Islamic Studies Turkish Language, Literature, and Islam
A.C.S. Peacock
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0281


Literary Turkish has a history that dates back to the Orhon inscriptions in Mongolia of the 8th century CE, and has been used as a literary language in the Islamic world since the 11th century in the wake of the rise of the first Turkish Muslim dynasty in Central Asia, the Qarakhanids. Although today “Turkish” refers to the language of the Republic of Turkey, historically the term can be used to refer to a wide variety of dialects and languages of the Turkic language family used across Central and Western Asia, with around 200 million speakers today. Their main literary forms are a western Turkic dialect known as Ottoman, the ancestor of modern Turkish of Turkey, and an eastern one generally known as Chaghatay, the ancestor of languages such as modern Uzbek and Uighur. Until the early 20th century, both Ottoman and Chaghatay were normally written in the Arabic script. However, there was no standardized form of either Ottoman or Chaghatay, and frequently eastern and western forms were used interchangeably in the same text, while the literatures of both dialects had a substantial mutual influence. Although this bibliography will concentrate on Ottoman and modern Turkish language and literature, some basic information about Chaghatay and its predecessors will also be provided as necessary to understand the genesis of Ottoman.

General Overviews

Valuable introductions to the main Turkic-speaking peoples and their languages are given in Bainbridge 1993 and Johanson and Csató 1998, respectively. Their history is covered in Golden 1992 and Finley 2004, with Golden concentrating on the early history of Turkic speakers down to the 14th century, and Finley giving more weight to later periods and the transition to modernity. However, the starting point for research on the Turkic languages and literatures remains the excellent, if now sometimes somewhat dated, essays in Bazin, et al. 1959–1964, which cover the historical philology of the main Turkish written languages.


Much useful information about Turkish language and literature is given by entries in the standard reference work the Encyclopaedia of Islam, and also in the Encyclopaedia Iranica, which concentrates on the Iranian world. The Turkish translation of the Encyclopaedia of Islam, the İslam Ansiklopedisi, contains more detailed articles by leading Turkish scholars on specific topics. However, many of these are now quite dated, and it is largely replaced by the Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı İslam Ansiklopedisi, a massive undertaking that, for readers of Turkish, is an important reference source both for Turkic-related subjects and for the Islamic world more generally, as its articles are sometimes more up to date and comprehensive than those in the Encyclopaedia of Islam.

Pre-Islamic Turkish

Turkish literature drew on a long-standing tradition of literacy among Turkic speakers, which is attested both by the 8th-century Orhon inscriptions, and by the much shorter Runiform inscriptions often inscribed on everyday objects, which are found across Eurasia from Mongolia to the Volga and largely date to the 8th to 11th centuries. The language of the Orhon inscriptions is discussed concisely in Tekin 1997, while Erdal 2004 deals more generally with the Old Turkic language, including its continuity with the language of the first Islamic texts, produced in Central Asia under the Qarakhanid dynasty in the 11th century. Kyzlasov 1994 is a wide-ranging discussion of Runiform Turkic, which can usefully be supplemented by the essays in Erdal and Nevskaya 2020.

Textbooks and Reference Grammars of Turkish

The study of Turkish is complicated by the numerous changes in grammar and usage it has witnessed, both as a result of historical development and of deliberate intervention, in particular through the Language Reform of the 1930s, which sought to rid Turkish of much of its Arabic and Persian vocabulary. Modern Turkish of Turkey is treated lucidly in Lewis 1967, although changes in usage (especially vocabulary) mean this account is somewhat dated. Göksel and Kerslake 2005 offer a very comprehensive account of modern Turkish grammar. For earlier periods of the language, Deny 1921 is the standard reference source, although Buğday 2009 is a very useful resource for learning the Ottoman language. The classical eastern Turkish language is described in Eckmann 1966, while Schuessel 2018 provides a user-friendly resource for learners. The scientific study of Turkish grammar, however, dates back to the medieval period, and Arabic descriptions of the language are analyzed in Ermers 2017.


