Contemporary Sufi Practices in Istanbul

Sieta Neuerburg & Simone Pekelsma
Download the accompanying PowerPoint presentation

Sufism is a mysterious issue in Turkey. Not only because of its mystical origins, but also because of the fact that it was officially forbidden in 1925. However, Sufi practices have always survived underground. Tekkes might have been forced to close down, and tariqahs might have been banned, but the spirit of Sufism has always survived. Since the 1980s, Sufi practices have increasingly been performed by Sufi foundations and associations that were erected in order to be able to legally continue the tradition..

The contemporary practice of Sufism is vague though. A lot has been written about the situation until 1925, but what happened after that, has not been explored in much detail. That is why we set up a research project focusing on contemporary practices of Sufism.

From the 5th until the 18th of April 2012, we were in Turkey to analyze the current interpretation and implementation of Sufi philosophies and practices in today’s Istanbul. We did so not only by studying Sufi music, religious gatherings and literature, but also by focusing on websites, TV shows and popular culture.

Sufism and music
One of the most discussed elements of Sufism is its music. Music plays a central role in the rituals of most Sufi orders. In the Ottoman empire, the tekkes of the Mevlevi order especially could be compared to conservatories, training musicians who would perform in both religious and secular settings. The music of the court was deeply influenced by the music of the Mevlevis.

After the founding of the Republic in 1923, however, (Mevlevi) Sufi music and musicians lost their high status. Kemalist ideologues such as Ziya Gökalp argued that the music of the court and the tekkes was too ‘Eastern’ and belonged to a decadent Ottoman, urban élite. This music, they believed, was influenced by ‘Arab’ cultures and had nothing to do with ‘genuine’ Turkish, rural culture, which in their view belonged to the ‘Western’civilization. In line with these views, the government made it clear that ‘art’ (or sanat) music, including the music of the Sufi orders, was now considered out of place and time in the rapidly modernizing, secular Turkish state.

Discourses about what is ‘genuinely Turkish’ music are still relevant today, as was proven during our visit to a group of amateur musicians. This group of friends plays together each Sunday in the former medrese of the Atik Valide camii in Üsküdar. They play ney, kanun, and tanbur, and sometimes they sing along to the music as well. Their repertoire exists mainly of 19th century and early 20th century compositions.

During our visit, we asked the musicians some questions about the music they were playing and their relation to it. Asking if they would only play religious music, we were pressed not to think in such categories as ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ music, because they really are the same. Moreover, they asked us not to use the term ‘sanat müzik’ (art music) because in Turkey it often refers to classical music in ‘western style’. Therefore, they preferred to talk of “Ottoman, or, even better, Turkish classical music, because this refers to the continuity between the music and culture of the Ottoman empire of the past and that of today’s republican Turkey”.

Mercan Dede: contrasting electronica and classical arts
Some ‘Sufi’ musicians seem less concerned with the ‘tradition’ and more with the (postmodern) present; for example the Turkish-Canadian DJ and ney player Mercan Dede. His music features a range of musical styles and instruments from many musical cultures, mixed with electronic beats and samples. The binding factor between the mix of musical elements is Sufism. In many of his recordings and performances, Mercan Dede plays the ney. Also, many of his songs’ and albums’ titles refer to symbols and persons related with Sufism. On his website, Mercan Dede explains that for him “this contrast between electronica and classical or folkloric arts cuts to the core of the Sufi philosophy”. However, Mercan Dede is criticized by some for turning Sufi rituals and religion into a show. Indeed, his performances often feature a female dancer performing the whirling dance of the dervishes, whose dress is full of color and fluorescent decorations.

Spiritual shows for tourists
On the other hand, we could wonder if a ‘show’ or aesthetic element necessarily reduces the  spiritual meaning of a ritual, both for the performers and the audience. This is an important and intriguing question in relation to our research, because Istanbul hosts dozens of ‘sema shows’ for tourists. Some of these groups perform in very secular spaces, such as restaurants or even the Sirkeci train station. These semas usually include only music and whirling and often last about one hour only – in contrast to a complete ceremony, which would include communal illahi singing, prayers of the Mevlevi tradition, and regular namaz and which may last up to five or six hours in total.

