Religion in Turkey

This article was written by Furkan Üstünbaş.


According to official sources, the largest religion is Islam in Turkey. 99.8% of Turkish citizens are Muslim according to the state. The remaining 0.2% are mostly Christian and Jewish minorities who live in Turkey.  However, there is an important point that we need to state here. In Turkey, a child born to a Muslim family is registered as Muslim in the state records. Thus, it is very possible to say that, the actual number of Muslim people is lower than 99.8%. If people converted to another religion, or people who have no religion do not change their religion in the official records, they would be still Muslims according to the state.  As a result, it is possible to say that Islam is the most popular religion in Turkey. However, 99.8% would not be a realistic rate.  

Below, you can see a pie chart about religion in Turkey taken from Encyclopedia Britannica.  In this chart, you can see that Islam is divided into two categories as Sunni Islam, and Shia Islam (Mostly Alevis). Although Alevis are included in Shia Islam in this chart, the Alevi belief is a complicated issue, and some believers of Alevism accept as a sect of Islam, some of them accept it as doctrine or teaching within the Islamic belief. Because Alevism is a heterodox belief, they do not include themselves in Shia or Sunni sects, but their belief is closer to Shia.  I will examine the condition of Alevism in Turkey in detail in the coming chapters.  There are also Ja’fari Muslims in some regions of Turkey, and they are also part of the Shia Islam population. In the chart, you can see that 2% of the population is non-religious in Turkey. This percentage could be seen in different public surveys and official statistics based on the registers of persons. However, there are also different claims about non-religiousness in Turkey.  According to a survey of Gezici Research, 28.5% of Generation Z in Turkey are non-religious. 

As I said above, majority of those people who say “I am not a believer of any religion” are registered as “Muslim” in official sources.  As a result, we can say that the vast majority of Turkey are Muslim, but the numbers are exaggerated, and there are high numbers of non-religious people (atheist, agnostic or deist) in Turkey. 

Is Turkey A Religious Country ?

The role of religion in Turkey is a complex issue. Islam has always been an important part of the Anatolian lands since the Islamization of Turks. Some of the most powerful Islamic Empires such as the Ottoman Empire, the Seljuk Empire was ruled by Turks. However, the Republic of Turkey was established as a modern, secular state in 1923. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the founder cadres of the republic believed that religion should not have a role in state affairs. Religion was perceived as an individual matter, and it should have nothing to do with the state.  However, this secular understanding could practically change although it does not change officially. In the rule of right-wing, conservative parties, the effect of religious discourse could be easily seen in politics.

The effects of Islam can be also felt in daily life. Looking at the daily life practices would be the best way to understand the role of Islam in Turkey. Turkey is a secular country, and religious rules do not have an effect on the state affairs officially. However, religious traditions and rules are important for the people, even for the undevout ones.  For example, most people turn down the music when the azan “call to prayer” is recited, and it could be understood as disrespect if you do not turn down the music when the azan is recited.  Likewise, fasting in Ramadan is an important Islamic practice in Turkey, and people do not eat or drink anything in the streets as a sign of respect even if they do not fast.  In some cities and some towns, the Islamic belief could be stricter than other regions. For example, ın the Mediterranean or Aegean shores of Turkey like Kas, Bodrum, Cesme the Islamic atmosphere could not be felt easily in daily life practices. However, if you want to explore the historical sites of Istanbul such as Sultanahmet, Galata,  Eminönü, or different cities in Central Anatolia, Black Sea, or Eastern Turkey, you can feel the effects of Islam in daily life.

As a result, it is possible to say that Turkey is a religious country in general, and people give importance to religious rules & traditions. However, you won’t find yourself in danger because you believe in another religion, or you do not believe any religion. As long as you respect the Islamic practices and beliefs in daily life, the understanding of Islam in Turkey would not be a obstacle for you in your Turkey trip. 

Islam In Turkey

Islam is the most believed religion in Turkey as you can see above. The big majority of the country define themselves as “Muslim” regardless of their participance in the religious practices like Cuma prayers, fasting in Ramadan, sacrificing etc. However, different interpretations of Islam, and different sects could be found in Turkey. Sunni Islam is the most popular doctrin of Islam in Turkey. Alevis are the second biggest religious community in Turkey,  but their posiiton in Islam is controversial as I said above.  Sometimes, Alevis are accepted as part of Shia Islam, and sometimes they are accepted as different understanding of Islam independent from Sunni or Shıia sect. Another Shia community in Turkey are Ja’faris, and they are mostly located in the North-Eastern Turkey. Their population is about 3 million. 

Sunni Islam is also divided into two main group in Turkey. Hanafi and Shafi’i schools are the biggest Sunni communities in Turkey. Hanafi people are generally located in the Western and Central regions of Turkey, while people who follow Shafi’i school are generally located in the Eastern Side of the country. 

Brief History of Islam

Kaaba in Mecca City, Saudi Arabia

Islam is the second biggest religion in the world after Christianity. In Islam, “Allah” is accepted as the only God, and Muhammad is accepted as the messenger of Allah. According to Islamic belief, Muhammad is the last prophet who was sent by Allah to the world, to lead people to the right path. 

Muhammad was born in 570 in Mecca, one of the most improved cities of Arabian Peninsula at that time, and Muhammad’s family was a member of Quraish clan, the ruling clan of Macca city.  Muhammed was orphaned before he was born after the death of his father “Abd Allah Ibn” Abd al-Muttalib. His mother, Aminah also died when Muhammed was six years old. Therefore, he was raised by his uncle Abu Talip.   Muhammad became a succesful tradesman as he grown up. He married a Khadijah when he was 25 years old.  Khadijah was 15 years older than him. However, she was a powerful merchant, and because she believed that Muhammad was a honest man and a good merchant, she proposed marriage to Muhammad. Because she was from a wealthy family, and a reputable merchant, Muhammad also gain power after marrying to Khadijah.