The standard dictionaries of Turkish for Anglophone readers are the Redhouse series, which started with Redhouse 1880, and numerous subsequent revisions that cover in different editions both the Ottoman and modern Turkish languages, of which Huri 2017 is the most important. Bezmez and Brown 2013 represents the most up-to-date version of this dictionary for contemporary Turkish. For earlier periods of the language, al-Kašγarī 1982 represents a treasure trove of information not merely about the Turkish language, but also about Turkish literature, history, and customs in the 11th century. Clauson 1972 is a useful resource for early periods of Turkish.

  • Bezmez, Serap, and C. H. Brown. Redhouse Sözlüğü (Türkçe-İngilizce). Istanbul: Redhouse, 2013.

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    The most comprehensive modern Turkish-English lexicon of the famous Redhouse series of dictionaries.

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  • Clauson, Gerard. An Etymological Dictionary of Pre-Thirteenth Century Turkish. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.

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    Although its organization takes some time for the user to master, this is a very useful resource for the early periods of Turkic languages.

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  • Huri, Sofi. Türkçe-Osmanlıca-İngilizce Sözlüğü. Istanbul: Redhouse, 2017.

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    This dictionary, and numerous earlier editions, offers definitions of late Ottoman words absent from Redhouse 1880, and is also useful for providing the modern Turkish pronunciation of Ottoman words; it is therefore especially convenient for reading transcribed texts, being arranged according to Latin script alphabetical order.

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  • al-Kašγarī, Maḥmūd. Compendium of the Turkic Dialects (Dīwān Luγāt al-Turk). Translated by Robert Dankoff in collaboration with James Kelly. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1982.

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    Composed in late-11th-century Baghdad as a guide to Arabic speakers who needed to master Turkish, this dictionary is richly illustrated with quotations from otherwise lost Turkish poetry, and presents a panorama of the literary and linguistic landscape of the Turkic-speaking world shortly after their conversion to Islam.

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  • Redhouse, J. W. Redhouse’s Turkish Dictionary. 2d ed. London: Bernard Quaritch, 1880.

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    Based on the Ottoman language of the 19th century, this dictionary is also valuable for earlier periods of the language. It is arranged according to Arabic script alphabetical order. Numerous subsequent reprints.

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Language History

The development of the Turkic languages is still most conveniently surveyed in Bazin, et al. 1959–1964, while Clauson 1962 remains useful for the earliest periods of Turkish, if inevitably somewhat dated in places. More recent surveys (Darling 2012, Ercilasun 2000) offer overviews of the development of the Ottoman language, which had its origins in a dialect generally known as Old Anatolian Turkish, although there is no unambiguous divide between the two. There is, however, in reality, no single Ottoman language, but rather different languages in different periods with radically different vocabularies and even grammatical features. The 19th-century Ottoman language, which was characterized both by the use of a highly florid and verbose style in bureaucratic writings and by a move to simplify and reflect the colloquial among some writers, is discussed in Parlatir 2000. In the 20th century, as Lewis 1999 discusses, these initiatives were adopted by the Kemalist state, which officially abolished the use of the Arabic script in 1928, and promoted the use of Turkish words, often borrowed from earlier periods of the language, in place of the extensive Persian and Arabic vocabulary that characterized later Ottoman.

