Political History and Embodied Identity
Discourse in the Turkish Call to Prayer
This article examines the Turkish language call to
prayer, which was recited in lieu of the traditional Arabic call for a brief
time in Turkey’s
early national period, and discusses the subsequent discourse this brief period
continues to engender among listeners and practitioners. This discourse
manifests itself both in recitation practice and reception, reflecting the
co-existence of theoretically contradictory and incompatible identities. The
call to prayer is just one case study exemplifying these multiple constructions
of identity – constructions which began as early as the nineteenth century and
which now seem to be an organic part of Turkish self-identification. I argue
that, even though current practice prefers Arabic language recitation, the
contemporary Arabic language call in Turkey nonetheless has been
profoundly influenced by the Turkish language period because this period
solidified the presence of a politically-oriented embodied discourse evidenced
in recitation artists’ production of the call and in Turkish listeners’
The early national period that espoused
Turkicization of the call to prayer began during the first half of the
twentieth century when the publicly broadcast call was targeted for reform by
the new secularist government. Having recently replaced the Ottoman Empire’s
Muslim leadership with that of the national Turkish Republic,
reformers were troubled by the call to
prayer’s traditional language of recitation, Arabic, and its regular presence
in public auditory space. As part of an overall modernization agenda
that forwarded secularist and nationalist ideals, new language laws called for
Turkish as the national language of the Republic and for state control over
religious practice, as well. Hence, in 1932 mandated Turkish language
recitation began. This linguistic change quickly resulted in popular unrest in
part because Arabic is the sacred language of Islam and recitation in Arabic of
the Koran, and to a lesser extent the call to prayer, is another important and
direct link to God. Further, by mandating Turkish language call to prayer
recitation, the populace of Turkey
experienced a public five-times-daily reminder that the secular nation now took
precedence over previous allegiances and more than a millennium of practice.
However, despite popular opposition, the state felt strongly that Turkish recitation
of this public practice should continue and the practice was maintained for
almost twenty years before being restored to Arabic recitation. Consequently,
while Turkish secularists and some government officials may have perceived of
their agenda as “freeing” the state from religion, what in fact happened was
the reverse; as historian Kemal Karpat argues, “The problem that Turks would
eventually face, therefore, was how to free the faith from the autocracy of the
state rather than vice versa.”
Seen in this light, opposition to the call and other state mandated religious
reform efforts was, in a sense, an internal rebellion in which practicing
Muslim Turks sought to regain autonomy over their religious practice.
Although this period of Turkish language recitation
lasted a relatively short time, it nonetheless achieved some of its goals in
terms of nationalization: the period influenced the construction and conception
of a unique national Turkish style of
call to prayer recitation, codifying a national vocal and melodic practice that
had not previously existed. However, there was also a perhaps unintended
consequence: this representative national style was tied to specific Ottoman
recitation practices that referred to the sultan’s and cosmopolitan Istanbul’s preferences
for the sound of the voice and the melodic line. The end result is that when muezzins and
imams, the official recitation practitioners, recite today in Turkey, they
invoke stylistically, physically, and through the language of recitation
Muslim, Turkish, and Ottoman identities without necessarily privileging any
particular one; thus, this recitation practice serves as a concrete example of
the way in which seemingly disparate identity paradigms coexist and blend as a
natural outgrowth of social and political processes.
In the case of the call to prayer, the practitioner’s voice quality and melodic
treatment of the call physically embody theoretically competing identities. The
context in which these identities chimerically formed was framed by the
construction of secular modernity as a fundamental component of the new Turkish
nation state. But, despite the presentation of this nation state as a distinct
secular and modern identity, the process, which involved active resistance and
protest, instead resulted in multiple co-existing identity constructions that
reveal the complex history and expression of Turkey’s identity politics.
Nationalization Processes in the Ottoman Empire
The nationalist movement that led to the Turkish Republic, and, consequently, the call to
prayer nationalization efforts, traces its beginning to the reforms of
the mid-nineteenth-century Tanzimat period. At that time, the Ottoman
Empire was in the midst of a financial and structural crisis: it
was in substantial debt to the major European powers and was rapidly losing
control of much of its empire to both ethnic nationalist revolts and to the
interests of these European powers. By the mid 1800s, Greece had achieved independence from the
Ottomans and Egypt was just
nominally subject to Istanbul
palace control, having, in effect, become its own kingdom. Thus, when Mustafa
Reshid (1800-1858) initially became grand vizier (the head minister in the body
of the sultan’s administrative ministers) in 1846, he initiated a series of
reforms known as the Tanzimat, designed to modernize the empire, and thereby
restore its strength. This period of reform engendered a discourse in which
Turkish ethnic identity began to preoccupy the elites. Along with this
developing construction of a Turkish ethnic identity, certain traditional
practices among the elites, such as a preference for Persian phrasing, fell out
Simultaneously, an interest grew in reducing the use of Arabic and Persian
words and there was a hope among some Turks that the Turkish language could be
“purified” of non-Turkish elements – a project that intensified as the
nineteenth century came to a close; it was eventually more fully implemented in
the early years of the Turkish
One of the strongest proponents of Turkish
linguistic reform and the Turkicization of the empire was the social theorist
Ziya Gökalp (1876-1924). Gökalp’s writings successfully promoted and, to a
certain extent, constructed Turkish ethnic identity. He sought and claimed to find
the ancient roots of “Turkishness,” encouraged folkloric scholarship on the
topic, and, central to this discussion, argued that “Turkishness” should be
reflected in the language itself, i.e., the Turkish language should consist of
purely Turkish roots. Purity of language was extended to worship: Gökalp
asserted that the language of worship should be in Turkish and not in Arabic.
