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Elisabeth Ӧzdalga, Pulpit, Mosque and Nation. Turkish Friday Sermons as Text and Ritual, Edimburgh University Press, 2021, 304 p. ISBN 9781474488211

Fabio Salomoni

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1The growing attention of scholars to religion in Turkey has also generated an increased interest in the secular model—laiklik—of the republic as fundamentally built on the state control of religion rather than on a separation between them. A crucial element in this relationship is represented by the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlıǧı, DİB), an institution that reveals an element of continuity between the republic and its Ottoman past. The DİB was charged with the duty of enlightening the society on religious matters and Islamic practice (Gözaydın 2008), basically, to produce a “good Islam” that functioned for the modernizing project of the republic. Indeed, the literature suggests that since its creation, the DİB has constituted a political tool serving the ideological agenda of the state, promoting deep reverence for the state and militarism (Yılmaz 2021) and preserving and consolidating Turkish nationalism (Yavuz 2003), thereby playing a crucial role in integrating Sunni Islam into the national identity and definition of the national political community.

2Starting from the seminal book Muslim Society, “Secular” State focusing on DİB (Müslüman Toplum, “Laik” Devlet: Türkiye’de Diyanet İsleri Baskanlığı) by İştar Gözaydın (1993), works and studies focusing on different aspects of the activities, organization, practices, and discourses produced by DİB both in Turkey and abroad have multiplied, particularly during the AKP period of the last twenty years. The latest book by Elisabeth Ӧzdalga, a sociologist with long experience of work and research in Turkey who has considered, among other things, the Alevis and the Gülenist movement, takes its place in this line of studies.

3The main feature of Pulpit, Mosque and Nation is that it focuses on a specific dimension of the DİB’s activities, the production and contents of the sermons (hutbe) making up the Friday noon prayers. Although Ӧzdalga observes that research on sermons is under-represented in the academic literature, it should be noted that other authors have dealt with this in recent years, in particular with the analysis of their content, analyzing the place in them of militarism and martyrdom (Yılmaz, Ertürk 2021), the ways in which Kemalist references are combined with Islamic ones (Gürpınar, Kenar 2016), and how sermons contribute to creating the desired citizen of Erdoğanism (Yılmaz 2021). Compared to these works, Ӧzdalga’s book stands out above all for its breadth since it aims to embrace the entire history of the republic. Through the use of a classical periodization of republican history, Ӧzdalga’s goal is to analyze the sermons in close correlation with the different historical contexts and an investigation that has three main dimensions.

4First, through a textual analysis of sermon content, the book aims to identify the type of ideal nation and citizen developed by the DİB and offered to believers, highlighting how the relationships between ethnic, religious, and social differences are managed and how consent and conflict are defined. This analysis thus presents itself as a promising perspective for empirical verification of how the political pedagogy of the DİB highlighted by many authors is structured and transformed.

5The second dimension concerns the DİB as an institution. Through an analysis of the methods of production and distribution of its sermons, Ӧzdalga proposes to investigate the characteristics and transformations of the institution, both internally, in the relationship between central and local administrations, and, most importantly, in relations with other state apparatuses, to verify its degree of independence from the state.

6The third dimension that Ӧzdalga considers is the ritual, performative dimension of Friday prayers, considering the sermon as ritual. The intriguing hypothesis developed is that the construction of a community and of a political pedagogy does not pass only from the text of the sermons but also from the performative and ritual practices that make up the prayers.

7The book is structured in eight chapters. The first offers an interesting and necessary analysis of the different elements that make up the ritual of the noon-time Friday prayer, reconstructing the historical origins and the main characteristics of the sermon. The hutbe is an official form of preaching and represents an officially authorized kind speech divided into two parts, both obligatory, in the first of which the sermon proper is performed. The Friday hutbe is then distinguished from other sermon forms, such as the vaaz, which is not linked to a special time or placement in the liturgical schedule or even to a special place, such as the mosque.

