Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Gospel and the Night of Power

The Gospel and the Night of Power

Ryan Keating

“Lo! We revealed it on the Night of Power. Ah, what will convey unto thee what the Night of Power is! The Night of Power is better than a thousand months. The angels and the Spirit descend therein, by the permission of their Lord, with all decrees. (That night is) Peace until the rising of the dawn.”
(Qur’an, Sura al-Qadr: 97)

Islam teaches that the entire Qur’an, the Word of Allah, was “lowered” or “sent down” to earth from the highest level of heaven to be revealed to Muhammad piece by piece. The night that commemorates this “lowering” is called Laylat al-Qadr (Kadir Gecesi in Turkish), or “The Night of Power,” and it is observed during the last ten days of Ramadan, the month-long fast in Islam. The concept of the Night of Power offers significant theological bridges for sharing the gospel with Muslims and since many Muslims are particularly focused on their spiritual lives during this time, they may be especially receptive to hear our perspective on our relationship with God.

Ramadan and the Qur’an

The Qur’an makes an important connection between fasting during Ramadan and the revelation of the Word of Allah:

“In the month of Ramadan the Koran was revealed, a book of guidance for mankind with proofs of guidance distinguishing right from wrong. Therefore whoever of you is present in that month let him fast…” (Qur’an, Sura al-Baqara: 2.185)

According to tradition, Muhammad had been fasting and praying in a cave during the month of Ramadan (a month on the Arabic lunar calendar) when an angel appeared to him and commanded him to recite the things that Allah revealed to him. While it seems that Muhammad was already in the habit of fasting during Ramadan, it is the beginning of the revelation of the Qur’an during this month which established fasting as a Muslim requirement.

Muslims believe that the Qur’an is eternal and uncreated; as the very speech of Allah it has always existed in heaven exactly as we have it in the Arabic text today. Allah sent the entire text down to earth via the angel Gabriel on the night that the first verses were revealed to Muhammad, and over the next 23 years the rest of the verses were given to Muhammad as the proper circumstances presented themselves in the life of the prophet. The Qur’an itself is considered the greatest miracle of Islam and there are many miracle stories associated with the process of its revelation and preservation as well.

Fasting during Ramadan has become one of the five “Pillars” of Islam, a basic requirement of all Muslims who are able to fulfill it. From sunrise to sunset during this month-long ritual, Muslims abstain completely from eating, drinking, smoking, and sexual relations. As the call to prayer sounds from the mosque every evening the fast is broken and families usually share a meal together. Mosques are particularly well attended during this month, especially on Friday evenings when a special sermon is delivered. Many Muslims who don’t fulfill their religious obligations during the rest of the year still find themselves fasting and participating in prayer and other rituals during this time.

The Mystery of the Night of Power

The Hadith explains that the exact night on which the revelation began, and therefore the exact date of the Night of Power is a mystery. Muhammad is reported as saying that he once knew the exact date but that Allah “caused him to forget it.” (Sahih Bukhari 32.233)

Several other Hadith accounts seem to contradict themselves with regard to the exact date. In one tradition Muhammad explains that it is on one of the last ten nights of Ramadan (Sahih Bukhari 32.237); in other tradition he says that it is to be found “in one of the odd nights of the last ten days of Ramadan” (Sahih Bukhari 32.234); another account narrows the date down to either the 21st, 23rd, or 25th night of Ramadan (Sahih Bukhari 32.238); yet another has Muhammad teaching it falls on either the 25th, 27th, and 29th (Sahih Bukhari 32.240); and one account offers the night of the 24th as the true date (Sahih Bukhari 32.239).

Obviously, the common denominator in these traditions is that the Night of Power falls sometime during the last ten nights of Ramadan. On the other hand, particularly in Turkey, the night of the 27th has popularly become recognized as the official night and many Muslims commemorate it on this night.

Observing the Night of Power

Apart from the confusion about the exact date, the Hadith accounts are unanimous that Muslims are to “seek” the Night of Power in order to benefit from the unique opportunity for blessing and forgiveness. As the Qur’an teaches in the sura named for the Night of Power, worship offered on this night has the value of one thousand months of worship. The Hadith further clarifies that:

"Whoever established prayers on the night of Qadr out of sincere faith and hoping for a reward from Allah, then all his previous sins will be forgiven...” (Sahih Bukhari 31.125)

Since it is on this night that Allah has come closest to humanity by sending down his Word, Muslims believe that they have greater access to Allah on this night and that he is more likely to bless and respond to their petitions. For this reason many Muslims spend one or more nights in prayer and reading at the mosque or in their homes.

Muhammad himself is reported to have practiced itikaf, the tradition of remaining in the mosque for the duration of the last ten days and nights of Ramadan; and some Muslims still practice this, leaving the mosque only for emergencies. In this way, Muslims can be sure that they have succeeded in observing the Night of Power since they have prayed every night on which it might fall. Other Muslims choose one or two nights to pray and recite diligently in the mosque. This happens particularly on the 27th night of Ramadan. Still others have the Qur’an recited throughout the night in their homes or perform special recitation and prayer ceremonies at home. Prayers for forgiveness are said to be particularly effective on this night, as one Hadith reports a conversation between Aisha (Muhammad’s wife) and Muhammad:

“I asked the Messenger of Allah if I knew which night was the Night of Power and what prayer I should say during that night? He said to me: Say: ‘O Allah! You are forgiving and you love forgiveness, so you too forgive me.’” (Ibn Majah and Tirmidhi)

The Night of Power as a Theological Bridge

Muslims believe that the Night of Power is an event on which all of our previous sins can be erased. While observance has to be sincere, the special status of this night is not because of any individual merit, but because of the significance of what Allah did on that day many years ago. Similarly Christians can help Muslims understand the Biblical concept of forgiveness by explaining that we obtain forgiveness for our sins not because we have earned it but because of the significance of what Allah did through Jesus. As the Bible teaches, we don’t have to wait for a special day on the calendar in order to approach Allah for forgiveness. This blessing is available to us in the same miraculous way every day of the year. Whenever we come to him with sincerity, believing in what He did for us by sending Jesus to earth, all of our previous sins are erased (1 John 1:9).

What makes the Night of Power significant in Islam is that Allah sent down his Word to guide mankind; He approached us in a unique way, worthy of our remembrance and commemoration. In the same way, Christians can explain that it is Allah’s decision to send down Jesus, The Living Word of Allah, to live and die among us, that we remember and commemorate. It is the unique way that Allah approached us in Jesus that signifies our opportunity, not only for forgiveness, but for special relationship with Allah as well (John 1:14; John 1:12). Christians worship Allah by fasting, praying, reading the Bible, repenting of our sins, and by living a life of love for Allah and for our neighbors. Our lives are lived in worship every day, whether we go to a church building or not.

Just as the Night of Power is described as a miraculous event, the Bible makes a point of describing the miraculous things that happened at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross and after his resurrection:

“At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.” (Matthew 27: 51-53)

This reminds us of the prayer that was recorded in the Bible 700 years before Jesus in Isaiah 64:

“Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you! …

For when you did awesome things that we did not expect,
you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.”

The people prayed that Allah would rip open the heavens and “come down” among us. This prayer was fulfilled in Jesus, the Word of Allah, who was sent down to live among us and die as a sacrifice for us. Just as he was fulfilling his purpose, the curtain in the temple, which symbolized the separation between heaven and earth, was torn from top to bottom, and the mountains did tremble and the people did see things that they could never have expected! This is the Night of Power that we remember, the night which secures blessing and forgiveness for us, the night that is worth more than a thousand lifetimes of trying to reach Allah on our own.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Excerpt about Adnan Oktar and Turkish Creationism

Islamic Creationism in Turkey

A significant, corollary development since the rise of Bucailleism is the advent of the new Islamic Creationism, particularly as it has emerged in Turkey. This movement shares much in common with its American counterpart, but is clearly an outworking of a Bucailleist view of the relationship between science and Islam.

The major contributor to this genre, particularly in Turkey, is Adnan Oktar, who writes under the pseudonym, Harun Yahya. While some have speculated that one person could not be responsible for the sheer volume of publications that are attributed to him, the publications clearly present Yahya as the sole author of the literally hundreds of articles, booklets, and books which deal with this topic and many other Bucailleist issues including the standard presentation of scientific miracles in the Qur’an. His books are extravagantly produced with sophisticated full-color photos and use high quality materials. Similarly, his website,, is wonderfully designed and organized. His books, The Evolution Deceit, and Darwinism Refuted have become extremely influential in Turkey and have since been distributed throughout the Muslim world and the West.[28] In fact, The Evolution Deceit was recently mailed to several opponents of creationism in the United States.[29]In terms of the actual scientific support for creationism, the Turkish creationist movement borrows nearly all of its research from the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), a conservative, evangelical Christian organization that promotes scientific creationism in the United States.

While there is some irony in the fact that such a conservative Muslim movement would borrow much of its material from evangelical Christians, the connections between the two movements are profound. In fact, prominent American creationists from ICR such as John Morris and Duane Gish have been invited to speak at conferences in several Turkish cities organized by the Bilim Arastirma Vakfi, (BAV) “The Science Research Foundation.”