His oft-cited poem reflects this position and specifically refers to the call
In one country in the mosque
the Turkish call to prayer is read,
The villager understands
the meaning of the namaz prayers
Young and old everyone
knows God’s command…
Oh Turkish son, like this
it is your homeland!
felt that not only should the publicly broadcast call to prayer be readily
understandable to all Turks, but that the same was true of all worship.
However, his suggestion that worship be in the
vernacular and not in classical Arabic would have been deeply disturbing to
many adherents and religious leaders, given the importance of the Arabic
language itself in Islamic worship and the belief that the words of the Koran
came to Mohammed directly from God in Arabic. In fact, reports circulate that
in the early years of Islam conversions were effected simply by listening to
the beauty of the recited Koran.
In the case of the call to prayer, while the origin of the text was not the
Prophet Mohammed, it was nonetheless divine to a lesser degree (it was received
in a dream by an early follower of the Prophet).
Further, the call to prayer’s beauty, both in terms of the Arabic text and the
voice of the caller, has long been and continues to be perceived as
instrumental in calling and converting listeners to Islam. Thus, Gökalp’s
general promotion of worship in Turkish alarmed many adherents and was one
factor leading to increased rifts between Ottoman Islamists and secular
modernists. These tensions, however, did not result in conflict for another
fifty years or so. In the final years of the Ottoman
Empire before the First World War, Islam and its role as a guiding
force in the country were still thoroughly integrated into the fabric of
Ottoman life. For instance, the first Grand National Assembly, a parliamentary
body, counted professional religious men as one-fifth of its members.
The pronounced shift towards a secularist government came under the leadership
of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, when the Ottoman Empire, having sided with Germany and
lost, was dismantled in the aftermath of World War I.
In many ways, Atatürk and his followers, the
Kemalists, were simply continuing an agenda that started during the Tanzimat
Period (some might argue even earlier with the leadership of Sultan Selim III
in the 1790s) and which was further strengthened during World War I. While
World War I was ongoing, the parliamentary Committee of Union and Progress saw
to it that the beginnings of a Turkish identity were inspired in the local
population. This burgeoning, legislated identity was evident particularly in
the decrees issued with regards to the use of the Turkish language: Turkish
became the official language of the post office and all shop signs were
required to be in Turkish. Moreover, the government actively supported
the development of a Turkish middle class that could sustain a Turkish national
economy and thus, when the war ended, despite the Ottoman defeat, many systems
were in place that allowed the Turkish nation to emerge and endure the
hardships that followed. The population, it seemed, might be prepared to accept
the secular ideals of the Kemalists who came to power after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War One; these ideals included
the proposal that worship and the call to prayer, one of the most important
public symbols of Islam, be practiced in the vernacular language.
The Kemalists specifically sought to distance
themselves from their Ottoman past, even from the reform-minded Ottomans of the
late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and set in motion a series of
reforms designed to increase the sovereignty of the Turkish Republic and the
perception of a unified Turkish ethnic, cultural, and national identity – an
identity which they hoped would take precedence over the heretofore unifying
Muslim identity of much of the Ottoman Empire’s population. Along with the
Kemalists’ secularist nationalist ideology, not long after the Republic’s
founding, hostilities from the so-called “Army of the Caliphate” towards the
Kemalists caused the reformers to turn their attention to worship practices.
After a brief attempt to reconcile Islam with secular government, in 1928
constitutional secularism was ratified, entirely removing Islam from the
Turkish constitution. This amendment was preceded by other measures: the
prohibition of religious education, the nationalization of the religious
foundations, the replacing of Islamic civil penal codes with European ones, and
the abolition of the Ulema (Islamic
legal counselors). Along with these actions, the leaders began to make plans
for the Turkicization of worship, including instituting the Turkish language
call to prayer.
Turkicization of the Call to Prayer
perspective of some Western democratic paradigms, the Kemalists’ interest in
religious reform and specific attention to the language of worship may seem
unusual given their simultaneous interest in the creation of a secular state.
It must be noted, however, that the concept of secularism was quite different
from that which is theoretically forwarded in the West. The Kemalists did not
necessarily conceive of a separation of mosque and state: they sought to
control religious practice and to disestablish Islam as a strong unifying
element through the nationalization of religion – thus creating a stronger tie
to Turkish identity over Muslim identity. Because the Kemalist leaders
recognized that Islam was an intrinsic part of Turkish society, one of the few
“ethnic” bonds across the diverse Ottoman world,
they knew it could not be removed from daily life and therefore felt the need
to regulate and reform it; otherwise, in their opinion, traditional adherence
to its tenets would slow, or even reverse, the social changes they had
Thus, attention to the reform of Islam was crucial and, as a very important
public symbol of the dominance of Islam in Turkish daily life, the call to
prayer was of immediate interest to the reformers. By regulating it and
changing its language of recitation, they introduced a nationalist discourse
into “…the undeniable presence of Islam in the public sphere.”
In order to “reform” religion, the new government
initially created a Presidency of Religious Affairs and a Directorate-General
of Pious Foundations. The Prime Minister nominated the President of Religious
Affairs and all activities of that department were consequently under the auspices
of the secular Prime Minister. The duties of the President of Religious Affairs
were, among others, to oversee administration of all religious institutions,
such as mosques, and the appointment of all religious functionaries, such as
imams and muezzins.
