Religion in Turkey
The history of the major religions is inextricably
mixed with the history of Anatolia. Both have developed and advanced together. Early
Paganistic ritual slowly gave way to Christianity, only to be replaced by the Islamic
faith of the invading Selcuks. The legacy of this religious past is scattered throughout
Anatolia, from the ruins of temples dedicated to Zeus and Athena to the Mevlana Tekkesi of
Konya. Turkey is visited by thousands of religious pilgrims from all corners of the world
every year, and they are all welcomed in the tradition of Celaleddin Rumi, who wrote:
Come, come again, come! Infidel,
Whoever you are, however often you have sinned, Come!
Our gates are not the gates of hopelessness.
Whatever your condition, Come!
The First Christians
Anatolia, often labeled the cradle of civilization, can without exaggeration also be
titled the cradle of Christianity. It was in Antioch that followers of Jesus Christ were
first called Christians by their Roman rulers, and the Armenians, Assyrians and
Aramaic-speaking Suryanis of eastern Anatolia were among the first non-Jews to adopt the
new religion. The Armenians, converted by St. Gregory the Illuminator, became the first
nation to accept Christianity as the state religion. St. Paul, a native of Tarsus, took
advantage of the excellent Roman road system to travel three times through southern and
western Anatolia, preaching and converting as he went. He also lived for over two years at
Ephesus. Many of his epistles are addressed to the peoples of Anatolia; the Cappadocians,
the Ephesians, the Galatians, etc. John, Philip, Barnabus and Peter also proselytised in
Anatolia. John's Book of Revelation was written while in exile on the island of Patmos,
and was addressed to the seven churches of Asia Minor -- Laodicea (near Pamukkale), Sardis
(east of Izmir), Philadelphia (Alasehir), Thyatira (Akhisar), Ephesus,
The Byzantine Empire
For two centuries the
Roman authorities fought the rising spread of Christianity with persecution and terror.
The turnabout came when Constantine the Great embraced Christianity and in 330 AD
dedicated Constantinople the new capital of the Roman Empire, thus establishing the
Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, which was to last for well over a thousand years until
it was conquered by the Ottoman army. With the seat of Christianity located at
Constantinople, believers set about stamping out all remaining traces of Paganism.
Monasticism and ascetism emerged in the fourth and fifth centuries, and became very
influential. In Antioch the anchorites demonstrated their piety by living on pillars,
while the dendrites lived in trees. In 537, Justinian I built the cathedral of St. Sophia,
an architectural masterpiece and the greatest legacy of the Byzantine Empire.
The early Church was plagued by deep-rooted
doctrinal and theological disputes, the most contentious of which was the true nature of
Jesus Christ; man, God or both at once. In an effort to solve these differences and define
the doctrinal faith of the Christian Church, seven Ecumenical Councils were held. These
Councils, convened by the Emperor, excited much public interest and speculation. The First
Ecumenical Council took place in Nicaea (now Iznik) in 325 AD, and drew up a declaration
of faith, the Nicaean Creed, which is still used today. At the second Council Emperor
Theodosius declared Christianity the official religion of the Empire. Subsequent Councils,
held in Ephesus and Constantinople, debated the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the human
versus the divine nature of Christ and the function of icons in worship. The fourth
Council resolved that Christ was truly God, truly man in one being, but the Armenian
and Syrian Orthodox refused to accept this, stressing Christs single Godlike nature,
and did not take part in subsequent Councils. In 1054 a schism took place between the
Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches which was both theological and political.
Pope Leo IX and Patriarch Michael Cerularius excommunicated each other. These orders
remained in effect until they were annulled in 1965.
In 1095 Pope Urban called for a holy war against the 'infidel' Selcuks who had taken
Jerusalem in 1071, thus launching the Crusades; Christian wars with motives as much
political and materialistic as spiritual. The first four Crusades were fought partly on
the lands of Asia Minor. Following successful campaigns in Anatolia, the Crusaders built a
chain of castles along the southwestern coast, the ruins of which can still be seen today.
In 1204 the declining Constantinople was sacked by the Crusaders who ruled for sixty years
before the Byzantines retook it.
The Catholic Community in Turkey dates back to the Crusades and to expatriate settlers who
came since for diplomatic or commercial purposes. Similarly there have been small
Protestant and Anglican Communities in Turkey since the nineteenth century.
Islam, which means submission to God, developed from the divine revelations made to the
Prophet Muhammad (570-632 AD). Muhammad was born into the Kuraish tribe in Mecca and God's
revelations to him were recorded in the 114 suras (chapters) and 6,236 ayets (verses) of
the Koran. It provides the basis for legal and judicial systems and prescribes a pattern
of daily individual and community living. Supplementing the Koran is the Sunna, which
developed from the traditions, moral
sayings and parables of Muhammad (Hadis), and on which much of Islamic common law is
The nomadic Central Asian tribes were converted
from the Shamanism of their ancestors to Islam by the Arabs of Persia. The Selcuks were
responsible for converting large numbers of the native peoples of Anatolia. Today,
although modern Turkey is a secular republic, Islam is the religion of 98% of the
population of Turkey.
