Katip Çelebi and Knowledge

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ʿIlm is a blessing of Allah Subhanahu wa Taʿala that He bestows on those who seek it.

Katip Çelebi (1609-1657) is the greatest bibliographer and geographer of the Turkish history of science in Ottoman era. He is internationally famous in social sciences. He authored quality works in many fields.

His most distinctive features are that he meticulously wrote his works by providing references; observed critical and objective point of view in accordance with today’s academic research methods; and he was the first Ottoman intellectual who consulted scientific works of the Western world while writing his books.

Katip Çelebi is an author who wrote in various fields such as history, geography, biography, bibliography, autobiography, tasawwuf, education, medicine, ethnology, shariah and morality, and prepared encyclopaedic works; and he is also a great intellectual having written about religious and social issues.

He was born and raised in Istanbul. His first name is Mustafa. Because of his father’s job in the state, Çelebi worked as an officer in kalemiye department (that is why he is called Katip).

He did not have a classical madrasa education. Nevertheless, he overtook many scholars of his time thanks to his love of ʿilm (knowledge). He was a good natured, less speaking and a dignified man. Sometimes he was getting lost in the books so much that the candle in his room was burning till the morning. Starting from his youth, he served as army clerk during military expeditions. He visited the book stores of the places he saw and improved his book culture. At the age of 25, after the last expedition he joined, he returned to Istanbul and spent most of his money on books, and he continuously took lessons from famous scholars and books for ten years. Occupied with writing books till his death, Katip Çelebi wrote thousands of pages during his life. He wrote 21 books and treatises including compilations, commentaries and translations in Turkish, Persian and Arabic. His most famous books are the encyclopaedic work ‘Kashfu’z-Zunun’ which includes 14.500 books and 10.000 writer names; the most famous geography book of Ottoman times ‘Jihannuma;’ the book of the world history ‘Fadhlaka;’ and ‘Mizanu’l-Haq’ which includes evaluations of religious and social issues.

While preparing his books, Katip Çelebi took down his notes on papers; he first wrote foreword and writing plan, and worked in a way similar to today’s scientific method. He usually used short sentences, a plain language, some wordplays and similes. He tolerated different ideas about a matter of debate, and then discussed those ideas objectively.

Using Kashfu’z-Zunun, the most important bibliographic work of the eastern knowledge, as the primary source, this article endeavoured to summarize the ideas of Katip Çelebi about knowledge.

Description, Method and types of ʿIlm

Knowledge, generally speaking, is to confirm and accept something as it is. It is the relation between the knowing and the known, and it is the formation of a thing in the mind. In other words, it is to understand.

It is innate in man’s nature to learn knowledge; and the thinking is the man’s characteristic distinguishing him from the animal. Even if an animal has the ability to hear and dream, they do not have the ability to reach unknown from known.

Animals cannot know the true nature of the affairs and things; they cannot learn and improve themselves in a field. Only a few animals like monkey and elephant can develop certain skills in a limited way. Allah (swt) says in the Qur’an “We have certainly created man in the best of stature” (Tin, 95:4) and “formed you and perfected your forms” (Ghafir, 40:64). ‘The best of stature’ describes both the beauty of body and the beauty of inner side with respect to the mind. This superiority, of course, depends on knowledge and good deed. At this point, man can reach the degree of angels or may descend to the level of animals.

The innate curiosity of man causes him to consult the knowing. Then he starts to observe the events; the knowledge acquired here is ‘empirical.’ And sometimes the mind reaches information through reasoning; and this is called ‘analogical knowledge.’

Knowledge can be learned in three ways: signs, words and writing. Sign depends on seeing with eyes while word depends on speaker. But writing does not depend on those two; and it is the most beneficial of all. Therefore, whoever learns knowledge must have good handwriting.

All types of knowledge are precious, but there are differences between them in terms of dignity. Some are important due to their subject. For instance, the subject of medicine is human body while the subject of tafsir is the word of Allah (swt). Some type of knowledge is honourable because of its aim, like the knowledge of akhlaq (morality). Some are important because they are needed in conducts, like the knowledge of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence).

Some are esteemed because of their strong proofs, like mathematic and calculation. Some of them, however, are superior to others. The knowledge of morality precedes the logic; and both of them precede the fiqh.

The results and hard evidences of one type of knowledge sometimes surpass another type of knowledge. For instance; the science of religion surpasses the science of medicine in terms of their result; because the first one’s result is the life of hereafter; the latter’s result is the life of this world. Another example is that as it is being strong proof wise, the knowledge of calculation is superior to the knowledge of grammar.

The superiority of result comes before the superiority of meaning. In this regard, the most superior of the knowledge, with respect to result, is to know the fundamentals of the faith; because its result is eternal happiness. O student! Learning knowledge or teaching it should be a means, not an aim. Your aim must be to get to know Allah (swt).

