Country Listing

Cyprus Table of Contents



Nearly all Turkish Cypriots were followers of Islam, but, unlike most predominantly Muslim societies, the "TRNC" was a secular state, as specified in the first article of the 1985 constitution. There was no state religion, and Turkish Cypriots were free to choose their own religion. Religious leaders had little influence in politics, and religious instruction, while available in schools, was not obligatory. The few Greek Cypriots who lived in the "TRNC" were free to follow their Greek Orthodox faith. The tiny Maronite community had its Christian Maronite Church. In addition, there were Anglican and Roman Catholic churches.

The position of Islam and Islamic institutions in the Turkish Cypriot community differed from that of Greek Orthodoxy among Greek Cypriots. In contrast to the Greek Cypriot millet's ethnarch, there was no Islamic religious figure with political power. Where the Church of Cyprus was intimately identified with Greek nationalism and the campaign for enosis, Islam played virtually no role in Turkish Cypriot nationalism. The great figure of this latter movement was Atatürk, a man famous for secularism, and in many respects the polar opposite of Archbishop Makarios III, who was both a religious and political leader. It was Atatürk who established the secular Turkish state, which has generally adhered to his doctrines ever since. Although Atatürk had no jurisdiction over Cyprus, Turkish Cypriots adopted most of his program voluntarily and with little controversy. Turkish Cypriots were among the first to adopt Atatürk's prohibition of Arabic in religious services and to use the Quran in Turkish translation. Since Atatürk's death, Turkish Cypriots have usually followed the religious practices of Turkey. When in 1951, for example, Turkish authorities once again allowed the use of the Quran in Arabic and directed that the call to prayers also be in Arabic, Turkish Cypriots followed suit. Despite these lapses from Atatürk's policies, both Turkey and the "TRNC" remained fundamentally secular.

The Islamic faith arose from the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad in Arabia in the seventh century. It is based on a monotheistic belief in God (Allah) as all-powerful in the universe and in human subservience to God's will. All devout persons should submit to the divinely willed plan; the word Muslim means one who has surrendered to God's will. This will has been made known through the prophets, including those of the Old Testament and Jesus, with Muhammad being the last of them. The Quran, held to have been revealed by God to Muhammad and dictated by him to scribes, is thus a guide to practical living and the basis for law covering all spheres of life.

The principal religious observances, often known as the five pillars of Islam, are the profession of faith that "there is no God but God and Muhammad is his messenger"; daily prayer; fasting during the month of Ramadan when the Quran was revealed; almsgiving; and once in one's lifetime if feasible the pilgrimage to Mecca, the birthplace of Muhammad and eventual home of his community of disciples. The daily prayers are called from the minaret of the mosque at dawn, noon, midafternoon, sunset, and early evening. Devout Muslim males also attend community prayer services at the mosque on Friday, the weekly holy day.

Turkish Cypriots, like most Turkish nationals, are followers of Sunni Islam. After the Prophet's death, his followers split over the question of the method of choosing his successors. The Sunnis (from sunnah, tradition) argued that Muhammad had prescribed no definitive procedure; the Shias (from Shiat Ali, party of Ali) insisted that his designation of his cousin and son-in-law Ali established a hereditary succession. Basic questions of theology and practice deepened the split. Sunnis consider the Quran and the hadith, a separate collection of the sayings and deeds of Muhmamad, to be a complete, comprehensive, and eternally correct source of religious guidance requiring only deductive elaboration by scholars. Shias accept an additional body of esoteric lore handed down by Muhammad to Ali, which may be revealed and expanded by divinely inspired Imams who were descendants of Ali. Within Sunni Islam, Turkish Cypriots have traditionally followed the Hanafi school of legal interpretation, a rather austere variety of Islam.

