A pretty garden and a table laden with cheese, ham and good bread: a typical summer evening scene on the Prince's Islands, a popular haunt for wealthy Istanbul residents.
But the dozen or so people sitting around the table haven't come to exchange polite gossip. For the past four hours, they have been listening intently to a popular Sufi mystic discoursing on the love of God. "Bring unity to your heart and you create a temple of Allah, do that and you feel an irrepressible desire to dance," says the man, holding up his arms like a whirling dervish, clicking his fingers.
The past five years have seen a huge surge in interest in Sufism among urban, secular-minded Turks. Almost every television channel now has a program about Islamic mysticism. In bookshops, only books peddling conspiracy theories outsell the primers in Islamic mysticism and the new translations of Ibn-i Arabi.
Interest in Sufism surged last year, when novelist Elif Safak, best known in the West for being put on trial in 2006 because one of her fictional characters allegedly "insulted Turkishness," published her new book about an American Jewish woman's discovery of Rumi, the 13th century founder of the Mevlevi order of whirling dervishes. Rumi, who was born in 1207 in what is now part of Tajikistan, spent most of his life in present-day Turkey. His teachings offer some of the best insight into Sufi practices ever written.
Brought out in the United States this spring, The 40 Rules of Love is one of the best selling novels in Turkey's history. With sales mounting above half a million, publishers even brought out a grey-jacketed version for male buyers too embarrassed to be seen holding the bright pink original edition.
In some ways, the wave of interest is surprising. In Turkey, since the founding of the Turkish Republic, official propaganda has presented mystical orders, or tarikat, as the main "reactionary" force opposed to secularism. Even today, many secular Turks respond to the word tarikat with a grimace of distaste.
Since the 1990s, however, secular fears have increasingly centered on political Islam. More and more, analysts argue, some strands of mysticism, including Sufism, are seen as a moderate alternative. "For years, faced with Islamists telling them that people who did not pray five times a day were not Muslims, secular Turks would defend themselves by saying that the important things was 'a clean heart,’" says journalist Murat Yalniz. "They find a similar message in Sufism."
A researcher on Sufism, Seyit Erkal says the new interest among the secular, urban group, often described as 'White Turks,' is a matter of image. "Islam in Turkey has long been presented as malign, dirty and primitive, and turning to religion is no easy affair for such [urbanized] people," he says. "What would you prefer? Beards, skull caps and dogmatism, or Rumi's slogan 'come, whoever you are?’"
Outlawed by the secular leaders of the Republic in 1925, mystical Islam never disappeared from Turkey. Arguably, it was the powerful, orthodox Nakshibendi mystical order that did most to turn Islam into the political force it is in Turkey today. From the 1960s on, though, Sufism faced increasing opposition from radical Islam, nourished by puritanical Salafi beliefs imported mainly from Egypt.
Islamist radicals consider the Sufi relationship between sheik and believer to be idolatrous, according to Ismail Kara, professor of Islamic thought at Marmara University in Istanbul. Like earlier generations of Islamist modernizers, they also saw mystical brotherhoods as one of the chief reasons why the Islamic world could not keep pace with the West. "Islamism was a critique of Islamic history," Kara explains. "Islamists made a deliberate attempt to cut themselves off from traditions and the past. They saw tarikat [mystical orders] as obstructing their efforts to go back to the sources and start again."
Today, Islamist animosity is waning as younger Turkish Muslims increasingly question the correctness of reducing religion to a political ideology. "People have begun to ask what happened to the profound Islam of the Middle Ages," says Mahmut Erol Kilic, an expert on Sufism as Marmara University. "People have begun to ask how a culture which produced Avicenna, Ibn-i Arabi, Mevlana and Yunus Emre could have become so narrow."
Sufi leaders say that tolerance of the more heterodox sects has extended even to the Justice and Development Party [AKP] government, whose leaders, when young, were influenced by radical Islamism. Even a decade ago, discussing the culture of tarikat on Turkish television was almost impossible, says Cemalnur Sargur, head of one branch of the Rifa'i sect, and Turkey's only female sheik. Today, she hosts two weekly television programs, including one on state television. "Some say they are bigots, but mysticism is something that this government understands, and has opened the way for," she says.
But not everybody is happy about the increasing visibility of Sufism. Many Muslim intellectuals object to the way in which the Mevlevi brotherhood in particular has been turned into a marketing tool for Turkey's tourist board, its white-robed dervishes whirling in front of crowds of westerners sipping beer.
Elif Safak's 40 Rules of Love sparked a huge and occasionally vicious debate. Left-leaning critics accused her advocating passive fatalism in the face of increasing social inequality and injustice. Pointing out that she wrote her novel in English first, before having it translated into Turkish, Muslim intellectuals accused her of molding Sufi thought to suit a Western audience.
The novel does not "just hollow out our shared values, but dumps modernity's crudest and most specious beliefs into the hole," prominent Muslim intellectual Ducane Cundioglu complained in the Islamic daily Yeni Safak. "This Sufi literature is New Age ... kitsch."
Researcher Seyit Erkal thinks Cundioglu has a point. Secular Turks' interest in Sufism, he points out, really only took off after UNESCO proclaimed the Mevlevi sema, or whirling ceremony, a World Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2005. In honor of Rumi's 800th birthday, UNESCO also declared 2007 the Year of Mevlana and Tolerance.
"This is Sufism that comes from the West," Erkal says. "It is like a Turk drinking his first Turkish coffee in America."
Traditional Sufis would doubtless be horrified at what is going on in the garden on the Prince's Islands. At least two of those in attendance, Turks who studied in the United States, openly admit to being atheists. As the sun drops below the Marmara Sea, the host comes to the table carrying a bottle of Doluca Moskado, a pricey local white wine.
The man at the head of the table calls a halt to intricate discussions of the qualities of different Sufi saints, and holds up a wine glass. "The squalid life is not for the Sufi," he says. "The Sufi is a gourmet, a master of the art of living."
Adamant that there can be no Islamic mysticism without an acceptance of the foundations of Islam, the Koran, the Sunnah and religious law, or sharia, Cemalnur Sargur nonetheless shrugs her shoulders at such heterodoxy.
"There are a lot of wrong roads on the road to the Truth, and those who realize they are on the wrong road quickly find the right one," she says.
After Elif Safak's book came out, she adds, she received hundreds of telephone calls from people saying that they wanted to know more about Rumi's companion, Shems-e Tabrizi, one of the main figures in the novel.
"The mere fact of mentioning Shems' name in this world is an act of grace," she says.
Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.