Foundation of Universal Lovers of Mevlana
There is also a group of more ‘hybrid’ events which address both the local population of believers and tourists. We visited one such event organized by the Foundation of Universal Lovers of Mevlana (Evrensel Mevlana Aşıkları Vakfı, EMAV). It took place in their newly built ‘cultural center’ in Silivrikapı. The large room was decorated by poems and sayings taken from the Mevlevi and Bektashi tradition. The main wall was decorated by three portraits, showing Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Jalaluddin Rumi, and Ali. For the first one and a half hour, we were the only foreigners in the room. The dede was engaged in sohbet (religious conversation) for quite a long time, before he and the believers started to sing illahi together. After performing namaz, there was a tea break and we were invited to ask some questions to Hasan dede. He stressed that women and men were performing sema together in his group, because, as he put it, ‘times had changed’. On our asking why a portrait of Atatürk was behind him, he stated that Atatürk was ‘like his brother’. In the promotion leaflet produced by EMAV, it reads that the association defends the lineage of “all the prophets and saints…like the Exalted Mohammet, the Exalted Ali, the Exalted Mevlana Rumi and the Headmaster, the Honorable Mustafa Kemal Atatürk”.

After the tea break, a large group of tourists arrived and the ‘show’ part of the ceremony started. Indeed, both men and women took part in the dance. The men were the traditional white robes, while the women are dressed in red, pink, and green. As stated in an older leaflet, ‘the colorful robes bring to mind a rose garden’. In spite (or partly because?) of the colours, we could not help but feel that this sema was first and foremost a show. In comparison to the sema in the Nürettin tekke, the semazens seemed to be performing the exact same movements and gestures over and over again. Moreover, they were whirling only in one spot; they would not move around the room. Also, it was interesting to note that the (Turkish part of the) audience was not singing along to the illahis. This may be caused by the fact that the musicians of EMAV often perform their own, new compositions rather than the traditional prayers. Rather, many Turkish visitors were taking pictures and making video recordings, just as the foreign visitors. What also surprised us was that the dede himself continued to engage in conversations and jokes during the performance of the sema. The hybrid nature of this event makes it a difficult topic for interpretation. We would like to visit more ‘tourist shows’ to be able to understand this better.

Karagümrük: public religiosity
In addition to ‘touristic groups’ such as the ones described above, there are also groups that very closely follow the religious philosophy they believe in, and carefully perform the rituals they perceive as being part of this philosophy, while also being open to the public. One example of such a group is situated in Karagümrük, at the Nurettin Tekkesi. The group belongs to the Cerahi Tariqah, which was founded by Muhammad Nureddin al-Jerrahi, who is also buried at the same site. Karagümrük forms the head convention of the international Halveti-Jerrahi order. The order became particularly well known because of the 19th Grand Sheikh Muzaffer Özak who died in 1985, but gave a lot of lectures – especially in the United States in the 1970s.

During our visit to this group we talked to Burhanettin Altındağ, a prominent member of this Cerahi order. He stressed the religious sincerity of the order:  “We pray five times and we fast during Ramadan. Some of us pray more often (nafilah) during the day. A dervish will seek every opportunity to pray. Some of us also fast during the year to feel closer to god.”

The same evening we attended an extensive evening program consisting of the Al-Fatiha prayers at 19:00, the evening prayers at 20:00, a wedding ceremony at 21:00, the yatsı prayer at 21:20 and a sema from 22:00 to midnight.

In Karagumruk there was a strict separation between men and women. The men were downstairs, and the women were sitting upstairs, behind wooden lattice work. The women participated in the prayers, and watched the sema, but they didn’t ‘sing along’ with the illahi. Burhanettin Altindag had already explained the position of women in our interview earlier that evening. “The women participate by watching and listening to the ceremony. Allah says they have to be separated. However, there is no difference between men and women; god wants the same thing from both. Women do not perform meşk though. If they want to, they can sing illahi together.”

Interestingly, foreign women were allowed to sit downstairs and watch the sema there. Does this mean foreign women are not women, or that they are lost already, or that it doesn’t matter they sit on the same floor as men, because they are not Muslim?

Şirin Anne: women at the center
The position of women within the performance of rituals was very different at another place we visited: almost the opposite. Here there were only women, except for the son of the anne (mother), a friend of ours, and another man who joined later on.

We attended a sema that took place in the living room of Şirin Anne, the old-aged leader of the group, who was actually very sick and in bed. The living room was covered by framed pictures of Mevlana, Ali, Şirin Anne when she was younger, and other people who probably were important to the group.

From the beginning onwards, the sema at this group was very intense. The women were extremely into it, shaking their heads and moving their arms. The woman leading the sema was all the time trying to spice things up more by enthusiastic hand and arm gestures. Somewhere half way the ceremony, one woman started to whirl in the middle of the group. It didn’t look aesthetically beautiful, but you could feel that she was very sincere. Later, the leader of the group seemed to try to heal one of the group members by softly hitting her with a stick. The woman got very emotional, and seemed to be completely in a different world.

