Sufism in Turkey

Sufism (tasavvuf) is an Islamic modality that emphasizes self-discipline and personal reform through spiritual practices beside the essential practices that comprise Islamic orthopraxy. These spiritual practices include dhikr, individual or collective recitation of litanies composed of supplicatory prayers, Qur’anic passages, and the names of God. Despite reforms that dissolved Turkish Sufi orders and banned Sufi practices in 1925, Sufism survived through underground networks and flourishes in Turkey today.

Though only a minority of Turks belong to Sufi orders, Sufism nonetheless impacts Turkish Islam, particularly through the works of popular Muslim leaders such as Said Nursi and Fethüllah Gülen. Additionally, Sufi orders have played critical roles in Turkish political life; the Naqshbandiyyah, for example, provided critical support in the election of Turgut Özal, himself a member of the brotherhood. Additionally, the Nur and Gülen movements have been referred to as neo-Sufi movements, which have contributed to the rising popularity of Sufism in contemporary Turkey.

During the late 19th century, the brotherhoods were challenged by rising Salafi movements throughout the Empire, as well as top-down reforms instituted by the Ottoman state. Reforms included centralization and bureaucratization of the brotherhoods, the creation of training courses for Sufi sheikhs, the institution of detailed dress policies, and inspections of the practices of various orders, such that the orders became a part of the Ottoman state itself.

Largely for this reason, the Sufi orders were abolished in 1925 with the creation of the Turkish state, and their property and endowments seized. Many Sufis rejected these reforms, refusing positions in civil service or relocating to former Ottoman states, including Syria and Albania. While orders that relied on distinct dress and obvious ritual, such as the Mevlevis (the so-called “Whirling Dervishes”) lost institutional support, other brotherhoods survived intact, particularly the Naqshbandi, which does not meet in a tekke (lodge) and practices silent dhikr. Many Sufis and brotherhoods went underground, continuing their practices in secret and forming deep-rooted networks that that mobilized social activism in the 1950s onwards. Still others embraced Kemalism wholeheartedly.

The Bektashi Order (Bektaşi tarikat)

The Bektashi emerged in the 13th century under Haji Bektash Veli, and combines elements of numerology and Shi’ism with Sunni Islam. The Bektashi were strongly associated with the janissary corps, a military unit of slave-soldiers that was abolished in 1826. Though few organized Bektashis remain in Turkey, lodges continue to operate in the Balkans where the Bektashi order was introduced by the Ottoman army, and is particularly strong in Albania.

The Halveti-Jerrahi Order (Çerrahi tarikat)

The Halveti-Jerrahi order originated with Pur Nureddin al-Jerrahi (d. 1721) and is a branch of the Khalwattiyah order. The main dergah (meeting house) is located in Istanbul, where Sheikhs from the order are buried and which holds regular dhikr ceremonies, including weekly Mevlevi sema and sohbet, lectures given by the sheikh. The current sheikh is the popular Ömer Tuğrul İnançer, a Sufism scholar, musician, and lawyer.

The Halveti-Jerrahi have branches in various parts of the world. The Halveti-Jerrahi Order of America was founded by Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak during the 1970s, who appointed Sheikh Tosun Bayrak to lead the American community, made up of Turkish nationals, American converts, and Muslims of other backgrounds. The order continues to hold regular dhikr ceremonies and operates a Turkish-style mosque in Spring Valley, New York. In 1986, the Nur-Ashki Jerrahi order branched off from the Halveti-Jerrahis, led by American convert Lex Hixon (Nur al-Jerrahi), and has been led by his wife Fariha al-Jerrahi since his death in 1995.

The Mevlevi Order (Mevlevi tarikat)

The Mevlevi order was founded by the followers of Mevlana Çelaleddin Rumi in the wake of his death in 1273. They are Turkey’s most visible Sufi order on account of the sema, a unique dhikr ceremony during which participants wearing robes and tall felt hats spin—hence, the “Whirling Dervishes.” During the 1950s, restrictions on the Mevlevi brotherhood were loosened when the government acknowledged the cultural value of the sema in drawing tourism. Both private and public ceremonies take place across Turkey, and especially in Konya, where Rumi is buried.

The Naqshbandiyyah (Nakşibendi tarikat)

The Naqshbandi order, which is known for its silent dhikr and sohbet, keeping the company of a Sheikh, is the most prominent order in contemporary Turkey. Its roots are traced to Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, the leader of the Muslim community following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, to Bahaeddin Nakşibendi (d. 1389) of Turkistan, and to Ahmad Sirhindi (d. 1625) of India. In the late Ottoman Empire, the Naqshbandi order under Sheikh Mevlana Halid-i Bağdadi (d. 1827) emphasized Sunni orthodoxy and discouraged heterodox “innovative” practices and groups, thus earning them the support of Ottoman leaders. Naqshbandi leadership supported Atatürk, but was nonetheless banned in 1925, going underground. It reappeared in the 1960s as two branches, led by Sheikh Mehmed Zahid Kotku (d. 1980) and Muhammad Rashid Erol (d. 1996). Sheikh Kotku cultivated relationships with urban and middle class Turks such as future president Turgut Özal as well as Prime Ministers Neҫmettin Erbakan and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The Süleymanlı is a Naqshbandi branch named for religious scholar Süleyman Hilmi Tunahan (d. 1959) that arose in the late Ottoman period and is the most popular order among the Turkish diaspora in Europe. While they practice a communal dhikr, the Süleymanlı are known for Qur’an courses which Tunahan established in the post-independence era and which were largely untouched by the government, despite being unregistered.

The Qadirriyah (Kadiri tarikat)

The Qadiri order was founded in 14th century Damascus, and named posthumously for Baghdadi scholar Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (d. 1166). It spread across North Africa and the Middle East by the end of the 14th century, and to West Africa and Southeast Asia by the 19th century. It is notable for being the first Sufi order to distinctly organize itself around a particular founder; earlier orders linked themselves directly to the Prophet Muhammad. It was among the most influential orders in 19th century Turkey, but failed to fully recuperate following the 1925 reforms.


Juliane Hammer, “Halveti-Jerrahi Order,” Encyclopedia of Muslim American History, ed. Edward E. Curtis (New York: Facts on File, 2010), pp. 230-231.

Thomas McElwain, “Sufism Bridging East and West: The case of the Bektashis,” Sufism in Europe and North America, ed. David Westerlund (New York: Routledge, 2004), pp. 95-126.

Brian Silverstein, “Sufism and Governmentality in the Late Ottoman Empire,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Vol. 29, No. 2 (2009), pp. 171-185.

Suha Taji-Farouki, Beshara and Ibn ‘Arabi: A Movement of Sufi Spirituality in the Modern World (Oxford: Anqa Publishing, 2007).

Sami Zubaida, “Turkish Islam and National Identity,” Middle East Report, No. 199 (1996), pp. 10-15.

Ahmet Yukleyen, “Sufism and Islamic groups in contemporary Turkey,” The Cambridge History of Turkey, ed. Reat Kasaba (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 381-387.

Image Credits:

"Whirling dervish," Susan Kambalu (2011), from Flickr Creative Commons.