Turkey Table of Contents

Mosque in Istanbul, TurkeyIslam is a monotheistic religion. A believer is a Muslim, literally, "one who submits to God." Muslims believe that Allah (Arabic for God) gave revelations through the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad (A.D. 570-632 ), a native of the Arabian Peninsula city of Mecca. Muhammad's efforts to convert people to monotheism disturbed the merchant elite, who feared that his preaching would adversely affect the pilgrims who regularly visited Mecca, which in the early seventh century had shrines to several gods and goddesses. Mecca's principal destination for pilgrims was the Kaaba, a shrine housing a venerated black rock which over the years had been surrounded by various idols. The lack of acceptance by Meccans of Muhammad's preaching caused him and his followers in A.D. 622 to migrate to Medina in response to an invitation by that city's leaders. Muhammad's migration to Medina enabled him to organize the politico-religious community--the umma --that marked the beginning of Islam as a political movement as well as a religious faith. Thus, the date of the migration, or hicret (from the Arabic hijra ), was adopted by the Muslim community as the beginning of the Islamic era. The Islamic calendar is based on a lunar year, which averages eleven days less than a solar year. The Islamic calendar is used in Turkey for religious purposes.

By the time of the Prophet's death ten years after his migration to Medina, most of the Arabian Peninsula, including the city of Mecca, had converted to Islam. During the last two years of his life, Muhammad led fellow Muslims on pilgrimages to Mecca, where the Kaaba was relieved of its idols and dedicated to the worship of Allah. Since then, praying at the Kaaba has been the ultimate goal of the pilgrimage, or hajj, which every able-bodied adult Muslim is expected to make at least once in his or her lifetime.

Tenets of Islam

Muslims believe that all of Allah's revelations to the Prophet are contained in the Kuran (in Arabic, Quran), which is composed in rhymed prose. The Kuran consists of 114 chapters, called suras , the first of which is a short "opening" chapter. The remaining 113 segments are arranged roughly in order of decreasing length. The short suras at the end of the book are early revelations, each consisting of material revealed on the same occasion. The longer suras toward the beginning of the book are compilations of verses revealed at different times in Muhammad's life.

The central beliefs of Islam are monotheism and Muhammad's status as the "seal of the Prophets," that is, the final prophet to whom God revealed messages for the spiritual guidance of humanity. Jesus Christ and the prophets of the Old Testament are also accepted as Islamic prophets. Muslims who profess belief in God and Muhammad's prophethood, pray regularly, and live by Islamic ethical and moral principles are assured that their souls will find eternal salvation in heaven. The profession of belief in one God and the prophethood of Muhammad is known as the sahadet (in Arabic, shahada ), and is one of the five basic obligations or "pillars" of Islam. The profession of faith--"There is no God but God and Muhammad is his Prophet"--always is recited in Arabic. It is repeated during prayer and on many other ritual occasions.

The four other pillars of Islam are prayer (namaz ; salat in Arabic), giving alms to the needy (zekat ; zakah in Arabic), fasting (oruç ; sawm in Arabic) during the month of Ramazan (from the Arabic, Ramadan ), and the pilgrimage (hac , from the Arabic hajj ) to Mecca. The prescribed prayers are recited in Arabic and are accompanied by a series of ritual body movements meant to demonstrate submission to God: standing, bowing, kneeling, and full prostration. Muslims say the prayers at five prescribed times a day, always while facing in the direction of Mecca. Prayers are preceded by a ritual ablution, and, unless the prayer is said in a mosque, a ritual purification of the ground is achieved by the unrolling of a clean prayer rug. Although it is permissible to pray almost anywhere, men pray in congregation at mosques whenever possible, especially on Fridays. Women are not required to pray in public but may attend worship at mosques, which maintain separate sections for women. Despite more than sixty years of secularist government policies, a majority of Turkey's Muslims continue to recite prayers at least occasionally. In fact, mosque attendance in the urban areas, which formerly was significantly less than in rural areas, increased considerably during the 1980s. During the early 1990s, most city mosques were filled to capacity on Fridays and religious holidays.

The third pillar of Islam, almsgiving, is required of all Muslims. The faithful are expected to give in proportion to their wealth. In various historical periods, zekat assumed the status of a tithe that mosques collected and distributed for charitable purposes. In addition to zekat , Muslims are encouraged to make free-will gifts (sadaka , from the Arabic sadaqa ).