The new Turkish creationism differs somewhat in scientific content and even more in terms of religious and political underpinnings. Any Christian concepts are removed or replaced with Islamic counterparts and references to the Bible are exchanged for appeals to the Qur’an. Perhaps the largest difference in scientific content between the two “creationisms” is the omission of “flood geology” from the Turkish version. Flood geology, which has been called “ICR’s signature doctrine,” is used by creationists to demonstrate he feasibility of a global flood based on evidence in geology. Turkish creationists, however, are not concerned to defend a “young Earth” position since the Qur’an does not present a chronology of salvation history in the way that the Bible does.[30]

This version of Islamic creationism also attacks evolution on slightly different grounds, arguing that all mutations are harmful, because organisms are said to have been created perfect and have remained without flaw to this day.[31] This contrasts with ICR and biblical creationists who argue that all of creation bears the corrupting effects of sin.

The political nature of creationism in Turkey is of particular significance. In the literature itself, Darwinism is associated with Marxist ideologies, and Masons and Jews are credited with driving the evolutionist agenda.[32] While there is no parallel to this claim in the Christian creationist literature, attributing Masons and Jews with global conspiracies is a characteristic feature of some Islamic apologetic literature. In fact, Harun Yahya is also the author of The Holocaust Hoax, which denies the historicity of the holocaust.

Negatively portraying Marxism, Freemasonry, and Judaism, however, are only the rhetorical foils for the active Islamist agenda associated with Turkish creationism. Since the founding of the Refah party in 1983 Turkey’s Islamist movement has included anti-Darwinism as a “solid plank in the Islamist platform.”[33] Darwinism became associated with Communism, atheism, and even Jews and Freemasons, thus, a refutation of Darwinism on scientific grounds appealed to the masses as an Islamic cause justified by modern science. The rise of Islamic creationism in Turkey has coincided with the recent success of the Islamist party (AK partisi) in local and national elections, further cementing the association of Bucailleism with the Islamist agenda.

The rhetorical fervor associated with Islamism is also evident in the Bucailleist Turkish creationism. This is an element which further distinguishes Turkish creationism from its American counterpart. The level of discourse is markedly more political. While there are groups within Turkey which oppose at least some forms of creationism, such a stance can be seen as dangerous. As Taner Edis, a Turkish author in the United States, notes, “criticizing the faith not only puts the individual’s soul at risk but is also a treachery against the community. When a prominent Islamist newspaper (Akit, December 2, 1998) published the names of the signatories of the TUBA statement [note: TUBA is the Turkish Academy of Sciences which published a statement opposing creationism] on its front page, suggesting they trespassed against Islam, this had overtones of an invitation to violence.”[34]

Monday, April 16, 2007

Basic Doctrines and Practices of Sunni Islam

The Five Pillars

Sunnis normally describe the basic practices of Islam in terms of five requirements (şartlar in Turkish):

Shahada = Confession:
“There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah”. This simple creed contains the basic formula of Islamic doctrine and it is by sincerely pronouncing this sentence that one is initiated into the faith of Islam. The shahada denies the existence of other gods, thus rejecting paganism or polytheism but it also implies a strict Islamic monotheism which denies the possibility of the Trinity or the deity of Christ. Of course it also affirms Muhammad’s prophethood, and implies that Muhammad is the final prophet.

Salat = Ritual Prayer (Namaz in Turkish):
Muhammad is said to have received this tradition from Allah during his “Night Journey”. Muslims believe that shortly after the Hijra (the emigration from Mecca to Medina) Muhammad was taken to heaven on a winged horse called Buraq where he negotiated with Allah about how often Muslims should have to pray, eventually settling on the number five.

The day is divided into five prayer times based on sunrise and sunset and Muslims are expected to honor this schedule. A ceremony of ritual cleansing with water is required before the prayer takes place. The prayer itself consists of a series of recitations, differing according to the time of day, and it involves a ritual of standing, bending over, kneeling, and prostrating face down on the ground. Muslims (especially men) are expected to perform prayer in the mosque if possible, although they may perform it other places as well. Prayers are normally led by an Imam and on Fridays a sermon (hütbe in Turkish) is usually given after the noon prayer.

There are two kinds of prayer in Islam, salat, the required prayer is simply a recitation of memorized passages. Dua is the more personalized, voluntary, individual prayer which normally occurs after performing salat.

Zakat = Alms for the poor (Zekat in Turkish):
Muslims are expected to give the equivalent of about 2.5% of their annual income to the poor (although the actual calculation can be more complicated according to some traditions). Some seek to give this donation to any of a variety of charitable funds or organizations while some prefer to give it individually to families or people whom they know to be in need. There is no universally recognized authority for supervising or collecting Zakat, however the donations must be used for the poor in order to be valid.

Sawm = Fasting during Ramadan (Oruç in Turkish):
Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset every day during the Islamic month of Ramadan, abstaining from eating, drinking, smoking, and sexual relationships. After sunset Muslims break the fast with a meal and at the end of the month, a feast commemorates the conclusion of the fast. This feast, Eid al-fitr (iftar in Turkish), is often celebrated together with extended families or friends and many communities offer a public meal for anyone who wishes to attend.

During the nights of the fast in Turkey a davulcu, or drummer, walks around the neighborhood banging a deep drum in order to wake people up in the middle of the night to give them a chance to wake up and eat something before sunrise. The drummer then collects money from the people within earshot of his drum.

One night during the last week of the fast is considered to be the Laylat al-Qadr (Kader Gecesi in Turkish), or “Night of Power”. This night commemorates the day on which the entire Qur’an was literally lowered from the highest heaven to earth by the angel Gabriel, as well as the event of Muhammad’s receiving the first Sura of the Qur’an in 610. According to the Qur’an, prayers performed on this night are worth 1,000 months of prayer during any other time. For this reason many Muslims pray all night on this night and may recite the Qur’an or have it recited all night as well.

Hajj = Pilgrimage to Mecca (Hac in Turkish):
Every Muslim who is financially and physically able is required, once in his or her lifetime, to make a pilgrimage to Mecca during the month of Hajj. While a Muslim may visit Mecca at any time of year, the Hajj is only recognized if it is performed during the assigned days on the Muslim calendar, that is during the second week of the month of Dhu al-Hijjah.

The rituals of the pilgrimage center around reenacting important episodes from the life of Abraham, Hagar, and Ishmael. It begins with “tawaf”, circumambulating the Ka’ba seven times. The Ka’ba is said to have been rebuilt by Abraham and consecrated to Allah as a center of pilgrimage. Pilgrims pray for the cleansing of their sins and often try to kiss or touch the Black Stone which is lodged into one corner of the Ka’ba.

Pilgrims then perform “say” a ceremonial running back and forth between two hills in a reenactment of Hagar’s desperate search for water for her son Ishmael after she was shunned by Sarah, Abraham’s wife. The well of Zamzam is said to have appeared under Ishmael’s feet to save them from death. Pilgrims bathe in and drink this water during this ceremony.

Then the actual “pilgrimage” takes place as pilgrims make the trip to Arafat to gather in tents for prayer and conversation from noon until sunset. Prayers are said to be especially effective during this time.

After spending the night under stars at Muzdalifa pilgrims proceed to Mina where the ritual “stoning of Satan” occurs. Pilgrims throw seven rocks at large stone pillars said to represent Satan. This ceremony reenacts Abraham’s stern rejection of the temptation by Satan to refuse to obey God’s command to sacrifice Ishmael.

This ritual is followed by the offering of an animal sacrifice by each pilgrim, identifying with Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Ishmael and God’s provision of a sheep as a reward for Abraham’s complete faithfulness in Allah. It is on this same day that Kurban Bayramı begins and many Muslims around the world participate vicariously in this Hajj ritual by sacrificing an animal themselves.

Muslims believe that if the Hajj has been performed properly, without violating the important regulations regarding ceremonial purity, and with the right intention of approaching God, then all previous sins are absolved. However, a Muslim cannot ever be certain that his Hajj has been accepted in this way.

Six Articles of Faith

Similarly, Muslims often describe the basic doctrines of Islam in terms of six articles of faith:

As we have seen, the doctrine of God in Islam consists of a strict monotheism which denies other Gods and also denies any type of plurality associated with God. For this reason, the doctrine of the Trinity and the deity of Christ are seen as incompatible with Islam. In fact, the most serious sin in Islam is to “associate partners with God,” called shirk. In Islam Allah is divine unicity, while in Christianity, the Trinity is a divine community. Islam expresses the oneness of God with the word Tawhid.

The doctrine of God also includes his complete transcendence. For most Muslims Islam’s view of transcendence excludes the possibility of knowing God personally or calling God, “Father”, for example.

Angels, Jinn, Satan:
Islam affirms the existence of angels, some of which are named in the Qur’an, the most prominent being Gabriel, the angel which delivers revelation from God to the prophets. In Islam angels are always good and they serve as intermediaries between God and man.

Satan, or Iblis, was an angel who was cast out of heaven when he refused to bow in reverence to Allah’s newly created Adam. He then became the enemy of Allah and humanity whose abode is in hell. Similar to Christianity, his role is as tempter and antagonist.

