top of page

Islam in Turkey: Exploring Its Rich Heritage and Modern Influence

Islam in Turkey, a predominantly Sunni Muslim country, is of interest to many around the world. Turkish Muslims practice the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, which is the most widely followed in the country. President Erdogan has been advocating for increased religious instruction in schools, including those that focus on Islamic studies like the Imam Hatip schools. This interest in Islam can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled over Istanbul and the Turkish Republic for centuries.


Islam was introduced to Turkey during the 7th century when Arab armies conquered the region. The religion spread rapidly and became an integral part of Turkish culture and society. Over time, various Islamic sects emerged in Turkey, including Sunni Muslims, Alevi and Chaldean Catholic communities. During the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul became a center for Islamic learning and Sufism gained popularity among the people.


Today, Islam remains an important aspect of Turkish life and culture, especially in Istanbul, the city that was once the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The Muslim population in Turkey is predominantly Sunni, with a growing number of Islamist political parties gaining popularity in recent years. The wearing of the hijab has been a contentious issue in Turkey, with some arguing for its ban in public institutions. However, recent changes to laws have allowed women to wear headscarves in universities and other public places.


the person pray in mosque

The Halki Seminary, located on Heybeli Island near Istanbul, was once an important center for religious training for Orthodox Christians but has remained closed since 1971 due to government policies that restricted religious education. Despite calls for its reopening by the church and international organizations, the Turkish Republic has yet to allow it. This decision has been criticized by Turkish Muslims who believe in religious freedom and have called for the Diyanet to intervene.


President Erdogan's push for increased religious instruction has led to controversy among secularists in Istanbul who fear that it will lead to more conservative views being taught in schools. However, supporters argue that it will help promote a better understanding of Islam among young people, especially with the involvement of Diyanet, the official institution of religious affairs in Turkey. Critics also raise concerns about the potential exclusion of Kurdish students from the education system due to their cultural and linguistic differences.


In addition to traditional forms of Islamic education such as mosques and madrasas (Islamic schools), there are now online resources available for Muslims in Turkish language. These resources include websites and social media platforms where users can learn about Islamic beliefs and practices. The Turkish government's religious authority, Diyanet, based in Istanbul, also provides online resources for Muslims. Additionally, there are resources available for those interested in Sufi practices.


Understanding the Role of Islam in Turkish Society

The Role of Islam in Turkish Society

Turkish culture, with its deep roots in Islam, has been significantly influenced by the religion, shaping the social and political landscape of the country. Understanding the role of Islam in Turkish society is essential to comprehend the current political climate. Istanbul, being the cultural capital of Turkey, has played a crucial role in shaping the country's Islamic identity. Muslims make up the majority of the population, and Kurdish Muslims are a significant minority group. The Diyanet, Turkey's top religious authority, has a significant influence on religious practices and beliefs in the country.


Islam in Turkish Culture

Islam arrived in Anatolia (present-day Turkey) during the 7th century AD and has since become an integral part of Turkish culture, influencing everything from art to cuisine to clothing. Today, approximately 99% of Turks identify as Sunni Muslims, with the Diyanet playing a significant role in religious affairs. In Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey, the Kurdish population also practices Islam.


One unique aspect of Turkish Islam is its Sufi tradition, which is prevalent in Istanbul. Sufism emphasizes spiritual practices such as meditation and contemplation rather than strict adherence to Islamic law, and is practiced by both Sunni and Kurdish communities. Many Turks participate in Sufi rituals such as zikr (chanting), whirling dervish performances, and visiting the tombs of saints, which are also recognized by the Diyanet.


Jewish Community in Turkey

Turkey has a small but vibrant Jewish community that has coexisted peacefully with the Muslim majority for centuries. The Jewish community has been present in Anatolia since ancient times, but most Jews arrived during the Ottoman Empire's reign. Today, the community faces challenges as President Erdogan's government has increased its influence through the Diyanet, and tensions remain high in Kurdish areas such as Istanbul.


Today, there are around 15-20 thousand Jews living in Turkey alongside other religious communities. They have their synagogues, schools, hospitals and cemeteries all over Istanbul and Izmir which are two major cities where they reside predominantly. The Jewish population, along with the Kurdish community, has contributed significantly to Turkish culture throughout history. President Erdogan's administration oversees the country's religious affairs through the Diyanet.