It was quite special that we were able to visit this sema, because it’s not an open ceremony like in Karagümrük or EMAV. This was probably one of the most intense sema’s we visited, but it was also one of the least tangible ones. After the sema, there was a common lunch, during which we talked to the son of Şirin Anne. He looked very much like a new age type of spiritual leader, in wide white pants, a white shirt, a white hat, and with a long beard. We asked him very concrete questions about the background of this group, when it was founded and so on,  but he only wanted to talk about very intangible subjects such as ‘being a dervish’, Adam and Eve and searching for the password to the Mevlevi philosophy. We thus didn’t get any real information from this visit, but we did get an idea of the intensity with which Sufism can be experienced by people. In addition, it showed us that there are also groups where very different kinds of women perform rituals together. They do not need men to perform their rituals at all. The mix of women was also interesting. At Şirin Anne, there were women who looked more rural when it came to their clothing style, but there were also women who looked like typical rich Nişantaşı women. They wore colorful headscarves with shiny beads on them, but after the sema, most of them immediately took those off.

Mevlana Education and Culture Association
Walking down Galipdede Caddesi, we passed the famous Galata Mevlevihanesi, which is now a museum. Sema is performed in its restored semahane for (paying) visitors several times a week. After explaining the topic of our research, the organizer of these performances invited us to meet with the dede of the Mevlana Education and Culture Association (Mevlana Eğitim ve Kültür Derneği, MEKDER), which is housed in Hasanpaşa, Kadıköy. Kaderi Yetiş dede explained to us that he led two groups; one male and one female. The group of men would perform in the Galata Mevlevihanesi, but the women would pray and dance in private only. Every Tuesday and Saturday, the women would come together to ‘practice’ and perform the sema, led by the dede. After our interview with the dede, the women’s group started to arrive, and we had some time to sit and talk with them. The women were all wearing jeans and shirts; none of them covered their hair. They were all aged between roughly twenty and thirty five years old; most of them are in university or working.

The group invited us to come to their meeting on Saturday morning. In contrast to the rather uninspiring environments of Hasanpaşa, the women and men of MEKDER also perform their sema each Saturday in the restored semahane of the beautiful Yenikapı tekke. This sixteenth century tekke, just outside the city walls in Zeytinburnu, has been restored in 2005-2010 and is now in use as a university. The semahane is still used for sema performances sometimes and, apparently, also used by MEKDER for private sema ceremonies.

On Saturday morning, the women arrive early to have breakfast and tea together, talking about Mevlana and what he means in their daily life as they wait for the dede. During our visit, it turns out that the dede is feeling unwell today and the sema is delayed. However, we have some more time to talk to the women of the group. It becomes clear that most of them joined the group by personal motivation and choice. None of them talks about being raised in the Mevlevi tradition. They all stress the importance of the teaching of Rumi and the participation in the sema for their personal wellbeing.

The women of MEKDER combined their individual experience and interpretation of Sufism with participation in a more or less ‘traditional’ order or group. However, many more people may be engaged in listening to Sufi music, reading spiritual literature and even ‘practising’ Sufi rituals without being related to any organization at all.

Ebru: personal interpretations and experiences
In this respect, our meeting with Ebru Bilun Akyıldız was an eye opener. Ebru is photographer, designer and film maker. She recently finished the documentary Soul traces (Etek izlerini silmeden) about the restoration of the Galata Mevlevihanesi. In her film, Ebru interviewed a range of people, from literature professors to construction workers to the 22nd granddaughter of Jalaluddin Rumi, Ms. Esin Çelebi Bayru. Several speakers stressed that the power structures of the tarikats or orders were developed long after Rumi’s death. After watching the documentary together, Ebru expressed her devotion to a personal interpretation and experience of Rumi’s work. She stated that Rumi himself would probably have agreed with this private approach to spirituality and that he would have opposed the institutionalization of the Mevlevi order over time. To her, no one would need a dede or religious leader to “translate Rumi’s work, as it speaks directly to the heart and mind”.

Ebru’s approach added an interesting (and complex) aspect to our research. Because…How to find out how and to what extent people are engaged in ‘private’ forms of (Mevlevi) Sufism? An indication of the popularity of Sufi spiritual ideas among large parts of the Turkish population is the existence of a ‘popular culture’ building on Sufi (particularly Mevlevi) tradition and symbols. This can be witnessed not only in the field of music (see the example of Mercan Dede above), but also in literature.

