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December 13, 2012, Thursday

New religious movements in Turkey

Islam in Turkey used to be centrally led by sultans in their capacity as caliphs, the spiritual leaders of all Muslims.

The caliphate was abolished by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, but the state still overseas religious affairs. Mystical Islam has always attracted Westerners in their personal and spiritual search of truth and purpose, leading them to Turkey. This trend seems to be on the rise.

Konya, a city located on the Central Anatolian high plateau, is loved by many. One of my favorite Turkish authors, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, mentions it as one of the five cities in his popular 1946 literary work “Beş Şehir” (Five Cities). Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi, who was buried in Konya, lives on through his writings and devoted followers. More than anything, Rumi makes it clear that he believes that happiness comes from living life fully, urging people to always put aside any fears and taking risks to do so.

The majority of Turks have always followed mainstream Sunni traditions. 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. Comprising more or less about 20 percent of the population, the Alevis differ as they are Shiites and they believe that the line of the Muslim caliphate goes through Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad. Instead of mosques, they congregate in cemevis as their places of worship. From what I can gather from my personal observations, they are more like a society or religious association. Men and women are permitted to sit in the 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).

Every December an influx of foreign visitors interested in Sufism travel to Turkey to visit the city of Konya and pay their respects to Rumi. My interest in theology and religion led me to visit on a couple of occasions in the past. Mind you, it is not only foreign tourists who flock there; even your middle-class educated secularist may pay the city a visit.

Many visitors view the trip as a sort of pilgrimage, while others go out of curiosity. The Mausoleum of Mevlana continues to draw pilgrims from all parts of the Muslim and non-Muslim world. Rumi is admired by many as a philosopher and mystic of Islam. Rumi’s doctrine advocates unlimited tolerance, positive reasoning, goodness, charity and awareness through love.

The 13th-century Mevlana Mausoleum, with its mosque, dance hall, dervish living quarters, school and tombs of some leaders of the Mevlevi order, is definitely a popular tourist spot. You may not be aware that the sema (whirling dervish ceremony) was banned under Atatürk. It was only more recently that it was revived as social history. The Mevlana Mausoleum was turned into a museum in 1927, four years after the establishment of the Turkish Republic.

I am often asked the question “What is Sufism?” I think one of the best ways to describe Sufism is given by Julian Baldick, the author of “Mystical Islam: An Introduction to Sufism.” Baldick writes, “Sufism is a mystical tradition which, when compared to Christian and European institutions, could be put somewhere between monasticism and Freemasonary.” You can read more about Konya and Sufism in my earlier piece, “The road to Konya” (Dec. 16, 2009).

You may be interested to learn about an illuminating talk that will be given at the Orient-Institute İstanbul in Cihangir on Dec. 17 on “New Religious Movements in Turkey” by Dr. Anna Neubauer-Khurshid. The presenter will be discussing the topic of “Connecting East and West through Academic Sufism.” The aim of the presentation is to reflect on the forms that Sufism is taking in contemporary Turkey, specifically its link to academia and its transnational expansion. A female Sufi leader of the Rifai tradition, Cemalnur Sargut, is an example that will be discussed in the presentation as she caters to a cosmopolitan, secular-minded and educated audience of men and women from the middle and upper classes. According to research conducted in the past decade, the expansion of Sufism is mostly linked to migration and the conversion of Westerners. Sargut’s method of outreach abroad and its popularity will be explored. Sargut is dedicated to helping others learn how to apply solutions to today’s problems based on the Sufi view that knowledge is a state to be practiced and worship is a journey toward love.

“What is a highway to one is a disaster to the other.” -- Rumi (“The Essential Rumi”)

Note: Charlotte McPherson is the author of “Culture Smart: Turkey” 2005. Please keep your questions and observations coming: I want to ensure this column is a help to you, Today’s Zaman’s readers. Email: [email protected]

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