8The second chapter analyzes the methods of production and the contents of the sermons roughly during the time corresponding to the single-party period. In this phase, the DİB had a weakly institutionalized structure and was limited in terms of its functions. The production and regulation of sermons, its main function at this stage, was guaranteed by a practice inherited from the Ottoman past, that of producing collections of hutbe in Ottoman and then in modern Turkish, which had the characteristic of being contemporary (caǧdaş). However, the sermons also assumed the role of helping to build the ideology of the republic. This was substantially achieved by promoting the overlap between the national (milli) and the Islamic. Analyzing the contents of the sermons, Ӧzdalga identifies some central elements of the political pedagogy espoused. She establishes a commonality between the good believer and good citizen, defining the relationship of the latter with the state in terms of duties and obligations performed, such as military service. This production and promotion of a culture of subservience in which a good citizen is an obedient citizen reveals an insistence on the theme of national unity and, conversely, the fear of division and discord—what Gürpınar and Kenar (2016) define as an obsession with sedition (fitne). This is a term that, like few others, highlights how the religious vocabulary has become part of the political culture of the republic, in part through the actions of the DİB.

9The third chapter reconstructs the policies aimed at Turkifying the religious liturgy—ezan, namaz, and also the Quran—undertaken in the 1930s and 1940s. Ӧzdalga suggests the autonomy (from the state) of the Diyanet when recounting opposition to the Turkification of elements of religious rituals. Interestingly, Ӧzdalga underlines that this opposition was not so much an expression of reactionary tendencies but rather derived from a concern to safeguard the sacredness embedded in religious rituals. It is in this chapter that Ӧzdalga highlights how the textual dimension of the sermon is only one of the elements that allow us to understand the meaning of prayer. Inspired by the work of the anthropologist Victor Turner and his concepts of liminality and communitas, Ӧzdalga underlines its performative dimension and how the ceremonial act of gathering and various routinized practices constitute elements that, with the sermon itself, contribute to the creation of a community that is not only religious but also and essentially political.

10The fourth chapter returns to the sermons and their content, moving approximately from the 1950s to 70s. The choice of the decade to end this period is made for two reasons. The first concerns the availability of a DİB magazine that began gathering the hutbe in 1968. The second concerns the particularly turbulent character of the 1970s from a political point of view. Ӧzdalga singles out a series of events related to domestic policy—the hanging of Deniz Gezmiş, the coup d'état of 1971, the massacres of May Day 1977 and Kahramanmaraş of 1978—and of foreign policy—the military intervention in Cyprus of 1974 and the subsequent US embargo—and then analyzes subsequent sermons to see how DİB dealt with these issues.

11The conclusion is that the sermons never contain explicit references to events—an element also noted by Gürpınar and Kenar (2016), who, analyzing 1302 sermons between 1962 and 2006, observe how “the devastating transformations of political environment and culture through time were not significantly reflected in the themes and content of sermons.” Rather, the sermons contained more general and abstract references that generally emphasized the need to obey the law and avoid division and conflict with a systematic insistence on the celebration of unity and togetherness (birlik ve beraberlik), which, as Ӧzdalga notes, constituted a mantra of official Turkish oratory.

12The second perspective offered in this chapter is related to the language used by the sermons, which appears extremely formalized, full of generalizations and abstractions. This standardization, argues Ӧzdalga, is the result of a progressive centralization and control of the DİB’s activities and he production of sermons, which arose from the need to distance the directorate and republic from manifestations of Islamic radicalism.

13The fifth chapter focuses on the institutional transformations experienced by the DİB during a period roughly coinciding with that analyzed in the previous chapter. This chapter is substantially based on the autobiography of Tayyar Altıkulaç, appointed director of the DİB in 1971. Altıkulaç’s memoirs allow Ӧzdalga to reconstruct the process of reorganization and institutionalization of the DİB, which began with a statute in 1965 and continued throughout the 1970s. The legal and bureaucratic institutionalization enabled the DİB to acquire a certain degree of autonomy, with respect both to military and political actors and to non-state religious actors.

14Regarding the sermons, this process saw a centralization of their production and distribution effected through a monthly magazine from which the imams could choose which to perform. This not only led to a marked homogenization of the content of the sermons but also helped to create a nationwide religious public sphere by marginalizing the public spheres built around local mosques.

