Salafism Infiltrates Turkish Religious Discourse

By Andrew Hammond | Middle East Policy Fellow - European Council on Foreign Relations | Jul 22, 2015
Salafism Infiltrates Turkish Religious Discourse
A Sufi order in Konya, Turkey.

Are religious doctrinal differences primarily responsible for stoking intercommunal fear and hatred? What roles have state, sub-state and transnational actors played in fomenting sectarian discord? And what could to foster tolerance and peaceful coexistence? The essays in this series tackle these and other salient questions pertaining to sectarianism in the MENA and Asia Pacific regions. Read more ...


Salafi discourse has made considerable inroads in Turkey over the past 30 years, making contributions to sectarianism in ways that have yet to be fully studied and understood. Although the military coup in 1980 was carried out by those who saw themselves as the guardians of Kemalist secularism, the junta forged closer ties with Saudi Arabia, viewing it as a conservative force interested in maintaining the regional political order. These ties led to a state promotion of Islam―embodied in the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis, the ideological framework that reconciled Turkish nationalism with religion―that also aimed to undercut the opposition Islamist movement of Necmettin Erbakan. This opened the way for cooperation between the Saudi-based World Muslim League and Turkey’s religious affairs administration—the Diyanet—and the education ministry in propagating religious material.[1]

The material was not framed in terms of Salafism, a term that was only beginning to make its way into the public sphere. As it became better known and received attention from Turkish scholars of religion from the 1990s, it was associated more with the jihadi movement that began in Afghanistan. As such, Selefilik or Selefiye (the lack of stability in the terminology indicates the recent nature of the trend) was discussed as a phenomenon alien to Turkey.

Yet Islamic public intellectuals who became influential voices in this period began to engage with Salafism. In his first works published in the late 1970s, Ali Bulaç did not discuss the notion of “Salafism,” but by 1994 when he published İslam Düşüncesinde Din-Felsefe, Vahiy-Akıl İlişkisi (The Relationship between Religion-Philosophy, Revelation-Intellect in Islamic Thought) a clear shift had occurred. His index contains nine mentions of Selefi (Salafi), six for Selefiler (Salafis/Salafists), six for Selefiye (Salafism), five for Selef (the ancestors), two for Selef-i Salihin (the pious ancestors), and one each for Selefi akımlar (Salafi trends), Selefi düşünce (Salafi thought), and Selef mezhebi (the Salafi school). He discussed Salafism as a legitimate school within Sunni Islam.

Hilmi Demir, a theology professor at Hitit University, has noted how this internalization of Salafism as a respected Sunni tradition was also adopted by the Turkish state.[2] A summary of doctrine first published by the Diyanet in 1999 lists Selefiyye as a separate Sunni theological school alongside the traditionally recognized Ash‘ari and Maturidi systems; indeed, it lists Salafism first among the three.[3]

Refutations of Salafism and other anti-Salafi material have gone out of print and out of favor. The Bedir publishing house published a translation in 1994 of Syrian scholar Abu Hamid Ibn Marzuq’s Ehl-i Sünnet Müdafaası: Bera’atü’l-Eş’ariyyin min ‘Aka’idi’l-Muhalifin (Defense of the Sunnis: The Innocence of the Ash‘aris Regarding the Beliefs of the Dissenters), first published in 1968, but it is no longer available. And a well-known modern refutation by Syrian scholar Said Ramadan al-Buti (1929-2013), first published in Arabic as Al-Salafiyya: Marhala Zamaniyya Mubaraka La Madhab Islami (Salafism: A Blessed Historical Phase, Not a School, 1988), was only published in Turkish in 2009.[4]

While Salafism’s infiltration of Turkish religious discourse has gone largely unacknowledged, concern in media and academia over the fate of the Hanafi-Maturidi tradition of Ottoman/Turkish Islam appears as one form of recognition of the changes taking place. Mehmet Zeki İşcan has noted a trend since the mid-1990s among republic secularists of essentializing the Hanafi law and Maturidi theology of the Ottoman-Turkish tradition as the core of a liberal approach to set Turkey apart from other Muslim societies. These writers, who include economics and philosophy professor Bünyamin Duran,[5] historian Sait Başir,[6] former diplomat and National People’s Party (MHP) parliamentarian Gündüz Aktan,[7] and newspaper columnists Avni Özgürel (writing in Radikal)[8] and Atılgan Bayar (writing in Haber Türk and Yeni Asir),[9] have gone so far as to present Maturidism as “the theological basis of the secular republic.”[10] Working within the framework of the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis, they argue that Hanafi fiqh and Maturidi kalām continued to infuse republican Islam. Indeed, Aktan presents Ataturk as ensuring the predominance of the Hanafi-Maturidi approach in the Diyanet administration that was created in the republican reordering of the Ottoman Islamic establishment in the 1920s.[11] Aktan also makes an explicit connection to the question of Salafism. “Turkish modernity was more successful in comparison with other Muslim countries. The republic’s secularism represented true Islam vis-à-vis Salafism through the Hanafi-Maturidi line,” he writes. “Our pain will end the day that the religious understand that the republic is the model that is the best suited to Islam and that religion is not to be found in Salafism but in Hanafi-Maturidism.”[12]

