Mardin, ?erif (1927–)

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Mardin, Șerif

Șerif Mardin is a prominent Turkish sociologist and political scientist. Mardin's influence can mainly be found in the analysis of state and societal relationships. His analyses are characterized by a center-periphery model that provides an excellent conceptual tool for understanding the social and cultural features of Turkish politics. Mardin's articulations of state theory with historical sociology overcome the limitations of many current varieties of state and society examinations, and his writings provide a viable starting-point for theoretical and political concerns of the early twenty-first century.


Name: Șerif Mardin

Birth: 1927, Istanbul, Turkey

Family: Divorced; one son, Osman

Nationality: Turkish

Education: B.A., political science, Stanford University; M.A., international relations, Johns Hopkins University; Ph.D., political science, Stanford University, 1958


  • 1954–1956, 1961–1972: Professor, Faculty of Political Science, Ankara University
  • 1958–1961: Research associate, Princeton University, Department of Oriental Studies
  • 1958–1959, 1970–1971: Visiting professor, Princeton University
  • 1959–1961: Visiting professor, Harvard University
  • 1960–1961: Research fellow, Middle East Institute, Harvard University
  • 1965–1966, 1970, 1971–1973, 1986: Visiting professor, Columbia University, Middle East Institute
  • 1973–1991: Professor, Department of Political Science, Boğazíçi University, Istanbul
  • 1975: Visiting professor, University of California, Los Angeles
  • 1980–1982: Visiting research fellow, St. Antony College, Oxford University
  • 1985: Visiting professor, University of California, Berkeley
  • 1985: Visiting professor, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (Paris)
  • 1989–1999: Visiting professor then tenured professor, American University, Washington, D.C.
  • 1999–present: Professor, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Sabancı University, Istanbul


Mardin was born in 1927 in Istanbul, Turkey. He belongs to a well-known scholarly family. Many members of Mardin family taught in Turkish Medrese (a college for Islamic studies) and Turkish universities for years. Mardin started his education in Galatasaray Lycée in Istanbul and then went to the United States to complete his B.A. in political science at Stanford University in 1948. After completing his B.A., he went to the School of International Relations at Johns Hopkins University to obtain his M.A. degree. Then, he returned to Turkey to join the Faculty of Political Sciences in Ankara University as a teaching assistant from 1954 to 1956. At Ankara University, Mardin studied with Yavuz Abadan, who was perhaps the best-known academician of his time for his studies on philosophy of law and state. Undoubtedly, when Mardin associated with Abadan, he had already been exposed to other ideas in political theory, but it was Abadan's benign influence as the scion of a tradition of openness to new ideas at the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University that seems to have held a significant role in Mardin's development as a political thinker.

In 1958, Mardin returned to the United States once more, this time to complete his Ph.D. in political science at Princeton University. He also worked as a research associate there, and wrote his dissertation, titled "The Genesis of Young Ottoman Thought." After completing his Ph.D., he began to work on the political ideas of the Young Turks during a stay at the Middle East Center of Stanford University. Then between the years 1961 and 1972 he was a full-time, tenured professor of political science at Ankara University. In 1973, Mardin moved to Istanbul where he joined the department of political science at Boğaziçi University as a professor. He kept this position until 1991. Throughout his academic career he taught political science as a visiting professor at several other leading universities. He was offered a research associate position in the Department of Oriental Studies at Princeton University from 1958 to 1961. He participated in research projects in the Middle East Institute at Harvard University as a research fellow in 1961 and taught in the Middle East Institute at Columbia University in 1965, 1966, 1970, 1971 to 1973, and 1986. He was a visiting research fellow at St. Antony's College at Oxford University from 1980 to 1982, and a visiting professor at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in 1985. He also visited the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1975, the University of California, Berkeley in 1985, and Syracuse University from 2005 to 2006. He served as the chair of Islamic studies in the School of International Service at the American University in Washington, D.C., between 1989 and 1999. Since 1999, he has been a professor of political science at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Sabanci University in Istanbul.


