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Book Reviews

The Diverse World of Turkish Islam

Islam in Turkey

The presence of Islam in Turkey is very rich and diverse: Alberto Fabio Ambrosio, Dominican and a specialist in Sufism, aims to provide its main coordinates in this book. The decision to structure the book in five chapters, each focusing on the most important aspects of the religion in the country, is curious. By recalling in the number of chapters the five pillars of Islam, the author intends to place the Turkish specificity within the broader Islamic panorama.



After a brief historic introduction on the origin of the modern Turkish Republic (1923), Ambrosio focuses on the fluctuating relationship between the state authorities and Islam. Initially, in the nationalist period of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, there was a “privatization” of religiousness; then, gradually, Islam has been reintroduced into public and political life, a process that reaches its climax in the last fifteen years through the policy of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP government.



The second chapter gets into the heart of the various Turkish religious expressions. The author lists the local Islamic experience into - again - five categories: scholastic and official Islam, conveyed in the courtyards of the city’s mosques; the minority Alevi Islam, which has been repeatedly persecuted because, although considered Sunni, it embraces elements of Shiism; the “parallel” or popular Islam, that of the countryside, mixed with beliefs and superstitions and nurtured by stories of Sufi masters; the cultured and intellectual Islam of independent thinkers. Their leitmotif is precisely their deep roots in the Anatolian folk tradition, different from the Arab culture and preceding the advent of Islam.



The most emblematic product of this blend is, however, the fifth and final category: Sufism. According to the author, the Sufi brotherhoods are the most authentic representatives of Turkish Islam and they are characterized by the value placed on the inner being and spirituality and for their eclectic nature. “Popular religious culture is a mirror, which reflects the whole of Turkish history, starting from a basis of cosmological beliefs related to shamanism, enriched by the conversion to Islam” (p. 49).



In the fourth chapter, Ambrosio focuses of the cultural importance of Sufism and its dissemination, recalling that, in the republican history, Sufi brotherhoods have not always had an easy life. In fact, there was no lack of persecutions against them on behalf of the authorities, since “in the prospect of establishing a new secular, national identity […] any claim of independence and recognition of rights seriously undermined the foundation of the Republic” (p. 63). Among the examples, a non-Sufi reality, the Hizmet movement, is also mentioned. Founded by Fethullah Gülen, the movement had an active role in society and in politics; however in recent years, its clash with the former ally AKP has isolated him from public life, a fate which also met many mystical orders.



Finally, the last chapter frames – perhaps too quickly – the current phase of Turkish religiosity, characterized by the growth of political Islam. The impoverishment and, in certain cases, the loss of Sufi cultural heritage as a result of the continuous clash with official Islam represents for the author a severe lack of historical memory for the identity of contemporary Turkey. It should be said that the sequence of events in the final part of the book can be difficult to follow, as the author moves abruptly from one period to another.


Nevertheless, the persistence today of local pre-Islamic elements and the preeminence of Sufism represents for the author the distinctive features of Turkish Islam. In addition to being easy and interesting to read, the book is very well documented through the constant reference to sources in their original language and gives special importance to the role of the brotherhoods, not only in folk or peripheral environments, but also in the so-called official Islam, revealing the interest in this world and the deep knowledge that the author has acquired.




This article was translated from the original Italian

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