Since arriving in the UK last year, I would not be wrong in saying that after learning that I am from Turkey, Ertuğrul has been mentioned by almost every Muslim I have met. Indeed, there are many reasons for the recent Turkish series Diriliş: Ertuğrul (Resurrection: Ertuğrul) to be a hit among Muslims, even at very first glance: the series tells the story of the Kayı clan during the establishment of the Ottoman Empire, centring around the life of Ertuğrul, who was the father of Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire. Focusing on developments in 13th century Anatolia, the series provides an epic glimpse into what was going on in the region back then, with the Crusaders, Mongols, Byzantines and Seljuks hinging on their relations with Kayı clan. Also sometimes called the Turkish Game of Thrones, it mainly consists of power struggles within the clan and the region, its battle scenes demonstrating the legendary fighting skills, courage, patriotism, commitment and also piety of the Turkish warriors, known as alps.
Different from many other Turkish television series currently travelling among Muslims, it brings forward the Islamicate character of the history told. In fact, it can be claimed that the narrative is seen primarily through the lens of the Islamicate, brimful of manifestations of Islam that are sprinkled throughout the scenes: beginning with important things like the Bismallah (in the name of Allah), prayers, recitations and references to the Quran in daily matters, telling the stories of the Prophets as guidance; in a nutshell, living an ordinary Muslim life. Thus, its popularity is not very surprising, as Muslims see within it what they live. Yet, the striking thing about Ertuğrul is its reception: the glorification of it – especially the heroism within it – with a longing for the good old days when Muslims were powerful and most of the world was counted as Muslimistan. In this sense, Ertuğrul works as a legend for Muslims to be remembered, told and more importantly, if I borrow from S. Sayyid, to be recalled. And, I think, this requires us to reconsider what the popularity of Ertuğrul really means.
Recalling and legends are among the keys necessary to form political agency and then political communities. In Recalling the Caliphate, for example, Sayyid (2014) sees the redemption of the Ummah in the political: a hegemonic struggle for the institution of an Islamicate great power – a political community – which is only possible through, and paradoxically required for, the articulation of Muslim political agency. And the way to do this is in the title: recalling. Here, recalling implies several things that need to be taken into consideration when handling the case of the community, the Ummah. Firstly, it points to a break and discontinuity where and when the object that is being recalled – the Caliphate – has disappeared, requiring us to remember and call the memory back. Thus, it identifies the primary problem of Muslims today. Secondly, recalling is situated in the present, both grounded and aware of its circumstances and surroundings. Instead of returning to the past, it calls for the one disappeared – the memory as object – back to the present and then, into the future. It sees the solution in bringing the memory into the present. Hence, it is not utopic since it is recalling a memory rather than a return to the past. Last but not least, recalling requires a subject – the Muslim agent – to recall the memory, offering political agency as recalling is a political action here.
This last point relates to where legends come into the picture. It is widely studied how legends have taken a significant part in the formation of political communities: nations, empires and states. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt tells a story of the formation of the British Empire by showing the powerful role played by legends in the making of history. She argued that as man endures the consequences of past events, which he cannot undo and was not a part of, he needs to find a way to confront this situation. Here, legends succour the man who has “an unconsulted responsibility” for the past: “Only in the frankly invented tale about events did man consent to assume his responsibility for them, and to consider past events his past. Legends made him master of what he had not done, and capable of dealing with what he could not undo,” as they are “nothing but the form in which past events were made to fit the human condition in general and political aspirations in particular” (Arendt 1979: 208). Thus, legends provide man with the “safe guidance through the limitless spaces of the future” (or to realize his political aspirations, and turn him into a political actor, or agent, who can recall).
The welcome appreciation and excitement that the Ertuğrul series has received among Muslims can be considered and construed thusly. While such a reception reveals the aspirations of Muslims to transform the world into a better and more secure place under the rule of Islam, it also demonstrates that the series operates as an Islamicate legend in the articulation of a Muslim political agency that is able to carry out this transformation. Muslims recall the good old days into the present through the legend of Ertuğrul. Old memories resurrect as safe guidance to be acted upon and through which the journey towards the future begins. Furthermore, it is important to highlight that we are witnessing these excited aspirations on the scale of the Ummah, despite the Turkish origins of the series. The memory and the legend are of the Ummah, not exclusively of Turks, and the responsibility of this past is adopted by the Ummah, rather than exclusively by Turks. This can be read as a sign of the inability of current nation-states, as political communities, to adequately house Muslims and their aspirations as political actors. Therefore, it can be said that all this excitement bears good tidings of a better future – a new world order – through a new political community reborn from the resurrected and recalled legends of the past.
Arendt, H. (1979). The Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt Brace & Company.
Sayyid, S. (2014) Recalling the Caliphate: Decolonisation and World Order. London: Hurst.