The government also sought to direct the social
impact of religion through the establishment of the University of Istanbul,
which was conceived as a new faculty of divinity. Under the direction of the
Minister of Education, this university was to instruct its pupils in religious
matters from a more “modern and scientific” perspective. And, in 1928, the
faculty formed a committee to make recommendations concerning the reform and
modernization of Islam in Turkey.
In its report released that year, the committee determined that religion was a
social institution and should progress to serve the needs of a changing
society. In order for it to progress properly the committee made several
recommendations. Among these were the proposals that the language of worship
should be in the vernacular, that worship should be made inspirational by the
inclusion of trained musicians and musical instruments, and that set sermons
approved by the appropriate governing agency be used throughout the country.
The school was initially short-lived (later it was revived), as enrollment
steadily declined due to a lack of grounding in secondary school religious
instruction that adequately prepared students for a university education in
religion (Atatürk had banned religious education in primary and secondary
schools), and the report’s findings were not really implemented – with the
exception of seeking to change the language of worship.
Initially, the government was interested in
removing Arabic entirely from worship. They first attempted to implement
recitation of the Koran in Turkish during worship services, but this program
was not wholly successful and not vigorously pursued. However, in terms of the call to prayer they
were unbending in their demand that it be in Turkish. It was the public
auditory space that the call occupied which made it such a target for reform.
To allow the call to be publicly broadcast in Arabic would be to allow
“unadulterated” Islam into the public arena and the secularists did not want to
cede public space to Islam without some sort of regulation – one that would
simultaneously reinforce a burgeoning Turkish identity. By insisting that the
call be recited in Turkish, the secularists announced their arrival as the new
power and also clearly separated themselves from Arabs culturally and
ethnically, another important aspect of Turkish identity construction.
So, while they did not attempt to remove Islam from daily life, they did stamp
it as being Turkish and as being subject to secular state control.
Atatürk began the process of call to prayer
Turkicization by first assembling a group of highly respected Istanbul
hafızlar (an honorific for those
who have memorized the Koran and a term of respect) at Istanbul’s
Dolmabahçe Palace. He then charged them with
translating the call to prayer from Arabic to Turkish. This committee met in
December 1931 and consisted of nine respected practitioners:
Beşiktaşlı Ali Rıza, Hafız Kemal, Hafız Sadettin
Kaynak, Hafız Burhan, Hafız Fahri, Hafız Nuri, Hafız
Yaşar (Okur), Hafız Zeki, and Hafız Ali Rıza. As they worked
to translate the call to prayer appropriately into Turkish, whenever there was
any disagreement, the group sought Atatürk’s advice, and a decision was made
depending on his preferences.
The results of this effort can be seen in the chart below. The original Arabic
text is presented next to the Turkish text followed by an English translation:
akbar, Allāhu akbar
Tanrı uludur, Tanrı uludur
great, God is great.
an lā ilāha illā llāh
Şüphesiz bilirim, bildiririm:
Tanrı’dan başka yoktur tapacak
testify that there is no god but God.
anna Muhammadan rasūl Allah
Şüphesiz bilirim, bildiririm:
Tanrı’nın elçisidir Muhammed
testify that Muhammed is the prophet of God.
khayrun min al-nawm
only in the predawn call)
Namaz uykudan hayırlıdır
is better than sleep.
akbar, Allāhu akbar
Tanrı uludur, Tanrı uludur
great, God is great.
Lā ilahā illā llāh
Tanrı’dan başka yoktur tapacak
no god but God.
Chart 1. The Arabic and Turkish Language Texts of
the Call to Prayer with an English Translation.
The texts differ significantly in terms of their
structural components (vowels, number of syllables per line, etc.). For
example, the Arabic language text allows for more open vowels that can sound
more easily across distances. In contrast, the Turkish text has many more
phrases ending in consonants, consequently closing off the sound from
reverberating without the assistance of a loudspeaker. The quality of the sound
would have been very different just in terms of the vowels themselves – a
fundamental building block of voice quality. Many listeners may have found this
change somewhat jarring when they first heard the Turkish language call to
prayer and this reaction may have been another factor contributing to the
strong opposition to the Turkish language call to prayer that was subsequently
engendered. While conducting my fieldwork in Istanbul, at least one Turkish friend and
musician told me that when he had heard a recording of the Turkish language
call to prayer, it simply sounded “weird.” Further, while not directly addressing the
topic of the call to prayer, Geoffrey Lewis contends that, in general, when
many commonly used words considered to be of non-Turkish origin were removed in
favor of neologisms, these unusual and/or seldom-used terms caused some Turks
to find the changes “excruciating.”
An example of such a substitution was the replacement of the commonly used word
Allah with the “pure Turkish” Tanrı.
While the first calls to prayer in Turkish occurred
in the first months of 1932, it was not until November that the Directorate of
Religious Affairs issued the official order to recite in Turkish. This
requirement took some time to implement throughout the country, as muezzins and
imams needed to learn the new text. To that end, Sadettin Kaynak, the head
muezzin at Istanbul’s
Sultan Ahmet mosque (the Blue Mosque), recorded the Turkish language call to
prayer and this version was distributed as the specific model to follow.