One of the distinguished contributions of Mardin is his effort to examine in a detailed and inquisitive manner social and political developments of the Turkish state and society by applying historical and methodological principles of interpretation. Mardin's work offers a depiction of the distinctive characteristics of the social and political developments of Turkish society that can be defined in relation to both Islamic societies and Western political institutions. His studies approach social and political development of Turkey as an exceptional case, exceptionality of which requires using not only a comparative perspective, but also a particular ontological and epistemological positioning congruent with the case at hand.

In his 2005 "Turkish Islamic Exceptionalism Yesterday and Today," Mardin suggests that that his treatment of Turkish social and political development processes as exceptional is based on the recognition of the unique ability of actors in regard to political organization that the other Islamic societies were not able to develop. With the term unique ability, Mardin refers to the concordant relationship between the secular state as the locus of legitimate power and Islam as a religion mobilizing individuals for political causes within and through its symbolic order. The studies of Mardin focus on analysis of the historical development of the relationship between Islam and state in Turkey, Islam's influence on the social and cultural structure, the process in which it is reflected in the people's worldview, its associations, and the political and cultural forms of its expression. Mardin formulated his framework for understanding the structural characteristics of state-society relation in both the Ottoman society and modern Turkey with a unique interpretation of the structures of strong state and weak civil society as center, which he calls periphery problematique. With reference to the strong state and weak civil society model, he sought to give an account of the extension of the polity by locating the sources of change in the asymmetric relationship between the ruling elite and the ruled people.


Halil İnalcık (1916–) has published widely on Ottoman history. He has brought into light a new understanding of demographic, social, and political changes in Ottoman society, and his perspective has made highly acknowledged contributions to the histography of Ottoman state and society. İnalcık argued that studying the Turkish social formation within a Western methodological framework may mislead historians because it does not squarely fit in any ideal type that has been abstracted from major cases in both the West and the East. He thinks it is important for historians to have a clear view of their subjects and to contribute toward an ideographic explanation and understanding.

Mardin, in his 1973 "Center Periphery Relations: A Key to Turkish Politics?," places the state, rulers, and intellectuals in the center, and places society, people, and religious institutions in the periphery. The relationship between the state and society through religious institutions, which was a distinct feature of the Ottoman Empire, changed to a large extent during the process of Turkish modernization. With the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, bureaucratic elite who were highly influenced by the positivist understanding of French secularization and aimed to transform the Turkish society toward modernity saw the control of Islamic practices and institutions as essential for the continuation of the transformation of society.

Nevertheless, the emphasis on Islam as the unifying source of national identity on the one hand and the secularization process on the other created tensions between the state and society in various forms and at different periods. This tension often represents a confrontation between the center represented by the bureaucratic elite that controls the state and tries to separate the state and religious affairs in order to transform both institutions of the state and the society toward modernity, and the periphery represented by the people who preserve the traditional ways of life. The confrontation between the center and the periphery reveals itself explicitly in the tension between the aspirations of the ruling bureaucratic elite who are not willing to share sovereignty and the desire of traditional societal forces who would like to have shares in the state capacity yet preserve their customary lifestyles and hence cling to the status quo. This also means that discordance between the center and the periphery not only leads to a struggle over power within and through the legitimate political process, but also involves a contest over core values and identities. As the formally constructed national identity imposed by the bureaucratic elite could not diffuse into the whole of society and consequently in the polity, the center could not resist some of the religious demands made by the people.


Mardin made major contributions to history, sociology of religion, and political theory. The significance of his work that lays out a comprehensive framework for sociological and political analysis of the Turkish development process can be attested to by the emergence of a genre of research that takes his problematique as its departure point. In particular, Mardin's articulations of politics with sociology, political theory, and history constitute a lasting effect. Whereas mainstream academic divisions of labor attempt to isolate politics from sociology, history, and other disciplines, Mardin introduced a robust sociological dimension and historical criticism to political theory and developed his theoretical perspective in interaction with concrete analyses of society, politics, and culture in the present age. This multidimensional approach thus assigns sociology an important role within political theory, providing critical theory with strong normative and historical perspectives. His attempt to get at the multidimensional view allows him to theorize deep-seated transformations, developments, challenges, and conflicts.