Literary Histories and Criticism

An overview of the development of Turkish literature from the beginnings to the early 19th century is offered in Balım-Harding 2010, while more detailed surveys that continue to the 20th century are provided by Bombaci 1969 and Halman 2010. Chaghatay literature is surveyed concisely in Doerfer 1991. The origins of Turkish literacy in Anatolia are discussed in Peacock 2019, while Gönül 2004 offers an overview of early Turkish literature in Muslim Anatolia. Köprülü 2006 (originally published in Turkish in 1918) tries to connect the early Islamic literature of Anatolia with antecedents in Central Asia, and even if its conclusions are no longer widely accepted, it remains valuable due to its extensive use of sources in Arabic and Persian as well as Turkish. The essays gathered in Halman 1981 offer other insights into one of the leading early Turkish Islamic authors of Anatolia, Yunus Emre (c. 14th century). Research on later periods has focused more on poetry. Despite its age, Gibb 1900–1906 remains the most comprehensive introduction to Ottoman poetry available to Anglophone readers, although it should be supplemented by Andrews 1985 for a more recent understanding of the social contexts of Ottoman poetry. İz 1980–1981 provides an overview of the relationship between Islam and Turkish literature, concentrating on the 19th century. Holbrook 1994 offers a valuable study of an 18th-century Islamic romance.

Bibliographical Works

A convenient bio-bibliographical survey of Ottoman authors is provided in Metlin 1988; Chaghatay literature is covered in greater detail, with extensive discussion of extant manuscripts, in Hofman 1969. No work of comparable detail exists for Ottoman literature; Bursalı Mehmet Tahir 1975 (originally published in 1915) contains the most comprehensive biographical overview of Ottoman authors, but no bibliographical information. However, two online tools fill some of the gap: The Islamisation of Anatolia database gives information about manuscripts and printed editions of early Turkish literature, while The Online Bibliography of Ottoman-Turkish Literature focuses on printed secondary literature and published editions.

Catalogues of Major Manuscript Collections

Many works of Turkish literature remain either unpublished or else published in inadequate editions. Any serious research of the subject thus requires recourse to manuscript collections, of which some of the most important catalogues are given below. Manuscripts in Turkey are most conveniently listed in the online resource Yazmalar, although the catalogue in Karatay 1961 remains important for its insight into the literary tastes of the Ottoman sultans. Important British collections of Turkish manuscripts are surveyed in Rieu 1888, Kut and Daly 2003, and Schmidt 2015b; those in the Netherlands in Schmidt 2015a; in Germany in Flemming, Gotz and Sohrweide 1968–1981; Paris in Blochet 1932–1933; and Canada in Birnbaum 2015.

Anthologies and Translations of Major Literary Works

A relatively limited amount of premodern Turkish literature has been translated. A useful anthology giving an impression of the broad sweep of Turkish literature from earliest times to the 20th century is Silay 1996, while Andrews, et al. 1997 offers an insight into Ottoman poetry. The earliest work of Islamic Turkish literature, from Qarakhanid Central Asia, is Yūsuf Khāṣṣ Ḥājib 1983, and works of this genre subsequently became very popular. The early Turkish literature of Anatolia is represented in Lewis 1974, Burrill 1972 and Sheyyad Hamza 2014, while Kastritsis 2017 provides a translated example of early Ottoman literature. Evliya Ҫelebi 2011 is a translation of sections of an important 17th-century travelogue, while Şeyh Galip 2005 represents one of the masterpieces of Turkish Sufi literature, a mystical romance composed in the late 18th century.

Modern Turkey, Literature, and Islam

Modern Turkish literature draws both on late Ottoman precedents and contemporary Western influences. Both Islam and nationalism are major influences, as discussed in Findley 2010, which is primarily based on literary sources. The influence of the past is evident even in the works of a secularist, communist writer like Nazım Hikmet (1902–1963), who nonetheless dedicated one of his major works to a 15th-century holy man who rebelled against the Ottomans, here reimagined as a hero of socialism (Hikmet 1977, first published 1936). Subsequently, the novel has become one of the major vehicles for debates over the highly contested place of Islam in modern Turkish public life, as discussed in Tapper 1991, Cayir 2007, and Seyhan 2008, and exemplified by Pamuk 2011. The place of Islam in contemporary Turkish literature is (alongside comparisons with Germany) discussed by essays in von Stosch and Hofman 2012.


Journals that often feature scholarship on Turkish language, literature, and Islam include Turcica, the Journal of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association, the Journal of Turkish Literature, the Journal of Turkish Studies, Osmanlı Araştırmaları, and the International Journal of Turkish Studies.

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