Reported dates vary between January 30 and February
3, 1932 as to when the first Turkish call to prayer was recited publicly, but
it was most certainly at Istanbul’s
Aya Sofya Mosque. The venue held symbolic value: Aya Sofya was once the most
important house of worship in Eastern Christendom, and, when the Ottomans
conquered Istanbul in 1453, one of the first actions taken was to convert the
Aya Sofya into a mosque proclaiming the arrival of Islam in the previously
Byzantine Christian city of Constantinople. Hence, the Kemalists’ choice to
recite the inaugural Turkish call to prayer from this particular mosque
announced a modernist and nationalist Republican victory. That first Turkish
language call was accompanied by the prayers also being recited in Turkish and
recitation of some parts of the Koran in Turkish. Newspapers from that time
period offered positive accounts of this event and related that the beautiful
voices reciting and the sounds of the Turkish language call to prayer caused
crowds to form in the mosque.
However, despite this upbeat press coverage,
reactions to the Turkish call were not overwhelmingly positive; on the
contrary, one scholar argues that enforcing the recitation of the call to
prayer in Turkish was the most unpopular of all secularist measures.
Consequently, acts of civil disobedience protesting Turkish recitation were not
uncommon. An early and often referenced populist rebellion against recitation
in Turkish took place in Bursa.
On February 1, 1933, at the Bursa Ulu Mosque someone by the name of Topal Halil
recited in Arabic, after which he went to the bottom of the minaret where the
police were waiting to arrest him. Protests among the population ensued and a
number of people marched from the Evkaf,
a religious foundation, to the valilik,
the home of the provincial government. The valilik
military then sought help from the army garrison, and from there the situation
was made known to the garrison that accompanied Atatürk. When Atatürk heard of
the rebellion, he went to Bursa. Ultimately, on his instructions, the local
religious administrative head in Bursa,
the attorney general, and the justice of the peace were fired from their jobs.
Nineteen people involved in the event received prison sentences.
Following this event and other similar ones over the next few years, in 1941
legislation was enacted completely outlawing Arabic recitation. The statute
concerning this legislation, in part, read as follows: “Those …who recite the
call to prayer…in Arabic are to be punished with up to three months in prison
without hard labor or with a fine between 10 and 200 lira.”
Nonetheless, civil disobedience against this
measure steadily increased; those who recited in Arabic were known as ezan çılgınları,
“call-to-prayer crazies,” and were involved in a systematic and widespread
anti-Turkish language recitation movement. One of the most organized mass protests took
place on Friday, February 4, 1949. That day, simultaneous Arabic recitation
took place in the listeners’ boxes at the Turkish National Assembly, at a
national football match at Istanbul’s Dolmabahçe
Stadium, at a cinema in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu
district, in the presence of the governor of Ankara,
and in the city of Eskişehir.
In retaliation, protestors were sent to prison or fined; some also were
sentenced to time in mental hospitals.
However, when Atatürk’s party, the Cumhuriyet Halk Partesi (CHP), lost its
position of power to the Demokratik Parti (DP) in 1950 the program to Turkicize
the call to prayer came to an end, which was widely approved. There were
several factors leading up to this DP win. First, while Turkey was
theoretically and constitutionally a democracy, in practice it had been a
one-party government led by the CHP, and, when Atatürk was in power, it was
essentially a dictatorship. However, his death in 1938 and the hardships
endured by the population during World War II reduced support for the party of
Atatürk. Moreover, many Turks had never
wholly accepted the secularist reforms of the CHP. External pressures were also
felt when, in 1945, Turkey
joined the United Nations, the charter of which calls for a country to be
democratically run. Thus, from 1945 to 1950, then Turkish President İsmet
İnönü of the CHP slowly made it possible for the existence of another
party. The DP made headway as a party under the leadership of Adnan Menderes,
Celal Bayar (Atatürk’s last prime minister), and Fuad Köprülü. The DP also
gained popularity by promising to address many of the economic problems created
by the war and any general complaints about the CHP. Such complaints often
centered on the fate of religion in the Turkish Republic.
One major reason for such a focus on religion in terms of protest is that
“Before the introduction of multiparty politics in 1945, Islam was the only
channel for protest, since the Republican state monopolized all legitimate
Hence, Menderes and the DP campaigned and won
based in no small part on their promise to address one of the major points of
expressed popular unrest; therefore, restoring Arabic language call to prayer
recitation was a significant act and a way to reward those who supported the
Subsequently, after the DP’s May 1950 landslide
victory, one of its first actions was to re-write the law that officially
punished those who recited the call to prayer in Arabic. Politically it was
expedient to address this subject early on – the holy month of Ramadan was
approaching and the changing of this law before its onset was a popular
decision. Thus, a draft of the new law was prepared for the General Assembly by
June of 1950. However, a delicate ideological balance needed to be achieved. While
the DP wanted to please the population, at the same time it wanted to continue
the agenda forwarded by Atatürk. Many of the leaders in the DP were originally
leaders in the CHP, after all. Even more important was a promise that the DP
had given President İnönü concerning the creation of the new party: it
would remain true to the ideals of Atatürk.
there was this conflict over the issue of national secularism and how such a
system should regulate religious practice – a conflict that played out every
day in the public recitation of the call to prayer. The DP addressed this issue
by using the rationale that the founders of the Turkish Republic
had misinterpreted “…‘secularism’ as a restriction of the ‘free exercise of
By this reasoning, returning the language of the call to prayer to Arabic was
not in opposition to the ideals of Atatürk’s Republic. The proposed amendment to the law that the DP
ultimately submitted basically stated that it was legal to recite in Arabic or in Turkish. This amendment was approved by the
General Assembly with little opposition from the CHP – perhaps in part due to
the fact that the CHP was increasingly being seen as anti-religion and possibly
allied with communism, and consequently did not to want to be perceived as
anti-religion on this particular issue.
The DP also built more mosques and made religious education in school more or
less compulsory (parents were required formally to “opt out” of the religion
courses that were part of the curriculum and few did).