15Moving toward the current era, the sixth chapter first proposes a generic classification by topic of the sermons produced from 1968 until 2006, thus partially overlapping the contents of chapter four. It then deals with the reception of sermons through interviews with an audience of believers made up of theology professors, judges, and students. Criticisms emerge regarding the content of the sermons, which are considered by many as formalistic and detached from everyday life but are also experienced by some as discriminatory due to the exclusive use of the Turkish language. Criticisms of the imams also emerge, both for their failure to produce their own sermons and for the poverty of their rhetorical eloquence. Many of the interviewees also underline the importance of the ritual dimension of prayer, of gathering, which, together with the text of the sermon, produces the religious community.

16The last chapter is dedicated to an analysis of the twenty years of the AKP, a period characterized as “under the Islamist banner.” This chapter includes information already underlined by many authors regarding the exorbitant increase in the budget reserved for the DİB and the number of its employees. More interesting are the observations on the poor quality of the training of the DİB personnel and on the paradoxical lack of imams compared to the number of mosques, two elements that appear from Ӧzdalga’s book to be constant problems in the history of the DİB.

17The chapter then goes on to reconstruct the transformation of the relationship between the DİB and political power, identifying three different novel developments: the increase in political control, especially starting from 2014 when the DİB was linked directly to the prime minister; the expansion of its activities, and their diversification to areas beyond the traditional ones. Although both the “traditional” activities targeting the Turkish diaspora (Çıtak 2010) and the more recent phase of transnationalization (Ӧztürk 2018) have already been analyzed, Ӧzdalga’s text provides further interesting details, particularly on the activities in northern Syria.

18In analyzing the methods of production of the sermons, Ӧzdalga captures an important dimension that is often overlooked in favor of a homogeneous reconstruction of the AKP period. In 2006, Ӧzdalga reports, the DİB began a process of partial decentralization of the production of sermons, entrusting their production to the provincial mufti (müftülük), even though their distribution was subject to control by the central authority. The progressive abandonment of the decentralization process not only coincided with the increase of political control over the DİB but also with the end of the reformist phase of the AKP government and the onset of the subsequent authoritarian drift.

19Due to the breadth of the historical period taken into consideration—the entire history of the republic—along with the variety of sources used and the relevance of the research questions, Ӧzdalga’s book undoubtedly constitutes a valuable contribution to the literature on the DİB. Some points of criticism might be noted, however.

20One issue concerns the organization of the text and the individual chapters. The content of some chapters sometimes overlaps with that of others, and their internal organization is also a little confusing. This disorients the reader somewhat and requires a struggle to follow the path suggested. Although the periodization chosen seems to follow the classic one of republican history, the period commencing with the 1980 coup d'état is sidelined—despite being represented as a turning point for the organization of the DİB, its relations with the state, and, above all, for the contents of its political pedagogy (Lord 2018). Instead, the text limits itself here to some general hints about its importance and omits a fuller consideration of its consequences for the DİB. Similarly, it would have been interesting to look at whether and how the contents of the sermons changed in the period following the ‘post-modern’ 1997 coup.

21From a methodological point of view, the heart of the book is represented by the analysis of the content of the sermons. The sermons analyzed substantially refer to only two periods: the one-party period and the 1970s. The complete absence of any sermon analysis covering the last twenty years goes unexplained and thus appears as a major shortcoming—one cannot but wonder why this history is not followed through to its conclusion in the present, when it is most pertinent. Also, the methodology used for the analysis in the various periods is not uniform in nature, as in the other periods. This is limited to a summary of the sermon titles and subjects. A thematic approach might have been instructive: it would probably have been interesting to look at how the central elements characterizing the sermons of the one-party period have evolved over time for a clearer and more systematic picture of any changes linked to the political pedagogy proposed by the DİB. Overall, therefore, the answers to the research questions that underpin the book are less than systematic and often uneven; the conclusions are not always clearly related to the analyzed material.

22The stimulating initial hypothesis of considering the ritual-performative dimension as complementary to the discursive-textual perspective in the concrete analysis is developed only through references to the work of Victor Turner and interviews with some believers. This aspect would have benefited from a more thoroughgoing ethnographic work describing and reconstructing what goes on in and around different mosques on the day of prayer.