On the other hand, Jinn have no real counterpart in Christianity. They are an invisible race of shadowy creatures which live on earth with humanity. The Qur’an says that some jinn are Muslims, while others are Christians or pagans. Solomon is said to have had jinn in his army, for example. In practice, however, jinn are normally associated with mischief and ill-fortune.

Sacred Books:
Islam teaches that Allah has sent four major revelations to humanity: The Tawrat (Tevrat in Turkish) which was revealed to Moses, the Zabur (Zebur in Turkish) which was revealed to David, the Injil which was revealed to Jesus, and the Qur’an which was revealed to Muhammad. The Qur’an is understood to be the final and most complete revelation. Muslims believe that the Qur’an confirms what was originally revealed in the previous books, but that the other books have been corrupted over time (called tahrif). According to Muslims, however, the Qur’an has been perfectly preserved and is protected by God against any kind of corruption.

Muslims believe that the Qur’an was literally lowered from heaven and that the text as it exists today is an exact replica of the text which has always existed in heaven from eternity. Therefore the Qur’an is eternal and uncreated. It is the direct speech of God without any human contribution to its content.

Alongside the Qur’an, and completely apart from the doctrine of Sacred Books is the Hadith, the body of Islamic tradition which is the source for most of what is known today as orthodox Islam. The Hadith is the series of collections of the sayings and deeds of Muhammad as recorded by his companions and early followers.

While only 27 or 28 prophets are mentioned in the Qur’an by name (there is some controversy as to the status of some of the ‘prophets’), Islamic tradition teaches that Allah has sent 124,000 prophets to humanity. Most of these are “mere” prophets while some are called rasul, which connotes something like “super-prophets”. The rasul are those prophets which received major revelations in the form of books: Moses, David, Jesus, Muhammad. Muslims believe that the essential content of the message given to each of the prophets was the same, and the Qur’an serves as the standard for knowing what was revealed to the previous prophets. It is on this basis that the previous books are said to be corrupt: their messages do not conform to the message of the Qur’an. Prophets in Islam are warners, teachers, perfect examples, and their message is entirely divine in origin. They have no contribution to the content of revelation.

This doctrine is sometimes left off of lists describing the articles of faith. However, Islam includes a very strong doctrine of predestination. It is Allah who has completely and comprehensively written the future. Allah is attributed with guiding people toward Islam and leading others astray according to his sovereignty. Muslims often describe their fate as completely out of their control, and for many people future plans are only made with the qualification Inshallah, “If God wills”. A consequence of this doctrine is that Allah’s will is always ultimately unknowable to humans so that one cannot be certain that he or she will go to heaven after the judgment. Only Allah can know such things.

Islam teaches that all of humanity will be judged by Allah and that after a bodily resurrection everyone will proceed to either heaven or hell. Traditions teach that every person’s deeds are recorded by angels which accompany throughout their lives. At the judgment good deeds will be weighed against bad deeds, thus determining a person’s destiny. While the Qur’an is ambiguous about this, most Muslims believe that many Muslims will have to spend some time in Hell paying for their sins after which they will be taken to Heaven. This opportunity is not available to those who have commited shirk, however, excluding the possibility that Christians can ever make it to heaven.

Clean Break and Continuity: Carryover of Ancient Arabian Material into Islam

For the Muslim, Islam represents the end of a “time of ignorance[1]” or “Age of Extremism”[2] called Jahiliyyah in Arabic. Jahiliyyah is used broadly to describe the condition of Arabia before the advent of Islam. It is an age associated with moral excess and transgression when polytheistic Arabs were largely ignorant of the nature of God and his demands on humanity. It is against this backdrop that Islam appears in the seventh century AD with the revelation of the Qur’an and the establishment of the Ummah, the Muslim community of faith. In sharp contrast to Jahiliyyah, Islam ushers in a new era, interrupting the wayward course of Arabian culture and society with a radically different vision, directly from God, which contains both the blueprint for a new way of life and the impetus to actually build it.

However, it is clear that Islam, in its theological beliefs and religious rituals, exhibits a continuity with its Arabian past. Areas of substantial carry-over from pre-Islamic Arabia exist in the Qur’an and in general Muslim practice. These areas serve to qualify the assertion that Islam, with the revelation of the Qur’an, represented a “clean break” with the Jahiliyyah of the previous era. This paper will identify some of the elements of belief and practice within Islam which demonstrate this continuity with pre-Islamic Arabia and outline them within the broader system of Islam.

The challenge of sources is common to any study of pre-Islamic Arabia. Since practically no Arabic literature exists prior to the arrival of the Qur’an, we must, as Guillaume writes, “rely on the Quran itself, on what we know from classical writers, on what can be gleaned from pre-Islamic poetry that was written down centuries later, and on what early Muslim authors tell us about their heathen forefathers.”[3] The degree to which such sources, either chronologically distant or ideologically selective, can provide an accurate picture is certainly a subject of dispute, but as there are no alternative sources to consult, scholarship has wrestled with the material available to it. In any case, many of the conclusions arrived at regarding this period arise out of inferences made based on the use of language or out of implicit arguments located “behind” the message of the texts themselves.

Therefore, there may have been explicitly religious motives for casting the pre-Islamic era in particularly awful light. Cragg ascribes these descriptions of “wild uncouthness” to the demands of Muslim piety[4]. In any case, the Muslim understanding of the Jahiliyyah includes gruesome characterizations of darkness and chaos. There are descriptions of rampant crime and moral laxity as well as widespread social disorganization and poverty which even led to the practice of infanticide, leaving newborn infants to die or even burying them alive.[5] The ignorance referred to, then, is an ignorance of God and his laws which leads, in turn, to an ignorance of basic moral obligations to God, family, and society. While the conclusion of such a condition is a society in poverty and chaos, the root of the problem is a lack of knowledge of God. This of course sets the stage for the Muslim understanding of revelation, which corrects this ignorance and all of the problems resulting from it.

The Muslim understanding of the Qur’an, as the ultimate revelation, sees Muhammad as merely the vessel by which God communicated his eternal word once and for all. The Qur’an is described as “the ultimate miracle of Islam”[6]. God is said to have revealed the message via the angel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad who spoke was God inspired him to speak. Therefore, the Qur’an is believed to have no human intervention or influence. It literally ‘descended’ to humanity exactly as it has always existed in heaven. To reinforce this claim, orthodox Islam has maintained that Muhammad was illiterate, preventing any notion that he contributed, by virtue of his own genius, to the Qur’an.[7] However, there is good reason to reject the notion that Muhammad was in fact unable to read or write, and Guillaume calls such an attribution a “poor compliment”.[8]

In the midst of this conceptual gulf between the Jahiliyyah and the Qur’an are the elements of a detectable history of Muslim beliefs and practices from their pre-Islamic Arabian roots. A description of the social background of Muhammad’s time may be helpful in describing such a history.

As Sanneh describes, the clan or “clan-confederate”, known as hayy in Arabic formed the basic unit of society. He writes that “the importance of the clan within the social composition of pre-Islamic Arabia cannot be overemphasized.”[9] The hayy exhibited several characteristics which seem to have been carried over into Islam itself and so can be a helpful lens through which to understand certain beliefs and practices. The hayy was not based purely on blood-ties but also included members who were recruited from weaker groups or marginal members of society such as those fleeing their own homelands or slaves. Members of the hayy sought its protection and community in an atmosphere of hostile competition for survival and influence. Therefore, the Arabian notion of the clan was already “supra-familial” and the recruiting of members from outside the actual family was already being practiced. This seems to prepare the ground for the notion of the Ummah, the Muslim community of faith which eventually transcends familial bonds, while maintaining key features of the hayy such as the notion of “sacrificial honour”.[10]

The clan also served as the “custodian or proprietor” of a set of local deities and their associated idols. Idols were adopted by tribes who performed ritual ceremonies, which often included animal sacrifices, signifying their association with the god and entering a blood-covenant.[11] Although Islam condemns pagan sacrifices and the veneration of local deities, it maintains the notion of animal sacrifice as demonstrative of allegiance to God. Islam also preserves other elements of these ceremonies such as kissing or stroking the stone associated with the god, which is practiced during the pilgrimage, or Hajj, as Muslims try to kiss or touch the black stone of the Ka’aba during their prayer circuits.[12]

Connected to the tribe, and serving as another bridge between Arabian society and the emergence of Islam, is the notion of the poet, known as kahin and the “knower”, sha’ir. This role, although not identical to the notion of prophethood, still includes much of the material for the Muslim understanding of Muhammad’s role. The kahin/sha’ir was thought to be possessed by a jinn or shaytan who inspired him to speak or write, often in rhymed prose with some rhythm.[13] It was the poet’s responsibility to continue the memory of tribal gods. The compositions combined “mythical ideal” with historical reality, imbuing the clan’s story with moral import. In this way, the poet “became the custodian of tribal ethics and an arbiter of social issues.”[14] This also describes the early role of Muhammad as a “warner” who told inspired stories of previous prophets infused with moral content.