The changes engendered by the events of 1980 also saw explicitly Salafi preachers find their niche in Turkish society, though it is only in recent years that these sheikhs have become prominent and publicly visible, mainly due to the civil war in Syria and the government’s championing of the Islamist opposition cause there. Their activities usually center around publishing houses or bookstores and sometimes schools. Most of the preachers are active on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, and they have websites for their publishing enterprises. The works of Wahhabi Salafi scholars such as ‘Abd al-Aziz bin Baz (d.1999), Nasir al-Din al-Albani, Salih al-Fawzan (b.1933), and Muhammad ibn al-‘Uthaymin (d.2001) form the core of their publications and the references they cite in their own work; their attachment to Salafi Islam is thus usually explicit, and they avoid citing contemporary ‘ulama from outside the Salafi tradition, such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi (b.1926), the Egyptian scholar based in Qatar who is associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.[13] Their project has been to transfer the discourse of Wahhabi Salafism from its Arabic environment into a Turkish one through translation.

The most well-established of these preachers is Abdullah Yolcu. Of Turkmen Iraqi origin, Yolcu established the Guraba publishing house in Istanbul in 1992 with the aim of contributing to the Islamic pushback against a century of Westernization.[14] Guraba’s website lists among its aims spreading “true Islam” in Turkey, which it says remains under the threat of Westernization, extreme Sufism (aşırı tasavvuf), and Shi‘i and Christian ways.[15] This is an indication of the sense of separation that Salafis feel from Turkish society, as well as their sense of duty to challenge it. Guraba’s publications are largely translations into Turkish from Arabic of works by Salafi preachers cradled by Saudi Arabia over recent decades, but in 2005 the company began to draw on a pool of Yolcu’s work that had been published in Saudi Arabia in Arabic under his full Arabic name, ‘Abd Allah Ibn ‘Abd al-Hamid al-Athari. Guraba presented Yolcu’s work to a Turkish audience in Turkish as modified translations or as new works.[16]

Guraba’s publication choices demonstrate the promotion of a corrective, conservative, Salafi Sunni Islam taking Wahhabism as its model. Yolcu reinforces this image in his writings, lectures, and even attire, often appearing in the gold-rimmed black cloak and white headdress of Saudi ‘ulama.[17] He dismisses other scholars, intellectuals, and politicians of the Islamist trend as having made compromises in their thinking to “nationalism” (Ar. qawmiyya) and Western “rationalism” (Ar. ‘aqlāniyya); he also argues that they lack a grounding in Shariah sciences. “They are trying to reconcile Islam and the West; they rely on Sufism rather than the Qur’an and the Sunna,” he says.[18]

With his bookstore in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, Yolcu has positioned himself as the respectable face of Salafism in Turkey. His books avoid discussion of regional political issues such as the invasion of Iraq or the war in Syria, as well as direct intervention in domestic debates regarding Islam, secularism, and the military tutelage of the state. Yet he attempts to bring attention to the prescriptions of Shariah and critiques Turkish Islam throughout the Ottoman period, faulting widespread Sufi practices and its jurisprudential positions lodged in the Hanafi-Maturidi tradition. He is careful to present the Salafi method in a consensual manner, that is, as the summation of the four schools of Sunni fiqh. Thus he only tangentially engages the extensive Salafi debates applying takfīr to Muslim heads of state and avoids discussion of jihad.  

