By Charlotte Mcpherson
June 15, 2014
“To be a Turk is to be a Muslim” is a statement that defines both nationality and culture. More than 99 percent of the population is Muslim, although they may not be practicing Muslims. In Turkey, nearly half of the population would describe themselves as secular Turks.
Turkey is very different from any other Muslim nation in that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk made a complete break with the past and established a secular government. Many Westerners do not realize that Turkish Islam used to be centrally led by the sultan in his capacity as caliph, the spiritual leader of all Muslims. The caliphate was abolished by Atatürk. Having said this, it is important to state that Islam continues to play a pivotal role in the life and character of the nation.
The most noticeable sign of Islam for the visitor is the call to prayer (Azan) that echoes across Turkey's villages and towns five times a day. The times of prayer are dawn, noon, mid- afternoon, sunset and night. The call is in Arabic and starts with the statement “Allahu Akbar,” which means “God is great.” Often the prayer calls at different mosques start just seconds or minutes after each other, so they form a chorus around the city. The call to prayer is given by a muezzin, who is specially trained in the melody of the chant. The muezzin used to have to climb stairs to the top of the minaret. With the convenience of technology, the muezzin may now sit below and use a microphone and loudspeakers.
I often receive letters from Today's Zaman readers or am asked by visitors just what is the difference between Islam and Christianity. Here is how I reply: Islam is both a faith and a way of life, an integral belief system that is both religious and political. The one God, Allah, is recognized as the creator of everything in the universe. He is the ultimate source of the Ruh (life spirit). The Quran is the holy book of Islam. It is understood to be the written word of God as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, who recited the chapters (or Suras) of the Quran to scribes for notation. The Quran is sacred and is considered one of the most beautiful works in Arab literature. Many Muslim traditions and practices are contained not in the Quran but in the Hadith: a written record of what the Prophet Muhammad said, did or approved. The mosque is the primary community space for Islamic teaching and religious activity. The imam is both prayer leader and teacher at the mosque.
As I explain in my book “Culture Smart: Turkey,” the majority of Turkish Muslims are from the mainstream Sunni tradition. Among the well-known smaller groups or sects present in Turkey are the Sufis and Alevis. Both groups appreciate and use music as part of their worship, and their beliefs include mysticism. The Alevis, who are Shiites, comprise about 20 percent of the population. They differ from Sunnis in that they believe the line of the caliphate goes through Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. Instead of the mosque, they worship and meet in the cemevi, or community hall. They are more like a society or religious association. Men and women are permitted to sit in the same cemevi, although they are segregated. Meals, music, dances and sometimes alcohol are part of their communal worship. Their leaders are known as Pir (spiritual leader) and Dede (a senior dervish in the Alevi sect, similar to an elder).
For those of you reading this who are not familiar with the Five Pillars of Islam, let me outline them here:
• The creed, called Shahada (testimony or witness): If a person recites “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet,” he will be considered a Muslim.
• Prayer five times a day.
• Observation of the annual fast during the month of Ramadan.
• Giving of alms.
• The Hajj: Every Muslim should plan to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during his or her lifetime.
One thing I noticed while travelling around in the United States was that more and more Muslims of different nationalities, including Turks, are living and working there and the average American doesn't know how to relate to their Muslim neighbour, work colleague or person one comes across in another professional setting. A good place to begin is to remember that not all Muslims are the enemy.