The main division in Islam is between Sunni and
Shiite Muslims. The Shiites believe that Ali, Mohammed's cousin and son-in-law, and his
successors were divinely ordained caliphs. Although they believe in the Prophet Muhammad
and the Koran, their religious practice varies substantially from that of the Sunnis. The
majority of Muslims in Iran and Southern Iraq are Shiite. In Turkey, the majority are
Acceptance of monotheism is the most important facet of Islam. God is One; omnipresent and
omnipotent, pervading all aspects of life. Muhammad stressed God's everlastingness, as
well as his loving, bountiful and forgiving nature. God had ninety nine names, reflecting
his many attributes.
On the Day of Judgement each individual's faith
and deeds will be weighed and one will either enter paradise - a beautiful garden full of
heavenly food, drink and beautiful women - or be cast into the fires of hell along with
the faithless and the greedy. Martyrs for the faith do not wait for Judgement Day but
enter paradise immediately.
Heaven and earth are populated with invisible
spirits known as jinn, who serve as God's messengers and record one's deeds. Rebellious
jinn are devils, who seduce people into evil ways.
Muslims believe that God sent many human messengers to teach the world His ways, including
Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Muhammad was the last and greatest of these.
These duties are termed the five pillars of Islam. The first is to profess the Kelime-i
Sehadet, the Muslim creed of belief: "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his
prophet". The second is prayer in the direction of Mecca (namaz). Five times each day
the muezzin issues the Call to Prayer (ezan) from the minaret of every mosque with the
words Allahuekber, or God is incomparable. The third is alms (zekat); every Muslim is
expected to give generously of his earnings. The fourth
requirement is fasting from sunrise to sunset for the holy month of Ramazan (oruc), and
fifth is the pilgrimage (hac) to Mecca at least once in a lifetime.
Almost one third of Turkey's population belongs
to a liberal Shiite sect known as the Alevis. In this order, men and women gather together
in their place of worship, called a Cem evi, and during prayer face each other rather than
Mecca, using Turkish rather than Arabic. They fast for three days in Muharrem instead of
for the month of Ramazan.
Within Islam, particularly from the eight century onwards, there was a strong ascetic,
mystic movement, known as Sufism. This was made up of religious communities or
brotherhoods (tarikat), usually founded by a charismatic sufi or dervish and led by a
sheik. The rituals of such brotherhoods were strongly influenced by pre-Islamic and
eastern occult practices and beliefs. These mystics desired to know, love and be in
complete union with God. They were largely responsible for the early spread and
popularization of Islam. Under the Ottomans they lived in tekkes or lodges, which were
similar in nature to monasteries, and lived off alms. Two important Sufi brotherhoods were
founded in Turkey.
The Bektasi order of dervishes was founded in the
13th century by a philosopher named Haci Bektas Veli (1209 - 1271). Their annual feast day
is held on the fourteenth of August in Hacibektas, near Kayseri, and is attended by
hundreds of thousands from all over Turkey. Accepting Ali as the legitimate imam (leader)
this sect appeals to Alevis. It is a liberal, tolerant sect among whose unorthodox
practices are allowing the drinking of wine and women leaving the house uncovered -
Haci Bektas pronounced that "a nation which does not educate its women cannot
progress". Bektasi dervishes were largely responsible for the conversion of the
Christian inhabitants of Anatolia to Islam. The Ottoman Janissary Corp, Christian converts
and the most powerful soldiers in the Ottoman Empire, were mostly Bektasi. When they
became too powerful, both the order and the janissaries were abolished in 1826. The order
revived at the turn of the century only to be banned along with other orders by Ataturk in
Founded in Konya by the mystic
and poet Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi (1207 - 1273) this sect influenced Islamic thought
throughout the Middle East. Rumi was an accomplished poet whose long work of poetry The
Masnawi is regarded as a masterpiece of Persian literature. It is often called the Divan
of Shams-i-Tabriz after the wandering dervish who was Rumi's inspiration and spiritual
companion. During the Mevlana service, known as a sema, the dervishes wear a full-length
white flowing gown, which swirls as they perform their distinctive whirling dance,
accompanied by the plaintive strains of the ney. December 17th, the anniversary of
Mevlana's death, is especially celebrated. Although they were closed by Ataturk, they
continue to perform the sema on special days, and their tekkes are designated folkloric
venues, where foreigners are welcome to come and watch. Especially recommended is Fatih
Tekke in Istanbul, where the sema is performed every Monday.