Order of Multitudes

Navigating the Territory of Knowledge: Inside an Ottoman Arabic Encyclopedia

In this essay, Ahmed T. Nur, a PhD Candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at Yale University, reports on the research he conducted in 2022 with the help of a Sawyer seed grant. Nur discusses The Key to Happiness (Miftāḥ al-sa‘āda), a major Arabic encyclopedia of the sciences from the sixteenth-century Ottoman Empire, focusing on the author’s inclusive approach to true knowledge.

Ahmed T. Nur is a PhD candidate in the Religious Studies Department at Yale University. His dissertation analyzes the nature and scope of classifications of the sciences through Islamic intellectual history, focusing on how knowledge was reorganized in Constantinople/Istanbul during the second quarter of the sixteenth century at the hands of the Ottoman scholar Ahmed Taşköprizade (1495-1561).  


What is knowledge? How is it conceptualized and categorized? Does understanding the ways Islamic scholars engaged with knowledge change present narratives about the history of knowledge, specifically the orientalist “decline” paradigm? A medium of innovative ideas and a site of epistemological debate at once, “the classification of the sciences (taṣnīf al-‘ulūm)” became the name for a rich literary genre—or a complex of genres—in Islamic intellectual history with a wide range of contributions over centuries. Despite the abundance of classification schemes, many of these works still remain unpublished and/or understudied, largely due to the pervasive dismissal of post-classical scholarship (i.e. after the twelfth century), thought to be devoid of originality.[1]

One particularly prominent purpose for classifications of the sciences was to establish a proper relationship between the truth-claims of philosophy and religion, or reason and revelation. While classifications of the sciences in the post-classical Islamic history drew on the philosophical background laid out by such influential figures as al-Farabi (d. 950) and Ibn Sina (d. 1037), they also tended to be, over time, more comprehensive in content and outlook. Recent scholarship has documented four developments in the Eastern Islamic world that are closely related to this expansion of knowledge. First, the far-reaching epistemological transformations of the twelfth century[2] opened up the scope of knowledge to include truth-claims outside the purview of strict Aristotelianism, without, however, severing the scholarly ties with the Aristotelian theory of the sciences in various genres.[3] Second, the occult sciences saw an unprecedented rise, especially after the Black Death, among popular and elite circles alike.[4] Third, there was an identifiable tendency during the post-classical period to introduce new scholarly disciplines.[5] Fourth, a tradition of Arabic encyclopedism flourished in the Mamluk territories of Egypt and Syria due to several factors, most notably the migration of scholars following the Mongol onslaught who brought a breadth of knowledge from West and Central Asia.[6]

Folio from Taşköprizade’s treatise discussing occult methods of plague prevention and cure

Ahmed b. Mustafa Taşköprizade (1495-1561), the Ottoman Anatolian scholar, historian, and judge, expanded on these trends in his encyclopedic production. He critically engaged with Mamluk scholarship, embracing some perspectives while opposing others. In my project, I analyze the classification of knowledge in his encyclopedia of the sciences entitled Miftāḥ al-sa‘āda wa miṣbāḥ al-siyāda (The Key to Happiness and Beacon of Mastery). Completed in 1541, this book classifies, for the first time, a multitude of disciplines according to their respective ontological levels, drawing on the fourfold division of existence—the scriptural, the verbal, the mental, and the external—conceptually found in Aristotle (De Interpretatione 16a3-8) and reformulated by Islamic philosophers. The external level (Arabic: ‘ayn, Greek ousia) indicates “real” existence, thus containing the disciplines that are conducive to “true” knowledge (al-‘ilm al-ḥaqīqī). Included in this category are various philosophical and religious sciences, the truth-claims of which are preserved on their own terms. The book also introduces a new field of knowledge: “the science of the classification of the sciences” (‘ilm taqāsīm al-ulūm), testifying to the author’s interest and investment in the subject.

Presenting a plethora of intellectual disciplines over fifteen hundred pages in the modern print, The Key is one of the most comprehensive classifications of the sciences in Islamic history.[7] Taşköprizade completed this encyclopediain Constantinople/Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire and one of the most vibrant centers of intellectual life in post-classical Islam. As the American historian of religions Jonathan Z. Smith writes, classification—as opposed to definition—is a “polythetic grouping or clustering procedure which requires temporal specificity”.[8] In my research, I approach The Key not only as a catalogue of all knowledge available to the author but also as an intellectual map and repository. I argue that the book combines a pedagogical-political purpose with an epistemological-philosophical argument embedded in a specific temporality.

Cover of The Key to Happiness. Copy preserved in the Topkapı Palace Museum Library.