While Muhammad was about 40 years old, he started to meditate in a cave located in Mount Hira. Muhammad did not follow traditional, polytheistic beliefs in Arabian Peninsula at that time. He believed that there is only one God who created all of the universe, he tried to find answers to questions on his mind in Mount Hira, and he worshipped his God. One day, while he was worshipping his God in the cave, he heard the voice of Angel Gabriel according to Islamic belief. Angel Gabriel ordered Muhammad to read. Muhammed said “ I cannot read”, and Gabriel said  “read in the name of your Lord who created”. This was the first line of Quran sent to Muhammad according to Islam.  Muhammad only told about his experience to his wife Khadijah at first, and Khadijah believed Muhammad’s words, and supported him.  Khadijah was the first person who accepted the prophethood of Muhammad, and she is accepted as the first Muslim person.  Ali, who was the son of the Muhammad’s uncle, Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s closest friend,  Zayd Ibn Harithah, freedman of Muhammed were also among first Muslims. The number of people who believed in Muhammad increased in time. However, not everyone accepted Muhammad’s claims on being a prophet.  The dispute in Mecca city became more apparent as the numbers of Muhammad’s followers increase because Muhammad’s growing power was a threat for the Paganist beliefs in Mecca. The threats against Muhammad and his followers became more apparaent every day. As a result, Muhammad and his followers had to move to Medina in 622. This is known as “Hejira” in Islamic communities today. After staying in Medina for seven years, Muhammad gained power, and powerful tribes in Mecca continued to oppose him. There were several battles between Muslims who follow the teachings of Muhammad. The most important battles were Battle of Badr, Battle of Uhud and Battle of the Trench. Muslims under the command of Muhammad gained important victories in Battle of Badr and Battle of Trench although the battle of Uhud was lost. In the Battle of the Trench, tribes of Mecca tried to surround Medina for one last time with the help of some Jewish tribes. However, the siege was failed and Muslims under the command of Muhammad gained a decisive victory. Eventually, Muhammad returned to Macca in 692 with his followers.  There was almost no opposition against Muhammad when they returned Macca. After returning Macca, Muhammad and his followers went to Kaaba and destroyed Pagan idols there. Islam remained as the dominant religion in the Arabian Peninsula after that. Muhammad became the first ruler of the Islamic State in the Arabian peninsula which will be followed by Rashidun Caliphate.

Expansion of Islam After The Death of Muhammad

Rashidun Caliphate lasted for 30 years, and there were four different caliphs in those 30 years. The first Caliph was Abu Bakr, and he was followed by Umar, Uthman bin Affan and Ali. According to Sunni school of Islam, all of those four caliphs are legitimate leaders of Islam and they should be respected. However, Shia teaching has different views on the Rashidun era. According to Shia belief, Ali was the legitimate caliph after Muhammad’s death, and Muhammad assigned him as his succesor before his death. Therefore, Shia Islam claims that the caliphate was stolen from Ali. This is one of the biggest disputes between Sunni and Shia Islam.  In the era of Rashidun Caliphate, the expansion of Islam gained speed and several conquests took place. In that period, Iran, Iraq and Syria were conquered.  

After the death of Ali in 661, Rashidun Caliphate ended, and the Umayyad Dynasty came to power.  The Umayyad Dynasty is also a controversial period for the Muslim community around the world. The Umayyad Dynasty, especially the reigns of Muawiyah and Yazid are often criticised for injustices in their rule mainly by the Shia sect. Muawiyah became the caliph and the sole ruler of the Islamic World after the world of Ali, and Ali’s death was a result of conflicts between his supporters and Muawiyah supporters.  Therefore. Shia sect of Islam has negative attitude towards the Umayyad Dynasty.  Although some Sunni views also criticised Muawiyah and Umayyad Dynasty for injustices in their rule, they still accepted Muawiyah and other Umayyad caliphs as legitimate caliphs. 

Although their rule was very controversial, the lands under the control of Muslims expanded greatly in their rule. Most of Northern Africa and even Southern Spain entered under the control of Muslims in the time of Umayyad Caliphate.   

With the Abbasid Revolution in 750, the Umayyad Caliphate ended and the third Caliphate in the history of Islam has started.  Abbasid Caliphate is not known for their conquests contrary to Umayyad Caliphate. However, they played an important role in converting societies that have different religions to Islam such as Persians and Turks. The first reason for that is the positive attitude of Abbasids towards other nations.  Muslim Turks and Persians took important roles in the army and administration in the Abbasid rule. In the Umayyad era a nationalist policy followed in the administration, and non-Arab Muslims had no important role in administration or army. Therefore, although they conquered many lands, they were not successful in converting people to Islam in a peaceful way. However, Abbasids followed a non-nationalist policy, and they were successful in increasing the number of Muslim people in the conquered lands. 

Although they were successful in increasing the effect of Islam in different lands, they were not succesful in coping with internal conflicts.  After the death of the last ruler of the Abbasid Empire,  Al-Wathiq, Abbasid state completely dissolved and several independent states took place of Abbasid Empire.  

When the Mongols attacked and sacked  Baghdad, the capital of Abbasid Empire, the last person who were descended from Abbasid Caliphs, Al-Mustansir escaped to Cairo under the control of Mamluk Sultanate, and after that, Abbasid Caliphs protected by Mamluk Sultanate until the end of the Mamluk Sultanate. However, the position of caliphs was different from the Umayyad or Abbasid Era. The military was the most powerful institution in the Mamluk Sultanate, and because of that, the caliph had no power in the state affairs. He was perceived as a religious leader of Muslims, not as the ruler of the state apart from the Umayyad and Abbasid era.

The Abbasi caliph was protected by the Mamluk Sultanate until the end of the Mamluk Sultanate. In 1517, Ottoman armies under the command of Selim I marched on Ridaniya, and took control of Egypt. After the fall of Mamluk Sultanate,  the caliphate started use to caliph title as well. However, they do not use the caliphate as a political tool in general. It gave a symbolic power to the sultan as a leader of all Muslims in the world. However, Ottoman Sultans never used caliph title in internal affairs, even for religious matters. Shaykh al-Islams were the main authority in religious issues in the Ottoman Empire. Although Mehmed Resad V declared Jihad in 1914 against the Entente powers as the caliph of Islamic world, it was rejected by the Islamic world to a great extent.

5 months after the foundation of the modern Republic of Turkey, the caliphate was abolished.  After the abolition of the caliphate by Turkey, several people declared themselves as caliphs such as Sharif of Mecca Hussein bin Ali,; Mohammed V of Morocco,  Imam of Yemen Yahya Muhammed Hamid ed-Din.  However, neither one of those people nor other people who declare themselves as caliphs later is accepted by all Islamic world. 

Fundamental Beliefs of Islam

The first page of the Quran.

Islam is a monotheistic religion and has some common beliefs with other Abrahamic religions (Judaism and Christianity). However, the fundamental beliefs of Islam are very different from other Abrahamic religions, especially from Christianity. Below, you can see the fundamental beliefs in Islam.

