Turkey’s vibrant mix of culture, cuisine, and religion is its number one tourist attraction, drawing thousands of foreign guests from all over the world. Take a walk down any street in Turkey, and your senses will be instantly overtaken by exotic sights, sounds, and smells.
Religion in Turkey has played a significant role in the country’s arts, literature, architecture, attractions, and everyday life for centuries. Though it isn’t the oldest religion in the country, Islam is a significant contributor to this bold blend. If you’re planning a trip to Turkey, a basic understanding of the region’s various faiths is an absolute must!
This more in-depth knowledge will help you make intimate connections with local people and feel more tuned in to daily life, just like a Turkish person. Plus, it will give you a greater insight into the history and culture behind many religious and cultural sites that you’ll visit along the way.
If you’re feeling clueless about Islam and religion in Turkey, don’t worry. This article is for you. Keep reading for an easy to understand breakdown of religion’s powerful influence on this country’s culture and history. Plus, take in our top tips on what to expect as a foreign guest!
Islam may be the dominant religion in Turkey, but it is neither the oldest nor the only one. Long before Islam entered the country, religion included Buddhism, Christianity, and lesser-known sects like Tengrism and Manichaeism. This is why the country is home to religious sites of so many different faiths.
In fact, a trip through the country’s Golden Triangle of culture reveals a wealth of historical landmarks that far predate Islam. So, what changed?
The influx of Islam also introduced many of Turkey’s stunning cultural practices. The most famous of these is the whirling dervishes performing their ancient Sufi dance.
Even with the growing popularity of Islam, Turkey still maintained an incredible level of religious tolerance. For instance, the Jewish communities with roots in Anatolia and those that immigrated from Spain and Portugal were autonomous in their domestic affairs. The same applied to the Christian communities, which consisted of Roman Catholics, the Assyrian Orthodox church, and small groups of protestants. This tolerance resulted in large thriving communities of non-Muslim Turkish citizens in the country.
In the 19th century, this relatively peaceful coexistence was put under threat with the coming of ethnic-religious nationalism.
Therefore, many non-Muslim Turkish citizens emigrated to Bulgaria, Israel, Greece, and Armenia: leaving small minorities in Turkey.
Today, around 99% of the country’s population practices Islam. More than 70% of the Muslim population in Turkey is Sunni, a branch of Islam that gets its name from the word “sunnah” which is a reference to the prophet Mohammed. You’ll find way more Sunnis than any other religious group in Turkey today because this branch of Islam was introduced in the region way back during the Ottoman Empire’s reign.
The other branch is Shia, whose first practitioners came from nearby Arab countries like Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon. As a result, this faith was introduced later in the country’s timeline by immigrants from elsewhere in the region. In fact, during the Ottoman Empire, Shia believers were even persecuted by Sunnis’ majority population.
Nonetheless, these statistics tell you more about Turkey’s culture than religion. You will be surprised to learn that rather than being a strictly religious country, the majority of Turkish Muslims are liberal. These practitioners identify more with the culture of Islam than its religion. Therefore, they may identify as Muslims, but they don’t wear traditional clothing or adhere to strict religious practices. Don’t be surprised if you meet plenty of people who practice Islam at home but walk around in jeans and t-shirts just like you.
The rest of Turkey’s population belongs to religious groups like Christianity and Judaism. As Turkey has moved into modern times, more and more religious groups have come to call the country home. Major cities and cultural centers like Istanbul are globalizing quickly and are home to large ex-pat populations. In these areas, you can expect to encounter religions from all over the world.
For a taste of religion in Turkey now, pay a visit to any city center where you will feel the mix of different cultures right away. If you really want to understand the diversity of this cultural melting pot, add some of the region’s Jewish and Christian sites to your travel itinerary.
Now that you have a basic understanding of religion in Turkey, you’re ready to start planning your adventure. Start by considering which parts of the country you want to visit and which cultural and religious landmarks you can’t miss.
No vacation in this country is complete without a trip through the mosques, bustling markets, museums, and crowded public squares of Istanbul. This cultural hub is also a great place to sample Turkish cuisine, coffee, and its famous drink of choice, raki.
If you’re a traveling photographer, keep in mind that some museums and monuments will ask you to purchase a photography pass.
Remember that you should always ask for permission before photographing locals, especially while visiting religious sites. And, it helps to learn a few words and phrases in Turkish, too! Most people find it hard, and don’t worry if you can’t, as even the mimics will do it.
Our top tip for making the most of your time in Turkey is to arrive with an open mind.
On the whole, Turkey is a progressive country. Adherence to Islam is more evident in its dress, cuisine, and culture than its laws and politics. Its modern government offers protection to religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities just like any developed nation. And it’s a highly safe destination for foreign travelers!
Secular Islam is growing in popularity, especially among Turkey’s younger generations. Secular practitioners identify more with the culture of Islam than its religion. So, they don’t wear traditional clothing or adhere to strict religious practices.
Of all the countries where Islam is practiced, Turkey is quickly becoming one of the most secular! Don’t be surprised if you meet plenty of people who practice Islam at home but walk around in jeans and t-shirts just like you. The reason for this note is, both on movies and other media types, they give the message it is a religious country with a predominantly Muslim population. Such things, especially for those who follow the truth through these channels, end up with prejudice. After they visit Turkey, they quickly realize that what shown was not the same as what they saw.
The rest of Turkey’s population belongs to religious groups like Christianity and Judaism. But, major cities and cultural centers like Istanbul are globalizing quickly and are home to large ex-pat populations. In these areas, you can expect to encounter religions from all over the world.
From the first temple of human being Gobeklitepe to the first Christian church in Antioch (Antakya), Turkey has been a crossroads for religion and there are numerous sites and landmarks you can add to your bucket list no matter what religious monuments you would like to visit.
Turkey is a haven for understanding the powerful influences that different religions and cultures can have on a country. The best way to understand these influences on Turkey is by booking a religious tour of this beautiful melting pot with us. We can customize a tour covering the Seven Churches of the Apocalypse or design a fully Islamic or Jewish heritage package.