As a result, religion, specifically Islam, regained some of its authority,
while still existing under the umbrella of the state.
In the end, the lifting of the ban on Arabic
recitation generally met with an approving popular reception. Of course, the entire population was not pleased: Menderes and his government received threats from those
who had supported the Turkish language call to prayer. And, tellingly, Menderes’s execution in 1961 at the hands of a secularist
military that had staged a successful coup against the DP was due, in part, to
the DP’s more tolerant outlook toward traditional religious practice; this
strong military action demonstrated the continuing controversy of a more
liberal attitude toward Islam in the political arena.
Today there are still debates as to whether or not
the recitation of the call to prayer should be in Turkish. In the last ten
years, the topic has been discussed in major Turkish newspapers such as Milli Gazete, Akşam, Milliyet, Radikal, and Zaman. An article in the Turkish
Encyclopedia of Islam also addressed the topic in its 1995 edition,
explaining Islamic law and how it interprets non-Arabic recitation. It stated
that the call to prayer should be read with Arabic words and in a
“recognizable” manner. Citing the Hanefi and Hanbeli legal schools, the author
states it is not permissible to recite the call to prayer in a language other
than Arabic. However, he writes that, according to Shafi religious opinion, in
the case where no one can be found among non-Arabic speakers who can recite the
call to prayer in Arabic, it is possible to recite the call to prayer in the
Still, while a preference for Arabic is strong
among Turkish practitioners and listeners, contrasting opinions can be heard.
The respected composer and musicologist Yalçın Tura stated that the call
to prayer should be recited in Turkish because it is an invitation. Clearly
differentiating the Koran’s being recited in Arabic from the call to prayer, he
asserted that the text of the call to prayer did not come directly from God,
and that it is necessary for Islam to be rescued from becoming an “Arab
cultural weapon,” so that Islam can belong more universally to non-Arab
Muslims. Otherwise, in his opinion, the words of God would be confined to
This comment speaks to the nationalist legacy that is entwined with debates
surrounding the Turkish language call. Further, it indicates the ideological
currency the Turkish language call carries in contemporary discourse, despite
not being practiced for over half a century.
Legacy of the Turkish Language Call to Prayer with Regards to Turkish
While the language of recitation was restored to
Arabic, the twentieth-century history and use of Turkish has nonetheless shaped
the contemporary style of the call to prayer in Turkey. The Turkish language call
to prayer in and of itself may not relate obviously to the development of a
specific national Turkish style of
recitation in Arabic; however, that there is such a style perceived and
preserved by listeners, practitioners, and the Turkish Department of Religious
Affairs was not always the case and developed during this period of Turkish
language recitation. Prior to the creation of Turkey as a nation and the
reinforcing of its ethnic statehood through powerful symbols such as the
Turkish language call to prayer, a particular “Turkish” style did not
conceptually exist; rather, specific practices were locally based in certain
cities and regions. During the Turkish language recitation period, one of these
local melodic and vocal styles, that of Istanbul,
blended with notions of a national style and ultimately became representative
of a Turkish national call.
The contemporary Turkish recitation style belongs
to a large family of styles practiced in the Middle East.
Commonalities are found in the use of complex melodic modal expression and
rhythmic improvisation. The modal systems of course differ, but are based on a
regional or local makam tradition. Turkish makam, for example, structurally differs from Arab and Persian makam traditions. In Turkey, the
interval of a whole tone can theoretically be divided into nine parts (although
all nine intervals are not necessarily used in practice), whereas the Arab
whole tone contains four parts in theory.
Turkish practice also defines makam
through seyir – the typical pattern
of movement for each modal entity (i.e., ascending, descending,
ascending/descending, descending/ascending). In Turkey makam practice is perhaps the most easily identified and defined
aspect of the Turkish recitation tradition and clearly contrasts with other
melodic systems through the greater number of notes available via the nine
theoretical divisions of the whole tone. And while not all recitation
practitioners may be familiar with the strict theoretical constructs, the ones
whom I consulted very much perceived a richer availability of notes and felt
specifically that this richness was the defining factor of the Turkish style
(which, interestingly, seems to take precedence perceptually over conceptions
of the more salient defining feature of makam,
the seyir). The Turkish style of call
to prayer recitation also calls for the recitation of a different makam at each time of day – a
requirement that all practitioners with whom I spoke were aware. This requirement, the general knowledge of makam practice, is further reinforced
through annual recitation competitions which began in 2003,
in which a quarter of a competitor’s points are determined by his ability to
modulate from one makam to
another. This particular Turkish call to
prayer tradition, that of a specific makam
being recited at a particular time of day, was originally considered the Istanbul style and was
most often practiced in the “Mosques of the Sultans,” and therefore was once
considered the Ottoman palace style.
Another defining factor of call to prayer
recitation practice is harder to concretely describe. This is the vocal timbre
(voice quality). Defining call to prayer practice in terms of timbre is tricky,
as it is whenever attempting to describe timbre, but acknowledging its
significance is valuable as, according to almost all sources, the most
important component of the call to prayer is that it be recited by someone with
a “beautiful voice.” Generally speaking,
the importance of voice quality is a pan-Islamic concept, but ideas as to what
comprises a beautiful voice are colored by local preferences. When asked if
there is a particular Turkish recitation style that encompasses voice quality,
listeners and practitioners agree that there is. The famous ney (reed flute) player Süleyman
Erguner, for example, asserts as much stating that there is a Turkish sound and
that it is not possible to find this sound and style in other Islamic
countries. He believes that the Turks have realized the Prophet’s ideal and
finds the difference is in the muezzins’ voice quality and in the treatment of makam.