  1. Tawhid (Oneness of the God)  Tawhid is the main principle in Islam. It could be understood as the oneness of Allah. In Islam, Allah is the only god, and Allah has no offspring, no race, no gender. Allah is totally different from human beings, and does not have any humanitarian characteristics. Allah is the creator of everything and capable of doing everything. 
  2. Belief In the Angels Second fundamental belief in Islam is the belief in the existence of angels. A Muslim must believe that there are angels under the command of Allah, and Allah sent angel Gabriel to the world to send holy scriptures to prophets.
  3. Belief In The Books of Allah The holy scripture of Islam is the Quran and Muslims must follow the teachings of Quran. However, Muslims do not deny the existence and holiness of the old and new testament. They are all the words of Allah. However, teachings in the old and the new testament were changed by the wrongdoers according to Islamic belief. 
  4. Belief in The Prophets Belief in the prophets is the fourth fundamental belief in Islam.  According to Islam, prophets are the messengers of God (Allah) and transfer Allah’s messages to the people. There are numerous prophets in Islamic belief. However, the Quran mentions 25 prophets. The first man, Adam is the first prophet at the same time. Jesus, David, Moses are also accepted as prophets by Islam. Mohammad is the last prophet.
  5. Belief in the Judgement Day  Day of judgement is an important part of Islamic belief.  Muslims believe that there will be the day of judgement after the end of the world, and all human beings will be judged. Those who follow the path of Mohammed will enter heaven, and those who followed the wrong path will be sent to hell. 
  6. Belief in Predestination Muslims believe that the universe is ruled by God, everything that happens in the universe happens according to the plan of Allah, and Allah knows everything. 

When and How Did Turkish People Meet Islam 

According to some sources, the first encounter of Turks with Islam is the Battle of Talas, which took place in 751. However,  it is not true. In the Battle of Talas, Turks allied with Muslims for the first time against a common enemy, China.  However, Turks met with Islam before the Battle of Talas, and they did not convert to Islam.  Especially, in the time of Qutayba Ibn Muslim, there were several conflicts between Turks and Muslims. As I said in the previous parts, the Umayyad Caliphate is known for its conquests, and they also conquered some lands controlled by the Turks before under the command of Qutayba ibn Muslim. However, because of the severe attacks on their lands, and nationalist policies of the Umayyad Caliphate, Turks did not convert to Islam as a whole in the time of the Umayyad Caliphate.  As I said, the Abbasid caliphate was more peaceful than the Umayyad caliphate, and they do not follow a nationalist approach while trying to spread Islam.  In the Abbasid era, there were already Turks in the areas which were ruled by the Abbasid areas, some of them were Muslim although not all of them.  In the Umayyad era, Turks or other non-Arab Muslims had no major roles in the army. This attitude changed in the Abbasid era, and Turks gained important positions in the army. This peaceful behavior towards Muslim Turks affected non-Mulsim Turks in a positive way. The number of Muslim Turks started to increase in time.  

The Battle of Talas has an important role in the Islamization of Turks. In 751, Turks and Chinese fought again, and Turks got help from Arabs, which were under the control of the Abbasid caliphate at that time. Turks and Arabs formed an alliance for the first time in the battle of Talas. This alliance accelerated the Islamization of Turks. 

As a result, we can say that the role of the Battle of Talas is significant in the Islamization of Turks. However, it is not the first meeting. Turks met Islam in the time of the Umayyad caliphate, and they need to wait for a long time to form an alliance with Arabs. After the nationalist policies of the Umayyad caliphate were removed, Turks’ attitude toward Islam became more positive.

Religion of Turks Before Islam

Before meeting Islam, Turks believed in different religions in different periods of history such as Manichaeism,  Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Tengrism. Tengrism is accepted as the traditional religion of Turkic people who live in the Central Asia steppes.  Tengrism was a similar religion to Paganism in the sense of animism and totems. 

It is a popular tendency to say “Turks accepted converting to Islam easily because their religion was similar to Islam.” However, this claim is a bit controversial.  Tengrism is in somewhere between monotheistic and polytheistic religions.  Tengri means “God” in the old Turkish language, and it could be understood as the supreme God of the universe.  Tengri is also known as “Gök Tengri’’ (Sky God). The holy soul of the sky is Tengri itself in Tengrism. Tengri is the creator of the whole universe and is above everything.  However, there are some claims about the number of Gods in the Tengri. There are some god-like entities in Tengrism, but they are not equal to Tengri. Thus, some experts of the history of religion accept these entities as angels of Tengri. Some examples of them are Erlik Han, Kayra Han, İrle Han,  Karluk Han. 

However, we cannot say that there is no similarity between Tengrism and Islam. It is not totally wrong to say that “Turks accepted Islam easily because Tengrism was similar to Islam.” Tengrism and Islam share a significant common feature. In both religions, God created all of the universe, and unique, the god is more powerful than any other thing in the universe.  “Allah” the god of Islam, and “Tengri” the god of Tengrism is similar to each other in this aspect. 

The Effect of Tengrism in Turkish Daily Life

Tengrism was the religion of Turks for hundreds of years. As a natural result of that, it affected Turkish people in no small measure. These effects could be easily seen in some daily practices, and beliefs of Turkish people even today. 

The most obvious effect of Tengrism on the daily lives of Turkish people is about the spatial entity of the god. As I said above, Allah is unique in the Islamic belief, and Allah has no gender, does not have a humanitarian characteristic. Likewise, Allah is not located in a specific place. (Wahhabism is an exception in Islam in this case because they believe in the material existence of Allah, and Allah is in the sky for them)  However, in Tengrism, tengri is the holy soul of the sky. Therefore, the god (tengri) is located in the sky.  Today, many Turks say “There is Allah in the sky” as a proverb. People generally say that proverb to assert that Allah watches people, and we cannot trick Allah. We should act in a righteous way.   This belief comes from Tengrism.  Although they do not genuinely believe Allah is in the sky, Turkish people keep saying this proverb, and this is perhaps the most apparent effect of Tengrism on Turkish people. 

Another visible effect of Tengrism on Turkish culture is headstones.  Ancient Turks showed great respect to the souls of the dead. Their soul should be in peace, and their graves should be in a good condition to ease their soul. They also gave importance to distinguish the graves of their loved ones from other graves.  Thus, they placed sublime, inlaid headstones over the graves. Today, it is still possible to see these kinds of headstones in graveyards. In other Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia or other Arab states, you can not see these kinds of headstones. Even if there are headstones, they are not very distinctive. Headstones in Turkey are a direct effect of Tengrism. 

Some Turkish people knock on wooden objects three times because they believe doing that would prevent bad luck. This belief also originated from Tengrism. Tengrism accepts trees as creatures that have powerful souls, and their souls could prevent evil souls from harming people. 

As you can see, although Tengrism is not the religion of the majority of Turks, its influence over daily practices of Turks is still felt. This influence creates an impressive cultural harmony. 

How did Islam Spread in Anatolia?