The Pleasure in ʿIlm and its Benefits

There is a pleasure in learning ʿilm indeed. It is a spiritual pleasure. It is especially valid for the truths of the unseen realm and the mysteries of Divine ʿIlm. ʿIlm does not give trouble while one is learning it; because the continuous increase of knowledge relieves one.

There is pleasure in knowledge for it is also a gate to other pleasures. For instance, it is a gate to the pleasures of the hereafter and eternal happiness. And in this world, it is a gate to dignity and respect and it gives effectiveness to your words.

Knowledge has both religious and worldly benefits. Among the religious benefits, it becomes a reverence for Allah (swt) when it is learned for His sake; and it becomes sadaqah (charity) and ibadah (worship) when it is taught to the ignorant. As for the worldly benefits of the ʿ(wo, on the other hand, it reliefs the conscience, saves one from loneliness, and speaks like a friend to the one who stays alone to study knowledge. Knowledge also shows one the ways to happiness and the reasons for hardship.

Since the knowledge erases the falsehood, doubt and ignorance, it is a big weapon against enemies. The right and wrong can only be known by knowledge; and it is the knowledge that frees man from faults. Since the knowledge is a beauty and maturity attracting the hearts of friends, it is an ornament in the eyes of friends. Allah (swt) raises the societies who occupy themselves with knowledge. In other words, only those advanced in knowledge can be leaders to the societies. Angels want the friendship of the ones occupying themselves with knowledge; because they have beauty in their hearts. The existing beings on the earth and in the heavens ask Allah (swt) to forgive the faults of the ones seeking knowledge.

All these virtues of the knowledge are mentioned in the hadith of our Prophet Sallallāhu Alayhi Wasallam narrated by Mu’adh b. Jabal Radhiallahu ʿanhu:

“Acquire ʿilm for the pleasure of Allah (swt), for learning engenders piety, reverence for one’s Lord and fear of wrongdoing. Seeking knowledge for Allah’s pleasure is an act of worship, studying it is a celebration of Allah’s glory, searching for it is a rewarding struggle, teaching it to someone who realizes its worth is a charity, and applying it in one’s home strengthens family unity and kinship. ʿIlm is a comforting friend in times of loneliness. It is the best companion to a traveller. It is the innermost friend who speaks to you in your privacy. Knowledge is your most effective sword against your foe, and finally, it is your most dignifying raiment in the company of your close comrades. Allah (swt) raises the societies with the knowledge, and makes them leaders and pioneers in goodness, they are followed and respected. Angels want their friendship. They lower their wings in great pleasure with one who seeks knowledge; the inhabitants of the heavens and the Earth, the fish in the deep waters, wild and domestic animals on the land ask forgiveness for them. To think about ʿilm is like fasting, to take lessons of it is like salah (prayer); one visit his relatives thanks to it, halal and haram are known with it; it is the head, pious deeds follow it. It is given to the happy people; the disobedient is deprived of it.”

The merits of the ʿilm are so many that it is valued above the good deed in five ways:

  1. Knowledge without deed is counted as good deed; but deed without knowledge is not accepted as good deed.
  2. Knowledge without deed gives benefit, but deed without knowledge does not.
  3. Deed with knowledge leads to real nur (light); but it is not possible for the opposite.
  4. Those doing good deeds have the degree of awliyas while the scholars’ degrees are the ranks of the prophets.
  5. Knowledge is from Allah (swt); deed is what the servants do.

Obstacles to ʿIlm

As there are obstacles to every good thing, there are obstacles that are put in the way of knowledge, which is a great goodness, too. They are as follows:

– Trusting the future. This is not something a wise man would do; because each day brings its own occupation. That is why one should not postpone today’s work to tomorrow.

– Trusting the intelligence. This is foolishness. Many of the intelligent people could not obtain knowledge because of this.

– Starting to study a new knowledge before the first knowledge is not completely finished causes one to be deprived of all the knowledge; this is not a correct method. Beginning to read a new book before finishing a previous one is same in this regard.

– It is rare to see that one can acquire knowledge while actually going after something else. Pursuing money and position, and inclining to sensuality are the things desired other than the knowledge. Such thing prevents most of the people from getting enough knowledge.

– Boredom and lack of help while studying knowledge are the biggest and most serious obstacles; because someone in this condition will be sad and be preoccupied with his heart.

– Aiming for the world and just imitating a work will certainly make one fall behind in learning and improving knowledge.

– The numbers of books written about knowledge and the diversity of the terms can also be among the obstacles to learn knowledge.

– It is not possible to improve knowledge just by memorizing method. The one who strives to memorize rather than to work in order to acquire a skill cannot obtain the power coming from the skill of using knowledge. That is why we see that someone who only memorizes cannot do well anything about knowledge, and when he is in a discussion we notice that he is not skilled in knowledge. Someone who thinks that the skill of knowledge means memorization is certainly wrong. The purpose is to gain the skill of obtaining knowledge and the skill of quickly reaching the indicated from the indicator, from the conditioning precedent to the necessary consequence. Moreover, if it is also supported by memorization, it will be an effective method. However, it is not complete just by memorization; rather memorization is actually just one of the ways of storing in mind.

