Islamophobia is an unfortunate reality of life in the 21st century, as well as many other centuries before it. But one of the best ways to combat prejudice, against Islam or anything else, is by widening your own perspective and sharing what you learn along the way. Luckily, travel gives us the unique opportunity to encounter people and cultures whose stories are often misrepresented or ignored.

By traveling to Turkey and immersing yourself in Islamic culture, tradition, and art, you can become a better ally to both practicing and non-practicing Muslims throughout the world. And your work can begin before you even pull out your passport — so, in that light, we’ve put together a guide on what you should know and what you can do to better respect Islam when visiting this Muslim country.

Whether you take these insights with you on your next trip to Turkey, or even put them to use at home, we hope they’ll make a difference.

Yeni Cami is a place of worship in Islam.
Photo by Antonio Campoy

Islam in Turkey

It’s almost impossible to imagine what modern-day Turkey would be like if Muhammad (the founder and chief prophet of Islam) had never been born. Although he lived in present-day Saudi Arabia almost 1,500 years ago, his teachings continue to exert a profound impact all around the world, and it’s fair to say that the same applies to Turkey. After all, approximately 98 percent of the population is Muslim, and more than 80,000 mosques dot the country’s landscape.

Despite the overwhelming religious majority, the Turkish constitution clearly states that the nation is a “democratic, secular and social state governed by the rule of law.” It goes on to declare that all Turkish citizens enjoy freedom of religion, and that religious discrimination is unconstitutional.

However, the constitution also establishes the Diyanet, a government office that publishes works related to Islam and administers all of the mosques in the country. In recent years, and especially under the current presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Diyanet’s budget, size, and influence have grown.

Several denominations make up the religion that is collectively known as Islam. Around the world, most Muslims belong to one of two major followings — Sunni Islam and Shia Islam — and in Turkey, Sunni Muslims make up the bulk of the population. That said, Alevism, a lesser-known branch of Islam that is sometimes lumped with Shia, also has a serious foothold in the country. An estimated 10 to 25 percent of the Turkish population is Alevi, and throughout Ottoman and Turkish history, Sunnis have inflicted violence on Alevi adherents. Relations between the denominations have been fairly peaceful during the 21st century, but many citizens complain that Erdogan’s government treats Sunnis more favorably than Alevis.

Perhaps the most familiar aspect of Turkish Islam is the sema dance performed by the whirling dervishes. This cultural practice is associated with Sufism, a branch of Islam known for its emphasis on mysticism, and it’s even inscribed on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage. The Turkish government banned the sema ceremony for several decades and then only allowed it under certain circumstances, finally restoring the dance to full legality in the 1990s. (In Istanbul, tourists can even pay to watch a performance of the ceremony.)

In short: although Turkey remains the most liberal country with a Muslim majority, it’s safe to say that the nation’s relationship with Islam is both complicated and multifaceted.

A sema ceremony, a well-known cultural practice in Islam.
Painting by Missy Dunaway

Islamic beliefs

Of course, Islam is a major world religion with more than one billion believers, but at the risk of oversimplifying the matter, it’s really just another creed that promotes good living throughout the world. Islamic doctrine is built upon the following five pillars.*

  • Faith in God and in Muhammad’s status as a prophet
  • Prayer, completed five times a day while facing Mecca
  • Almsgiving, to support the underprivileged members of the community
  • Fasting from sunrise to sunset throughout the month of Ramadan
  • Pilgrimage to Mecca, to be completed at least once by all Muslims who are physically and financially capable of undertaking the journey

*Alevis follow slightly different tenets regarding prayer, and they observe their fast during a different month of the year.

Muslims also believe that the Quran is a book of scripture transmitted from the angel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad over the course of more than 20 years. Believers recite key passages from the Quran during their daily prayers.

Obviously, Islam has far too many complexities to cover in a single article, but if you’re interested in pursuing a deeper understanding of the faith, you can check out this resource.

Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul, is a place of worship in Islam.
Photo by Sedat Çakmak

How travelers can respect Islam while visiting Turkey

When venturing to Turkey, it’s important to know how to respond to the cultural and religious practices that you’ll encounter. Remember: you’re just a guest, and you need to treat your Muslim hosts both graciously and respectfully.

You’ll have no trouble deducing when it’s time for one of the five daily prayers, as you’ll hear the call to prayer issued over a loudspeaker and see people unrolling their prayer rugs soon after. To be respectful, remember to remain silent or communicate very quietly throughout the duration of the prayer, and avoid standing in front of anyone observing the practice. After all, the worshippers want to face Mecca — not a tourist from another country.

Visiting a mosque is an excellent way to learn more about Islam (and architecture) while you’re in Turkey, so you shouldn’t leave the country without spending time in at least one of these buildings. But keep in mind that it’s best to avoid entering during a prayer session, and that most mosques won’t admit non-Muslims until the prayer is over. Prayer times do change throughout the year, since they’re based on the sunrise and sunset, but if you’d like to draw up your itinerary in advance, you can look up the times here.

When you enter a mosque, you’re expected to remove your shoes and carry them in your arms or stow them in a bag. This keeps the mosque physically clean, and to Muslims, it also symbolizes being clean before entering the house of Allah. Male visitors should avoid wearing shorts, and women should opt for long skirts or pants, as well as a top that covers their shoulders. Women will also need to cover their heads; if you don’t have a scarf or some kind of covering with you, the mosque will provide something for you to wear.

During Ramadan, the month of fasting, many Turks consider it rude for anyone (even tourists) to eat in public during daylight hours. From sunrise to sunset, participating Muslims abstain from food, drink, tobacco, and sex, so you won’t want to offend someone by eating openly. Feel free to enjoy a snack or meal in a private room or enclosed restaurant, but you probably shouldn’t indulge in a picnic or pull out a granola bar during a bus ride.

If you observe these simple guidelines, you’ll find that most people will appreciate your efforts, overlook your well-intentioned blunders, and help you navigate the intricacies of their religion. Your travel experience will be richer and more meaningful for your trouble.

Did we miss any important tips that you’d like to share with your fellow travelers? Let us know in the comments below!

Cover photo by Kristina Maler