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A History of Ottoman Economic Thought: Developments before the Nineteenth Century

Author(s):Ermiş, Fatih
Reviewer(s):Coşgel, Metin

Published by EH.Net (December 2014)

Fatih Ermiş, A History of Ottoman Economic Thought: Developments before the Nineteenth Century. New York: Routledge, 2013. xv + 218 pp. $140 (hardback), ISBN: 978-0-415-54006-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Metin Coşgel, Department of Economics, University of Connecticut.

What we know about pre-modern economic thought is little enough to fit into a short chapter in most textbooks on the history of economic ideas.  The problem is magnified for economic thought in the Ottoman Empire because only a small fraction of the archived writings of intellectuals and bureaucrats, the only sources available for the period before the nineteenth century, have been uncovered and translated to modern languages. By attempting the first book-length manuscript on economic thought in the Ottoman Empire, Fatih Ermiş has made a significant contribution to the literature that has thus far consisted of a few commentaries and journal articles.

The book is a revised version of Ermiş’s doctoral dissertation, submitted to the Max Weber Center for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies in Germany. It is based on primary sources obtained in archives and libraries in Austria, Germany, and Turkey. These sources include the chronicles of Ottoman bureaucrats, writings giving counsel to the ruler (siyāsatnāme), political writings (lāyiha), reports of Ottoman ambassadors (sefāretnāme), and the correspondence between the ruler and high bureaucrats (hatt-ı hümayūn). Offering translations from original sources, Ermiş provides lengthy excerpts and summary discussion of the views of Ottoman intellectuals and bureaucrats on the organization of society, organization of production, and economics of regulation. The volume consists of eight chapters that include an introductory chapter and a conclusion. Although the coverage of the book is given in the title as the period before the nineteenth century, the majority of the discussion is devoted to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

In the introductory chapter, Ermiş summarizes the main objectives, historical context, important questions, and primary sources of the book. The next chapter offers a brief description (in an encyclopedic style) of some of the basic elements of the Ottoman economy and introduces the terms and concepts that will be used in the discussion of economic ideas in subsequent chapters. For example, Ermiş describes the Ottoman land and tax regime, units of accounting, and administrative structure, and he typically uses both the Ottoman terms and English equivalents to facilitate common understanding. Since the book does not include a separate glossary, this chapter serves an important purpose for the non-specialist reader to form a basic understanding of relevant Ottoman institutions and to gain a conceptual framework of reference.

In Chapter 3, Ermiş discusses the Ottoman theory of the state, more specifically how the intellectuals and bureaucrats conceptualized the groups comprising society and legitimized the authority of the ruler. According to them, the Ottoman subjects consisted of scholars, bureaucrats, merchants, and peasants. The ruler’s responsibility was to maintain the balance between these groups because they could not realize order if left on their own. In discussing the nature of the ruler’s authority, Ottoman intellectuals adopted a “humour theory of the state” to explain the balance between the four groups of the society based on an analogy between the body and the society, an analogy that was also used by ancient Greek philosophers and previous Islamic scholars. According to the analogy, scholars were like blood, merchants were like yellow bile, peasants were like black bile, and bureaucrats were like phlegm. The function of the ruler in this setup was to ensure social order between the groups as the society went through stages of social development, just as the physician ensured the balance of the body as individuals went through stages of physical development. At the end of the chapter, Ermiş discusses how the concept of balance is closely related to justice. Once again using an analogy that goes back to Greek philosophers, Ottoman intellectuals formulated the concept of “the circle of justice” to illustrate the interconnectedness between social groups and how the balance between them is a prerequisite for justice.

Chapter 4 is about the economy of the household, the basic unit in the division of labor in the society, also a concept applicable to the society as a whole, the “household” of the ruler. Ermiş discusses the historical origins of the concept of household economy and how the Ottoman intellectuals used this framework to understand the economy. He gives examples from the writings of Ottoman thinkers on the role of money, division of labor in society, and savings and expenditures.

In Chapter 5, Ermiş offers a brief survey of the views of Ottoman thinkers on state intervention in markets. Ottoman rulers regulated the markets through price controls and market supervisors. He reviews the debate among Ottoman thinkers on whether price controls could be justified under Islamic Law and what conditions required the state to undertake such control. Prices and other government regulations were enforced through the market supervisor, an official who was responsible for making sure that the sellers did not exceed the ceiling prices, their scales and measures were accurate, and in general buyers and sellers observed the regulations in market transactions.

Chapters 6 and 7 are devoted to discussing how economic thought and its applications changed at the end of the eighteenth century. This was a difficult period for the Ottoman Empire because of lost wars and the growing challenges of economic and political developments in western Europe. These changes prompted Ottoman intellectuals to debate how to reform the state to ensure its health and continuity. In Chapter 6, Ermiş discusses the debates surrounding the conception of the state, the legitimacy relationship between the ruler and subjects, bureaucratic reforms and corruption, and trade and monetary policies.  Turning attention to applications of these ideas in reality in Chapter 7, Ermiş examines money in circulation, state interventions in markets, and the treatment of merchants. Chapter 8 consists of a brief account of the book’s arguments and concluding comments.