23Regarding the issue of autonomy with respect to political power, Ӧzdalga shares the conclusion drawn by Lord (2020) that the DİB had maintained a semi-autonomous status in the face of political pressure throughout the republic, even if the two authors diverge on the precise moment in the AKP period when this was lost (for Lord, it was in 2010, for Ӧzdalga 2014). In this regard, it would have been interesting to investigate how different degrees of autonomy or subjection with respect to the politician influenced the manner and content of the sermons and their political pedagogies.

24Ӧzdalga observes in the concluding chapter ways in which the progressive institutionalization of the DİB has led to homogenization and uniformization in the architecture and furnishings of the mosques as well as in the contents and language of the sermons. The author explains these elements as, on the one hand, removing any naturalness and spontaneity from the sermons and, on the other, distancing them from the dynamics of daily life. The standardization and homogenization of sermons then has further consequences that are closely linked to the role of the producer of a political pedagogy and already signaled by the literature: they legitimize a religious discourse based exclusively on the Hanefi Sunni tradition, marginalizing other interpretations, such as the Alevi and Shiite, and overseeing an expulsion of languages other than Turkish, obviously starting with Kurdish (Kirmanji, Zaza).

25The methodological and organizational difficulties of the text are revealed above all with respect to the main question of the research concerning the characteristics of political pedagogy. If an analysis of the content of the sermons is promised to shed light on the impact that the DİB’s activities have had in defining the boundaries of national community and the nature of citizenship (Lord, 2018), the result appears partial, fragmented, and often unsupported by text references. The construction through the sermons of a concurrence between citizen and Sunni believer, between religious community and political community, is limited in the analysis to the start of the one-party period, reappearing almost timidly in the 70s and in the rest of the text disappearing, especially in the AKP period.

26Returning to the political question in the concluding chapter, Ӧzdalga acknowledges that calls for togetherness and unity have characterized the official discourse of the state and thus of the DİB throughout the republic, essentially as a strategy to silence diversity and conflict. However, she refuses to attribute to the DİB the function of curbing the democratization processes, at least starting from the second half of the 1980s up to the first decade of the 2000s. Even though the 1980 coup greatly transformed the DİB by giving it a key role in the propagation of the Turkish-Islamic synthesis (Lord 2018), the text lacks an analysis of the contents of the sermons produced at that time.

27Similarly, the thesis that the DİB supported the democratization process in the first decade of the AKP is mainly based only on the headlines of the articles written for the newspapers by its then-president, Mehmet Nuri Yılmaz. Analysis of the antidemocratic turn attributed to the DİB in the second decade of the 2000s, in which, according to Ӧzdalga, the institution came to promote an “increasingly authoritarian and narrow-minded nationalist agenda” is also unsupported by references to sermons. This absence of detail on the recent and current sermons also prevents us from grasping or assessing (dis)continuities—for example, the transition from the Nation to Ummah as argued by Mutluer (2018).

28These omissions are unfortunate. They mean that, with respect to the main research question, the text concludes with speculations that appear to reinforce a very partial—perhaps prejudged—reading of the history of the DİB whose political, antidemocratic dimension is almost exclusively attributable to the ‘Islamist’ deviation of the AKP from the republic’s laicist project. The role of religion in today’s Türkiye is thus not really broached, much less interrogated. None of this should be argued too fiercely, though, since Elisabeth Ӧzdalga here offers us a rich and original review of the DİB; rather than presenting itself as the last word on the subject, it positively invites further development.

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Yılmaz, Ihsan; Ertürk, Ömer F. (2021). “Pro-Violence Sermons of a Secular State: Turkey’s Diyanet on Islamist Militarism,Jihadism and Glorification of Martyrdom,” Religions 12 (8), p. 659 (

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Electronic reference

Fabio Salomoni, Elisabeth Ӧzdalga, Pulpit, Mosque and Nation. Turkish Friday Sermons as Text and Ritual, Edimburgh University Press, 2021, 304 p. ISBN 9781474488211European Journal of Turkish Studies [Online], Book Reviews, Online since 30 September 2023, connection on 28 November 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Fabio Salomoni

Koç University,

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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