Role of Islam Today

In modern-day Turkey, Islam continues to play a significant role politically and socially, especially under the presidency of Erdogan. The ruling party AKP (Justice and Development Party) identifies as Islamist-conservative and promotes conservative Islamic values such as family values or gender roles through policies like limiting alcohol availability or promoting religious education at primary school level, which is overseen by the Diyanet, the country's Sunni religious authority based in Istanbul.


However, there are also religious groups in Istanbul that support the government's policies, advocating for religious freedom and the role of Diyanet in public life. On the other hand, secularist movements oppose these policies, believing that religion should not influence politics or public life. This conflict between religious groups and secularists is one of the most significant political issues in Turkey today.


The Level of Strictness of Islam in Turkey and Tips for Travelers


Regional Variations

Turkey is a secular country with over 80 million people, and the majority of the population is Sunni Muslim. However, the level of strictness of Islam in Turkey varies depending on region and individual beliefs. In Istanbul and other major cities, many people are more liberal in their interpretation of Islam, while rural areas tend to be more conservative. The Diyanet, which oversees religious groups, plays a significant role in regulating religious freedom in the country.


Dress Code

When visiting mosques, churches, or other religious sites in Istanbul, travelers should dress modestly as a sign of respect for local Sunni customs. Women are required to cover their heads with scarves when entering mosques for worship. Men should wear long pants and avoid wearing shorts or sleeveless shirts.


Alcohol Consumption

Turkey, especially Istanbul, has a thriving nightlife scene where alcohol is widely available. However, it's important to note that some members of the Muslim community do not drink alcohol due to religious beliefs. It's also important to be mindful of local laws and customs regarding its consumption, especially near churches and schools where public drinking is prohibited in some areas.


Ramadan Customs

During Ramadan, which is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, Muslims fast from dawn until sunset. This period can last up to 30 days depending on the lunar cycle. Travelers visiting Istanbul should be aware that many restaurants may be closed during daylight hours during this time, especially for religious groups observing the fast. It's important to note that Christian communities in Istanbul are also respectful of Ramadan and may adjust their schedules accordingly. Media outlets in Istanbul often provide coverage of Ramadan events and traditions throughout the month.


Travel Tips for Visitors

To ensure an enjoyable trip to Istanbul without offending the local community or violating any cultural norms, it is important to be aware of the customs and traditions of the Alevi population. It is also recommended to follow any guidelines provided by officials.

  • Dress appropriately when visiting religious sites.

  • Be respectful towards local customs.

  • Avoid discussing sensitive topics such as politics or religion, including religious groups and church, in public places where members of the community or schools may be present.

  • Learn basic Turkish phrases before traveling.

  • Follow local laws and regulations.

  • Be mindful of Ramadan customs if traveling during this period, especially in Istanbul where religious groups gather for worship in May.

Muslim Practices in Turkey: What Travelers Should Know

Diverse Muslim Practices in Turkey: What Travelers Should Know

Respectful behavior towards local customs and traditions is essential when traveling to a foreign country. It is particularly important when visiting Turkey, where Islam is the predominant religion and worship in mosques is common. However, the media reports on Islam in Turkey may not always reflect the reality of Muslim practices in the country. It is important to note that Turkey also has significant Orthodox Christian religious groups, with churches that should be respected by visitors. In this section, we will explore some essential things that travelers should know about Muslim and Orthodox practices in Turkey.


Cultural Influences on Muslim Practices

Turkey's unique location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia has resulted in a diverse religious and cultural heritage. The country's population is predominantly Muslim, but Turkish Muslims have their unique way of practicing their faith that reflects their cultural traditions. Additionally, Turkey is home to a significant Orthodox Christian community, and there are also Alevi communities throughout the country. Therefore, it is essential to understand that there are variations in how Muslims, Christians, and Alevis practice their faith across different regions of Turkey.

For instance, some rural areas still adhere to traditional Islamic practices such as women wearing headscarves while urban centers like Istanbul tend to be more liberal with regards to clothing choices. Some Turks may choose not to observe all aspects of Islamic practice or may follow other religions altogether, such as religious groups or orthodox churches within their community.


Visiting Mosques

One of the most popular tourist destinations for visitors to Istanbul is The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque). While it welcomes non-Muslim visitors outside prayer times, tourists must respect certain rules when entering mosques. Similarly, churches and orthodox religious groups also have their own set of rules that must be followed by the community.