However, in his writings Yolcu’s message is sharp and uncompromising. He emphasizes the danger to a Muslim’s faith when he or she engages, even unwittingly, in overly friendly relations with non-Muslims; takes part in non-Muslim festivities and customs; indulges in the temptations of modern music; and slips into the laxity that is the condition of the modern Muslim in societies in which the Shariah is not the primary law. His concern is largely individualist, a vocation to save Muslim souls one by one. For Yolcu, the Muslim should be ever wary to protect and maintain the integrity of his faith from the traps of materialist culture. Declaring the shahāda, the Muslim profession of faith, is not enough, he says. To insist in through argumentation on not fasting during Ramadan and forsaking prayer is apostasy.[19]

Yolcu often states that his audience is the middle group of lax Muslims, those who are neither loyal adherents of Shariah nor infidels. In addition to being lax in observing the five pillars of Islam there are many issues that can put one’s Islam (Müslümanlığı) in jeopardy. He summarizes these as actions that involve a polytheistic dilution of the focused worship of God (through the use of intermediaries such as saint figures); that fail to uphold the absolute authority of Shariah; that involve sorcery (a form of appeal to beings other than God); and that denigrate any elements of Islam or suggest that it is not complete as a belief system and practice.[20] In addition, the Muslim should not engage in dogmatic imitation of one particular Sunni school―a point further indicated by his frequent citations of al-Albani, who criticized Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab on this point.[21]

If we look at Yolcu’s work in terms of sectarian themes, İslami Açıdan Yılbaşı Kutlaması (New Year Celebrations from an Islamic Perspective, 2014) and İslami Açıdan Dostluk ve Düşmanlık (Friendship and Enmity from an Islamic Perspective, 2005) rebuke modern Muslims for violating the (Salafi) principle of separation from non-believers. Meşru ve Gayrımeşru Tevessül: Çeşitleri ve Hükümler (Legitimate and Illegitimate Supplication: Forms and Judgments, 2013)[22] and İslami Açıdan Müzik ve Teganni (Music and Singing from an Islamic Perspective, 2013)[23] attack Sufi, Alevi, and syncretic practices of visiting graves to seek intercession with God or blessings from deceased holy men as well as practices of singing, chanting, and dancing during dhikr ceremonies. Musical instrumentation is only permitted in limited circumstances approved by Wahhabi scholars such as Bin Baz. Shariah-approved ghinā‘ thus involves only the voice with no instrumental musical accompaniment, and the voice should not be that of an adult woman heard by strangers. Words in song should also be devoid of material conflicting with Shariah, and approved contexts for song include travel, work, war, lullabies, women at weddings, and humming alone.[24] He also provides a list of 41 sources on the issue of singing, on which there is a preponderance of Hanbali scholars; this reflects a pattern of presenting Hanbali-based Salafism as normative Sunni Islam.[25]

Yolcu’s flagship publications, Selef-i Salihin Akidesi: Ehl-i Sünnet ve’l-Cemaat (The Faith of the Pious Ancestors: The Sunni Tradition, 2013) and Ehl-i Sünnet ve’l-Cemaat’e Göre İman: Hakikati, Onu Zedeleyen ve Bozan Şeyler (Faith in the Sunni Tradition: Its Truth, What Harms It and What Spoils It, 2014), both originally published in Arabic in Saudi Arabia, are the most blunt. In outlining a belief and practice centered on the example of the first Muslims, Yolcu seeks to define Sunnism on Salafi terms and press that claim to a Turkish audience. Selef-i Salihin Akidesi was first printed in 2002 by the Saudi Ministry of Religious Affairs as Al-Wajiz fi ‘Aqidat al-Salaf al-Salih: Ahl al-Sunna wa-l-Jama‘a with an endorsement from the Saudi minister of religious affairs. It was issued in Turkish in 2013, with the addition of a series of forewords of endorsement from 20 scholars from a number of countries; 11 of them are based in Saudi Arabia, while one is from Turkey.[26] In it, Yolcu asserts that many Muslims are under the illusion that in addition to prayer, omitting obligations regarding alms, fasting, and performing hajj are small sins. Small sins can become large ones if not treated, he says,[27] and “prayer is the Muslim’s watchword, the believer’s title. Prayer is the thing that separates the Muslim from the unbeliever.”[28] If those who refuse to pray do not repent, he writes, “they should be put to death because they are apostates,” with a series of consequences in terms of funeral rites, inheritance, and child custody.[29]

Yolcu’s message is that Turkey is a nominally Muslim society on the edge of kufr. The modern condition of laxity in rituals and disregard for doctrinal questions, on the one hand, and the cultural-historical reach of Sufi practices, on the other, make Turkey a prime target for Salafi proselytization. Indeed, it is so much of a tabula rasa in the Salafi view that Yolcu neither seeks to construct a narrative that builds on Ottoman criticism of Sufi orders[30] nor grants status to contemporary Islamic thinkers, religious scholars, and movements because in his view they are implicated in the intrusion of secular nationalism and Western rationalism. Yolcu plays down his ambitions for Salafism in Turkey, but he appears to believe that its time has come to press its claims more forcefully in the public sphere. The tide of local and regional politics, with the AKP’s successes against the military “deep state,” has also created a favorable environment for Islamist groups, and Turkey’s policy in Syria’s civil war has created new opportunities for spreading the Salafi message.  

