Spies, Scandals & Sultans – Another Engaging Read

Written 2014; edited 2019

Spies, Scandals & Sultans is an engaging translation of Ibrahim al Muwaylihi’s newspaper reports on the inner workings of the Ottoman Empire, and its relations with Egypt. Roger Allen, the translator, specializes in Arabic literature and is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Ibrahim al Muwaylihi wrote these articles in the late 19th century, a time of rapid change in the international system and turbulence in the Ottoman Empire. His work unearthed the socio-political struggles within the empire from the seat of its power, Istanbul. His goal was to raise the awareness of some key officials with the hope that measures would be taken to change the situation.

Professor Roger Allen organized the translation into sixteen chapters. Each chapter includes at least one article from the newspaper, Al-Muqattan, all of which are organized chronologically. Allen also included passages that were omitted from Ma Hunalik [type of source unspecified].

Before the introduction is a list of ‘The Later Ottoman Sultans,’ which is helpful to the reader who is unfamiliar with the names found in later chapters.  The introduction is an invaluable source to those unfamiliar with both Ottoman history and Ibrahim al Muwaylihi.

It identifies Ibrahim al Muwaylihi’s motive, his background and other key figures. Most importantly Professor Allen outlined the significance of Ibrahim’s work and its illumination of the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Abd al-Hamid.

Professor Allen included footnotes at the end of every chapter, except for the last. The footnotes are a combination of definitions and sources for words cited in the text. The footnotes are helpful in understanding the context of certain quotes and their significance to Ibrahim’s argument.

One such footnote provides a source that offers pictures of Abd al Hamid, a sultan that Ibrahim claimed was so elusive that his subjects never actually saw him. Another footnote provides the opportunity to see pictures of the Sublime Porte — the office of the Grand Vizier. Overall, the footnotes are as useful as a flotation device for the reader, who may not be able to stay afloat on their own. If not a mindful scholar, the reader may easily be lost in all the names and quotations.

All things considered, Spies, Scandals, & Sultans is an amazing translation that transports the reader to Istanbul, during the Ottoman Empire’s last years. The book provides ample insight into the empire under Abd al Hamid II’s reign. It details the intricate spy and espionage system, and the implications it had on the stability of the sultanate. One of the many depictions Ibrahim al Muwaylihi painted of the sultanate, is the culture of fear and espionage that was an intricate part of everyday life. According to Ibrahim, these two factors played an influential role in Abd al Hamid’s actions and the overall deterioration of the empire.

Spies, Scandals & Sultans is a primary source that depicts the deterioration of the empire through the lens of an Egyptian news reporter. The sources he used range from contemporary accounts of contacts, to stories heard by word of mouth. In all, Ibrahim al Muwaylihi’s depiction of the spy system, the fearful sultan, and the treacherous courtiers presents the reader with an uncensored view of Istanbul, during the late Ottoman period.

A note to Sultan Al-Ghazi ‘Abd al Hamid Khan II:

…Islam, of which you are the Prophet’s successor (Caliph) and the allegiance that we have pledged to you…lead us to submit to you this advisory note, devoid of all blemishes that may afflict the mind; advising the Sultan is the strongest principle of the faith, particularly at a time when Islam finds itself confronting grave dangers…

All Muslims in East and West are at this moment discussing the imminent collapse of the empire — in itself, the very spirit of Islam — if it is unable to find in Your Majesty that helping hand to raise it up again…

Islam is a single body. So, if one of the limbs is affected, the rest feel it as well. An Egyptian Muslim is hurt when an Istanbul Muslim is, and the same with Muslims East and West. God Almighty has said: Believers are a brotherhood. So consort with you brothers and fear God.

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