Firstly, visitors must remove their shoes before entering a mosque or church. Secondly, women and men who are members of religious groups must cover their heads with a scarf and dress modestly by covering their arms and legs when visiting mosques or churches. This is important to show respect to the community and religious beliefs.


Lastly, visitors should also be mindful of prayer times when planning visits as mosques and churches close during these periods for worship. Visitors should also avoid disrupting prayers or taking photographs during these times out of respect for worshippers' privacy and the religious groups' community. Officials may also be present to ensure that visitors adhere to these guidelines.


Other Places To Visit

There are several other places where travelers can learn about Turkish-Islamic culture without necessarily visiting a mosque directly. For example, the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in Istanbul provides an excellent insight into Islamic art and culture. Additionally, visitors can also explore the rich history of the Christian church in Turkey or engage with the local community to gain a deeper understanding of the region's religious groups. The media is also a great resource for learning about Turkish-Islamic culture from afar.


The Konya Mevlana Cultural Center is a popular destination for visitors interested in learning about Sufi culture, as well as for religious groups seeking to deepen their understanding of the faith. The center hosts exhibitions, concerts, and other cultural events that are widely covered by the media and attended by members of the community. While not a church, the center offers a unique opportunity to explore the rich spiritual traditions of the region.



The Impact of Islam on Public Life in Turkey

The Dominance of Islam in Turkey

Turkey is a country where Islam is the dominant religion, with over 99% of the population identifying as Muslim. The influence of Islam on public life in Turkey can be seen in various aspects, including politics, education, and social norms. However, the government also recognizes the presence of other religions such as the Orthodox Church and their community.


Politics and Religion

The Turkish government has implemented policies to promote Islamic and orthodox values and traditions. For instance, mandatory religious education is provided in schools from primary school through high school. The construction of mosques and churches has been encouraged by the government to support the religious community. Officials are working to ensure that both Islamic and orthodox communities are given equal opportunities to practice their faith.


Education

Islamic studies and Christian church teachings are compulsory parts of the curriculum for all students attending primary and secondary schools. Students receive lessons on Islamic and Orthodox Christian history, culture, beliefs, and practices. This policy was introduced to strengthen Islamic and Christian identity among young people and promote interfaith community. The media has also played a role in highlighting the importance of religious education in fostering understanding and respect among diverse communities.


Social Norms

Islam also influences social norms in Turkey. Religious holidays such as Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha are celebrated throughout the country with much enthusiasm. Alcohol consumption is not prohibited but it's not common either due to religious reasons. The Alevi community, who follow a distinct form of Islam, also play a significant role in shaping social norms. The Orthodox Church, on the other hand, has a smaller presence in Turkey but still influences some aspects of society.


Coexistence between Muslims and Non-Muslims

Despite the strong presence of Islam in Turkish society, there are also secular communities that coexist with the Muslim majority. Turkey has a significant non-Muslim community consisting mainly of Christians and Jews who have lived in Turkey for centuries. The government protects the rights of these communities to practice their religion freely, including attending church services or orthodox ceremonies. The media also covers news related to these communities, highlighting their contributions to Turkish society.


The Current State of Religious Freedom in Turkey

Turkish citizens have the right to freedom of religion under the Turkish Republic's constitution. However, the current government under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been criticized for limiting religious freedom and human rights. This has led to challenges faced by minority groups such as Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and Jews in practicing their faith without interference from authorities. Moreover, the church community has been affected by the restrictions, which has caused a stir in the media this year.


The Turkish government's actions have raised concerns about its commitment to upholding human rights and religious freedom. The government has been accused of using its power to suppress dissenting voices and limit freedoms guaranteed by the constitution. There have been reports of police brutality against protesters who are demanding greater religious freedom. Additionally, the media has reported on the government's crackdown on the orthodox community and their church.


One example is the case of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, who is considered the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians worldwide. He has faced numerous challenges from the Turkish government over his role as head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey, which have been widely reported by the media. His residence permit was not renewed for several years, which resulted in him being unable to travel outside Turkey for official visits or meetings with other church leaders, causing concern within the community.