Islamization of Anatolia is one of the most important developments in the history of Islam. As I said above, after the death of the prophet Mohammad, caliphates conquered many lands, and many people in different lands converted to Islam. However, Anatolia has a significant place because most people who live in Anatolia is still Muslim today. It is not possible to see the same condition in different lands which were Islamized in different periods of history. For example,  the Umayyad Caliphate conquered Spain, and the number of Muslim people increased in Spain at that time. However, after Reconquista (reconquest of Spain by Christian forces), the influence of Islam in Spain almost completely disappeared because the Umayyad Caliphate could not succeed in injecting Islam into the culture of the people who live there.  But, Turks adopted Islam after they met Islam, and they even represent the Caliphate for centuries. They also played an important role in the spread of Islam. That’s why the Islamization of Anatolia has a significant place in the history of Islam.

As I said above, Turks met Islam in the time of the Umayyad Caliphate at first. However, because of the strict and nationalist policies of the Umayyad Caliphate, Turks did not convert to Islam in masses.  Most Turks converted to Islam in the time of the Abbasid Caliphate, after the Battle of Talas.  However, Turks were not located in Anatolia back then. 

The Islamization process of Anatolia started in the 9th century with the Abbasid campaigns to Anatolia.  There are many Turk soldiers or commanders in the Abbasid army.  However, Abbasids only want to threaten the Byzantine Empire rather than settling in Anatolia.  Thus, the Islamization of Anatolia did not take place in the time of the Abbasid. The most effective state in the Islamization process of Anatolia was the Great Seljuk Empire. 

In the time of the Great Seljuk Empire, Muslim Turkoman groups started to settle in Anatolia, which was mainly under the control of the Byzantine Empire at that time.  This could be accepted as the first mass Muslim Turk movement into Anatolia. 

1071 is a very important date for the Islamization and the Turkification of Anatolia. In 1071, the Great Seljuk Empire gained a decisive victory over the Byzantine Empire in the Battle of Manzikert, and Muslim Turks started to settle in Anatolia permanently.  The Anatolian Seljuk Empire, succeeding the Great Seljuk Empire was founded in Anatolia. Because of that, in 1071, the Battle of Manzikert is accepted as the beginning of the Turkification & Islamization of Anatolia by many Turkish Historians.  

Mongolian raids are also an important point in the Islamization of Anatolia. As it is widely known, Mongol invasions gathered speed in the 13th century, and some Turkomans who fled from the Mongolian invasions settled in Anatolia.  In the 13th century, the majority of Anatolia became Turk&Muslim. 

The Role of Akhies in The Islamization of Anatolia

As I said above, the Islamization of Anatolia gained speed in the time of the Seljuk Empire. However, neither the Great Seljuk Empire nor the Anatolian Seljuk Empire forced inhabitants of Anatolia to convert to Islam. They tried to make people accept Islam and the Islamic culture intrinsically. Because of that policy, even though the Seljuk Empire fell, people who live in its lands remained Muslim.

The role of Akhies should be underlined in order to understand the Islamization of Anatolia better. As you can guess, Islamization was a long process, and Turks needed time to adapt to their new religion. Above, I mentioned some practices and customs Turks inherit from their old religion. Then, it would be easier to understand the existence and influence of Tengrism in the first years of Islamization.

While some people in Anatolia converted to Islam in the first years of the Islamization of Anatolia, there were also some people who continued to believe in Tengrism. The importance of Akhies becomes apparent at that point. The Akhi organization was founded by Ahi Evren, an Islamic scholar, and philosopher who lived in Anatolia. The Akhies were an organization of guilds. However, they do not only functioned as a guild organization, but also a  religious & moral school.  They tried to convince people to the moral codes of Islam, instead of converting them by using force.

How Akhies Functioned In The Islamization Process?

The Akhies played an effective role in the Islamization of Anatolia because they had a crucial role in the transition to settled life. When Turks moved to Anatolia, people needed work to maintain their lives in the cities. Because the Akhies was a powerful guild organization, people needed to get help from the Akhies, and joined Akhies. The moral values of Islam are very important for the Akhies, and they taught people these moral values in a peaceful way.  Tolerance and helpfulness were also important principles of the Akhies. These principles helped people to convert to Islam.  The Akhies also helped to spread of Islam in Anatolia by building religious places in different parts of Anatolia. Many mosques, madrasahs, Islamic monasteries, or other religious structures were built by Akhie organizations.  The physical existence of Islam in Anatolia gained strength thanks to Akhies.

The religious understanding of Akhies is associated with Sufism by many scholars today. I will give information about Sufism in detail, in the next chapters. 

Role of Religion in Social Life and Turkish Culture

The role of religion in social life and Turkish culture is effective, and you can understand the influence of Islam on daily life easily. Turkish people respect Islamic practices and beliefs. However, the role of religion in social life and culture should not be confused with some other countries which are officially governed according to Islamic rules. In Turkey, religion is important but you do not have to live depending on Islamic rules or practices in your social life. You only need to respect Islamic beliefs and practices. 

It would be easier to explain the effect of religion in social life and Turkish culture by an example. Turkey is a secular country and governments in Turkey do not possess the right to rule the country according to Islamic principles. Therefore, you can buy alcoholic drinks in Turkey, and almost all of the supermarkets buy kinds of alcoholic drinks. However, people do not find it favorable to drink alcoholic drinks in parks, on pavements, etc.  You can drink your alcoholic beverage in bars, pubs, etc. but you should not drink it in public spaces especially in more conservative cities, or neighborhoods.  However, if you are in a touristy city, you can drink your beer while sunbathing, and almost no one cares. 

As I said at the beginning of the post, Ramadan is an important part of Islam, and many Turkish people fast during Ramadan. As well as being an important practice of Islam, Ramadan also gained an important role in Turkish culture in time. People invite each other to iftar (the evening meal during Ramadan), and they breakfast together. Although you do not fast, you should not start eating before people break their fast after the evening azan is recited. This could be a good example to understand the role of religion in Turkish social life. Fasting in Ramadan is not only a religious practice but also a cultural activity in Turkish culture. The most important thing is not whether you fast or do not fast during Ramadan, the most important thing is to be together with family or friends in the evening. 

Language could be the best representation of culture, and the role of religion in Turkish culture could also be seen in some phrases which are often used by Turkish people. After converting Islam and making contact with other Muslim nations (mostly Arabs), the Turkish language started to get affected from Islam.  Today, there are many Arabic and Persian loanwords in Turkish language, and these words entered Turkish language after the Islamization of Turks. For example, many Turks say “Salamun Alaikum” while greeting each other. Although “Salamun Alaikum”  means “peace be with you” in Arabic,  it is associated with Islamic culture in Turkey. You are expected to say “Alaikum Salam” as a response to “Salamun Alaikum”. 