This pride in the perceived Turkish sound tends to correlate directly with
national pride. Illustrating this point, a recent newspaper article describing
a call to prayer competition in Turkey
notes the presence of tourists and states that, among those tourists who had
traveled to other Muslim countries, the expressed preference is for the Turkish
calls to prayer due to their superior voices and renditions of makams.
So, if people perceive this specific style, how
then do they understand it in terms of the voice quality itself and how might
it reflect varied political discourses? To answer the first part of the
question, there seems to be a general agreement that the vocal register used by
Turkish callers is higher than that of Arabs, the general point of
comparison. Muezzin Emin Işık
notes that generally the Arabs recite the call in Rast makam
and they also recite in a lower register. Further, he claims that the Syrian
call to prayer is between that of the Arabs and the Turks and that they recite
in a somewhat higher register. According to him, however, Turks recite in the
A dissertation on many forms of religious music practiced in Istanbul also asserts that the notes of the
Turkish call are higher than those of the call to prayer as it is read in Arab
The consensus appears to be that the preferred voices are baritones or tenors
(as opposed to the lower-voiced basses) and several people note this preference
using this exact vocabulary. Yoram Arnon, an Israeli graduate student studying
Turkish music in Istanbul,
states that in his experience listening to other traditions the Turkish one is
higher in register.
Ornamentation also may be an important part of the
style. While not referring specifically to any particular term, some
practitioners and listeners identify the Turkish style as being more heavily
ornamented, particularly when it is recited from the historical mosques of Istanbul.
At least two other people whom I interviewed also pointed to ornamentation as a
defining aspect of the Turkish style, one of whom expressed the opinion that
while this was a definitive trait of the style, he felt that practitioners
often exaggerated the ornamentation.
Many practitioners also note that there is an “accent” that defines the Turkish
sound of a beautiful voice.
Perceptually, however, there are also regional
styles in Turkey.
In the Ottoman era four “official” styles of locally-based recitation were
documented, those of Istanbul, Izmir,
Konya, and Bursa
(although conversations with listeners and practitioners suggest that many more
locally-based recitation styles also existed). The Istanbul style, which seems to be
representative of the current Turkish national style, is just one of these.
People discuss the Istanbul
style specifically in relation to other local Turkish practices, often noting
that, as it is the product of the Ottoman palaces, it is the most desirable.
Defining the sound of the Istanbul
style is generally accomplished using comparative language. Obviously people
remark on the difference between it and the Arab styles (exactly as they do
when discussing the perception of a Turkish national style), but at times
regionalism, as when people point to the four official styles of the Ottoman
period, is the comparative tool. Yüksel Aytuğ writes about the debate
concerning whether or not the special Ramadan programming of the call to prayer
on the TRT (the national Turkish radio and television) should be broadcast from
Ankara or from Istanbul. He notes in his article that the plan to broadcast an Istanbul call to prayer greatly upset some Ankara residents.
And, while people do perceive a difference between these regional styles, one
practitioner claims that such distinctions are lessening. Necati Yaman, the
senior muezzin at Istanbul’s
Nurosmaniye Mosque who began reciting during the mandated Turkish language call
to prayer era, believes that there were regional differences in the past but
that today these differences have diminished. Yaman, who began his career
reciting in the Black Sea region and later moved to Istanbul,
feels this development is due to the migration of many people from Anatolia to Istanbul. He also states
that the former differences are also being affected by widespread media such as
television, compact discs, and audiocassettes and concludes that twenty-five
years before, the same song sung on Istanbul
radio and Ankara
radio would have sounded different.
Thus, while some listeners and practitioners agree that the differences are
less well defined, at the same time they believe they still exist and are
practiced particularly in the more famous mosques of each region. Burak Yedek,
a filmmaker who made a film about Istanbul
muezzins, reports that these mosques strive to preserve the Istanbul tradition.
Other listeners agree with this assessment of call to prayer practice at these
Central to this discussion on national and regional
perceptions of the call, however, is that listeners’ and practitioners’
descriptions of the Istanbul
style mirror those of the national
Turkish style. The Istanbul
style and the Turkish national style are both described as being higher in
range, heavily ornamented and using a different makam for each of the five daily calls. While conducting research
on the Istanbul style of recitation, I became
concerned about the conflation of the Istanbul
style with that of a general Turkish style and wondered how to separate the two
into distinct entities. Having completed the research, however, I now argue
that what was once perceived as the distinct Istanbul Ottoman style is now the
standard Turkish national style; this is the result of the Turkish language
period of recitation. When the country (and the concept) of Turkey was
created, regional practices came to be accepted as “Turkish” as opposed to
being associated with locally-based identities. Thus, a further consequence of
the period was that the Istanbul
palace style displaced other regional styles and is now considered “Turkish.”
Various sources support this theory. Theologian Nuri Özcan claims that Istanbul
and its surrounding areas have been accepted as the yardstick for Turkish call
to prayer recitation.
Practitioners also tend agree that Istanbul
has become the national Turkish style. At one interview with the muezzin from
the central Eminönü district Yeni Cami (New Mosque) there were several other
practitioners present, at least one from Cyprus. They all seemed to agree on
the point that the Istanbul
style had spread to other regions and was the dominant preferred practice.
