Islam and Muhammad
Islam is an Abrahamic religion—one of the three largest (and somewhat interrelated) monotheistic religions in the world. The prophet Muhammad is believed to be descended from Ishmael, son of Abraham, through a union with his wife Sarah's handmaiden, Hagar. Abraham also sired Isaac, who was one of the patriarchs of Judaism and Christianity. Thus, many of the prominent figures in Judaism and Christianity—Adam, Moses, and Jesus—are also revered as prophets in Islam.
Muhammad was born in Mecca on the Arabian peninsula (near the Red Sea in present day Saudi Arabia). He became a religious figure in 610 AD when, according to Islamic tradition, while meditating in solitude he began to receive visions from the angel Gabriel. The words of these visitations became the shuras (verses) of the Koran, the holy book of Islam. When Muhammad first began preaching the new religion he was met with hostility by pagan tribesmen and forced to flee to Medina (also in Saudi Arabia)—one duty of each Muslim is to make the pilgrimage, or haj, from Mecca to Medina on foot, a commemoration of Muhammad's flight.
After converting the people of Medina to Islam, Muhammad returned to Mecca and converted his home town, and by the end of the 6th century, Islam was the dominant religion in Arabia. In the subsequent centuries Muslim armies would sweep across North Africa and into Spain, throughout the Levant and eastward into Central Asia and Persia. Turkic peoples were converted to Islam sometime during their journey across Asia, and when the Seljuks swept through Byzantine territory in Asia minor, they brought Islam with them.
Islam is a comprehensive religion and its tenets touch all aspects of life. Muslims pray five times a day: at sunrise, midday, in the afternoon, at sunset, and in the early evening—exact times are determined by the sun's passage. One of the first things visitors to Istanbul notice is the sound of the call to prayer—called the muezzin—wafting from the minarets of local mosques. At prayer time, Muslims must perform their ritual ablutions, washing their hands and feet, before bowing down in the direction of Mecca (southeast in Istanbul) to pray. The focal point of Muslim prayer is the Sacred Mosque in Mecca, at the center of which is the Kabaa, a black cubical shrine said to have been built by Abraham and rebuilt by Muhammad.
Despite a lot of praying, modern Turks tend to have a relaxed approach to their religion. Many drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes—both of which are forbidden by strict interpretations of Islam. They don't, however, eat pork. While the Koran expressly forbids eating carnivores and omnivores, pigs are a particular source of disgust to Turks. Turkish men can also be shameless flirts and modern women often dress in contemporary and revealing couture, though such behavior is not in keeping with Islamic concepts of personal modesty. There are, however, a great many conservative folks: housewives in headscarves shop for their families at neighborhood bazaars and old men gather at the neighborhood tea house. In the modern Republic of Turkey, the role of religion in society is hotly debated as the political old guard fights with the young, often more religious majority, over Atatürk's definition of secularism.
Islam and Art
Turkey enjoys a proud tradition of contributing to Islamic art. Ottoman mosque architecture incorporated many of the Byzantine design elements that Mehmet II's armies found in Constantinople. Ottoman mosques with their spacious courtyards and mammoth domes, notably Sultanahmet Mosque and the mosque of Suleiman the magnificent (in Edirne), are essentially variations on Aya Sofya. Ottoman art also boasts some of the most elaborate and colorful tile designs in the world. The best Ottoman tiles were created in İznik during the 16th and 17th centuries. Ottoman tiles sport dazzling geometric and floral designs, which adhere to the Islamic prohibition of depicting human figures. This ban (which scholars believe inspired the iconoclastic period during which the Byzantines actually destroyed their own icons), originated out of a desire to discourage idolatry. When Mehmet II conquered Istanbul, the first thing to go were the mosaics and frescoes. The conqueror recognized, however, that the Christian images were works of art rendered in painstaking detail by talented artists and, rather than having the images scratched out, he merely had them painted over. The Sultan's foresight has allowed restorers to uncover many of the Byzantine images that adorned the walls of the city's churches before 1453.
The Islamic holy month of Ramadan, called "Ramazan" in Turkish, lasts for 30 days and is an especially pious time. During it, observant Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking, and sexual relations, from dawn to sunset; this self-denial teaches restraint and humility and is meant to bring one closer to God. Those who are fasting start each day with a predawn meal called sahur. At sundown, the fast is broken with a meal called iftar, which traditionally includes dates, soup and bread, olives, and other foods. Many restaurants offer special iftar fixed menus during Ramadan. In small towns and conservative parts of Turkey it may be hard to find restaurants open during the day during Ramadan, but in most cities and tourist areas it's not an issue. Though it's understood that non-Muslims will not be fasting, it's respectful to avoid eating in public (e.g., on the street or on public transportation) during Ramadan. You should also be prepared for the fact that in many places, even touristy areas like Sultanahmet in Istanbul, it's customary for drummers to walk around in the wee hours of the morning to wake people for the sahur—which can make for a rather startling, and early, awakening. The end of Ramadan is celebrated with a three-day holiday called Ramazan Bayramı or Şeker Bayramı ("sugar holiday"), during which people visit family and friends and plentifully consume sweets.
Ramazan Bayramı is a national holiday, and schools and most businesses are closed for the duration; museums and other attractions, however, generally close only for the first day of the holiday. In Turkey this is an especially busy time to travel, comparable to Thanksgiving in the United States. Projected dates are as follows. In 2009: Ramadan, Aug. 21 to Sept. 19; Şeker Bayramı, Sept. 20 to 22. In 2010: Ramadan, Aug. 10 to Sept. 8; Şeker Bayramı, Sept. 9 to 11.
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