Ottoman despotism and Islamic constitutionalism in Mehmed Ali's Egypt

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This article examines an engagement with the European debate on the ‘despotic’ nature of the Ottoman Empire, by a writer from part of the Ottoman lands themselves. In 1842, Khalīfa ibn Maḥmūd, an Egyptian official of the state of Mehmed Ali, translated the Scottish Enlightenment historian William Robertson’s A View of the Progress of Society in Europe (1769). In an appendix to his translation, Khalifa takes issue with Robertson’s description of the Ottoman Empire as ‘despotic’. To refute this claim, he makes use especially of an 1825 work entitled Charte turque by the revolutionary soldier and political writer Alfio Grassi, making the argument that the Ottoman Empire is in fact a constitutional state. Khalifa’s text thus offers a rare example of the appropriation of a specific strand in European writing about ‘the Orient’, in the interests of Mehmed Ali’s Ottoman-Egyptian state and, within it, of Arabic-speaking officials like Khalifa and his mentor Rifāʾa al-Ṭahṭāwi. This thus provides an early example of ‘Islamic constitutionalist’ thinking, as well as directing attention to the specific priorities of Mehmed Ali’s regime and his rivalry with the Ottoman Sultan, in the years after his defeat at the hands of Ottoman and British forces in 1840.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)135-166
Number of pages32
JournalPast and Present
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 30 Oct 2017


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