It should be noted that, while interviews were conducted with muezzins
currently reciting in Istanbul mosques, most
muezzins had held posts in other Turkish cities and many had grown up in other
cities throughout Turkey,
as well. Thus, their perception that among call to prayer recitation styles Istanbul is the
predominant one is based on their personal experience of the craft in other
As to the general factors that have created the
Istanbul/Turkish melodic and vocal style, there is of course the Ottoman period
palace style – of which the Istanbul
style is the direct descendent. The Republican period seems to have been a bit
of an anomaly in terms of the development of the style, except with one notable
contribution: the mentality of that period may have helped to develop the idea
of a Turkish national style, which somewhat ironically, given early Republican
disregard for Ottoman constructs and practices, seems to have settled on the
Istanbul palace style as its representative. And, despite government interest
in making a very “national” call to prayer through mandated Turkish language
recitation, the experiment was theoretically unsuccessful in that Arabic
language recitation was restored. However, in the midst of these changes, the
population developed the sense of a national identity and it seems that the Istanbul style of
recitation, a direct descendant of the Ottoman sultans, has become the national
style – a style in which a certain amount of pride is taken.
Political Discourse in Turkish Call to Prayer Recitation
That the call to prayer has developed as a site of
such embodied discourse is not surprising, given that the call has carried
extra-textual meaning since it was first established as a component of worship.
In this practice of recitation historically and across geographical borders,
the sound of the human voice carries great weight because its beauty
theoretically can supersede the text itself in the ability to transmit the
text’s message. Therefore the voice quality of the practitioner independently from the text can impart
the invitation to the mosque and to Islam. It is the power of this human sound
to carry meaning apart from the text that predisposes listeners and
practitioners in Turkey to add more layers to the voice’s message and to
perceive these varied discourses and meanings in their own particular
renditions of the call (in Turkey this is especially true since few listeners
are Arabic speakers).
The metaphorically and physically embodied
political discourse contained in the recitation of a call to prayer in Turkey
reflects what Karpat has noted as being “a
multifaceted process occurring in several stages of identity accretion
proceeding from universal Ottomanism and Islamism to specific Turkishness and
Further, he states, “Many scholars claim that, after trying and failing to
reform the state through Ottomanism and Islamism, the Turks decided to abandon
both for nationalism. In reality all
three concepts coexisted and evolved together in constant interaction.”
Navaro-Yashin also notes the multiple layers of Turkish identity when she
writes, “The notions of Turkey,
Turks, and Turkish culture, arguably like other terms of state or identity,
have been entangled in a history of multiple constructions.”
In this vein, I argue that this history has similarly engendered competing but
not mutually exclusive embodied discourses within call to prayer recitation
practice. The restored, yet theoretically optional, Arabic language recitation
ties a call to prayer more closely to Islam and, in Turkey, can signify that
religion has overcome the state, or at least that religion has been
significantly freed from perceived secularist control. Simultaneously, however,
practitioners and listeners perceive and take pride in a national style that
they forward through state-sponsored competitions and that they hear in certain
Listeners are just as important as practitioners in
the dissemination and interpretation of the call. Listeners take part in this
interactive dialogue between recitation practitioners and audience. As
Hirschkind argues, “Scholars attentive to the heterogeneous temporalities of
modernity have begun to chart an alternative history of the senses, one in
which, not surprisingly, listening emerges as an important site of inquiry,
pervading the modern in both overt and unacknowledged ways.”
So, when they listen to the call, they can “hear” the nation-state through this
particular style. However, this Turkish
national style is not one that was created by the Turkish Republic; rather, it
was adopted from the Ottoman palaces as representative of Turkey, which adds
another dimension of meaning to any rendition of the Turkish style, as most
early nationalists were keen to distance themselves from cultural and political
practices considered Ottoman and therefore “backwards.”
In contrast, contemporary practitioners, particularly ones working in the more
famous Istanbul mosques, see themselves as
perpetuators of a rich legacy – both that of the Turkish state and the Ottoman Empire.
As to the codification of the Istanbul
call as the Turkish national call, this stemmed from Istanbul’s position as a leader dominant in
most cultural enterprises. It was
somewhat natural for this particular style to become the main representative
for all of Turkey,
obfuscating other regional styles. Prior to the Turkish
Republic, it is likely that, after
religious identity, local identity would have taken precedence over the concept
of a national one,
as the Ottoman Empire consisted of multiple
ethnicities and people of varied linguistic backgrounds. Moreover, it was only
in the nineteenth century that a concerted effort was made to construct and
elicit the sense of a national Turkish identity. Before that time, people were very rooted in
their local communities. In their recitation practice, practitioners would have
been (and still are) aware of associations of a particular style with a
particular place and would have been disposed to render a call appropriate to
that place. As practitioners became mentally more rooted in a nation as opposed
to a city, they would have began conceiving of a style as more nationally than
locally based. And, in the end, the Istanbul
style came to reflect the national ideal.
The use of cultural artifacts (including sonic
artifacts) to reinforce notions of national identity is a hallmark of
nationalization processes. When the modern Turkish Republic
was created, a small nation was carved out of the remnants of what was once a
world empire. In order to create this nation, the founding fathers had to
instill in the people of Turkey
a sense of communal identity. The creation of a nation requires that people
learn to imagine themselves as a single community, related more to one another
than to any other group.
The nineteenth-century pro-Turkicization political factions and subsequently
Atatürk’s Kemalists successfully created a sense of national identity in the
people by inventing a long history of Turkish identity as it related to
Anatolia and by largely removing non-Turks and non-Muslims from any sphere of
influence (and often entirely from daily life, as well). This was accomplished
either through a physical removal of certain ethnic groups, as in the case of
the forced population exchanges with the Greeks, or in the marginalizing of
certain ethnic identities and their coerced acceptance of a Turkish identity,
as in the case of the Kurds. In inventing this national identity, Atatürk
carefully manipulated some of the major cultural symbols and imbued them with Turkishness;
the call to prayer and its adoption of a Turkish text is a prime example of
this undertaking in that the manipulation and creation of such traditions is a
common means by which to reinforce the nation state.