There is a strong tradition of denying the category of the kahin for Muhammad and the Hadith records a first hand denial of this label on the part of the Prophet, but this denial was on the basis that Muhammad’s inspiration came from a source higher than that of the relatively inconsequential jinn or shaytan which were said to inspire the poets. At the same time, Muhammad does not reject the category of the kahin as such, and in fact adopts some of the practices of these Arabian poets, for example, Muhammad is said to have covered his head in preparation for receiving revelation, as did the kahin, and his “mantic utterances” are also reminiscent of this older category.[15] In this way, even the Muslim understanding of revelation, a powerful source of the contrast between Jahiliyyah and Islam, has roots in pre-Islamic Arabia.

The category of beings known as jinn are themselves an area of carry-over from ancient Arabia. In Islam jinn are a race of beings, created from fire, which dwell invisibly among humans. The Qur’an places them in Solomon’s army and describes some jinn as Muslim, and others as Jews or Christians[16]. The pre-Islamic notion of jinn seems to have included the notion that they could possess people, inspiring them with words, which is what Muhammad initially feared has happened to him after he had his first prophetic experience.

Of course, the source of Muhammad’s inspiration is what is said to have set him apart from the soothsayers of his day. Muhammad eventually claimed to be receiving revelation, not from a jinn or from a local deity, but from Allah. Even more radically, Muhammad proclaimed that Allah was the only true God. The notion of Islamic monotheism is sometimes credited as the uniquely great contribution that Islam made to the history of world religions. While Islam has undoubtedly elaborated on the idea in unique ways, the idea itself does have roots in ancient Arabia. As Duncan Black MacDonald writes, “That the Arabs, before the time of Muhammad, accepted and worshipped, after a fashion, a supreme god called Allah…seems absolutely certain.”[17] Black’s argument centers mainly on the Qur’an itself. He points out that in the Qur’an, the non-Muslim Meccans are said to admit that Allah is the “creator and supreme provider” who is invoked for special protection. Black concludes that the pre-Islamic Arabian paganism was “far from simple idolatry” owing to its resemblance to some Christian notions of saints and angels in intermediary positions between God and humans. Muhammad’s role, then, was as a “reformer who was preaching an earlier and simpler faith and putting angels and djinn back into their true places.”[18]

The evidence for a pre-Islamic notion of Allah extends beyond the Qur’an, however, to inscriptions and pre-Islamic poetry and writing. Of more than anecdotal significance in this regard is the fact that Muhammad’s own father is known as ‘Abdallah.[19] The name itself seems to be generically Semitic. Guillaume associates it with the ‘Il’ of Babylonia and the ‘El’ of ancient Israel. He adds that the specific Arabian contribution was ‘Ilah’ which has come to be expressed as “Allah”, merely adding the definite article to the root word.[20] Cragg elaborates that the original Arabic form may have been ilahun, which, when combined with the definite article becomes Al-ilahu and finally Allah by elision.[21] Black adds the possibility that the word is of Aramaic origin in the form of “alaha”, “the god.”.[22]

The role that Allah had in pre-Islamic Arabian religion is not nearly as clear as his existence and is a matter of some dispute. However, it seems evident that, as Sanneh writes, “Transcending the clan-interests and the gods who represented those interests was “Allah”, a Supreme deity which, although vaguely conceived at first, was nevertheless clearly apprehended in the turbulence of desert life.” Allah was apparently understood to be somehow beyond, even above, the gods associated with particular clan loyalties. He was the guardian of contracts and the protector of the “alien guest”. Since the territory of gods was conceived as somewhat limited to the geographical territory of their clans, Allah ensured protection of a person traveling outside that territory. Interestingly, he also oversaw contracts, which may have included people from various clans, circumventing the localized and competitive nature of tribal deities. The influence of these lesser gods was seen as proportional to their recognition by other tribes, so gods whose potency waned were replaced by fresh, more powerful ones.[23]

Eventually, as Sanneh elaborates, Allah’s purview was seen as representing “the sum of Bedouin virtues”, overseeing issues of trade and asylum between tribes.[24] This also developed into the notion of the transcendent, immutable power of Allah, which itself was still present in the poetry of ancient Arabia in the form of an idea of “time the destroyer”, whose ‘judgments’ are irreversible.[25] Therefore, “time”, “Fate”, and “the decree of Allah” were similarly characterized as inescapable and ruthless.

Tradition ascribes some three hundred and sixty deities to the region around Mecca, often associating them specifically with the Ka’aba. The three mentioned in the Qur’an are of particular significance. All three seem to be female deities and were described as “daughters of Allah”[26]. Their names are: Al-Lat, al-‘Uzza, and Manat. Al-Lat represented the Sun and means simply, “the goddess”. Worship of her was apparently widespread, and even Herodotus mentions her in his writing. Al-‘Uzza, also called “the mighty one”, was very important for the Meccans, and tradition even reports that Muhammad sacrificed a sheep to her before his prophetic career. Manat represented the fortunes of the community, embodying the “all-pervading mystery of life and death.”[27] These deities had ancient and important associations for the people of Mecca, and their names were often invoked against Muhammad, a fact which is made more poignant by the episode recounted in al-Tabari in which Muhammad at one time included a verse in the Qur’an which allowed for their worship until God corrected the error which Satan had apparently inserted into the revelation. Known as the “satanic verses” or the “crane verses”, they illustrate both the threat that Muhammad’s exclusive monotheism posed to the Meccans as well as the close ties that Muhammad himself felt to his own heritage.

Also significant is the idea that Muhammad did not see himself as introducing a new God; neither did he conceive of his religion as a new religion. He saw himself as following in a line of faithful followers of the one true God, and particularly in his early stages of ministry, wanted to be characterized as merely a “reminder”[28]. For Muhammad, monotheism was the thing to be remembered and the Hanifs were the representatives of that monotheism. The Hanifs seem to be monotheists opposed to idolatry before the advent of Islam and were an important influence on Muhammad’s understanding of his place in religious history. As Cragg writes, “Islam is later described as fulfilling the religion of the Hanifs, whose great ancestral prototype was Abraham…It seems reasonably certain that Muhammad was, in some sense, the spiritual kinsmen of these disclaimers of idolatry and idol worship…”[29] Ibn Ishaq recounts a story from the early life of Muhammad which features such an iconoclastic monotheist named Zayd son of ‘Amr son of Nufayl. In the episode, a young Muhammad is “upbraided” for eating meat sacrificed to idols. Tradition describes Zayd as a monotheist without ties to Judaism or Christianity.[30]

Of course Judaism and Christianity were certainly known, in some form, in Arabia of the seventh century. Jews comprised up to half of the population of Medina and had made many converts in the Hijaz, Muhammad’s own region in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula.[31] Guillaume proposes that the Monophysitism that was present in this region prepared the way for Islam, for example, with its affirmation that the Trinity is only one nature, a doctrine which was apparently also accepted by the budding Arab Christianity and which would later fit better with Muhammad’s rejection of the Trinity.[32] Tradition has Muhammad visiting, and being confirmed as a prophet by Christian monks and priests, but Cragg is reluctant to take these at face value, and concludes that “all that can be said with certainty is that Muhammad knew of Jews and Christians and something of their history…” He does, however, concede that teachings of docetism and monophysitism are reflected in the Qur’anic account of Jesus “as non-crucified Prophet-Messiah.”[33]

The idolatry of Mecca was closely associated with the Ka’aba, a roughly cube shaped structure which may have served as a type of pagan temple. The Ka’aba was apparently an important center for pilgrimage long before Muhammad “cleansed” it after his conquest of Mecca. In ancient Arabia it was generally true that towns which were also centers of religious pilgrimage had a certain prestige. This was particularly the case with Mecca, whose pilgrimage brought significant income to the city and its people.[34] The Ka’aba at Mecca was not the only Ka’aba in Arabia, however. At least two others have been found, one at Nejran and another at Sana’a.[35] Still, it is the Ka’aba at Mecca, the Ka’aba of Muhammad’s tribe and clan which becomes the focus of so many of the theological ideas and religious rituals that he adopts and describes.

Sura 106, an early Meccan sura, describes Allah as the “Lord of the Ka’aba,” indicating that Allah’s association with the Ka’aba was already known, both among the Meccans and among those arriving by the two annual caravans for pilgrimage. Given the importance of the Ka’aba as “the supreme sanctuary of Central Arabia”, this is a significant role for the God that Muhammad is preaching.[36] Sanneh concludes from these facts that “the ancient Arabs began to call and worship this Supreme Being as ‘Allah’ long before the Prophet of Islam appeared on the scene.”[37] This explains Muhammad’s ability to invoke the name of Allah as the one true God without having to argue for his existence. In fact, as Guillaume argues, if Allah had not already been universally known among his hearers then Muhammad’s message could not have been intelligible.[38] Muhammad’s claim, therefore, was that Allah was the one true God and he accepted the already present idea that Allah was the “Lord of the Ka’aba”, which entailed acceptance of the ritual of the Ka’aba, the pilgrimage, known as the Hajj.

