Almost ninety years after its first publication, M. F. Köprülü’s famous and most influential Türk edebiyatında ilk mutasavvıflar, basically comprised of two monographs on Ahmad Yasawi and on Yunus Emre respectively, has now been translated into English by Gary Leiser and Robert Dankoff. The two editors have also done a good job in identifying and completing Köprülü’s often vague references, and in adding references to relevant literature that has been published since. Seemingly intended as homage to the great Turkish scholar who shaped scholarship on the history of Turkish Sufi literature like no one else, this book stands in a line with Leiser’s previous translations of other works by Köprülü. Yet the book under review is much more than just an improved translation; it must also be read as an encompassing and, in fact, devastating critique of Köprülü’s views and approaches. This was achieved by the pre-eminent Central Asianist Devin DeWeese, who provided a critical Foreword to the volume that summarises Köprülü’s many shortcomings and blunders (pp. viii-xxvii). DeWeese also contributed most of the glosses, corrections and addenda to Köprülü’s footnotes in the Yasawi part of the work.
Köprülü, in his effort to construct a unilinear lineage from Yasawi to Emre in order to establish the origins and development of popular Sufi literature in Turkey, used Central Asia, as DeWeese puts it, “as a blank screen” upon which he “felt free to project religious, cultural and literary developments known to him from Anatolia” (p. xvi). In Köprülü’s work, Central Asian Sufism is never studied for its own sake but always just a function to explain the Sufi literature in Turkey, which in its turn is regarded by him as a function of the Turkish national character. This leads to multiple and serious distortions: Central Asian sources on Yasawi (to the degree that they were available to Köprülü) and even the work attributed to Yasawi himself, the Diwan-i hikmat, were studied superficially, if at all; elements that did not fit into Köprülü’s frame of reference were glossed over; and important questions were ignored. To be sure, the work of the young Köprülü (he was 28 years old when he published his book) was groundbreaking in its time, if simply for the enormous amount of Turkish sources of very diverse genres that he used, a great deal of them still in manuscript form. The scandal is rather that Turkish and Western scholars did not take his work as the starting point for further research; rather, it was regarded it as “the last word” on Yasawi, and thus had what DeWeese calls “a stultifying effect” on Yasawian studies (p. xxii). Equally deplorable is that in the Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union, serious research on Central Asian Sufism was, with very few exceptions, not possible for ideological reasons; important sources on the Yasawian tradition, stored in the huge libraries of Tashkent and elsewhere, remained unstudied, and have become accessible to scholars ― to Western experts like D. DeWeese, but also to a new generation of Kazakh scholars like A. Muminov and Z. Zhandarbekov ― only since the early 1990s.
Coming back to Köprülü’s method: In general, Köprülü believed he could separate truth from fiction, history from legend, without however making plain why he would accept certain information as “truthful” and other as fiction. Köprülü himself, in his own foreword to the 1918 edition, calls this the “intuition” of the scholar who has “complete command of his subject,” and who, he believed, came to his results without “preconceived ideas” (p. liv). This is a revealing document of his misguided approach. As D. DeWeese shows, he wanted to believe that the Divan-i hikmat was in fact Yasawi’s work, although he knew that much if not all of it was a compilation of poems of later authors, and although he could not identify even one single Hikmat as stemming from Yasawi’s pen. He managed to gloss this over, first, by claiming that even if it was not Yasawi’s work, it must have been written in the “spirit” of Yasawi, and second, by simply not engaging in a serious textual analysis. In a similar fashion Köprülü took for granted the presumed year of death of Yasawi (562/1166-7), although this information stemmed only from one comparatively late source at his disposal; endowed with Köprülü’s authority, this questionable date became cemented in Turkish scholarship for decades. In his account of Yasawi’s teachers Köprülü mainly followed a Naqshbandi source, without understanding the context of communal competition between the various Sufi communities in Central Asia. Of course here D. DeWeese’s correcting remarks are the fruit of his own painstaking work on Persian-language hagiographies of the Yasawi, Kubrawi and Naqshbandi traditions from Central Asia that Köprülü did not, and could not, know of; however, DeWeese also shows that Köprülü ignored ― as it seems, consciously ― information he did have access to, for example an account about a Suhrawardiyya connection of Yasawi (p. xviii) that did not fit into Köprülü’s simplified interpretation. Similar suppositions based on a questionable source base are Köprülü’s claim that Yasawi himself deliberately established a Sufi brotherhood, that he introduced a set of principles and practices that shaped the development of this tariqa for centuries, and, finally, that there was a stream of Yasawian disciples who fled the Mongol invasion and migrated to Anatolia, where the Yasawiyya allegedly became an important breeding ground for what would ultimately, according to Köprülü, in the sixteenth century, become the Bektashiyya. None of these claims are documented by sources; as DeWeese notes in many of his addenda to Köprülü’s footnotes, they are “fantasy” (e.g., p. 230).
Leiser’s and Dankoff’s diligent philologist English reproduction and formal improvement of the text, combined with DeWeese’s fundamental rejection of its core contents, produces a very curious result: a book that constantly refutes itself in its footnotes. It is for this reason that the book is to be highly recommended to anybody interested in Sufism and Turkic literature in Central Asia and Turkey, less as a reverence to Köprülü than as an antidote to his stifling influence. Unfortunately, the second part of this English edition, the part on Yunus Emre, misses the same critical spirit; here the editors’ addenda to Köprülü’s footnotes provide some references to further literature but do not challenge the views expounded in Köprülü’s book. Routledge must be credited for the good quality of the hardbound edition; the fact, however, that any reference to D. DeWeese’s Foreword has been omitted from the book’s cover (his contribution is acknowledged only on p. iii) is regrettable ― it would have been a different book without D. DeWeese’s exercise in deconstruction.