Abstinence from dawn to dusk from all food and beverages during the Islamic month of Ramazan is the fourth pillar of the faith required of Muslims. Persons who are ill; women who are pregnant, nursing, or menstruating; soldiers on duty; travelers on necessary journeys; and young children are exempted from the fast. However, adults who are unable to fast during Ramazan are expected to observe a fast later. Ramazan is a period of spiritual renewal, and the daytime fasting is meant to help concentrate a Muslim's thoughts on religious matters. Many mosques, especially in urban areas, sponsor special prayer meetings and study groups during the month. The evening meal that breaks the fast has special religious significance and also is an occasion for sharing among families and friends. Muslims who can afford to do so often host one or more fast-breaking meals for indigents during Ramazan. The month of fasting is followed by a three-day celebration, Seker Bayrami (in Arabic, Id al Fitr), which is observed in Turkey as a national holiday.

The fifth pillar of Islam is the hac . Each Muslim who is financially and physically able is expected at least once in his or her lifetime to make the pilgrimage to Mecca and participate in prescribed religious rites performed at various specific sites in the holy city and its environs during the twelfth month of the lunar calendar. In one of their most important rites, pilgrims pray while circumambulating the Kaaba, the sanctuary Muslims believe Ibrahim (Abraham) and his son Ismail (Ishmael) built to honor the one God. During the hac , pilgrims sacrifice domesticated animals such as sheep and distribute the meat among the needy. Known as the Feast of Sacrifice, Kurban Bayrami (in Arabic, Id al Adha), this occasion is celebrated not only by the pilgrims but by all Muslims, and is observed in Turkey as a national holiday. The returning pilgrim is entitled to use the honorific haci (in Arabic, hajji ) before his or her name, a title that indicates successful completion of the pilgrimage.

A pious Muslim strives to follow a code of ethical conduct that encourages generosity, fairness, chastity, honesty, and respect. Certain acts, including murder, cruelty, adultery, gambling, and usury, are considered contrary to Islamic practice. Muslims also are enjoined not to consume carrion, blood, pork, or alcohol. Many of the precepts for appropriate behavior are specified in the Kuran. Other spiritual and ethical guidelines are found in the hadis (in Arabic, hadith ), an authenticated record of the sayings and actions of Muhammad and his earliest companions. Devout Muslims regard their words, acts, and decisions--called collectively the sunna --as models to be emulated by later generations. Because of its normative character, the sunna is revered along with the Kuran as a primary source of seriat (in Arabic, sharia ), or Islamic law.

Islamic law evolved between the eighth and tenth centuries. Islamic scholars reputed for their knowledge of the Kuran, hadis , and sunna were accepted as authoritative interpreters of seriat . Several of them compiled texts of case law that formed the basis of legal schools. Eventually, Sunni Muslims came to accept four schools of law as equally valid. Two schools of seriat exist in contemporary Turkey: the Hanafi, founded by Iraqi theologian Abu Hanifa (ca. 700-67), and the Shafii, founded by the Meccan jurist Muhammad ash Shafii (767-820). Most Muslim Turks follow the Hanafi school, whereas most Sunni Kurds follow the Shafii school.

Early Development

Following the death of the Prophet in 632, the Muslim community failed to reach consensus on who should succeed him as the caliph. A majority of Muhammad's close followers supported the idea of an elected caliph, but a minority believed that leadership, or the imamate, should remain within the Prophet's family, passing first to Muhammad's cousin, son-in-law, and principal deputy, Ali ibn Abu Talib, and subsequently to Ali's sons and their male descendants. The majority, who believed they were following the sunna of the Prophet, became known as Sunni Muslims. To them, the caliph was the symbolic religious head of the community; however, caliphs would also rule as the secular leaders of a major empire for six centuries. The first four caliphs--Abu Bakr, Omar, Osman, and Ali--were chosen by a consensus of Muslim leaders. Subsequently, however, the caliphate was converted by its holders into a hereditary office, the first two dynasties being the Umayyad, which ruled from Damascus, and the second being the Abbasid, which ruled from Baghdad. After the Mongols captured Baghdad and executed the Abbasid caliph in 1258, a period of more than 250 years followed when no one was recognized as caliph by all Sunni Muslims. During the sixteenth century, the Ottoman Dynasty resurrected the title, and gradually even Muslims outside the Ottoman Empire came to accept the Ottoman sultan as the symbolic leader--caliph--of Sunni Islam.