Turkish cuisine is also affected by Islam.  Turkish cuisine is known for its diversity, but food must be “halal” in the traditional Turkish cuisine. For example, pork is not favored in Turkish cuisine. Even non-religious Turks do not favor pork as a meal because it does not become a part of Turkish cuisine in time. However, it should be known that many historians claim that Turks also did not eat pork even before converting to Islam, because their nomadic lifestyle was not appropriate for pig raising.  Still, the influence of Islam should not be undermined.

As I said, although Islam has an important role in Turkish culture and social life, there are no strict Islamic social rules in Turkey. Raki and Meyhane culture is a good example to understand that.  The traditional beverage of Turkish people is Raki, and it has high alcoholic strength. Meyhane is the place where people meet and drink Raki. Raki is loved by many Turks, and people prepare special tables to drink raki. Appetizers called “meze” are prepared, and eaten in the Raki table.  As you can see, although Islam is a big influence on the Turkis culture, some traditions that you cannot see in other Muslim groups form an important part of Turkish culture.  Turkey is a bridge between Europe and the Middle East, and Turkish culture is a mixture of both cultures.

Role of Religion in Politics

Role of religion in politics in Turkey has been a controversial issue since the foundation of the Republic of Turkey.  First of all, Turkey is a secular country, and religion has no effect on the state issues.  As a secular state, the state has no “official religion”. 

However, it should be accepted that Islam has always been a political instrument in Turkish politics. Especially right wing parties have been using religious discourse to convince conservative people to their ideas since the foundation of the republic. In fact, left-wing parties sometimes have religious discourse to influence people.

The role of religion in politics decreases and increases in different periods. For example, “national vision movement” is known as a fundamental Islamist party in Turkey, and they ruled Turkey as a part of colation government in specific periods. In their rule, the role of religion in politics could be easily felt. Some parties which follow this political movement were banned by the Constitutional Court of Turkey due to becoming a threat to secularism. When  this movement was in rule for the last time,  the Turkish Military published a memorandum and wanted dissolution of parliament. The reason for this memorandum was the rising threats against secular order in Turkey, according to the military. As you can understand from these events, the clash of secularism and the Islamization of the state has always been a major issue in Turkish politics. 

The Justice of Development Party, the party that has been in the rule since 2002, is also known for having a religious discourse. Moreover, the Justice and Development Party sometimes openly increases the role of Islam in the education, in daily practices, or in the public space. For example, the number of schools which give Islamic education increased dramatically in recent years.  The JDP government also gives importance to symbolic places of Islam in Turkey. For example, Hagia Sophia was a museum until 2020. However, in 2020, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque, and it was accepted as a big victory by strict Islamists in Turkey.

As a result, we can say that religion always has an important role in Turkish politics, but officially Turkey is a secular country, and it has always been.  Secularism is a very important principle for the majority of Turkey because it is accepted as one of the principles of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey. 

Sunnism, Alevism and other Schools of Islam in Turkey

Turkey is a big country with a population about 85 million people, and the big majority of the population is Muslim. However, in different parts of Turkey, people follow different schools of Islam.  There are some differences about beliefs and practices between different schools of Islam. The biggest religious school of Islam in Turkey is Sunnism, and Sunnis in Turkey is divided into two big groups; Hanafiyyah school and Shafi’i school. Alawis are also a big group in Turkey, and they are sometimes evaluated as a part of Shia Islam. However, sometimes Alawism is accepted as a unique religious scool in Turkey, independent from Islam. 

Sunnism

Biggest Islamic community in Turkey is Sunnis. Sunnism is also known as “followers of Sunnah” in the Islamic literature. In Sunnism, “the Sunnah” is very important, and they accept all members of Rashidun as legitimate caliphs and sacred people.  Sunnism also accepts all companions of Mohammad as trustworthy people, and a source for religious practices. If companions of Mohammad said something and claimed that it is the words of prophet Mohammad, Sunni Islam accepts their claim. 

Hanafism

Hanafism is the biggest religious sect in Turkey. According to a survey which was conducted in 2014, 77.5% of Sunni population in Turkey are Hanafis. Hanafi School was founded by Abu Hanifa, who is known as “The Greatest Imam” by some Muslims. Hanafism forms a balance between the mind and Quran.  Hanafism gives importance to interpretation of verses in the Quran, and Sunnah (practices of the prophet Mohammad). Thus, the method followed by Hanafism is known as “Ahl al-Ra’y ” in the Islamic terminology. Ahl al-Ra’y could be translated into English as “advocates of common sense”. To make a definitive judgement on some matter according to Hanafism, the first source is Quran, the second source is Hadith (sentences of Mohammad that does not have a place in Quran), the third source is views of companions of Mohammad, and the last one is qiyas (deduction) method. 

Hanafis could be found in every part of Turkey. However, they are mainly located in the Western Anatolia, Northern Anatolia and Mediterranean region. In the Southern and Southeastern Anatolia the dominant school is Shafii school. 

Shafi’i School

Shafi’i school is the second biggest Sunni group in Turkey. Most of the Shafi’i people in Turkey have Kurdish origin, and they are generally located in Southern Anatolia and Eastern Anatolia regions. Like Hanafi school, Shafi’i school is founded by Al Shafi’i, and it is different from Hanafi School in terms of practices and general understanding of religion. As I said above, Hanafi school follows the “Ahl al-Ra’y” method to reach a conclusion on disputable matters. However, Shafi’i school follows the “Ahl-i Hadith” method.  While Hanafism gives importance to reasoning and deduction, Shafi’i school accepts Quran and Hadith as the only source to reach a conclusion on a matter.  Thus, it could be said that Shafi’i School has a stricter understanding of religion when compared to Hanafi School. 

Hanafi and Shafi’i schools are also different from each other in terms of practice. For example, Shafi’i school claim that all marine animals are considered halal in Islam, and Muslims can eat shrimp, mussel etc. However, Sunni School says that only fish is Halal in Islam, and eating shrimp, mussel or other marine animals apart from fish is considered as “makruh” (not certainly haram but disliked). There are other practical differences between Shafi’i and Hanafi school, but the main difference is about theoretical understanding of Islam. However, they do not refuse each other. Both of them accept each other as “right sect”. 

Alevism

Alevism is the second biggest religious group in Turkey after Hanafi school. The number of Alevis in Turkey is about 12 million according to statistics published in 2014. Although Hanafi and Shafi’i schools share many common beliefs and practices, Alevi belief is completely different from them. First of all, Alevism is not included in Sunni understanding of Islam. Moreover, Alevism does not see itself as a sect although it is seen as a sect of Islam by many people in Turkey. According to Alevis, Alevism is a path which takes a person to the truth.  Alevism is a heterodox form of Islamic belief, and it is unique to Anatolia. It should not be confused with Alawites (Nusayris) which is a sect of Shia Islam. There are also Alawites in Turkey, but they are known as Arab Alawites in Turkey. They are mainly located in Hatay region, which has a big Arab population.  On the other hand, Alevis could be found in almost every city of Turkey. They are mainly located in Istanbul, central and eastern Anatolia.