[1] Feroz Ahmad, “Islamic Reassertion in Turkey,” Third World Quarterly 10, 2 (1988): 762. See also Uğur Mumcu, Rabıta (Ankara: Tekin Yayınevi, 1987), 193.

[2] Hilmi Demir, “Nakşibendilik Selefileşiyor mu?” 21. Yüzyıl Türkiye Enstitüsü, September 17, 2014,  

[3] Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı, İlmihal 1: Iman ve Ibadetler (Istanbul, 1999), 23. It is currently in its 22nd print run.

[4] Vecihi Sönmez (tr.), Selefiye: İslami Bir Ekol/Mezheb Değil, Zamansal Bir Aşamadır (Istanbul: Ehl-i Sünnet ve Cemaat Yayınları, 2009).

[5] See, for example, Bünyamin Duran, "Meşru Demokrasi,” Köprü 69 (Autumn 1999).

[6] See Sait Başer, Yahya Kemal'de Türk Müslümanlığı (Istanbul: Seyran, 1998).

[7] Gündüz Aktan, “Derdimiz Ne? (2),” Radikal, August 31, 2006 and “Geleceğe doğru (3),” Radikal, January 7, 2006.

[8] See Avni Özgürel, “Osmanlı'da Dindar-Laik Çekişmesi,“ Radikal, May 14, 2006.

[9] See Atılgan Bayar, “Evet Atatürk Matüridi Meşrepti; Teoloji Bilmeyen Niçin Devlet Yönetemez?“ Habertürk, July 11, 2007.

[10] İşcan, Mehmet Zaki, “Türk Basınında Matüridi Ve Matürıdilik,” Marmara University Trust Publications 261 (2012): 478.

[11] Aktan, “Derdimiz Ne? (2). 

[12] Aktan, “Derdimiz Ne? (2). 

[13] Non-Salafis are less strict in matters such as gender segregation, veiling, and contact with non-Muslims.   

[17] See the photograph on his Twitter page:  

[18] Abdullah Yolcu, interview with author (in Arabic), Istanbul, March 26, 2015.

[19] Yolcu, Kur’an ve Sünnet’in Işığında İslam’ın Şartları (Istanbul: Guraba, 2010), 29-30, 62.

[20] Yolcu, Kur’an ve Sünnet’in Işığında İslam’ın Şartları, 81-95.

[21] Abdullah El-Eseri (tr. Ahmed İyibildiren), Meşru ve Gayrımeşru Tevessül: Çeşitleri ve Hükümleri (Istanbul: Guraba, 2013), 2nd edition, 153-173. In fact, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab is never cited in the works surveyed here, while his inspirations Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya are widely cited. 

[22] Published in Arabic in Turkey as ‘Abd Allah Al-Athari, Al-Tawassul al-Mashru‘ wa-l-Mamnu‘: Anwa‘ wa Ahkam (Istanbul: Guraba, 2013).

[23] Published in Arabic in Turkey as ‘Abd Allah Al-Athari, Al-Ghinā‘ wa-l-Musiqa: Bayn al-Lahw wa-l-Wa‘id (Istanbul: Guraba, 2014).

[24] Al-Athari, Al-Ghinā‘ wa-l-Musiqa, 29-33.

[25] Al-Athari, Al-Ghinā‘ wa-l-Musiqa, 238-40.

[26] Muhammed Raşid b. Halid Karaköylü, former imam of the Van Şerefiye mosque in eastern Turkey.

[27] Al-Athari, Al-Iman: Haqiqatu, Khawarimuhu, Nawaqiduhu ‘ind Ahl al-Sunna wa-l-Jama‘a (Riyadh: Madar al-Watan, 2003), 389, 392-397.

[28] Al-Athari, Al-Iman, 320.

[29] Al-Athari, Al-Iman, 741.

[30] For more on this see Ahmet Yaşar Ocak, Perspectives and Reflections on Religious and Cultural Life in Medieval Anatolia (Istanbul: Isis Press, 2012), 298.


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