Photograph: Sadri Maksudi, Paris, 1906

Sadri Maksudi Arsal (1878 – 1957)

Sadri Maksudi is a statesman and a multidisciplinary scholar who contributed to Ataturk’s nation-building project with his works in law, linguistics and history. A political leader during his youth, he served as a deputy at the Russian parliament, the Duma. He then pursued an academic career. He continued writing articles and books throughout his life and never ceased his research on Turkish history. He could read and write in Russian, French, and English as well as the Ottoman Turkish,  thanks to the schools he attended, the geography he lived in, and the assignments he undertook. He was also able to read German, Arabic, and Persian, which enabled him to conduct academic research from diverse sources.

Sadri Maksudi’s extraordinary life began in 1878 at a time the world was going through vast changes. His life was entirely shaped by the political currents at the close of the 19th century and the historical events that took place in the period through the end of World War II. A period of struggle and warfare. 1878 was the year the Crimean war finally came to an end, and the Ottoman Empire suffered severe territorial losses at the Berlin Conference. Europe was still a continent of empires competing for overseas colonies. Sadri Maksudi’s first thirty years were shaped by major historical events, namely the 1905 revolution in Russia, Tolstoy’s call for peace and its impact on the masses, the spread of Pan-Hellenism and Pan-Slavism in the Balkans, and the events that laid the ground for the first World War.

Sadri Maksudi was born in the village of Tashsu near Kazan, the present capital of Tatarstan. He received his initial education from his father, Nizameddin Molla, the village imam.  Traditionally it was a village imam’s duty to provide basic education to children at the village primary school. In 1888 he attended the Allamiye Medrese. At the time, his elder brother Ahmet Hadi Maksudi, one of the leaders of the reformist Cedid movement, was teaching at this Medrese. His elder brother played a very important role in Sadri Maksudi’s intellectual formation. Ahmet Hadi Maksudi was invited to teach at the Bahçesaray (Crimea) Zincirli Medrese and, in 1895 went to Bahçesaray together with his younger brother. During that one year at Bahçesaray, Sadri Maksudi attended the Zincirli Medrese and studied Russian. The most critical event during that period was his acquaintance with Ismail Gaspıralı whom he referred to as his mentor for the rest of his life. Sadri Maksudi’s subsequent cultural and political pursuits clearly bear traces of Gaspıralı’s philosophy and reformist approach.

 Upon his return to Kazan, together with his close friend Ayaz Ishaki, he continued his education at the Russian Teachers’ College. His first literary attempts began during this period, and his novel Maişet was published in 1900. In 1902 he enrolled at the Faculty of Law of the Sorbonne University in Paris. While a student of law, he also attended various classes at École des Hautes Études Sociales and Collège de France. During his student years, he had the opportunity to meet and frequent prominent figures such as Yusuf Akçura, who had fled from exile (Tripoli) and had come to study in Paris. He also sent articles to Gaspıralı’s Tercüman newspaper, published in Crimea.  

Right after his graduation, at his return to Russia in 1906, Sadri Maksudi found himself in the midst of an active political environment. In the new lively political climate fueled by the 1905 revolution, he took an active part in defending the civil rights of the Kazan Turks of the Russian Empire. When in response to the mass riots, the first Russian constitutional government was established, he was elected to the Russian Duma as the Kazan deputy in 1907. He continued serving at the II. and III. Dumas. In 1909 he took part in a Duma delegation of 20 invited to England. His observations were published as a book, “Anglia’ya Seyahat” (Travel to England). While living in St.Petersburg as a deputy, he regularly visited the famous Turkologist Wilhelm Radloff.

At the completion of the five-year term of the II. Duma in 1912, Sadri Maksudi obtained a second university diploma from the Moscow University Faculty of Law in 1913, returned to Kazan, and began a new career as a lawyer. However, the end of the Czarist rule in 1917 was followed by the first Kerensky provisional government. Sadri Maksudi once again returned to active political leadership under ongoing regional separatist movements. In 1917, his plan of a “Cultural National Autonomy” was approved at the Russian Muslims’ Congress. The same year he was elected the Chairman of Millî Meclis (National Assembly) of the “The Turk-Tatar National Cultural Autonomy of Inner Russia and Siberia” founded in Ufa. The new political structure, which was intended to develop into a national government called Idil-Ural, did not last long. The Millî Meclis (National Assembly) was dismissed by the Bolsheviks. Under Bolshevik rule, Sadri Maksudi had to leave Russia. He went to Finland and started visiting European capitals, pursuing his objective of defending the rights of Russian Muslims. He finally succeeded in presenting a memorandum voicing the rights of the Muslims of European Russia at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference.

In the following period, he dedicated all his time to academic research leaving behind political leadership aspirations. In 1922 once in Berlin with his family, he dedicated himself to scholarly research in libraries. In 1923 he returned to Paris to settle there with his family and held a lecturing position at the Institute of Slavonic Studies attached to Sorbonne University’s Faculty of Letters.

In 1925 a new period in his life started. He moved to Turkey, having accepted the invitation to teach the courses, General History of Law and History of Turkish Law at the Ankara School of Law. He was the first scholar to establish the study of the History of Turkish Law, which became one of the main curriculum courses. His pioneering work is undeniably a major contribution to Turkish legal studies, and he is the first person ever to teach this course.

His Ankara years were busy and productive. In addition to his lectures and books on law, he took part in Ataturk’s language and history reforms. He was frequently invited to Ataturk’s dinner table, where problems of the young republic were discussed. Ataturk wrote a preface to his book Türk Dili İçin (For the Turkish Language). This terse message summarized the book and expressed Ataturk’s approach to the Turkish language reform. Sadri Maksudi acquired the family name Arsal in 1934 upon the enactment of the Family Name Law. He served as a deputy in the Turkish parliament through three election periods. In the one-party period, he was the Şebinkarahisar deputy during the 1931-1935 term and the Giresun deputy in the 1935-1939 term. In 1950 he once again joined the Turkish Grand National Assembly as a Democratic Party member and participated in the work of the Council of Europe. 

Having lectured in both the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Letters of Istanbul University, Sadri Maksudi has contributed to the development of law education with his books Fundamentals of Law (1937), Law History Lectures (1938), General History of Law (1941) and History of Philosophy of Law (Istanbul 1946). He played a major role in the foundation of the Turkish Language Studies Society and the Turkish History Studies Society (which evolved into the Turkish History Institute).

His devotion to Turkish nationalism guided his philosophy at every stage of his life. The fact that he spent all his time at the Berlin libraries at a period he had no job, no assignment; the fact that he chose to go to an Ankara with no electricity at a period he had a comfortable life in Paris; the fact that he pioneered the study of the legislative structure of early Turkish history, and many other similar examples, all reflect his dedication to serving Turkish nationalism throughout his life span. In his old age, the last book he wrote, “The Sociological Fundamentals of Nationalism (1955)” provides a solid basis for the theory of nationalism.

Sadri Maksudi Arsal passed away in Istanbul on February 1957.

Gülnur Üçok