Principles Of Alevism

As I said, Alevism is a heterodox form of Islam, and they should be evaluated as a uniqu group. Although their attitude towards the caliphate issue after the death of Mohammade is very similar to Ja’fari sect of Shia Islam, Alevism has very different features when compared to Ja’fari school. As a core principle of their belief, Alevis accept Mohammed as the last messenger of God,  However, the place of Ali is also very important for Alevis. Alevis accept Ali as Wali (Master) . It is similar to the “saint” concept in Christianity.  Alevis differ from Sunni sects of Islam with the understanding  Wahdat al Wujud (Unity of Existence).  Wahdat al Wujud has a significant place in Alevi belief.  According to Wahdat Al Wujud, every single creature in the universe is a reflection of Allah, and human beings are a part of the “single” existence in the universe.   The single existence is “Allah”.   Allah is the inception of everything and you can see this existence even in a piece of stone in the universe.  Because of this understanding toward existence, a similarity between Panentheism and Alevi belief is claimed by some scholars. However, Alevism should not be confused with Panentheism. It is a different and heterodox interpretation of Islam at the end of the day.

There are also some practical differences between Orthodox sects of Islam and Alevism. Most significant ones are about fasting and prayers. Muharram fastings is an important religious ritual for Shia Muslims, and Alevis also fast in Muharram to mourn for Imam Hussein’s (son of Ali) family, who was killed by the Umayyad Caliphate. In this fasting Alevis do not eat or drink anything between from dawn to dusk. Moreover, they do not drink water for 12 days. Water demand is fulfilled by watery food, and other drinks. However, drinks could not be drunk by a glass, they should be drunk by a spoon. At the end of the Muharram fasting, Noah’s pudding is made and given to the people in the neighbourhood.  It should be added that Alevis do not celebrate anything during the Muharram fasting, Moreover, they do not eat any kind of meat, they do not kill insects,  they do not eat eggs, do not sing etc. Muharram fasting represents mourning and Alevis act according to the necessities of mourning.  

Prayer is another issue that should be underlined while evaluating Alevism. The most important worship in many Sunni and Shia sects of Islam is the prayer. However, most of Alevis do not pray in the same way with more orthodox sects of Islam, and they also do not go to mosques to worship Allah. They have their own worship places called Djemevi.  Most of the Alevi people do not go to mosques because of two reasons. First, Ali was murdered in a mosque. Second, in the Umayyad period, Ali and his believers are cursed by the religious officials. Thus, Alevis do not go to mosques as a tradition. They worship Allah in the  djemevi. However, because Alevism is a heterodox belief system, it is hard to mention one type of Alevism. There are some people who call themselves Alevi and perform their prayers in the mosque.  

As I said at the beginning of the section, Alevism is unique to Anatolia. Therefore, many scholars associate Alevism with the old beliefs of Turks before the convertion to Islam, mainly Tengrism. Whie Turks converted to Islam, a syncretic form between Tengrism and Islam emerged naturally, and a form of Islam which is unique to Anatolia named as Alevism according to some historians.  Some practices and beliefs in Alevism which does not correspond with orthodox interpetations of Islam  could be explained by this syncreticism. 

Ja’fari

The number of Ja’fari people in Turkey is about 500.000.  They are generally located in Kars, Iğdır and Ağrı. Ja’fari’ya school belongs to Shia Sect of Islam, Although they have some common beliefs with Alevism, Jafari’ya school is not a Heterodox belief. Most Shia people in the world are followers of Ja’fari school.  It is also the official religion of Islam. Because Ja’fari school belongs to Shia sect of Islam, there are some practical and theoretical differences between Hanafi and Shafii schools. For example, Ja’faris do not believe predestination like other sects of Shia Islam. God can change the course of human life continuously. On the issue of the legacy of prophet Mohammad, they share the belief of the twelve Imams.  They accept the Twelve Imams as the legitimate successors of prophet Mohammad, and they are sinless people according to Ja’fari belief. They also claim that the caliphate belonged to Ali after the death of prophet Mohammad, and Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman Bin Ali captured the caliphate in an unfair way.  This is the main political dispute between Ja’fari & other Shia groups and Sunni Islam.

Sufism

Sufism or Tasawwuf is also a heterodox interpretation of Islam. Sufism is known as the Islamic mysticism. The place of Sufism in Islam is a very controversial issue. Some scholars do not accept Sufism as an Islamic belief because it has a totally different belief system from Islam, and others say that Sufism is an understanding of Islam, and Sufis exceeded the apparent meaning of Islam thanks to the love of Allah in them.  The word “Sufi” is originated from the word “suf”, and it means “wool” in Arabic language. 

The main purpose in Sufi belief is to reach the level of Al-Insan al-Kamil.  Al-Insan al-Kamil means “the perfect person”. To become a perfect person, a person should be freed from desire. When a person leaves all greed and evil, s/he can purify his/her soul. The goal of Sufism is to feel the love of Allah in the soul while purifying the soul at the same time.  Wahdat al Wujud belief, that I explained in the Alevism section is also the base of Sufism. Sufi dervishes (followers of Sufism) gave great importance to Wahdat al Wujud belief. They believed that Allah blew a piece from its soul to the human beings, and human beings should find this piece of soul in them, to unite with Allah. Because of this belief, some of Sufi dervishes were put to death in different periods of History.  For example,  Al Hallaj, Ismail-i Mashuqi.  However, some sects of Sufism, and some Sufi dervishes were praised in the Seljuk or in the Ottoman Empire.  Moreover, they are also very effective in the Islamization of Anatolia and Turks. 

Mevlevi Order

Whirling Mevlevi Dervishes

The Mevlevi order is one of the most known Sufi sects. Although Rumi is known as the founder of the Mevlevi order, he was not. The Mevlevi order was founded by the followers of Rumi. The Mevlevi Order was founded in modern day Konya, the capital of the Anatolian Seljuk Empire. Rumi, also known as Mevlana said that he is a follower, in fact a slave of Quran. He also placed the the love of Allah in the center of his understanding of Islam.  Instead of fear of Allah, the love of Allah should be the main motivation of people in their worldly life according to the Mevlevi order. The Mevlevi order has some rituals.  The purpose of rituals is to purify the soul, and to feel the love of god in the soul. These rituals are; 

  • Sama: The famous whirling ceremony of Mevlevi dervishes.  On the anniversary of the marriage to God (his death, Mevlevi dervishes whirl in the direction of the prayer for remembrance. 
  • Dhikr: Another important ritual of Mevlevi dervishes. It is the invocation of some sacred names to purify the soul
  • Islamic meditation (muraqabah)

Although some of the Sufi sects are banned and dervishes of Sufi sects were executed, Rumi and the Mevlevi order was respected and praised in the Seljuk and the Ottoman Empire. Today, the death of Rumi, Seb-i Arus is still commemorated in Turkey, and many people from different places of the world visit Turkey for Seb-i Arus.  