Necessary Conditions for Learning ʿIlm

If someone, who is in the right way, study knowledge but does not obey the rules of the shariʿah, laws of Islam, the knowledge he learned and the nur (light) of that study will not become permanent. There are many conditions for learning knowledge. They are in brief as follows:

– One must keep away from bad habits; because a heart which is occupied by bad habits cannot get the nur of the knowledge.

– One should not look after self-interest; he must only learn to eliminate the ignorance and to practice the things learned.

– One must remove the obstacles that would prevent him studying the knowledge such as spouse and relatives; because Allah (swt) has not given man two hearts. When the heart is occupied and the mind is filled with various thoughts, a man cannot comprehend the knowledge.

– One must be awake at nights and give up laziness. One of the reasons for laziness is to be afraid of death a lot; because continuously thinking about death consumes one’s energy to live and finishes one’s will to work. However, the knowledge prepares one to death in the best way as long as it is both learned and practiced. The word of our Prophet (saw) “Abundantly remember the destroyer of pleasures; death” indicates to the transient pleasures; but the knowledge is not included in this.

– Studying knowledge must be one’s main goal throughout his life; because there are more advanced types of knowledge than every type of knowledge. If studying one type of knowledge bores one, starting to learn another type of knowledge can solve this problem.

– One must choose his teacher well; he must even travel around the world, if necessary, to find a good teacher if necessary. He must respect that teacher very much. Because when a person is mentioned, his teacher is referred first.

– One must fully examine and comprehend the subjects he studies. He should never think that his knowledge is sufficient enough.

– One must follow the order of types of knowledge. There are some of them which are means to reach the following knowledge. Moreover, one should not confuse means with aims while studying knowledge.

– One must not start studying a new subject before fully understanding the subject he is studying at the time. If there is an inclination towards a branch, one must study it. One should not try to learn more than one type of knowledge at once. If a student tries to do this, he cannot learn that particular type of knowledge properly and what’s more is that he lacks all of them in the end.

– One must discuss the academic issues with level-headed people who are in the same age group. Discussing a difficult topic in circles of knowledge is better than repeating that issue on your own for a month.

– One must be serious and diligent while studying knowledge; a work of a day should not be postponed to another day.

– One should always carry a pen and paper so that he can take notes when he hears something useful. The aim of writing is to check it when forgotten.

– One must spend necessary time for the knowledge of aim and the instrumental knowledge. The instrumental knowledge such as Arabic and Logic (mantiq) are means of the knowledge of shariʿah; they should not be the goal and one should not spend too much time for them. If someone spends his entire life studying the instrumental knowledge, when will he study the knowledge that he aims for?

The Conditions for Teaching ʿIlm

The most necessary virtues that a knowledgeable person must have are mercy, endurance, patience, tender-mindedness, and modesty. He must stay distanced to the goods offered by people, continue studying books, and should not quarrel with anyone and become hostile towards everyone. There are also some conditions for teaching knowledge and spreading it. They are as follows:

– Teaching is one of the most superior of the worships; but it must be certainly for the sake of Allah (swt) and with the intention of enlightening people. One should not expect a position or reputation as a result of his teaching; and he should not ask for money in return.

– One must certainly abstain from sins in order to have his knowledge fruit bearing.

– One must be compassionate and a guide to students. He must explain the aim of knowledge to them and prevent them from bad morals. Students must get the grades that they deserve, not above. And they should not be directed to the subjects they will not be able to cope with.

– The knowledge that will be taught to students must be decided according to their nature. The beginning level must be prepared most properly. The truths of the knowledge must be explained only to those who grow to maturity in knowledge. If one gives the knowledge to the ignorant, it will be a waste; if one prevents those who deserve the knowledge, it will be oppression.

– The actions of the teacher should not contradict his words; because if his actions refute his words, people will hate him and will hate to find the right path with him. Many people look at the manners of the speaker; few do not look. That is why one must attach particular importance to correct his actions as much as he cares about improving his knowledge.

– One must control his anger during a session. There should not be too many jokes; because they harden the hearts. One should not laugh and play during teaching.

– There should not be a debate and controversy about the real knowledge; because this opens the door to heresy.

– One type of knowledge should not be combined with another type of knowledge during either teaching or discussing.

– The young must be encouraged to learn and especially to memorize. The things that they can understand should be taught to them. The condition of a student must be observed: if he is smart at understanding the difficult things, ultimate attention must be showed to him to teach the knowledge. If he is not that quick at understanding, the fardh (compulsory duties), sunnahs, and some worships must be taught to him.

– The questions should not be answered in an offending way. Misleading words should not be used. The teacher should say “I do not know” when something he is not sure about is asked to him; because the word “I don’t know” is the half of the knowledge.


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