We must applaud Ermiş for taking a significant step towards building a comprehensive survey of economic thought in the Ottoman Empire. This book contributes significantly to cataloging the views of leading intellectuals, describing their methods and concerns, and identifying the genesis of their ideas. It is particularly useful that Ermiş has quoted extensively from the writings of Ottoman bureaucrats and intellectuals, making them available to an international audience.

Given the paucity of sources on Ottoman economic thought and the linguistic and other obstacles that prevent their widespread availability, the completion of a satisfactory survey will clearly require several other steps. So while we applaud this first attempt, we must also identify its shortcomings for future studies to improve. The most immediate and obvious are the need for a serious revision of the text toward better clarity and comprehension and a careful reorganization of the material toward greater coherence. In future editions, the author and the editors would be well advised to take additional steps to transform the doctoral dissertation into a quality manuscript aimed at a broad audience.
The author could have improved contents by covering all periods comprehensively and by choosing topics more systematically and consistently. In the early chapters the author has focused primarily on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with additional references to Ibn Khaldun — not an Ottoman scholar — possibly because of the greater availability of sources for this period, despite advertising the coverage as being “the classical period.” Since Chapter 6 is devoted to changes in economic thought in the eighteenth century, one would need to identify systematic changes prompted by the challenges of modernity beyond the conventional discussion of the views of Ottoman intellectuals on the state’s need for bureaucratic reforms. It’s useful that this chapter introduces new topics, such as trade, corruption, and monetary policy, but it would be a further improvement to include these topics in earlier chapters for continuity or to clarify why they emerged as topics of new interest in the later period.

There is also the problem of coverage being dictated by the sources, which may result in overrepresentation of topics that were of great interest to the rulers and bureaucratic intellectuals. This may explain this book’s extensive coverage of the ruler’s legitimacy, his ability to maintain social order, and his reasons for market regulation. It likely causes the exclusion of other important topics, such as the Islamic law of taxation and the provision of public goods, which could be just as important for public finance but does not receive as much attention in the set of archival sources examined by the author as they do elsewhere. Moreover, it also likely causes the exclusion of various other topics of private economy, such as the guilds, financial markets, and the organization of production, which were likely discussed by Ottoman intellectuals but possibly left little trace in the sources examined here.

By having a clear methodological position and a coherent analytical framework, the author could have better categorized the quoted sources and interpreted their meaning and intention more appropriately. The author seems to have taken the writings of Ottoman bureaucrats and intellectuals at face value, without questioning how their proximity to the ruler and official positions likely affected their ideas and writings. For example, did any of these ideas represent rent-seeking behavior, the same way that western mercantilism was argued to be the outcome of rent-seeking behavior rather than a school of thought based on pure ideology? Regarding the notion of circle of justice, was this a framework that justified the legitimacy of the ruler and surrounding bureaucracy, or was it pure ideology that grounded the true care of Ottoman rulers for justice in the society? To appraise competing ideas, one could have asked whether there were serious challenges to the views expressed by covered bureaucrats on the circle of justice. If not, why not? Likewise, were there any writings that represented the interests of other groups, such as the merchants and the guilds? If not, why not?

To put the Ottoman economic thought in context, the author could have compared it to other schools or related it to broader debates in intellectual history. What were the contributions of Ottoman intellectuals to Islamic or western schools of thought, for example Scholasticism? Ermiş discusses the historical background to the ideas of Ottoman intellectuals and how their origins could be found in Greek philosophers and Islamic scholars, but he does not discuss systematically how the Ottomans differed from their predecessors. Nor does he discuss how the Ottoman economic thought differed from that of contemporary Islamic empires or western states. Instead, seemingly subscribing to an outdated and problematic notion, he simply asserts (but does not fully argue) the uniqueness of the Ottoman economic experience and its interconnectedness with the social, political, and religious spheres. Although the Ottoman experience was certainly unique in many ways, this does not mean that the ideas of Ottoman intellectuals cannot be productively compared to others to identify systematic similarities and differences.

Ermiş’s book is a good start to including economic ideas of Ottoman bureaucrats and public intellectuals in the stock of knowledge about the history of economic thought prior to the nineteenth century. Being the first attempt towards a comprehensive survey of Ottoman thought, it is incomplete, but there is much in it to form the foundation for future scholars to build on.

Metin Coşgel is Professor and Head, Department of Economics at the University of Connecticut.  In recent research on the economic history of the Ottoman Empire, he has studied the system of taxation, transmission and inequality of wealth, resolution of disputes in courts, and the organization of law enforcement.  His publications have appeared in the Journal of Economic History, Explorations in Economic History, Economic History Review, History of Political Economy, Economics and Philosophy, and other economics and history journals. His recent book, coauthored by Boğaç Ergene, titled A Court in Time: An Economic Approach to Settlement and Trial in an Ottoman Court is nearing completion. See

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Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Middle East
Time Period(s):16th Century
17th Century
18th Century