Atatürk knew that he must create a sense of national identity while acknowledging
the dominant religion of Islam because for so long it had been one of the
strongest unifying factors for the people of the Ottoman
Empire. In the particular case of the call to prayer, Atatürk
implied the sense of the past with the use of the “pure Turkish” language, but
at the same time symbolically called on listeners to hear the future when it
was recited – the future being the modern Turkish Republic.
Unfortunately, instead he provoked animosity from the predominantly Muslim
populace and provided a unifying position for public protest among many groups.
Simultaneously, outside of the realm of sacred
recitation, in the early years of the Republic, other vocal/musical styles were
being identified as undesirable because they were associated with “non-modern” Turkey.
Research conducted by O’Connell suggests that in Turkey there was a conscious
awareness of how to manipulate vocal sound to indicate certain allegiances. He
writes that a discourse emerged very specifically during the early Republican period
and was tied to ideas concerning an appropriate national sound. In his research
on national identity and secular vocal practice in Turkey, O’Connell finds that
Turkish vocal performance became considered a style of music, as opposed to a
natural form of vocal production, so as to allow people to consider other
possible styles. Vocal styles came to be classified according to "regional
qualities, historic characteristics, and normative functions.”
Thus, out of this period grew notions of styles considered undesirable ¾ such as those associated with Arabs. In terms of
vocal performance itself, new national pedagogical methods were employed in
state run schools. Given state interest in governing religion, it seems logical
to extend the argument to the development of a national Turkish recitation
practice. However, what that recitation style would be was problematic. Call to
prayer recitation style had previously defined a local or religious identity,
but as national identity took precedence over local and religious, a similar
need for a Turkish style developed. At the time, because the most often
recorded muezzins of these early years were in Istanbul
and Istanbul was still the cultural center, the Istanbul style seems to have become the preferred Turkish style
simply through the wide dissemination of Istanbul
muezzins’ renditions of the Turkish language call and other religious
recitation practices. While there is little direct evidence that the state
explicitly supported the Istanbul recitation style over others (excepting the
fact that when the new Turkish language call to prayer was constructed, only
recitation artists practicing in Istanbul were consulted and that the great
recitation artists of the day are still cited as models), given the way in which
practitioners and listeners describe both the Turkish style and the Istanbul
style in similar terms, I argue that because the mindset was geared towards
national identity, the often recorded and pedagogically reinforced Istanbul
recitation style organically evolved as the perceived Turkish national one. As
a result of these processes, a past and a contemporary awareness of the layers
of meaning embedded in the sound of a call to prayer recitation are part of the
fabric of Turkish life – there is no need to clearly separate all the
identities; instead they intermingle freely.
In the end, somewhat paradoxically, the Istanbul
Ottoman “palace” style has become the Turkish national ideal, despite an early
Republican interest in minimizing Ottoman influence in the public sphere. In
its attempt to create a national call solely through the language of
recitation, the state did not seem to consider the importance of style and
voice quality in the perception of the call and thus ignored those factors when
regulating the call’s performance.
So, while a national style emerged, which practitioners and residents hold in
high regard over the style of their neighbors, particularly Arab ones, the
national style maintains a direct link to both its Islamic roots through the
language of recitation, Arabic, and its Ottoman heritage, through its Istanbul palace roots.
Such seemingly competing ideological frameworks play out with every rendition
of the contemporary call and are a product of early nationalization processes. Ultimately,
the embodied practice of call to prayer recitation in Turkey connotes
more than a Muslim identity: it often also expresses such constructs as
“Turkishness” or “Istanbulness” or “Ottoman.” Thus, Muslim, Turkish, Ottoman,
identities are not truly exclusive; rather there is a dynamic interplay among
the identities in call to prayer recitation. As Navaro-Yashin writes, “…this
sort of voiced disagreement about the content of ‘Turkishness’ is extremely
commonplace in the public culture of contemporary Turkey. Not only living out their
everyday practices with the lack of consciousness that Pierre Bourdieu’s notion
of ‘habitus’ suggests, people in Turkey also abstractly think and
comment about their ‘culture.’”
Thus, when Istanbul muezzins recite the call to
prayer they incorporate and
ultimately express publicly to the community a variety of nuanced mannerisms
that both they and the community share as being, at the very least, Islamic,
Turkish, Ottoman, and of Istanbul.
Moreover, as the call to prayer is publicly
expressed sound, its agents of meaningful processing and interpretation are
both those who produce the sound, muezzins, and those who hear the sound, the
local residents. These combined agents produce and take in the sound, and for a
collective moment are affected by its generation and seem to have come to an
agreement about what this embodied practice contains in terms of historical and
social information. They perform/hear Istanbul’s Ottoman legacy; they
express/identify the beautiful voice that is a conduit to the divine and a
direct descendant of early Islam; they recite in Arabic even though they could
recite in Turkish, practicing the choice to align themselves more with Islam
than the nation state; however, simultaneously the nation state is celebrated
through several “Turkish” features: the
Turkish higher voice, ornamentation, and the belief that the sound emanating
from Istanbul is the most beautiful among all styles.
Description: Field recording of contemporary Turkish call
and Personal Communication
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