The partisans of Ali--the Shiat Ali--evolved into a separate Islamic denomination that became known as the Shia. By the ninth century, however, the Shia Muslims split into numerous sects as a result of disagreements over which of several brothers was the legitimate leader, or imam , of the community. The major divisions occurred over the question of succession to the fourth, sixth, and twelfth imams. Consequently, the origins of almost all Shia sects can be traced to the followers of the fifth, seventh, or twelfth imam. By the fifteenth century, the sect known as the Twelve Imam Shia--a group that recognized Ali and eleven of his direct descendants as the legitimate successors to the Prophet--had emerged as the predominant Shia sect.

In addition to the orthodox Twelve Imam Shia, several sects that revered the twelve imams but otherwise subscribed to heterodox beliefs and practices emerged between the ninth and twelfth centuries. One of these heterodox sects, the Nusayri, originated in the mid-ninth century among the followers of the religious teacher Muhammad ibn Nusayr an Namiri. The Nusayri became established in what is now northern Syria and southern Turkey during the tenth century when a Shia dynasty based in Aleppo ruled the region. Because of the special devotion of the Nusayri to Ali, Sunni Muslims historically and pejoratively referred to them as Alevi (see The Alevi, this ch.).

Development of Islam in Turkey

By the end of the seventh century, conversion to Islam had begun among the Turkish-speaking tribes, who were migrating westward from Central Asia. The initial wave of Turkish migrants converted to Sunni Islam and became champions of Islamic orthodoxy. As warriors of the Islamic faith, or gazis , they colonized and settled Anatolia in the name of Islam, especially following the defeat of the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert (1071). Beginning in the twelfth century, new waves of Turkic migrants became attracted to militant Sufi orders, which gradually incorporated heterodox Shia beliefs. One Sufi order that appealed to Turks in Anatolia after 1300 was the Safavi, based in northwest Iran. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Safavi and similar orders such as the Bektasi became rivals of the Ottomans--who were orthodox Sunni Muslims--for political control of eastern Anatolia. Concern about the growing influence of the Safavi probably was one of the factors that prompted the Ottomans to permit unorthodox Bektasi Sufism to become the official order of the janissary soldiers (see The Ottoman Empire, ch. 1). Although the Bektasi became accepted as a sect of orthodox Sunni Muslims, they did not abandon their heterodox Shia beliefs. In contrast, the Safavi eventually conquered Iran, shed their heterodox religious beliefs, and became proponents of orthodox Twelve Imam Shia Islam.

The conquest of the Byzantine capital of Constantinople--which the Turks called Istanbul (from the Greek phrase eis tin polin , "to the city")--in 1453 enabled the Ottomans to consolidate their empire in Anatolia and Thrace. The Ottomans revived the title of caliph, based their legitimacy on Islam, and integrated religion into the government and administration. Despite the absence of a formal institutional structure, Sunni religious functionaries played an important political role. Justice was dispensed by religious courts; in theory, the codified system of seriat regulated all aspects of life, at least for the Muslim subjects of the empire. The head of the judiciary ranked directly below the sultan and was second in power only to the grand vizier. Early in the Ottoman period, the office of grand mufti of Istanbul evolved into that of seyhülislam (shaykh, or leader of Islam), which had ultimate jurisdiction over all the courts in the empire and consequently exercised authority over the interpretation and application of seriat . Legal opinions pronounced by the seyhülislam were considered definitive interpretations.

Sufism and Folk Islam

From the earliest days of Islam, some Muslims have been attracted to mystical interpretations of their religion. In Turkey, at least since the thirteenth century, Islamic mysticism has been expressed through participation in Sufi brotherhoods that serve as centers of spiritual and social life. The term Sufi derives from the Arabic suf , which means wool. Early Muslims used the term Sufi to refer to fellow believers who wore simple woolen garments to demonstrate their rejection of materialism and worldly temptations and their devotion to a life of asceticism and prayer. Eventually, some Sufis who had acquired reputations for their learning and piety attracted disciples who aspired to learn from and emulate these Sufi masters. Initially, Sufi followers were like students whose bonds to a Sufi teacher were based on personal loyalty. Since the twelfth century, however, most Sufis have organized themselves into orders or brotherhoods (tarikat ; pl., tarikatlar --see Glossary) that follow the teachings of a particular Sufi master.