The incorporation of the Ka’aba as an Islamic ritual is an example of what Guillaume describes as the “Islamic pattern of taming by recruitment.”[39] Since the pilgrimage was already in place and had already apparently come to be associated with Allah, it may be seen as one of the most significant areas of carry-over into Islam of religious rituals from pre-Islamic Arabia. The Hajj is, in fact, the fifth pillar of Islam. It is a requirement that every Muslim, if he is financially and physically able, visit the shrine at Mecca and perform the ritual which Arabs had been doing long before Islam and which Muhammad modified for inclusion in his monotheistic religion. The Qur’an itself does not describe or set out the required ritual, since it assumes that his audience is already familiar with it. It does, however, attribute the origin of the pilgrimage to at least as far back as Abraham.[40] Some of the changes instituted by Muhammad with the incorporation of the pilgrimage into Islam included ceasing the additional circuits which were performed at ‘Arafat and requiring that pilgrims be dressed as opposed to the traditional state of nakedness while walking around the Ka’aba. Elements which seem to be preserved from pre-Islamic times include fasting, performing the circuits around the Ka’aba themselves, including kissing or stroking the black stone, ceremonially throwing stones at Satan, running between the hills of Safa and Marwa, and sacrificing a sheep at Mina.[41]

Guillaume traces pre-Islamic, but not particularly Arab, origins for Zakat, almsgiving, and Saum, the month-long fast of Ramadan, attributing them to borrowings from Judaism and Christianity.[42] Such a claim may have some basis in fact, but also suggests an oversimplification of the question of the origins of those practices. However, Salat, the ritual prayer of Islam, while influenced by Judaism and Christianity, clearly has more local roots as well. As Goitein describes the Friday Midday prayers, which have always had a special status in Islam, he traces the origin of the tradition with some conclusions relevant to this study. What is known in the Muslim world as the Yaum al-Jum’ah, or the Day of Assembly or Gathering, specifically refers to the religious meeting and prayer which happens on Friday afternoons at the mosque.[43] However, the origin of the Friday prayers, and even the phrase itself, comes from a much more mundane origin, namely, the traditional Friday market day in Medina. The fact that there were such a large number of Jews in Medina and that Jews “bought their provisions for the Sabbath” (as recorded in ancient accounts about Medina) on this day may well have played a role in setting the day as Friday.[44] So, as Muhammad chose Friday for the day of obligatory public worship, Goitein argues that it was because people would be shopping on that day anyway, and so would be out in the marketplace at noon.[45] Thus, the pre-Islamic origins of Muslim religious ritual in this instance include a very pragmatic concession to local market customs.

In conclusion, while it may the case that Islam, with the revelation of the Qur’an, represented a clean-break with the Jahiliyyah, it is a “clean-break” which is, at the same time, in demonstrable continuity with the culture, society, and religion of ancient Arabia. At the most fundamental levels of Muslim theological ideas and religious rituals, including the content of what have come to be known as the Five Pillars and the Articles of Faith, elements of material from pre-Islamic Arabia are clearly present. It is this detectable history of Islam and the Qur’an which may deserve a greater recognition and which qualifies the assertion that Islam ushered in an entirely new era.


Cragg, Kenneth. The Call of the Minaret. Second edition. (Oxford: One World, 2003)
Cragg, Kenneth. Muhammad and the Christian: A Question of Response. (Oxford: One World, 1999)
Guillaume, Alfred. Islam. (London: Penguin Books, 1956)
MacDonald, Duncan Black. “Allah”, Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1961.
Sanneh, Lamin. Pre-Islamic Arabia. (Article in Private Circulation)
S.D. Goitein, “The Origin and Nature of the Muslim Friday Worship”. The Muslim World. (vol. 49 no. 3 ) July, 1959.
[1] Kenneth Cragg, The Call of the Minaret, Second edition. (Oxford: One World, 2003), 65.
[2] Lamin Sanneh, Pre-Islamic Arabia. (Article in Private Circulation), 1
[3] Alfred Guillaume, Islam, (London: Penguin Books, 1956), 5.
[4] Kenneth Cragg, Muhammad and the Christian: A Question of Response, (Oxford: One World, 1999), 21.
[5] Kenneth Cragg, The Call of the Minaret Second edition. (Oxford: One World, 2003), 65.
[6] Kenneth Cragg, The Call of the Minaret Second edition. (Oxford: One World, 2003), 87.
[7] Kenneth Cragg, Muhammad and the Christian: A Question of Response, (Oxford: One World, 1999), 61
[8] Alfred Guillaume, Islam, (London: Penguin Books, 1956), 57.
[9] Lamin Sanneh, Pre-Islamic Arabia (Article in Private Circulation), 1
[10] Kenneth Cragg, Muhammad and the Christian: A Question of Response, (Oxford: One World, 1999), 40.
[11] Lamin Sanneh, Pre-Islamic Arabia (Article in Private Circulation), 1
[12] Alfred Guillaume, Islam, (London: Penguin Books, 1956), 9.
[13] Guillaume 29.
[14] Sanneh 6.
[15] Sanneh, 6; Guillaume 57.
[16] Guillaume, 37.
[17] Duncan Black MacDonald, “Allah”, Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1961), 33.
[18] Ibid, 33.
[19] Cragg, The Call of the Minaret, 65.
[20] Guillaume, 7.
[21] Cragg, Call of the Minaret, 30.
[22] Black, 33.
[23] Sanneh, 3.
[24] Sanneh, 3.
[25] Guillaume, 8.
[26] Macdonald, 33.
[27] Guillaume, 8.
[28] Sanneh, 4.
[29] Cragg, The Call of the Minaret, 66.
[30] As quoted in Guillaume, 26.
[31] Guillaume, 11.
[32] Guillaume, 17.
[33] Cragg, Call of the Minaret 67
[34] Guillaume, 6.
[35] Guillaume, 10.
[36] Sanneh, 5.
[37] Sanneh, 5.
[38] Guillaume, 7.
[39] Guillaume, 40.
[40] Guillaume,

[41] Guillaume, 70; Cragg, The Call of the Minaret, 106.
[42] Guillaume, 69.
[43] Goitein, 188.
[44] S.D. Goitein, “The Origin and Nature of the Muslim Friday Worship”, (The Muslim World. vol. 49 no. 3 July, 1959), 184.
[45] Goitein, 195.

Islamism in Turkey: Accounting for the Success of a Movement

The Turkish election of November 2002 may be seen as counter-evidence to the notion that political Islam had finally run its course in the world. Articles and books have been written about the “Demise of Radical Islam in Turkey,”[1] and The Failure of Political Islam. This thesis also provided the impetus for Gilles Kepel’s book, Jihad: The Political Trail of Islam. While Kepel’s description of “The Forced Secularization of Turkish Islamists”[2] is largely accurate and cannot be dismissed, it is also the case that the massive victory of the “AK partisi” in 2002 was not foreseen within his paradigm. The subsequent success and relative longevity of this victory may also remain to be adequately accounted for.

In seeking to account for the success of the Islamist movement in Turkey, an appropriate thesis will need to consider the general decline of the global Islamist trend and reconcile this with Turkey’s situation. It does not seem sufficient merely to say that Turkey is an exception, despite the unique social and civil circumstances that exist there. While there is a unique character to it’s situation, Turkey does not exist in a global political vacuum, and Islamism in Turkey is certainly not detached from similar movements around the world.

The approach of this paper will be to propose a moderation of the thesis that political Islam has “run its course.” The forces of secularization that Kepel appeals to are undeniable and have certainly forced a new direction for Islamism in Turkey; however, this has not translated into the demise of Islamism. Rather, Turkey’s Islamists have wisely tempered their agenda so as to create a careful balance of pressure and compromise in their relationship with the secular establishment. Political factors have also combined with this strategy to provide an otherwise unexpected success for this movement. While the result is the emergence of a somewhat moderated Islamism which has alienated some of the radical extremists, Islamism as a political agenda has endured. On the other hand, the nature of the concepts of secularism and Islamism also have to be understood in their context in Turkey, which differs significantly from Western understandings of these terms.

Islamic Diversity in Turkey
While Islamism in Turkey usually refers to conservative Sunni Muslims, there is a significant diversity of Islamic expression in Turkey. There is undoubtedly an overlap of common concerns and political interests along this spectrum, although the diversity is often overlooked in deference to the orthodox Sunni majority. In describing Turkish Islam, Hakan Yavuz explains that “pluralism is the major characteristic of Turkish Islam. This pluralism has been the major sustainer and support base for the democratization movement in Turkey.”[3]

The most significant example of this diversity is Turkey’s Alevi population. Alevis are a heterodox sect with roots in Shi’ism, although Alevis today often prefer to simply be considered distinct from Sunnism or Shi’ism. Alevis claim to constitute 25% of the population of Turkey, which would amount to more than 15 million people. These numbers are hard to confirm, however, since historically Alevis have been secretive about their identity because of oppression by Sunnis.

Alevis are typically very open to liberal positions with regard to the West, secularism, and democracy. This liberalism is also evident in Alevi worship, where women and men share greater equality and prayer is normally not performed in mosques. The heterodox nature of Alevi beliefs makes it difficult for the Islamist movement to integrate them. For example, Alevis have a body of secret initiation rites and oral traditions which include a veneration of Ali which, for Sunnis, crosses the line into idolatry.

On the other hand, a voting block of 15 million can’t simply be ignored. For this reason recent Turkish politicians have been courting the Alevi vote by increasing recognition of festivals and even providing assistance to Alevi associations.[4] Still, Alevis raise legitimate complaints about the favoring of Sunnism in government policy and assistance in such areas as religious education in public schools, where Alevism is not allowed to be taught.

