Many Westerners are surprised to hear that religious Muslim holidays change each year in line with the Muslim calendar. The lunar calendar is about 11 days shorter than the Gregorian one so Muslim holidays move forward each year. These religious holidays are celebrated at the same time throughout the Muslim world. The dates are officially declared and printed in the newspapers after trusted astronomers have made the necessary observations and calculations. The civil authorities then approve how many days the civil holiday should be. If the timing in the week means that there is just one working day between the weekend and the holiday, it may be decided to join the two together and make a week-long holiday. It’s always popular when this happens.
Whenever I need to know a date for a Muslim holiday I always visit Tom Brosnahan’s website, http://www.turkeytravelplanner.com/. You can find the date for every major and minor Muslim holy day and festival through 2013. For example, just recently, on May 24 and 25, was Ragaip Kandili, which is the celebration of the night of Muhammad’s conception. Perhaps you noticed around your Turkish neighborhood the illuminated minarets and signs hung on some shop windows or strung across some streets wishing a blessed celebration. It is one of the five Islamic holy nights when the minarets are illuminated.
Non-Muslims are allowed into a mosque, but you may be asked to enter through a separate doorway. Visitors are not allowed to visit mosques during prayer time. Men shouldn’t go into the section reserved for women. To show respect it is recommended to cover up: In the mosques frequented by tourists, there are large pieces of material that can be wrapped as sarongs around ladies with skirts that are too short or men with shorts. Women are required to cover their heads. Everyone is expected to take off their shoes outside.
The mosque courtyard is a more public area, but still an area in which to show respect. In the courtyard, a Muslim performs his ritual washing before going inside. Depending upon the size of the mosque and its importance, its courtyard may have a complex which may incorporate some or all of the amenities, such as a religious school known as a medrese, a hospital, a kitchen, a hospice, a caravanserai (road-side inn), a hamam, a library and a graveyard.
You will notice that inside the mosque there are no pictures of people or animals: The décor is ornate patterns on tiles. Beautiful calligraphic inscriptions often depict the names of God and Muhammad in Arabic. Every mosque has a mihrab, a niche in the wall indicating the direction of Mecca for prayer. The Friday noon prayer time is the best-attended service, at which time a sermon from the pulpit is delivered.
Foreign guests often ask me what Alevism is. I have found it is best to explain Alevism as being a form of Islam with some of its own distinctions from mainstream Islamic tradition and Sufism.
Alevism is practiced all over Turkey but the Alevi population is denser in the areas of Elazığ, Nevşehir, Malatya, Maraş, Sivas and Yozgat. It contains elements from Shiite Islam, the Bektaşi Sufi order, Zoroastrianism and Judeo-Christianity as well as other religious influences.
Haci Bektaş-ı Veli (1209-1271), a Muslim mystic and founder of a Sufi order, saw Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s nephew and later son-in-law, as the rightful successor to the Prophet. If you are planning to visit Turkey in the summer and are interested in religion, you’d enjoy going to the Hacı Bektaş festival held every year on Aug. 16-18 in the town of the same name.
For many years in Turkey, the Alevi religion had to be practiced in secret. However, now they openly celebrate with dance, music and the company of friends, family and strangers. The Alevis meet in private prayer halls of their own called cemevleri. Alevis have a rich heritage of folklore and music. Sunni Muslims tend to perceive Alevi practices as being less structured and more informal.
Since religious holidays change each year in line with the Muslim calendar, it is good to be aware of some other Muslim holidays approaching:
Miraç Kandili is the celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s ascent to heaven. It will be celebrated this year on June 16/17.
Berat Kandili is the Night of Forgiveness, which will be celebrated on July 4/5.
This year Ramadan begins on July 20, according to Tom’s website, and it finishes on Aug. 18. The Ramadan Holiday (Şeker Bayramı or Ramazan Bayramı in Turkish and Eid al-Fitr in Arabic) is Aug. 19-21.This is a three-day feast to celebrate the end of Ramadan. Stores sell sweets everywhere. Everyone buys packages of candy to give as presents or to pass out to children who knock on the door.
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@example.com