Bektashi Order

Statue of Hacı Bektas Veli

Another influential Sufi order in Turkey is the Bektashi order. Although they are generally associated with Alevism, there are some differences between Bektashi order and Alevism. Bekhtasim is an important order for the history of Turks because they played an important role in the Islamization of the Turks. Moreover, the Bektashi order had important political roles in the Ottoman Empire.  For example, in the formation of the Janissary Army, Bektashism had an important role. The Janissary Army was made up through the Devshirme System. Devshirme could be understood as a “conversion” method. Boys from non-Muslim families in Balkans recruited and converted to Islam. After that, they either became a Janissary soldier, or became a state official depending on their success. However, although many people think in the opposite way, janissaries converted to Islam after taken from their families did not convert to a strict, orthodox form of Islam.  The dominant understanding of Islam among Janissaries was Bektashi order. Even in the oath of Janissaries, direct references to Bektashism could be found. 

The name Bektashi comes from Haji Bektash Veli. Although Haji Bektash Veli did not establish this order himself, his followers established this order in the name of Haji Bektash. The  basic principles of the Bektashi order is the love of Allah, love of prophet Mohammad and the love of the twelve imams.  Like the Mevlevi order or other Sufi sects, the goal of life is to be a Al-Insan Al-Kamil.  The dervish who systematized the Bektashi teachings, 

Is Islam Strict in Turkey?

Although I gave some information about the strictness of Islam in Turkey in different parts of this article, this question should be answered peculiarly. The most accurate answer to this question will be “stricness of Islam in Turkey will vary depending on where you are in Turkey”. As you probably know, Turkey is a big country with  82.000.000 population.  In different cities, regions or even neighbourhoods of Turkey, strictness of Islam is differet from each other. For example, Istanbul is the biggest city of Turkey and almost 15.000.000 people live in Istanbul. The city is more populated than many European states.  Therefore, it is natural to see different attitude towards Islam in different districts of Istanbul. For example, Kadiköy or Besiktas are big districts of Istanbul, and when you walk in the streets of Kadiköy or Besiktas, you can feel like you are in a West European country when you look at the bars, pubs or cafes. The way  people dress or act may also make you think that Islam is not strict in Turkey. However, it is all about the demography of the district.  Majority of the people who live in Kadiköy, Besiktas, Bakirköy or Sisli have a secular worldview,  and because of that these districts resemble European cities. You can go to a bar, and have a chat with your friend while drinking your beer.

However, if you visit Fatih, you would see a different portrait of Istanbul. The number of bars or pubs will be very limited when compared to Kadiköy or Besiktas, and you can feel an Islamic atmosphere while walking the streets of Fatih. If you visit some central Anatolian cities like Nevsehir, Erzurum or Konya, you will feel that you are in city that has a conservative Muslim population. Thus, you should pay attention to demography and characteristics of the region. 

Turkish people also expect tourists to show respect to religious places. For example, if a person enters a mosque or another religious place with inappropriate dress, it would be disliked by the people. Dress code is also important in touristic cities or districts. There are many regions in Turkey which are popular with tourists, and people can enjoy the sun and sea like they do in Western European beaches. However, beaches and streets are considered as totally different places by the majority of Turkish people. It would seem weird to walk on a main street in a bikini or any beach wear. People do not attack you or harm you in any way, but it would seem weird to most people. 

Christianity in Turkey

A church in İstanbul

Turkey is an important historical place for Christianity. For many years, Christian states,  mainly the Byzantine Empire ruled Anatolian lands. Moreover, Turkey is also important for the formation of Christianity. Many Christian saints have lived in Turkey, such as Paul the Apostle,  John the Apostle, the Virgin Mary. Even one of the pilgrimage locations of Christianity is located in Turkey. The House of the Virgin Mary is accepted as a pilgrimage destination by the Catholic Church of Rome, and many Chrstians visit this sacred place every year.

Turkey is also a very significant location for Orthodox Christianity. As it is widely known, Istanbul was the capital of the Eastern Rome (Byzantine Empire) for many years with the name of Constantinople. The Byzantine Empire was the center of Eastern Christianity (Orthodox Christianity).  This did not change after the fall of Byzantine Empire. The Ottoaman Empire knew the political significance of Orthodox Christianity, and positioned itself as the protector of Orthodox Christians thanks to holding the center of Eastern Christianity. Today,  Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is accepted as the head of Orthodox Churches with the “primus inter pares” (first among equals) degree. The current archbishop of the church is Bartholomew I of Constantinople, and he is also a Turkish citizen. 

Christian Population in Turkey

The Ottoman State was an empire, and like other empires there are many different ethnic or religious groups who live in the Empire. This situation did not change even in the last years of the state. According to 1914 population statistics, about 20% of the Empire was Christian. However, after the foundation of the Republic of Turkey, most of the Christian population left Turkey either by force or willingly.  Today, only 0.4%-0,3% of the population is Christian in Turkey. 

The biggest Christian group in Turkey are Orthodox Christians. The second biggest group is Catholic Christians, and Protestants are the third biggest group in Turkey. The number of Eastern Orthodox people is about 80.000, the number of Catholics is about 35.000, and the number of Protestants is about 8.000. As well as Eastern Orthodoxs, Catholics and Protestants, there are some unique Christian groups in Turkey in different regions of Turkey. For example there are 20.000 people who follow the Assyrian Orthodox Church. The number of active churches in Turkey is 398 today.

Judaism In Turkey

The roots of Judaism in Turkey dates back to the 5th century BCE.  According to findings of excavations in different regions of Anatolia, some Jew communities existed in Anatolia in different periods of history. In the Ottoman Empire era, there was a significant Jew population in Anatolia because Ottoman accepted Jew communities who were exiled from different countries.  The most important one of these exiles took place in 1492. About 150.0 00 sephardic Jew who escaped from the inquisition in Spain settled in the Ottoman Empire.  Jews in the Ottoman Empire engaged in trade mainly. In the time of the Ottoman Empire, there were no big disputes between Jewish minorities and Muslim Turks, especially in big cities like Thessaloniki, Istanbul. Moreover,  many Muslim chose Jew traders to shop instead of Christians according to some historians.   Until the end fall of the Ottoman Empire, Jewish minorities in Anatolian lands did not experience big problems. However, the conditions started to worsen for all the Empire especially after the first years of the 20th century. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Turks aimed at establishing a nation-state. This nation-state building process affected Jews in Turkey negatively like other minorities in Turkey. Although the number of Jewish people was about 200.000 at the beginning of the 20th century, their population decreased like the population of other minorities in Turkey. However, different from Greeks or other minorities who have their own state, Jewish people did not have their own state to migrate until the creation of Israel in 1948.  Thus, the speed of the Jewish immigration from Turkey was not as fast as Greek immigration or immigration of other minorities after the foundation of the new state. Moreover, some Jews who escaped from the Nazi persecution also migrated to Turkey. 

