birgiwī” (p. 30) are the same person; the footnotes meant to explain Arabic terms are not informative at all (“Tajwīd is a set of rules for the correct pronunciation of the letters with all their qualities,” p. 27); the text abounds with trivial statements such as “In this respect, Sakkākī introduced an innovation no one else initiated before him, and seriously influenced those who came after” (p. 36). Apart from modern Turkish secondary sources, the author also cites Kātib Çelebi’s Kashf al-ẓunūn, to which he refers as “Khalīfa 2007”— a confusing citation, as the author of Kashf al-ẓunūn appears in the bibliography as “Ḥajī Khalīfa, Kātib Çelebi 1972”.

5Two contributions by Guy Burak follow: the first is a translation of a passage from Sājaqlīzāde’s Tartīb al-ʿulūm, an early eighteenth-century classification of the sciences which deals with the training of the scholar. It is left largely uncommented and without context. One could imagine enhancing its usefulness by tying its content to the previous chapter or providing footnotes that go beyond mere references to modern editions of the works mentioned by Sājaqlīzāde. Burak’s second contribution, “Rumi Authors, the Arabic Historiographical Tradition, and the Ottoman Dawla/Devlet,” briefly discusses the role of Arabic as a language of prestige for Ottoman historiography, before moving on to the expression al-Dawla al-ʿUthmāniyya, the meaning of which, Burak argues, shifted according to whether it was used in Arabic or Ottoman Turkish sources. His finding that “for the most part, authors writing in Turkish over the course of the 15th through 17th centuries were quite reluctant to attach a possessive adjective ‘Ottoman’ to the noun devlet. Instead, [...] they stressed its eternity” (p. 54) is hardly surprising from an Ottoman state-paid historiographer’s perspective.

6Christopher Bahl’s chapter “Arabic Grammar Books in Ottoman Istanbul: The South Asian Connection” comes nearer to the intended scope of the volume. Starting with an outline of the role of Arabic among imperial and scholarly elites on the Indian subcontinent, Bahl proceeds to argue that, from the sixteenth century onward, philological commentaries from South Asia reached the “Ottoman worlds further west” (p. 68), as witnessed by the large number of manuscripts by South Asian authors now held by the Süleymaniye and the marginalia and paratexts they contain. He specifically discusses the paratextual element of the external fihrist, a table of contents that was added to the text by scribes and readers during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and attests to the use of these South Asian manuscripts for scholarly study in Ottoman Istanbul and beyond. Bahl’s contribution explains the function of the grammar works and contextualises their authors in a cautious yet highly informative manner.

7The last article in the Handbook is the longest by far. On 53 pages, E. Khayyat’s essay “Bastards and Arabs” presents the Ottoman poet Ziya Pasha (1825-1880), an exile in London who was part of the Young Ottoman movement. Ziya Pasha engaged in debates about the role of Ottoman Turkish in literature and called for its standardisation and elevation to the status of a full-fledged literary language (pp. 94, 103). Through Ziya Pasha’s trilingual anthology Harabat and its reception, Khayyat aims to review Harabat’s languages and literatures, and, finally, its Arabic canon [...] while raising an uncanny question: that of the relevance of Ottoman Arabic today (pp. 90-91. The article provides a thorough and well-written discussion of Harabat with numerous quotations of Turkish verse, engaging with Tevfik Fikret‘s (1867-1915) critique of Ziya Pasha and Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar’s (1901-1962) views on Turkish poetry and the “Islamicate mindset” (p. 115), before moving to Ziya Pasha’s reception of pre-Islamic poetry (124ff.). With respect to vernacularisation, the author suggests comparing Ottoman Arabic to medieval Latin, or the ‘Middle Latin’ of ‘Catholic cosmopolitanism’” (p. 133).

8The Reader contains thirty-six text samples from different genres, chronologically arranged from the 1480s to the 1920s. The chapters generally consist of a short introduction, a transcription of the text, an English translation, and a brief commentary. In some cases, the introduction or commentary are omitted. If the text is in Judaeo-Arabic, Garshūnī, or Mandaeo-Arabic, an Arabic transcription is also provided. Unfortunately, images of the manuscripts or links to digitised copies are not included. Some of the texts have been previously edited and extensively discussed, such as Yūsuf al-Shirbīnī’s Ḥazz al-Quḥūf, edited by Humphrey Davies, and Yūsuf al-Maghribī’s colloquial Egyptian dictionary Dafʿ al-iṣr ʿan kalām ahl Miṣr, edited by Liesbeth Zack; in this volume, too, both texts stand out for their informative introduction. Other samples are made available in print here for the first time, such as a short passage from a weaver’s notebook from sixteenth-century Aleppo, edited by Boris Liebrenz and Kristina Richardson. In their introduction, the editors mention that they have adopted a set of orthographic standardisations to make the text more accessible(p. 194). This is a debatable intervention in a chrestomathy that wishes to convey the flavour of “Ottoman Arabic”.

9The commentaries to the text passages also come in very different shapes: some are more like brief introductions, others are crisp linguistic commentaries underlining the colloquial or specifically “Ottoman Arabic” character of the texts, such as Jérôme Lentin’s concise and pertinent comments on passages from several chronicles and a letter, or the text samples edited by Esther-Miriam Wagner and Mohamed Ahmed, Feras Krimsti, and Olav Ørum.

10It is a pity that the Handbook does not contain an introductory article on or even a reference to Judaeo-Arabic, as fifteen out of thirty-six chapters in the Reader are in Judaeo-Arabic. One would wish for a similar introduction as the one provided by Michael Erdman for the edited selections from Arabic Garshūnī manuscripts from the British Library (pp. 197-207), which contextualises the use of Garshūnī and assists the unitiated reader in deciphering the text, even providing a list of Syriac characters with their corresponding Arabic letters. Moreover, Erdman sensibly chooses to retain the orthographic idiosyncrasies, just as Liesbeth Zack in her transcription of Dafʿ al-iṣr (p. 212) and Magdalen Connolly in her transcription of a nineteenth-century Judaeo-Arabic folk narrative (p. 336).

11With the publication of these text samples, the main objective of the volume, “to make a large number of short 15th-20th-century Arabic texts available and easily accessible to students and scholars of Arabic,” is met: the Reader may indeed serve as a chrestomathy in the literal sense of being “useful for learning,” even though the introductions and commentaries are not all equally amenable or useful. The Handbook suffers from the fluctuating quality and relevance of its chapters. By no means can it be considered a collection of introductory essays to the subject of Ottoman Arabic nor do all articles pertain “to literacy and education in the Ottoman Empire.” For a future edition of this book, the editor would do well to omit the Handbook altogether and focus on compiling a Reader along consistent principles for contextualising, introducing, and commenting on the individual texts.

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Electronic reference

Colinda Lindermann, “Wagner, Esther-Miriam (ed.), A Handbook and Reader of Ottoman ArabicHamsa [Online], 8 | 2022, Online since 14 October 2022, connection on 19 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Colinda Lindermann

Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Freie Universität Berlin,

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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