Many Sufi tarikatlar established institutional bases, called tekke or dergah (lodges), that lasted for several generations and, in some instances, even for centuries. For example, two of contemporary Turkey's largest tarikatlar , the Naksibendi and the Kadiri, date back at least to the fourteenth century. Some tarikatlar carry the name of the founding Sufi master, the seyh (in Arabic, shaykh ). One example is the Mevlevi brotherhood. Its members popularly are called whirling dervishes because of the rhythmic whirling they engage in as a spiritual exercise and a means to achieve ecstatic proximity to God. The brotherhood is named after its founder, Mevlana (Jalal ad Din Rumi, d. 1273). Ordinarily, a designated successor to the seyh inherited his position of leadership as well as the mantle of his spiritual power. Induction into a particular tarikat became regulated and usually depended on the performance of prescribed initiation procedures. Initiates were placed at different levels, depending on the instruction they had mastered. Some of the larger Sufi tarikatlar established branches and through evkaf accumulated land and buildings, which functioned as tekkes , Kuran schools, residential monasteries, orphanages, and hospices.

The early tarikatlar were strongly influenced by Shia doctrines. Consequently, the political conflicts between the Sunni Ottoman and Shia Safavi dynasties affected the Sufi orders in Turkey. Sunni tarikatlar eventually deemphasized such practices as the veneration of Ali ibn Abu Talib and received official patronage from some Ottoman sultans. However, at least one Shia tarikat , the Bektasi, supported the Ottomans and actually exercised significant political influence without changing their heterodox beliefs. The Bektasi and the Sunni tarikatlar also served an important social function by providing educational and social welfare services, constituting a means of social mobility, and offering spiritual guidance to the people, especially in rural areas.

Folk Islam in Turkey has derived many of its popular practices from Sufism. Particular Sufi seyhs --and occasionally other individuals reputed to be pious--were regarded after death as saints having special powers to mediate between believers and God. Veneration of saints (both male and female) and pilgrimages to their shrines and graves represent an important aspect of popular Islam in both the city and the country. Folk Islam has continued to embrace such practices although the veneration of saints officially has been discouraged since the 1930s. Plaques posted in various sanctuaries forbid the lighting of candles, the offering of votive objects, and related devotional activities in these places.

The Alevi

A significant Shia minority lives in Turkey. As in the Ottoman period, a census of the Shia population has never been taken in the republican period. Thus, there is no accurate information on the size of the Shia community, which has been estimated to constitute as little as 7 percent and as much as 30 percent of Turkey's total population. Sunni in Turkey tend to refer to all Shia as Alevi. In actuality, Alevi constitute but one of four Shia sects in the country. But Alevi are by far the largest Shia sect in Turkey, accounting for at least 70 percent of the country's Shia.Twelve Imam Shia and followers of the heterodox Ahl-i Haq and Bektasi have resided in Turkey for centuries. Twelve Imam Shia comprise a majority of all Shia worldwide, although their numbers in Turkey are estimated at only 20 to 25 percent of all Shia in the country. Scholars believe that the unorthodox Ahl-i Haq, whose adherents are almost exclusively Kurds, and the equally unorthodox Bektasi, whose followers primarily are ethnic Turks, are even fewer in number than the Twelve Imam Shia.

Even though scholars of the contemporary Middle East tend to associate Alevi with Syria, where they have played an influential political role since the 1960s, a majority of all Alevi actually live in Turkey. Alevi include almost all of Turkey's Arab minority, from 10 to 30 percent of the country's Kurds, and many ethnic Turks. In fact, a majority of Alevi may be Turks. Historically, Alevi resided predominantly in southeastern Turkey, but the mass rural-to-urban migration that has been relatively continuous since 1960 has resulted in thousands of Alevi moving to cities in central and western Anatolia. Consequently, Alevi communities of varying size were located in most of the country's major cities by the mid-1990s.

Because of centuries of persecution by Sunni Muslims, Alevi became highly secretive about the tenets of their faith and their religious practices. Consequently, almost no reliable information about Alevi Islam is available. Unsympathetic published sources reported that Alevi worshiped Ali ibn Abu Talib, observed various Christian rituals, and venerated both Christian and Muslim saints. Prior to the twentieth century, information on the sect was so sparse and distorted that even Twelve Imam Shia regarded Alevi as heretics. However, the tendency among most contemporary Twelve Imam clergy is to recognize the Alevi as a distinct legal school within the Twelve Imam tradition. In addition, major Twelve Imam Shia theological colleges in Iran and Iraq have accepted Alevi students since the 1940s.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress