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Religious opinions, beliefs and attitudes

Brotherhoods, the basis of popular religion

Sufi brotherhoods (Sufi comes from the Arab sûf refering to the woollen garment which Muslim ascetics wore to show that they had chosen a life of humility and self-denial) consitute the most (...)

Sufi brotherhoods (Sufi comes from the Arab sûf refering to the woollen garment which Muslim ascetics wore to show that they had chosen a life of humility and self-denial) consitute the most original aspect of Islam in Turkey. There are many fraternties which are solidly planted throughout the country. Brotherhood, tarikat in Turkish, "litterarily means way or path and originally refers to the route through which the mystical (sufi) travels, following different phychological stages (maqâmat, ahwâl), to arrive at direct knowledge of divine reality (haqîqa).
This path was therefore initially, the first and personal experience of a believer. With the evolution of the mystical trend in Islam, it has become a method, a body of rules and rites by which a spiritual guide (murshid, pîr), somewhat mechanically, allows the disciples he initiates (murîd) to attain a mystical experience.
Followers of the same way together form a tarîqa. They are headed by a Cheik, who succeeds the first initiator to whom is attached a spiritual descendance (sýlsýla) and whose supernatural qualities and powers he has inherited" Gilles Veinstein, "Avant propos" in Alexandre Popovic, Gilles Veinstein (ed.), Les ordres mystiques dans l’Islam, Paris, EHESS, 1985, p. 7.
In a way, these brotherhoods form one of the social pillars of the Anatolian society, representing ties of solidarity and mutual service but also serving as effective and indispensable pressure groups. It is all the more surprising that the Kemalists, considering them to be the major hindrance to anti-clerical reforms, banned them in 1925. However, when they were able to resurface in the 1950’s, the brotherhoods had not lost any of their dynamism. In fact, it was from the time of the first transition to a multi-party system in 1945 that they started to reassert their position in the political and social life of the Turkish society.

Sufism is the common spiritual foundation for these powerful brotherhoods. It is a practice by which revelations from the Koran are internalised and which considers music as a necessary aid in encountering God. The aim is to attain mystical union with God and annihilate the ego (fana’) in order to merge with Divinity. It is clear that people do not join brotherhoods for purely spiritual reasons. Other reasons may include family or tribal ties, situations of clientelism, geographical origins or simply a quest to climb the social ladder. A Sufi’s relationship with God is symbolised by the relationship between lover and beloved. Sufis are therefore less mindful of observing religious rules and have a very personal and sometimes very liberal relationship with Islam. While several brotherhoods are Sufi in origin, some are Shite and others Hanbalite.

D 8 October 2012    ASamim Akgönül

Principal brotherhoods in Turkey

The principal brotherhoods existing in Turkey are mentioned below. The Mevlevis are of Sunni origin and form one of the most widespread brotherhoods in Turkey. The founder, Jalal ed Din Rumi de (...)

The principal brotherhoods existing in Turkey are mentioned below.

- The Mevlevis are of Sunni origin and form one of the most widespread brotherhoods in Turkey. The founder, Jalal ed Din Rumi de Konya, lived during the 13th century and composed an immense 25,000-verse mystical commentary of the Koran called the Mesnevi. In the West, this group is known under the name of Whirling Dervishes.

- The Bektaşiye (Bektashi) brotherhood certainly has the largest followership in Turkey. Although it did not take the form of a brotherhood until the 16th century, its origins are traced back to the 13th Century, to the time of its eponymous founder Hacý Bektaş. The aim of Bektashism is to attain the knowledge of God. Bektashis teach a metaphorical understanding of Koran, which makes it possible to evade many of the obligations presented through a literal reading of the sacred text. They therefore do not perform the 5 daily prayers of Sunni Islam nor do they attend mosque. The closest thing they have ressembling prayer is the Niyâz, which involves prostrating before the spiritual master. While the Mevleviye is an elitist brotherhood, the Bektaşiye is rather an order for the masses.