Another significant block can be collectively described as the tarikatlar. A tarikat is a religious brotherhood, often of a Sufi sect. The tarikatlar have deep roots in Turkish Islam, but were restricted toward the end of the Ottoman Empire and prohibited under Ataturk. Despite these obstacles, they have survived and have recently experienced a tremendous boom in popularity. In fact Marvine Howe writes “the return of the tarikatlar has been just as important as the rise of Refah in the Islamic revival.”[5]

Historically, the most famous of the tarikat are the followers of Celaleddin Rumi, called Mevlevi in Turkish. This Sufi sect incorporates a religious inclusivism with elaborate meditation rituals, one of which has earned them the nickname of “whirling dervishes.” Today the Mevlevi are experiencing a boom in interest, membership, and influence.

Perhaps the most influential religious leader in Turkey today is Fethullah Gulen, who is deeply influenced by Rumi. Once a follower of another prominent Turkish tarikat leader, Said Nursi, Gulen has now founded his own organization, which also serves as its own tarikat.[6] Fethullahis, as they are called, occupy prominent positions at all levels of Turkish society.

Today, Gulen controls a powerful network of schools, charity organizations, media networks, and publication companies. He has been known for his moderation, although recent allegations attempt to associate him with an extremist agenda. Still many feel that Gulen represents a hope for creating a moderate bridge between Islamism and secularism.

On the other side of the Islamic spectrum are the struggling extremist groups in Turkey. Turkish Hizballah, for example, has maintained a presence with occasional bombings or assassinations. In January 2000 a major crackdown revealed that Hizballah was responsible for the assassination and torture of dozens of people, mostly Kurds. The group was also blamed for the 2004 simultaneous bombings of the British consulate and the British HSBC Bank in Istanbul, which motivated the successful raids resulting in what has been considered the defeat of this group.[7] While no conclusive proof exists, the Turkish government has been trying to shake accusations that the extremist group was supported or even created by the government as a covert means of combating the PKK.[8]

In the meantime, several other extremist groups continue to maintain a presence. These groups include the Great Eastern Islamic Raiders' Front (IBDA-C), the Anatolian Federated Islamic State (Hilafet Devleti), and Turkish Islamic Jihad. It is perhaps significant that these groups remain at the very fringe of Turkish society and are condemned by the AK party.

Defining Secularism and Islamism in Turkey
The tension between Islam and secularism has played a defining role in Turkey since 1928 when the clause that preserved Islam as the state religion was removed from the constitution. Turkey had risen from the remains of the collapsed Ottoman Empire in 1923 under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, later given the name Ataturk, “the father of the Turks.” Ataturk boldly implemented a secular government, whose constitution is largely based on Switzerland’s, and imposed a separation between the functioning of the state and the religion of the vast majority of its citizens.

This historic transition entailed the abolition of the Islamic caliphate, an implication that Ataturk consciously intended. The reforms implemented during this period included prohibitions on headscarves in many civil contexts and the popular Ottoman fez. It also involved sweeping educational reforms and the transition from an Arabic-based script to a modified Latin script for the Turkish language. The true mark of the “Kemalist” reforms however, was the development of secularism or “laicism,” laiklik in Turkish.

In order to understand the nature of the tension between religion and state in Turkey it is essential to distinguish Turkish secularism from the more common Western notion of the separation of church and state. Turkish laiklik is not merely the separation of the religious domain from the civil, governmental one; it is the subjection of all aspects of religion to the state.[9] This important distinction has entailed the intentional control of the state over religious institutions and expression in Turkey.

This gives Islamism a much different role to play than might be imagined by the West. Rather than advocating overthrow of democracy in favor of a totalitarian rule by a religious elite, the appeal is to freedom of religious expression. The issue of headscarves, for example, is often taken up with rhetorical fervor on opposite sides of the argument. On the one hand, many conservative Muslims have campaigned for a woman’s right to wear the headscarf in universities, government buildings and other settings where it is currently banned. They insist that their interest is not in imposing headscarves on anyone, but only in establishing the right for women to choose whether to wear them or not.

On the other hand, secularists, or Kemalists as they are often called, view such a campaign as a politically motivated initiative to introduce religion into the government.[10] In this context Islamism can be defined as opposition to laiklik, a resistance to the state control of religion. More perilous, perhaps, is the temptation of Turkish politicians to define any opposition to the doctrines of Kemalism as Islamism, and with this designation gain the sympathy of the United States and Europe.

The Paradox of Military Democracy
Turkey’s heritage of laiklik, then, constitutes a major element of the context in which Islamism is understood. This secularist tradition has historically been held in trust by the Turkish military which understands itself as the “guardian of secularism.” This guardianship is not taken to be a symbolic or passive responsibility; rather, the military feels obligated to intervene in the normal democratic process whenever the elected government deviates from official Turkish laiklik. As Hakan Yavuz writes, “Turkey’s experiment of Westernization resulted in the formation of two conflicting sources of legitimacy: on the one hand there is an elected parliament of people’s representatives...on the other hand there is a nonelected military-bureaucratic elite that wields ultimate authority on the basis of Kemalism being a Westernizing and progressive ideology.” Yavuz’s characterization of this tension is not uncommon, but reveals a bleak interpretation of its implications, he continues, “But the history of modern Turkey is the story of conflict between democracy and Kemalism.”[11]

Turkey’s Kemalists would of course interpret the situation very differently, understanding laiklik as the condition of possibility of true democracy. Still, the paradox of a democracy which is maintained by powerful armed forces is striking. New York Times columnist Philip Taubman coined the phrase “military democracy” to describe the situation of Turkey. He added that “elections are fair, the press is relatively free and the rule of law prevails to a point, as long as the generals permit.”[12] The generals have in fact played a prominent role in stemming the tide of Islamism in Turkey, but it seems evident that their success in this regard has come at the cost of a democracy which is less than genuinely democratic, stifling the organic processes which integrate popular concerns and priorities into the political system.

The Historic and Ephemeral Islamist Victory
June 28th 1996 is the date which inaugurates the significance of the Islamist movement in Turkey. Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of the Refah Party was elected Prime Minister on this date, becoming the first Prime Minister in Turkey with a distinct Islamist agenda. The Refah party had campaigned on a platform of Islamist advances. The Kemalist establishment, reeling in disgust that such a victory could have occurred, responded with suspicion and anxiety. The military quickly decided that the Refah party was “anti-secularist” and less than a year after he had taken office, Erbakan’s fragile coalition broke apart and the military effectively forced his resignation in June 1997. Six months later, the Constitutional Committee abolished his party. [13]

This was not Erbakan’s first political venture, however. In fact, he had formed his first political party in 1970, against the historic backdrop of Nasser’s death, the increasing triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Khomeini’s conferences on Islamic government.[14] A disciple of a Naksibendi sheik, Kepel characterizes his Islamism as ideologically comparable to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood or Mawdudi’s Jama’at-i Islam-i, arguing that only the constitutional constraints prevented him from pursuing more radical advances. Despite this relative moderation, the Constitutional Council dissolved this Milli Nizam Partisi (Party of National Order) for antisecularism in 1971 after a military coup successfully gave the army control of the government.[15]

The next year Erbakan emerged with a new party, the Milli Selamet Partisi (National Salvation Party), and won 12% of the vote in the national election, and 49 seats in the parliament. During this time, he was able to enact a reform which allowed graduates of the imam hatip lisesi (religious schools for aspiring clerics) to apply to universities on a level playing field with graduates from secular schools. This served to create an “Islamist intellectual elite” over the next several years.[16] While the effects of this reform have profoundly impacted politics in Turkey, the party itself was not so long lasting. Another military coup in 1980 resulted in a ban on Erbakan’s party again and he was prohibited from entering national politics. It is often claimed that the military rigged the 1980 elections “in order to repress democratic opposition...and institutionalised an oppressive regime through a new constitution.” This constitution officially expanded the powers of the National Security Council, a committee of generals, enabling the council to proactively address potential “threats to the regime.”[17]
In 1983, after a short time in prison, Erbakan formed a new party, the Refah Partisi (Welfare Party), but because of the ban, he was not able to be recognized as the leader until 1987 when the prohibition was lifted. It was Refah that experienced the short-lived victory in 1996, which resulted in Erbakan’s third encounter with the Turkish military culminating in the third successive dissolution of political parties which he had founded.[18]

The Fazilet Transformation
Before the court case closing Refah was completed, Erbakan had his lawyer found a new party, Fazilet Partisi (Virtue Party). This turned out to be a wise maneuver since part of the court’s decision was to ban Erbakan from politics for 5 years.[19] Still remaining active, though unofficially, Erbakan went about the task of transforming the image of Islamism in Turkey. Great efforts were made to distance Fazilet from the extreme Islamism that Refah had become associated with. The new party leader, Recai Kutan made an appearance on the pro-Islamist television station Kanal 7 to announce that the party’s goal was no longer the establishment of the “just order,” which had been the rhetoric of Refah’s pro-Sharia platform. Rather, the goal of the new party “now included the promotion of democracy, human rights, political liberties and freedom in Turkey.”[20]

The transformation, though perhaps significant, was not sufficient to garner votes in the 1999 election. Fazilet was beaten badly, signaling a crisis for the Islamist cause in Turkey. In the months that followed, an internal political fault line within the Islamist movement became a decisive factor in the forming of a new party. The “new guard” of the movement was looking to make more significant concessions to democracy and secularism, while the traditionalists, still in the shadow of Erbakan, held to a party line which included rhetoric of democracy, but failed to gain credibility in the eyes of the electorate. An internal challenge for the leadership of the Fazilet Party in May 2000 resulted in a close race between Abdullah Gul, the challenger, and Recai Kutan, the ideological successor to Erbakan. Kutan retained leadership, but only by a 633 to 521 vote.[21] Despite losing the internal election, Gul was launched to national prominence as a potential party leader and the division within the movement became strikingly apparent.

