Balance as Justice: Deconstruction of premodern ethics on the basis of Qinālīzāde ꜤAlī Chelebī’s Akhlāq-i ꜤAlā’ī

Fatih Ermiş


This project deals with the Ottoman understanding of ethics at the intersection of philosophy, mysticism and sharia using the example of Qinālīzāde’s Akhlāq-i ‘Alā’ī. Qinālīzāde ꜤAlī Chelebī (1510-1572), perhaps the most influential moral philosopher in the history of the Ottoman Empire, wrote the Akhlāq-i ‘Alā’ī between 1563 and 1565 in Damascus, where he served as the chief judge.

As already pointed out by some researchers, the Akhlāq-i ꜤAlā’ī had been the most popular and widely discussed ethical work in the Ottoman Empire and it served as the basis of almost all textbooks of ethics until the modern times. It is a masterpiece that is highly representative of the Ottoman spiritual world. In the introduction to his book, Qinālīzāde argues that because the previous ethics literature had been Persian that it should now be considered obsolete. He further argues that he intentionally wrote his book in Turkish because he saw a great need for Turkish ethics literature. Akhlāq-i ꜤAlā’ī eventually became the standard work of ethics in Ottoman madrasas.

The main research question of this project is the following: How did Ottoman intellectuals deal with the norms of human behaviour with regard to the relationship between man and man, man and environment and man and God? Furthermore, how did they develop a unified system that regulated human behaviour at these three levels?

The project is structured at the following three levels:

1. How did Qinālīzāde process and reinterpret the previous ethical literature? Here is an intensive source analysis intended, thereby representing both the character of Akhlāq-i ꜤAlā’ī and Qinālīzāde’s contribution to ethics as a discipline. It should also be noted that as a judge, Qinālīzāde made the tradition of Ṭūsī and the aḫlāq genre part of the Ottoman spiritual world.

2. How did Qinālīzāde develop his ethical system? Main frameworks, terms, questions and problem areas of ethics are discussed here. In addition, Qinālīzāde’s personal networks as well as the circumstances of his time are taken into consideration.

3. How was Qinālīzāde received further in later literature?

According to Qinālīzāde, justice is not a part of virtue, justice is virtue. If an individual manages to follow the middle path between two extremes, he achieves a balance in his soul in terms of the three powers of the soul: desire, irascibility and reason. This individual is, by definition, a just man.

With respect to the middle path, Qinālīzāde distinguishes between absolute and relative middle. Absolute middle is the arithmetic midpoint, in the same way that four is in the middle of two and six. However, this is completely irrelevant to ethics. The relative midpoint is an essential instrument for the analysis of the human character. In this regard, virtues are different for each individual. Moreover, virtues change at different stages of a human life in accordance with changing circumstances. A certain trait may be a virtue for one individual and vice for another individual, or it may be a virtue for one individual at one stage of life, and a vice at another. Qinālīzāde here refers to the definition of justice as “putting everything in the right place”. These right places (or the golden mean between two extremes) must be determined personally and in a dynamic process. Justice (Ꜥadālat) thereby becomes equilibrium (iꜤtidāl).

Each individual must first achieve balance in his soul. Justice then influences the families, because just individuals form just families. A society made up of just families will again form a just society and be governed by a just ruler. This upward justice also implies a downward justice: a society ruled by a just ruler will form just families, and just families will raise just individuals. 




Dr. Fatih Ermiş (