For the population at large religion was a moral prop, something to lean on, a source of consolation, a patterning of life; for the ruling elite it was addition, and probably much more, a matter related to the legitimacy of the state. Both groups could at times neglect religion or by-pass it, but the form of this by-passing was different: for the masses it consisted of breaking religious taboos and then atoning for it later; for the ruling it consisted in pushing religion into the background when required by secular political purposes. "Religion and the state are twins" was the way in which this close association was expressed, but in the Ottoman Empire one of the twins could often become more equal.



Mardin's studies are characterized by a broad critical and pluralist perspective that attempts to capture the major sociohistorical, political, and cultural features of the historical development of Turkey, its influence on the social and political structures, the process in which it was reflected in the people's worldview, its organization, and the political and economic manifestation of Islam. Such a perspective profoundly tries to highlight the ways in which people think about, classify, and categorize social experiences as influenced by wider social and political processes, and that these reflect fundamental changes, development, contradictions, and struggles of the day, and continuously reproduce different forms of power within different contexts. Mardin's perspective thus continues to be relevant because it not only reflects the importance of accepting pluralism and rejecting confrontational exclusivism but it also provides a mode of general theoretical analysis and addresses issues that continue to be of relevance to contemporary theory and politics in Turkey. It does not represent a fixed position but continuously opens itself to admitting new ideas, or it evaluates ideas for correspondence to the truths and realities of everyday life. Hence, it takes an inclusive position for evaluating the diversity of possible meanings that are active in social and political life. Mardin's perspective endorses these meanings with an understanding that is historical, social, and political, and that avoids historical determinism. It seeks out self-knowledge within understanding of differences seen as a process of being produced in political contexts and formed within wider discourses of knowledge and power. It does not simply accept things for integration into a social political theory without any deliberate scrutiny. It encapsulates pluralistic, multivocal, and multifaceted discourses with avoidance of determinism and reductionism.



"Opposition and Control in Turkey." Government and Opposition 1, no. 3 (1966): 375-387.

"The Mind of the Turkish Reformer: 1700–1900." In Arab Socialism: A Documentary Survey, edited by Sami A. Hanna and George H. Gardner. Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1969.

"Power, Civil Society and Culture in the Ottoman Empire." Comparative Studies in Society and History, no. 11 (1969): 258-281.

"Ideology and Religion in the Turkish Revolution." International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 2, no. 3 (1971): 197-211.

"Center Periphery Relations: A Key to Turkish Politics?" Daedalus, no. 102 (1973): 169-190.

"Religion in Modern Turkey." International Social Science Journal 29, no. 2 (1977): 279-297.

"Religion and Politics in Modern Turkey." In Islam in the Political Process, edited by J. P. Piscatori. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

"A Note on the Transformation of Religious Symbols in Turkey." Turcica, no. 16 (1984): 115-127.

Religion and Social Change in Modern Turkey: The Case of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.

"The Just and the Unjust." Daedalus, no. 120, (1991): 113-129.

Cultural Transitions in the Middle East. Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1994.

"Religion and Secularism in Turkey." In Atatürk: Founder of a Modern State, edited by Ali Kazancıgil and Ergun Özbudun. London: Hurst & Company, 1997.

The Genesis of Young Ottoman Thought: A Study in the Modernization of Turkish Political Ideas. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000.

"Turkish Islamic Exceptionalism Yesterday and Today: Continuity, Rupture and Reconstruction in Operational Codes." Turkish Studies 6, no. 2 (2005): 145-165.

Religion, Society, and Modernity in Turkey. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2006.

                                                  Gürcan Koçan