Fazilet, in its turn was also banned in 2001, but was reformed as the Saadet Partisi (Felicity Party). This also provided the opportunity for the party to divide, however, and the formation of the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice and Reconciliation Party), or AK Partisi, was a product of this split. The AK party’s unofficial leader and true founder was Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul with the Refah party. He had been banned from politics in 1998 for reciting an Islamist poem that equated mosques to barracks, but was still playing a very prominent role in the shaping of the new party.[22]

Victory for “Moderate” Islamism
Both parties campaigned in the 2002 election, with 21 other parties as well.[23] The result of the election was the vindication of the AK party, which succeeded in establishing itself as conservative, but Westward looking. Winning 34% of the vote, the AK party emerged as the clear victor.[24] Although this only represented slightly more than one-third of the voters of Turkey, only one other party, the Cumhurriyet Halk Partisi (Republican People’s Party), succeeded in surpassing the 10% threshold required to have representation in the parliament. This translated into 363 of the 550 seats in the Turkish Grand Assembly.[25] This was particularly astonishing since the party’s leader was unable to assume the post of Prime Minister. Erdogan chose Abdullah Gul to assume the post, but in reality this was only a request to keep Erdogan’s seat warm since the new parliament overturned his prohibition from politics, and Gul promptly stepped aside to allow Erdogan to become Turkey’s Prime Minister.
For the second time in Turkey’s history a party whose political identity was Islam was able to win a national election and govern the country. However, this was the first time that such a party won such a substantial victory in the parliament and the success has been much longer-lasting than the Refah’s single year in power in 1996. Several factors are cited in explanation of this victory. Among them, perhaps the most common is the “public disgust over corruption within the long-feuding coalition parties.”[26] AK party’s ability to retain the perception of a champion of morality and as resistant to corruption has certainly aided its success. However, the political factors preceding the election must also be taken into account as do the state of Islam in Turkey and the actual activities of the Party since taking power.

Turkish Islamism
Sami Zubaida presents what he calls the three “ideal types” of Islamic movements worldwide. This typology is particularly helpful in describing the situation of Islamism in Turkey. Type 1 is Conservative Islam, characterized by an emphasis on morality and social control. This type of Islamism seeks to implement Islamic values through “government and law.” Often this is expressed in a desire to implement Sharia law, perhaps through democratic channels. Type 2, Radical Islam, seeks to effect immediate change directly, often through assassination or force. Type 3 is Political Islam, which embodies “ideas and programmes of socio-political transformation based on Islam.” This type of movement is also often associated with “nationalist and leftist projects.” Turkish Islamism, as Zubaida observes, is most clearly a type 3 Islamic movement.[27]

Erdogan and the AK party have arduously kept up a campaign to balance the often opposing interests of secularism and Islamism, however. For example, shortly after the victory in 2002, Erdogan announced that “Secularism is the protector of all beliefs and religions. We are the guarantors of this secularism, and our management will clearly prove that.”[28] This represents a departure from the typical Turkish understanding of secularism. By declaring that secularism is the protector of religions he adopts the language of laiklik, but applies it to a religious concern. Also interesting from that statement is his declaration that his party is the “guarantor of secularism,” a statement which seems to challenge the military’s role in this regard. Similarly, the Party Principles include a description of laicism as “the state’s impartiality toward every form of religious belief and philosophical conviction,” so that “the state, rather than the individual, is restricted and limited by this.”[29] While this is interpreted by some as a movement away from an Islamist message, the real force of this statement seems to be its co-opting of the language of secularism and imbuing it with Islamist meaning.

On the other hand, Erdogan also makes very clear statements which do move away from an Islamist direction. For example, he now insists that, “Our identity is that of a conservative democrat political party. We will never have a religious identity. This is a founding principle of our party: We are neither Islamic nor Islamist.”[30] He has also clearly abandoned appeals for Sharia in Turkey, at least for the present time, and distances himself from “political Islam.”[31] These statements offer some balance to his proposals to criminalize adultery and to allow graduates from Islamic secondary schools to enter secular universities without the necessary secular academic requirements.[32]

Still there is enduring suspicion on the part of many, that the AK party is merely disguising a radical Islamist agenda in the language of democracy and secularism for the sake of gaining power.[33] This type of fear seems unfounded given the party’s 3 years in power, including a sweeping victory in the 2003 elections, winning 66% of the seats in parliament. A more moderate suspicion may be that the party has wisely tempered its short-term goals and adopted a strategy to appease Islamist and secularist concerns in Turkey. This idea is vindicated by a recent interview with Erdogan in which he was asked whether he could now recite the poem which caused his arrest in 1998. Erdogan responded ominously, “I did recite that poem in a different situation in a different time. Now, for a limited period of time, I am on leave, so to speak. Maybe later I will recite it again.”[34]

Creationism: A Plank in the Islamist Platform
An interesting development related to Islamism in Turkey is the emergence of creationism as a political, religious, and scientific movement. The major contributor to this genre, particularly in Turkey, is Adnan Oktar, who writes under the pseudonym, Harun Yahya. However, many have speculated that one person could not be responsible for the sheer volume of publications that are attributed to him, and conclude that the Bilim Arastirma Vakfi, (Science Research Foundation) may be collaborating to produce the publications. The books are extravagantly produced with sophisticated full-color photos and use high quality materials. Similarly, the website,, is well designed and organized and offers all of its books, pamphlets and videos for free to download. His books, The Evolution Deceit, and Darwinism Refuted have become extremely influential in Turkey and have since been distributed throughout the Muslim world and the West.[35]

The political nature of creationism in Turkey is of particular significance. In the literature itself, Darwinism is associated with Marxist ideologies, and Masons and Jews are credited with driving the evolutionist agenda.[36] In terms of the actual scientific support for creationism, the Turkish creationist movement borrows nearly all of its research from the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), a conservative, evangelical Christian organization that promotes scientific creationism in the United States.

The introduction of creationism as a “solid plank in the Islamist platform” occurred during the rise of the Refah party.[37] Much of the initiative in the 1980’s and 90’s was to introduce creationism into public schools. Then minister of education Vehbi Dinçerler sought to eliminate the strictly Darwinian curriculum and introduce one which also included elements of creationism.[38] By appealing to Western scientists, the movement gained credibility as both Islamic and Western and so became a popular Islamist issue. While AK party doesn’t include the drive to incorporate creationism in public education as part of its official platform, Vehbi Dinçerler is now associated with AK party and the BAV has dramatically increased its activity and publications, providing the Islamist result without the political risk.

The E.U. as Opportunity
A major point of departure between the Refah party of Erbakan and the AK party of Erdogan are their respective stances on the European Union. While Erbakan preferred cultivating relationships with Muslim neighbors, and resisted any interest in joining the E.U., Erdogan was able to read the public interest in EU membership and move his party in that direction.

The European Union, on the other hand, met with their own tensions about including Turkey, and several reforms were placed as pre-requisites for the consideration of Turkey as a candidate nation. Many of the required reforms addressed human rights and democracy issues, and required the Turkish government to enact broad commitments to reform. In 2000, Turkey was officially recognized as a candidate nation.

However, no date had been set for membership negotiation talks and a thick sense of frustration and skepticism had been mounting in Turkey. Since the AK party had made such a dramatic turn-around in their position on the EU, they also risked losing credibility if some progress was not made. Several issues proved to be complicated, including the recognition of Greek Cyprus, since this would be seen as a capitulation among many Turks.[39]

Erdogan successfully marketed EU membership as an opportunity to demonstrate the value of Islam in a democratic system. This was a shift in the popular perception that membership in the EU was purely for material or political advantage at the cost of Turkey’s Islamic identity. He explains that entering the EU, “is going to provide an opportunity to show that a culture of Islam and democracy can work together. Eighty percent of Turks want to be in the European Union—a figure higher than most countries already a part of the EU.”[40]

In July 2003 the political tides also turned somewhat to Erdogan’s advantage. While making concessions to EU reform requirements was a clear way to appease secularist forces in Turkey, this move also risked alienating the more conservative Islamist sentiments. However, as part of the seventh package of EU-motivated reforms, the parliament passed a proposal which limited the power of the Turkish military and the National Security Council.[41] Since this body has been the historic enemy to Islamism in Turkey, limiting its power had the effect of appeasing the EU, gaining favor with Islamist voters, and significantly disarming the council which had shut down four previous incarnations of Islamist political parties. As a result, Erdogan can speak of the military as no longer “at an equal level” as the “political will,” but is now merely “one of the organizations that supports the political will.”[42] This momentum was only increased by the recent announcement that negotiation talks will begin on October 3, 2005.[43]

Economic Successes
Turkey seems to be emerging from a protracted economic crisis and the AK party is also benefiting from the public sense of economic well being. Erdogan has also enacted several “inexpensive but popular reforms,” such as distributing free textbooks to students and proposing tax cuts on consumer goods and cigarettes, which is significant since nearly half of all adult Turks smoke.[44] Similarly, of important psychological impact was the recent decision to cut six zeros from its currency, since inflation now seems to be somewhat under control. The introduction of a “New Turkish Lira” is a long awaited action which signals stability to the public and removes the memory of a flagging economy which was only worsened by the fact that a Coca-Cola could cost 1,000,000 Turkish lira.