However, in 1942, Turkey introduced a new tax which is called as capital tax, and this tax was generally applied to non-Muslim minorities. Jewish population in Turkey was greatly affected by this tax and most of them left the country after the introduction of this tax.  After the creation of Israel in 1948, migration to Israel from Turkey gathered speed, and most of the Jewish people in Turkey left the country. 

The condition of Judaism in Turkey Today

Today, the number of Jewish people in Turkey is about 25.000, and 20.000 of them live in Istanbul. The majority of the remaining 5.000 live in İzmir, and others live in different cities of Turkey.  Today, there are 38 synagogues in Turkey. 

Other Religions in Turkey

As I said in different parts of this article,  Turkey is a big country and there are also people who believe in different religions apart from Islam, Christianity or Judaism. The most significant ones of these minor religions in Turkey are Tengrism, Yazidism, Bahaism and Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are also irreligious people in Turkey, some of those people are atheist, some of them are agnostic, and some of them are deist. As I said at the very beginning of the article, official statistics could be deceptive because most of the irreligious people are registered as “Muslim” officially.

Tengrism

Tengrism, which I examined as a separate topic in this article, is becoming popular recently.  This popularity is generally associated with the rise of nationalism in Turkey. Some nationalist groups in Turkey reject Islam because they saw Islam as the religion of Arabs, and they follow teachings of old Turkish religion, Tengrism. According to some sources, the number of people who follow Tengrism is about thousands in Turkey today.

Yazidism

The condition of Yazidism is a controversial issue because it is not very clear if Yazidis are ethnic or religious groups. Therefore, they are generally considered as a “ethno-religious” group.  The teaching of Yazidism is based on the “fallen angel” teaching as Abrahamic religions. However, their narrative is a bit different from them. According to Yazidism, the purpose of God was to see the reaction of the angel while ordering to submit to the man. The fallen angel passed the test, and became the ruler of human beings and the world.  There are approximately 5.000 Yazidis in Turkey.

Bahaism

Bahaism has also some followers in Turkey. Bahaism is a monotheistic religion, and their core principle is the spiritual unity of humanity. Bahaism respect the sacred books of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and it contains some beliefs or practices all of them. They also respect Buddhism and its teachings. For Bahaism, the purpose of all religions is to teach the truth to all humanity, and there could be new prophets in the future if humanity needs them. Exact number of Baha’is in Turkey is unknown but they have a central spiritual assembly of Bahaism in Turkey.

Jehovah’s Witnesses

Jehovah’s Witnesses are a heterodox religious group, and they are also active in Turkey. Although they accept the old and the new testament as their sacred book, they do not call themselves as Christian. They are against the teachings of Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant Christianity because they do not accept the trinity teaching.  The approximate number of Jehovah’s Witnesses is about 5.000.

Irreligion

Irreligion in Turkey is also on the rise according to some surveys and research which was conducted recently. According to the KONDA Research and Consultancy reports, the number of Atheists in Turkey has tripled between 2008-2018.  However, to reach an exact number of irreligious people in Turkey is difficult as I said before, because they are not officially counted. In fact, most of the irreligious people are registered as Muslim. Thus, it could be said that the number of Muslim people in Turkey is exaggerated in the offical sources. Officially, 99% of the population is Muslim in Turkey, but it is not a realistic stastictis. Especially in the young people, the number of atheists and deists are increasing.  According to a report by Metropol Research and Consultancy, 5% of Turkey is irreligious.

Freedom of Religion in Turkey

Turkey is officially a secular state, and religion has no role in the state affairs. Moreover, the freedom of religion of all people is protected by the constitution. Every citizen of the Republic of Turkey has the right to believe any religion, or not to believe any of them. No one could be exposed to discrimination because of  his/her religious position. 

However, as I said in previous parts of this article, Islam and Islamic practices are very important for Turkish people, and they want their religious practices should be respected. Thus, in your speeches or acts, you should not insult Islam, divine people, Islamic practices etc. People could get offended by these kinds of acts. Moreover, humiliating religious values is a crime in Turkey, and you may be officially punished for that. If you do not involve in these kinds of offenses, you can practice your religious duties in churches, synagogues, or you can join Jehova’s Witnesses or other heterodox religious communities if you wish. You can wear what you want especially in big cities, (except mosques and other places of worship) and, no one would force you to convert to Islam. Turkey is a secular country, and the chance of experiencing religious oppression as a tourist is not high.

When Did Turkey Become A Secular Country?

Turkey has been an officially secular country since 1928.  The founder of modern Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk gave great importance to secularism, He wanted to establish a modern, secular state and the religion should not interfere with the state affairs. Thus, the Caliphate was abolished on  March 3, 1924. Another important step for secularism is the 1928 amendment of the Constitution of 1924. In the 1924 constitution, there was an article which says that the religion of the state is Islam. In 1928, this article was removed from the constitution because a secular state does not have an official religion.  Today, Turkey is still a secular state.

History of Religions in Turkey Before Islam   

A beautiful fresco in Dark Church that was built in 11th century in Cappadocia

Islam is the dominant religion of Turkey since almost the 12th century.  After the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, Muslim Turks never left Anatolia. Although many of  Turk-Islam states fell like Anatolian Seljuk Empire, the Ottoman Empire etc. Turks stayed in Anatolia and established new states there. Thus, if we want to look at the religions that dominated modern day Turkey in the past, we must turn back to the 11th century at least.  Before Turks entered Anatolia in 1071, most of modern day Turkey was under the control of the Byzantine Empire, and the dominant religion in the region was Orthodox Christianity. However, in 1204, Latins invaded Western part of Turkey with the 4th crusade, and a short period of Catholic dominance took place in Western Turkey between 1204-1261. Before the split of the Roman Empire, modern day Turkey was controlled by the Roman Empire like many places in the world, and before the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, the dominant religion in Turkey was Paganism. 

Furkan Üstünbaş

My name is Furkan and I am pursuing a master's degree in Media and Cultural Studies at Middle East Technical University. I graduated from the history department at the same university. My main interests are cultural history, Turkish and Middle Eastern cuisine, Turkish popular culture.

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