- One of the most common and powerful brotherhoods in Turkey is the Nakşibendiye (Naksibendi), which originated in Bukhara, Central Asia in the 14th century. The brotherhood was highly regarded in the Ottoman Empire and it played an important role in the 19th century reform movements. Like all the other brotherhoods however, it was banned at the creation of the Republic. Nevertheless, the Nakşibendiye could continue to exist better than the other brotherhoods like the Mevleviye in that their religious practices were less visible (in particular the silent dhikr - the Nakşibendi dhikr is marked by intervals of suspended breathing and concentration on specific aspects of the lesson) and their dressing less conspicuous.

- The Nurcu order is from Eastern Turkey, a region mainly populated by Kurds. It was founded at the instigation of Bedi Üzzaman Sait Nursi (1876 - 1960). This movement spread throughout Turkey at the beginning of the 20th century and in Europe from 1960. Right from the onset, the movement was similar to and yet was not a branch of the Nakşibendi. The main reason for this must be seen in the founder’s general reserve towards brotherhoods which he considered as obstacles to religious thought. Although they were greatly influenced by Sufism, the Nurcus rejected certain Sufi practices like the dhikr. The major writings of the Nurcu are contained in the Risale-i Nur, which is as much a commentary on the Qur’an as it is a guide for meditation. The bedrock of the Nurcu order is the dershane (study centre) where the Risale is regularly read out. Dershanes can be found all over Turkey as well as wherever Turks live.

- The Süleymancý order was founded by Cheik Süleyman Hilmi Tunahan who died in 1959. The Süleymancýs are very much involved in Turkish politics and have several Ministers and MPs serving in the current Government. They share many similarities with the Nurcus but also have practices close to the Naksibendis. The founding Cheik links his spiritual geneology to the Indian branch of the Naksibendis that originated in Central Asia. Having said this, the spiritual pratices of the Süleymancýs conversely do not give room for traditional brotherhood practices like initiation or the dhikr (silent or loud repetition the names of Allah). The Süleymancýs constitute, after the Diyanet and Millî Görüş networks, the third largest network of prayer rooms and quranic schools in Europe. The large majority of these prayer rooms fall under associations bearing the name "Turkish Cultural Centre" or "Turkish Islamic Cultural Centre". The Süleymancýs are very active in the area of education and have numerous student hostels in Turkey and several Summer Schools in Europe.

- The Kalenderi is an order comprising stray Sufis, tattered (sometimes barely clothed) and of very odd behaviour, who appeared in Anatolia from the 12th century. They came from Central Asia (Khorasan) and like a lot of Muslims from the East, they had fled the Mongolian advance on Europe. Their behaviour is a product of Buddhist, Hinduist and Jain influences.

- The Tahtacýs and the Cepnis are former nomads, not unlike the Alevis. They blend tribal and religious traditions. It is a marginal religion whose members are mainly woodcutters from the South-East region of Turkey.

- The Kaderis are a branch of Hanbalite Sufism. Cheik Abdel Kader Gailani ou Abd al-Qadir al Jilani (1077-1166) is the founder of this brotherhood. The sometimes shocking practices of the Kaderis (self-mutilations – sword swallowing) have the same origins as those of the Halvetis, although the Kaderis are rather extreme in their demonstrations.

- The Kýzýlbaş originated from the Safaviyye, a Sufi brotherhood that is first Sunni then Shite, led by a Kurdish family from Azerbaïdjan. They can be found all over Turkey, among the Kurds as well as in other regions. At the beginning of the 16th century, they radically broke away from Islam and proclaimed the divinity of their leader who was to be the reincarnation of Ali and Jesus. They are very egalitarian, and the order started off as though it were a militarised Sufi monastery. Women are treated as equals. The Kýzýlbaş cherish a certain social ideal – the distribution of wealth. They also believe in reincarnation where a person may return to be punished (and take the form of an animal for example) or may take on a divine form.

- The founder of the Halvetis would be Omar al Khalwati, who died in Syria in 1337. They are however influenced by the Spanish Sufi Ibn Arabî. They do not have a defined and structured order and they are individialistic ascetics (malamati) who do not follow the teaching of a master but have a personal awakening. Concerning their outrageous practices, they try to deeply shock people by showing that everything is merely illusory and that Good and Evil cannot be attained through human reasoning. The Halvetis are definitely linked to the Indian Fakirs, Muslims and Hindus, who brought these practices from Central Asia and India. They have two monasteries in Istanbul.

D 8 October 2012    ASamim Akgönül

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