Economics also play an important role in among the established class of Islamist wealthy businessmen, sometimes called “green money.” Paradoxically, the existence of Islamists within a market economy, despite their occasional ideological protests, has created a class of wealthy “religiously inclined entrepreneurs” in Turkey. The formation of Musiad, a conservative small-business organization and lobby, accompanied the rise of this new class, and their political influence became evident.[45]

Erdogan is a classic example of this phenomenon, and is estimated to be worth one billion dollars in holdings. His government also sits under the shadow of suspicions that the political activities of his party are funded by such “green money” both from within Turkey and from undeclared, outside sources. The most skeptical accusations imply that Saudi Arabia or other Middle Eastern countries are contributing,[46] although such allegations would be difficult to prove. Still, as Michael Rubin has pointed out, the influx of millions of dollars of unaccounted for money into the Turkish economy is troubling. He writes, “Turkish officials and economists estimated the green money infusion into the economy at between $6 billion and $12 billion.[47]

In any case, the economic prosperity of the emerging wealthy Islamists creates a moderating, rather than a radicalizing effect. Although this Islamist elite has political influence, they are inevitably tempered in their zeal for risky, extremist advances by their own concern to preserve their financial success.[48] This combined with the popular reforms such as tax cuts and free textbooks, which appease the young urban poor, creates an atmosphere of contentment which has contributed significantly to the stability of AK party’s government.

Although the question remains unanswered as to whether the AK party is a secular but conservative democratic party or a Trojan horse for radical Islamism, such a question seems misdirected. At least to some degree, Erdogan can be seen to represent the integration of Islam into democracy in Turkey. This integration has not come without incongruities and unresolved tensions, but at least for the present time, coexistence seems possible.

Perhaps the greatest long-term benefit of the Islamist movement in Turkey will be the tempering of Turkish laiklik. If Erdogan is able to redefine secularism, shaking off the element of state control of religious life, while preserving the freedom of religious expression, all of Turkey’s citizens could benefit. In the meantime, it seems inevitable that anti-secularism in the form of political Islam will continue to find ways of expressing itself in Turkey.


Aras, Bulent and Gokhan Bacik, “The Mystery of Turkish Hizballah.” Middle East Policy. Vol IX, No 2, (June 2002).

Caha, Omer. “Turkish Election of November 2002 and the Rise of “Moderate” Political Islam.” Alternatives: Turkish Journal of International Relations. Vol 2, No 1, (Spring 2003).

Cam, Surhan. “Talking Turkey for democracy: Fundamentalism, fascism and the EU.” Capital & Class. (Spring 2005).

Edis, Taner. “Islamic Creationism in Turkey.” Creation/Evolutio.,34:1 (1994).

Gardels, Nathan. “European Union Should Be About Values, Not Borders - Interview with Recep Tayip Erdogan.” New Perspectives Quarterly. Vol 20, No 2, (Spring 2003). spring/erdogan. html.

Gorvett, John. “Turkey Gets the Go-Ahead.” Middle East. (Feb 2005).

Gulalp, Haldun “Political Islam in Turkey: The Rise and Fall of the Refah Party,” Muslim World, vol 89 no. 1 (January, 1999).

Howe, Marvine. Turkey Today: A Nation Divided Over Islam’s Revival. (Boulder: Westview Press, 2000).

Karmon, Ely. “The Demise of Radical Islam in Turkey,” International Policy Institute, June 3 (2000).

Kepel, Gilles. “Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam.” trans. Anthony Roberts (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2000).

Mason, Whit. “The Future of Political Islam in Turkey.” World Policy Journal. (Summer 2000).

Nugent, John Jr. “The Defeat of Turkish Hizballah as a Model for Counter-Terrorism Strategy.” MERIA. Vol 8, No 1, (March 2004).

Pipes, Daniel “Turkey’s Radical Turn?” NewYork Post. August 5, 2003.

“Political Rumblings Toward Turkish General Elections,” The Turkish Times, Oct 15-31 (2002),

Rubin, Michael. Middle East Quarterly. “Green Money, Islamist Politics in Turkey.” (Winter 2005).

Shapiro, Arthur. “Political Creationism in Turkey.” The NewLeader. (March/April 2000).

Stratford, Jeffrey. “Emergence of the Islamic Creationists.” Cladistics. vol 20, 215 (2004).

“Turkey reform targets army power” BBC News, July 30, 2003.

“Turkey’s 22nd Parliament Consists of New Names,” Turkish Daily News, Nov. 5 (2002),

White, Jenny B. Islamist Mobilization in Turkey. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002).

Yavuz, Hakan. Islamic Political Identity in Turkey. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).
Zubaida, Sami “Trajectories of Political Islam: Egypt, Iran, and Turkey.” Political Quarterly. (2000).
[1] Ely Karmon, “The Demise of Radical Islam in Turkey,” International Policy Institute, June 3 (2000).
[2] Gilles Kepel, “Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam,” trans. Anthony Roberts (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2000), 342.
[3] Hakan Yavuz, Islamic Political Identity in Turkey, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 273.
[4] Marvine Howe, Turkey Today: A Nation Divided Over Islam’s Revival, (Boulder: Westview Press, 2000), 45.
[5] Howe, 37.
[6] Howe, 37.
[7] John Nugent, Jr. “The Defeat of Turkish Hizballah as a Model for Counter-Terrorism Strategy” MERIA, Vol 8, No 1, (March 2004).
[8] Bulent Aras and Gokhan Bacik, “The Mystery of Turkish Hizballah” Middle East Policy, Vol IX, No 2, (June 2002), 148.
[9] Whit Mason, “The Future of Political Islam in Turkey,” World Policy Journal, Summer (2000), 58.
[10] Mason, 59.
[11] Yavuz, 265.
[12] Quoted in Marvine Howe, “Turkey Today: A Nation Divided Over Islam’s revival, (Boulder: Westview Press, 2000), 249.
[13] Kepel, 342.
[14] Kepel, 343.
[15] Kepel, 344.
[16] Kepel, 345.
[17] Surhan Cam, “Talking Turkey for democracy: Fundamentalism, fascism and the EU,” Capital & Class, (Spring 2005), 2.
[18] Kepel, 345.
[19] Haldun Gulalp, “Political Islam in Turkey: The Rise and Fall of the Refah Party,” Muslim World, vol 89 no. 1 (January, 1999), 40.
[20] Gulalp, 41.
[21] Mason, 67.
[22] Nathan Gardels “European Union Should Be About Values, Not Borders - Interview with Recep Tayip Erdogan”. New Perspectives Quarterly, Vol 20, No 2, (Spring 2003), spring/erdogan. html.
[23] “Political Rumblings Toward Turkish General Elections,” The Turkish Times, Oct 15-31 (2002),
[24] “Turkey’s 22nd Parliament Consists of New Names,” Turkish Daily News, Nov. 5 (2002),
[25] Omer Caha, “Turkish Election of November 2002 and the Rise of “Moderate” Political Islam” Alternatives: Turkish Journal of International Relations, Vol 2, No 1, (Spring 2003),
[26] Michael Rubin, Middle East Quarterly, “Green Money, Islamist Politics in Turkey” (Winter 2005), 14.
[27] Sami Zubaida, “Trajectories of Political Islam: Egypt, Iran, and Turkey,” Political Quarterly, (2000), 62-63.
[28] Rubin, 13.
[29] Quoted in Jenny B. White, Islamist Mobilization in Turkey (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), 274.
[30] Gardels, 2003.
[31] Daniel Pipes, “Turkey’s Radical Turn?” NewYork Post, August 5, 2003. Also at
[32] Rubin 14.
[33] Pipes, 2003.
[34] Gardels, 2003.
[35] Jeffrey Stratford, “Emergence of the Islamic Creationists,” Cladistics,2004, vol 20, 215
[36] Edis, 33
[37] Arthur Shapiro, “Political Creationism in Turkey,” The NewLeader, (March/April 2000), 15.
[38] Taner Edis, “Islamic Creationism in Turkey,” Creation/Evolution,34:1 (1994)
[39] John Gorvett, “Turkey Gets the Go-Ahead,” Middle East, (Feb 2005), 26.
[40] Gardels, 2003.
[41] “Turkey reform targets army power” BBC News, July 30, 2003,
[42] Gardels, 2003.
[43] Gorvett, 26.
[44] Rubin, 15.
[45] Kepel, 352.
[46] Rubin, 19.
[47] Rubin, 19.
[48] Kepel, 352.