Residence permits for foreign religious workers, including those from the Orthodox church, have also become more difficult to obtain in recent years, leading to protests from religious communities. Many foreign Christian pastors have been deported or denied entry into Turkey due to visa issues or alleged links with terrorist organizations, causing frustration among the community. The government's strict policies on issuing permits have been a major obstacle for the church and its followers.


inside blue mosque

The Intersection of Religion and Politics in Turkey: Diyanet and Secularism

Diyanet: The Intersection of Religion and Politics in Turkey

State institutions play a crucial role in shaping the religious landscape of any country. In Turkey, Diyanet is the official state institution responsible for regulating religious affairs, blurring the line between religion and politics in a country that defines itself as secular. Despite this, the influence of the orthodox church and government on Diyanet cannot be ignored. Additionally, the media plays a significant role in highlighting these intersections between religion and politics in Turkish society.


Role of Diyanet

Diyanet oversees religious education, services, and law in Turkey, including the orthodox church. Its leaders are appointed by the government's political leaders, which raises questions about its impartiality. The organization is also responsible for issuing fatwas or Islamic legal opinions, which can have significant implications for Turkish citizens' daily lives and attract media attention.


In recent years, Diyanet has faced criticism from various groups who argue that its influence undermines Turkey's secularism and favors Sunni Islam over other religious groups, including orthodox Christians. Critics contend that the organization promotes conservative Islamic values at the expense of other religious beliefs, while some accuse the government and media of turning a blind eye to the Diyanet's favoritism towards the Sunni church.


Secularism in Turkey

Turkey's constitution defines the country as a secular state. However, Diyanet's role complicates this definition since it operates under government control and has significant power over religious affairs. The orthodox community has been vocal about their concerns regarding Diyanet's influence, and the media has reported on several controversies surrounding the organization. Additionally, in the past year, there have been discussions about restructuring or even abolishing Diyanet altogether.


Some argue that this government arrangement allows politicians to use orthodox religion as a tool to gain support from voters with strong religious affiliations, while media reports suggest that it creates an environment where political leaders can manipulate religion to further their own interests year after year.


The Ecumenical Patriarchate

The relationship between Diyanet and the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been contentious for years due to restrictions on religious expression and property rights. The Ecumenical Patriarchate, serving as the spiritual center of Orthodox Christianity worldwide, continues to face challenges operating within Turkey despite media attention.


For example, the Turkish government authorities have placed restrictions on church property ownership for the past year, making it difficult for Orthodox Christians to maintain their places of worship. Members of minority religions face limitations on their ability to express their religious beliefs publicly, which has been heavily criticized by the media. Additionally, there have been reports of discrimination against individuals with names that sound "too Arabic" or "too al-Qaeda," further exacerbating tensions among certain groups.


The Complexities of Islam in Turkey

The complexities of Islam in Turkey are vast and multifaceted. From the role of religion in public life to the level of strictness observed by its adherents, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to understanding Islam in this country. However, with the orthodox interpretation of Islam gaining momentum in recent years, the government and media have been closely monitoring its influence on society.

For travelers, it's important to be aware of the nuances surrounding Muslim practices in Turkey. While some areas may observe stricter interpretations of Islam, particularly those influenced by orthodox beliefs, others may have a more relaxed approach. It's always best to research local customs and traditions before visiting a new place, as media and government regulations can also play a role in shaping cultural norms.


At the same time, it's essential not to oversimplify or generalize about Islam in Turkey. The orthodox religion has played an integral role in shaping Turkish society for centuries, and its impact cannot be reduced to a few broad strokes. It is also important to consider the influence of media and government on the perception and practice of Islam in Turkey.


One thing that is clear is that religious freedom remains a contentious issue in Turkey. Despite constitutional protections for freedom of worship, there have been reports of discrimination against minority religions, including the Orthodox community, and restrictions on certain religious practices imposed by the government. Furthermore, the media has reported on these issues, highlighting the ongoing challenges faced by religious minorities in Turkey.

Another factor complicating the relationship between religion and politics in Turkey is the role played by Diyanet, the state-run Directorate of Religious Affairs. Critics argue that Diyanet promotes a conservative and orthodox interpretation of Islam and wields too much influence over public life, especially through government policies and media outlets like Al Jazeera.


Ultimately, understanding orthodox Islam in Turkey requires a willingness to delve into its complexities without resorting to simplistic narratives or stereotypes perpetuated by the media. By doing so, we can gain a deeper appreciation for this rich and diverse culture – one where faith plays an important but nuanced role, despite the government's efforts to control religious practices. Additionally, it is important to note that Turkey has been home to influential Islamic figures such as Al-Ghazali and Al-Farabi.


Related Blog Posts;



32 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page