Elif Şafak: The forty rules of love
A few years ago, Elif Şafak’s book Aşk (translated as The forty rules of love) turned into a major bestseller in Turkey in 2010 (also selling well in translation). In this novel, American housewife Ella falls in love with the ‘wandering dervish’ Aziz, who tells her – by e-mail – about the life of Jalaluddin Rumi and Şems of Tabriz. The novel stresses the ‘universal’ values of Sufism, such as love for all that live, forgiveness, open mindedness, and being true to yourself. It could be said that the ‘popular culture’ manifestations of Sufism are mostly detached from a strictly Muslim tradition, and more oriented toward the branch of ‘Universal Sufism’, which is very popular in Western Europe and the United States. However, we would like to take a closer look at this phenomenon before drawing any conclusions.

From Universal Sufism back to Islam
Acccording to H. Nur Artıkan, the spiritual leader of the Şefik Can International Mevlana Education and Culture Association (Uluslararası Mevlana Eğitim ve Kültür Derneği), the mevlevi tradition is inextricably linked to Islam. In our interview she stressed that she did not want to qualify books such as that of Elif Şafak as bad or good,  but she did say that this was not the original way. Her group – a mixed group consisting both men and women – supposedly follows the Qu’ran and Sharia law very closely. The atmosphere and the relations between the different group members seemed to be very relaxed and easy going, but H. Nur Artıkan also explained there were many invisible ‘rules’ that we, as outsiders, wouldn’t be able to detect.

Nonetheless, this was one of the most peaceful groups we visited. It seemed to be a very honest and open group, that was very accepting and tolerant. We did notice that they are strict. H. Nur Artıkan also writes books and gave us a copy. The book includes texts Mevlevi philosophy, but also on practical ‘rules’ and guidelines, such as how to practice eating little.

Besides publishing books, H. Nur Artıkan’s writings are also used for the Turkish website ‘Semazen’ , which according to Artıkan is one of the most reliable sources on the subject. It includes links to explanations of Mevlevi texts – columns from experts – , and links to book shops and other shops selling Mevlevi products. This shows that in addition to the selling of the tourist experience at EMAV,  the selling of Universal Sufism of Elif Shafak and Mercan Dede, there is also quite an industry of more religious products.

Also on television, Sufism has a certain presence, illustrating that it is increasingly being mediatized. The video in our presentation shows a special TV program of CemalNur Sargut – the head of the Turkish Women’s Cultural Association and a well-known spiritual teacher, in which she answers questions from people in Turkey from a Mevlevi perspective.

In conclusion, our research brought up many more questions than answers so far. It has certainly inspired us to come back to Istanbul, visit more ceremonies and have more in-depth conversations with practitioners of Sufism, both those participating in some organization or those who are Sufis ‘at home’.

In any case, we would like to dive more deeply into the following aspects. First of all, why are so many groups calling themselves after Mevlana, even though their symbols seem to refer to other traditions, such as the Bektashi orders? The simple answer would be that the Mevlevi order was and is more generally accepted (by the state and society), but we would need more research to find out about the motives and reasoning behind this phenomenon. Secondly, an interesting theoretical approach would be to consider the commodification and ‘musealisation’ of Sufi practices in the context of the (re-)appropriation of Ottoman and Turkish heritage and ‘identity’ by a range of social, political and religious actors in contemporary Turkey. In relation to this, we will look at the ‘religion industry’. ‘Sufism’ as idea and practice is packaged and sold in the shape of ‘sema shows’ for tourists; in popular culture, and, last but not least, in religious books, TV programs, and websites. A last aspect which we will take into account is the status of the individual in Sufi groups, looking at the wider context of the supposed ‘privatization’ of religion in Turkey. Finally, we will reflect on questions of ethnic and gender identity, as they affect all of the other subjects for research.

This research project was made possible by the Netherlands Institute in Turkey (NIT). The presentation was given at the NIT International MA/PhD Workshop ‘Contemporary Popular Religion in Turkey and the Netherlands. April 16-17 2012, Istanbul.  

Read more about our research in the Bake society newsletter Vol. 2, Issue 2, June 2012

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Contemporary Sufi Practices in Istanbul

  1. Great read and accomplishment!
    Already so much you dived into, my respect and compliments.
    Having been interested in Sufism and particular in Turkey as I have lived there for over ten years, I am very happy with your research and the plans for continuation.

    Over the times I have been very shocked when I met the commercialized forms of Sema in most extreem forms at Turkish nights in Beach Hotels, and will always visit at least once during my visit to Capadocie, the daily ceremony in Ürgüp, although for Tourists, a very sincere and for my feelings reasonably authentic one, where there is always a semi-meditative admosphere, and no talking or taking pictures during the one hour ceremony.
    Afterwards it used to be possible to sit with the attendees, have a tea and ask questions, but the last time I was there this wasn’t the case.
    I am sure upon request this is still possible…
    I am glad to have met your post – thank you!
    Kind regards,
    Carolien Geurtsen

    read more if you please:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *