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Lesson 5.2: Three Advocates for Reform


Lesson 5.2: Three Advocates for Reform


Topic 2: The Case for Reform from within the Ottoman Empire: Three Advocates


Topic Overview

In a work excerpted in this lesson, Halide Edib Adivar (1884-1964) poses the question: “Could it be possible to effect an all-round Westernization [of Ottoman Turkey] without altering the very nature of Islamic society?”  To initiate change in the 19th century, Muslim scholars, statesmen and stateswomen (such as Adivar) had to provide convincing arguments that change and modernization were imperative, and that Islam is (and always has been) compatible with rationalist thought. 

Lesson Overview

The Proclamation of Gulhane was issued in 1839 by the Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid I.  The edict officially initiated the period known as Tanzimat, or restructuring, and had wide implications for economic and political reforms throughout the empire for decades to come.  The Proclamation laid the basis for citizenship rights within the empire in the hopes that allegiance to Ottoman Empire would be strengthened, and that people of diverse ethnicities and religious faiths would be less prone to rebellion. The Tanzimat period culminated in the establishment of a (short lived) constitutional monarchy in 1876. This lesson emphasizes Ottoman initiative as well as the influence of French ideas on Ottoman reform.  

Three Advocates for Change: Rifa‘a Rafi‘ al-Tahtawi, Khayr al-Din, and Halide Edib Adîvar. This lesson draws on primary sources written by Rifa‘a Rafi‘ Tahtawi of Egypt, Khayr al-Din of his adopted country of Tunisia, and Halide Edib Adivar of the Ottoman Empire and, later, the Republic of Turkey. In small groups students are assigned to read, analyze, and “perform” a primary source written by one of these three reformers. The documents are shared with the whole class in the following modes: as interviews with the author, a speech by the author followed by questions posed by critics, and as a timeline and map of the author’s life and travels.


Joan Brodsky Schur


Our Shared Past in the Mediterranean: A World History Curriculum Project for Educators


Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, George Mason University




2014, Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, George Mason University, published under Creative Commons – Attribution-No Derivatives 3.0 License


Two 45-50 minute class periods.


National Standards for History, National Center for History in the Schools, Era 7, Standard 3A: The student understands how the Ottoman Empire attempted to meet the challenge of Western military, political, and economic power. Era 7, Standard 6: The student understands major global trends from 1750 to 1914 and therefore the students is able to assess the importance of ideas associated with nationalisms, republicanism liberalism.


• Students will compare and contrast differing sets of ideas and values.

• They will consider multiple perspectives

• They will analyze the persuasive strategies of an author based on his/her intended audience.


• Handout 5.2.1 Rifa’a Rafi' al-Tahtawi, Readings and Questions

• Handout 5.2.2. Khayr al-Din, Readings and Questions

• Handout 5.2.3. Halide Edib Adivar, Readings and Questions

Lesson Plan Text

1. Divide the class into three groups. Assign each group to represent one of the three writers/thinkers/politicians in this lesson. If you have more than 21 students in your group, assign more than one group to each writer.

2. Distribute Handouts 5.2.1, 5.2.2. and 5.2.3. for homework. (Alternatively assign the readings for class work if you can devote a period of work to reading and answering the questions.)

3. Each group should assign group members to the following tasks during one or two class periods:

a. Two students should prepare an interview. One should play the role of the writer of their assigned document and the second student should an interviewer living in the same society at the same time. The pair should script an interview to present to the entire class, focusing on the problems within their society and the proposed solutions of the author.

b. One student should script a three-minute speech based on the written document assigned to the group. In the speech he/she should forcefully convey the key ideas of the writer. He/she should then respond to critics.

c. Two students should play the role of critics of their assigned author. For example, one could be a member of the state and the other a member of the ulema (Islamic scholar), or one could role-play an illiterate worker and another a world traveler. After the presentation of the scripted oration they should pose questions to the speaker that the speaker must answer.

d. Two students should create a timeline of events in the life of the author of the their assigned document, based on independent research. On a world map they should mark the places where their author was born and all the places he/she has traveled to. They should present their timeline and map to the class.

4. Debriefing and Synthesis: Reassemble the class, enact the role-plays to share information about each thinker, and then pose questions that synthesize, compare and contrast the ideas of all three thinkers, such as the following:

• What opinions about the need for change do Khayr al-Din, Tahtawi and Adivar share? How similar or dissimilar are their suggested remedies? Which author is most persuasive about the need for change? • Do all three authors believe that the ulama (Islamic scholars) were a major impediment to change? Explain.

• Which of these authors is the most critical of his or her society? What about their lives and experiences might explain the difference in their tone.

• How has travel to other regions across the Mediterranean shaped the critic each one offers of his or her own society?

• What is the biggest difference between Adivar and the two men in terms of the role of religion in society?

5. Extensions: a. Compare the case for reform in the eastern Mediterranean to the case made in Italy by Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872).

b. In the voice of one of these authors, write a commentary for today’s population of Egypt (Tahtawi), Khayr al-Din (Tunisia), or Adivar (Turkey) addressing current-day issues “on the ground” as the repercussions of the Arab Spring unfold.

c. Use this lesson with other lessons in Module 5 about reform in the Ottoman Empire, Egypt and Tunisia as per the following suggestions:

• Tahtawi and Egypt: After learning about the reforms and rule of Mehmet Ali (1769-1849) of Egypt assess Mehmet Ali’s reign through the criteria Tahtawi sets forth here.

• Khayr al-Din and Tunisia: As a leader in various roles in Tunisia, how effective was Khayr al-Din at implementing the reforms for which he advocates?

• Halide Edib Adivar and the Ottoman Empire/Turkey. Research the Tanzimat reforms as they affected the lives of women in the Ottoman Empire. In what ways did they prepare (or not) the path for Ataturk’s reforms regarding gender and society? What was Adivar’s role in these reforms?



Joan Brodsky Schur, “Lesson 5.2: Three Advocates for Reform,” Our Shared Past in the Mediterranean: Teaching Modules , accessed August 3, 2020,