As a bio-bibliographical book, The Key presents reliable books and authors in each discipline, reflecting the author’s concern to chart the expanding territory of knowledge and to help students navigate the wide spectrum of the sciences. Significantly, Taşköprizade juxtaposes and integrates various positions that developed in Islamic intellectual history as competing claims to true knowledge. The epistemological project he espouses throughout the book is to pursue the goal of verifying (taḥqīq) and joining between (jam‘) the parallel paths to true knowledge. Taşköprizade’s synthesizing approach to the classification of the sciences enables him to consider alternative epistemologies within one work, acknowledging them on their own terms and preserving their truth-claims. I argue that his integration of plural perspectives into a unitary and orderly whole reflects the Ottoman imperial climate for managing the diversity and systematizing the territory. Taşköprizade’s pluralism ultimately demonstrates broader trends in the post-classical Islamic intellectual history whereby the absolute truth-claims of paradigmatic philosophies gradually gave way to a multitude of perspectives on the question of true knowledge.[9]

My project contributes to an ongoing historiographical revision of the orientalist narratives that have long characterized the history of post-classical Islamic societies as a story of intellectual “decline.”[10] Methodologically, the failure to recognize the contexts, contents, and the period-specific methods of knowledge production—including commentaries, glosses, and extensive marginalia—depreciates post-classical scholarship. For instance, the recent discovery of Taşköprizade’s manuscripts has shed new light on his deep engagement with various linguistic, natural, occult, mathematical and metaphysical sciences.[11] Comparative case studies of post-classical scholarship will help us better understand and map the changing notions and conditions of knowledge production from medieval to modern times. In many ways, studying The Key affirms that “Map is not territory – but maps are all we possess.”[12]


[1] For a revisionist survey of developments in the transmission and classification of various sciences in post-classical Islamic history, see Sonja Brentjes, Teaching and learning the Sciences in Islamicate Societies (800-1700), Turnhout: Brepols, 2018.

[2] For a detailed historical analysis of these developments, see Frank Griffel, The formation of post-classical philosophy in Islam. Oxford University Press, 2021, pp. 176-416.

[3]Abdurrahman Atçıl, “Greco-Islamic Philosophy and Islamic Jurisprudence in the Ottoman Empire (1300- 1600): Aristotle’s Theory of Sciences in Works on Uṣūl al-Fiqh Osmanlı Araştırmaları 41 (2013): 33-54.

[4] For the recently rising literature on the occult sciences in Islam, see Liana Saif, Francesca Leoni, Matthew Melvin-Koushki, and Farouk Yahya, eds. Islamicate Occult Sciences in Theory and Practice, Leiden: Brill, 2021.

[5] Eyyüp Said Kaya, “Mezhep İlmi: Kafiyeci’nin Fıkıh için bir Alt Disiplin Teklifi”/“The Science of Madhhab: Al-Kafiyaji’s Introduction of a New Sub-Discipline for Islamic Jurisprudence”, Divan: Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 50 (2021): 1-44 (Article in Turkish).

[6] For a fourteenth-century Mamluk encyclopedic vision of “how human knowledge itself could be ordered within a single book,” see Elias Muhanna, The world in a book: al-Nuwayri and the Islamic encyclopedic tradition, Princeton University Press, 2018.

[7] See Taşköprizade, Miftāḥ al-saʻāda wa-miṣbāḥ al-siyāda: fī mawḍūʻāt al-ʻulūm, eds. Kāmil Kāmil Bakrī, ʻAbd al-Wahhāb Abū l-Nūr, Cairo: Dār al-Kutub al-Ḥadītha, 1968. In my research, I consult the manuscript copies preserved in various libraries.

[8] Jonathan Z. Smith, Map is Not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993, ix, fn. 2.

[9] Ihsan Fazlıoğlu,“Between Reality and Mentality-Fifteenth Century Mathematics and Natural Philosophy Reconsidered-”, Nazariyat Journal for the History of Islamic Philosophy and Sciences 1/1 (November 2014): 1-39, p.17.

[10] For a recent revisionist contribution, see Justin Stearns, Revealed Sciences: Natural Sciences in the seventeenth-century Morocco, Cambridge University Press, 2021.

[11] Mustakim Arıcı and Mehmet Arıkan, eds. Taşradan Merkeze Bir Osmanlı Ulema Ailesi: Taşköprülüzadeler ve İsamüddin Ahmed Efendi /An Ottoman Scholarly Family: Taşköprizade Family and İsamuddin Ahmed Efendi, Ankara: İlem Yayınları, 2020 (Book in Turkish).

[12] Jonathan Z. Smith, Map is Not Territory, 309.