Evkaf Idaresi (Turkish Religious Trust, usually known as Evkaf) was the prime institutional representative of the Turkish Cypriot community. Until 1915 it was governed by delegates chosen by the sultan and the British, with the Turkish delegate generally exercising wide discretion; after formal annexation of the island, the British appointed both delegates. The Evkaf functioned during the colonial period as a government department. However, in the intensely nationalistic period before independence, control was given to a new elective council, and the constitution of 1960 assigned religious matters as one of the major powers of the new Turkish Cypriot Communal Chamber. Since 1973, the Evkaf has been an independent foundation with its own budget, insulated to some extent from the political leadership of the Turkish Cypriot community. Whereas the Evkaf operated Muslim schools in the past, in recent decades it has simply provided funds for the salary of the mufti, the highest religious figure, and for the construction, repair, and maintenance of the mosques. The Evkak's revenues were derived from its large landholdings and other property placed in trust for religious purposes. Before 1974 it was the second largest landowner in Cyprus, surpassed only by the Church of Cyprus. Because much of its property was located in territory occupied by the Republic of Cyprus, however, the de facto partition of the island cost the Evkaf half of its agricultural property and nearly all of its building sites.

The mufti was the spiritual head of the Turkish Cypriot Islamic community. His office underwent dramatic changes after the Ottoman period, when religion and administration were fused under the sultan as God's representative ruling over the Islamic community. The mufti's role was essentially that of supreme authority in religious law rather than high priest or administrator. He was appointed by the sultan until Atatürk abolished the caliphate. The British abolished the position in 1928 and transferred its duties to a new official in the Evkaf. The office was revived in 1956 as part of the reforms that gave Turkish Cypriots control over the Evkaf; the new mufti was elected by the island's Muslims and his retirement age set at seventy-five. Because of the secularization of the Turkish Cypriot society, however, the mufti lost his jurisdiction over such matters as law, marriage, and education.

Turkish Cypriots were among the most secular of Islamic peoples. Wedding ceremonies were civil, rather than religious, for example. The eight decades of British rule contributed to this secularization. More significant was the Turkish Cypriots' close adherence to Atatürk's reforms in Turkey. Religion came to be a personal matter among Turkish Cypriots, and they did not attempt to impose their religious beliefs on others. Although there was some fasting during the month of Ramadan, moderate attendance at the Friday prayers, and widespread observation of the holy days, few Turkish Cypriots were orthodox Muslims. Most of those who fasted during Ramadan, for example, lived an unorthodox life the rest of the year, and Turkish Cypriots generally did not abstain from alcohol as standard Muslim teaching requires, but followed traditional Mediterranean drinking customs.

There were groups and organizations in the "TRNC" that opposed traditional Turkish Cypriot secularism and religious tolerance. Some Saudi Arabian and Libyan aid came from groups that wished to see an upsurge of Islamism (sometimes seen as fundamentalism) on the island. Some of the aid funded new mosques and Quran schools around the island and the new Islamic university in Lefka (Lefke).

The Cyprus Turkish Islam Society (CTIS) was one of the organizations that was working for an expanded role for Islam in the "TRNC." The group's program, the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis (Türk-Islam Sentezi) called for the union of Turkish nationalism and Islam, a coalition between government and military, a society built on Islamic foundations and the rule of religious law, sharia (seriat in Turkish). The Turkish-Islamic Synthesis also identified enemies to be controlled or eliminated, including atheists, communists, Western humanists, members of other religions, and those who blame Islam for the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It maintained close ties to Sheyh Nazim Adil Kibrisli, a Cypriot living in London, who was a leading member of the Naksibendi order of Sunni Islam in Europe. The Naksibendi order also advocated a return to sharia and openly opposed Atatürk's reforms.

Given the secular traditions of Turkish Cypriots, these and other like-minded groups had an uphill task to realize their aims. Nevertheless, some Turkish Cypriots would certainly find these aims attractive. This fact and the access of Islamic groups to the financial resources of oil-producing nations made it likely that their presence would continue to be felt in the "TRNC."

Data as of January 1991

Country Listing

Cyprus Table of Contents