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Suveydâ – When Calling the Adhan in Arabic was Outlawed

Telling the story of a young boy and his grandfather as they grapple with coercive regulations to modernise and Westernise, Suveydâ is a lyrical and moving film that shows the effect of enforced secularisation policies in Turkey at the beginning of the 20th century.

Imam arrested for calling the adhan in Arabic in the film SuveydâIn 1923 the newly founded Republic of Turkey was recognised internationally, replacing the Ottoman Empire in the Treaty of Lausanne signed in Switzerland. Radical reforms to modernise, secularise and Westernise centuries-old Ottoman culture followed, to turn Turkey rapidly into a modern, secular, democratic state. While offering minorities and women more equality, these reforms were forcibly repressive in religious matters, adopting French secularism as a model to be emulated.

The new teacher in Turkish village keen on secularisation

There were raids by officers confiscating books and arresting those who didn’t follow the new dictates. Those who refused to comply were treated harshly, being arrested for not wearing the right clothing, for teaching Arabic, or for calling the adhan in Arabic. The Ottoman religious education system was replaced by a national education system in 1924, the Hat Law was introduced in 1925 banning fezzes and turbans, and requiring the wearing of Western style hats, and religious institutions such as dervish lodges were outlawed.

Sitting with grandfather in the mosque in the film Suveydâ

When books in Arabic and Persian had to be hidden and buried to keep them safe

Set in 1928 in the village of Eregiz, the film Suveydâ focuses on the life of an eleven year-old boy called Hadim who is hoping to become a hafiz of Quran. He has a close relationship with his grandfather Mecid Hodja, who is the village Imam. A ban on using Arabic script is enacted, and we see the effect of this on the villagers. A woman is seen telling her husband not to burn books as he throws them into a fire, to which he replies, “the gendarmerie is taking away those who keep the old script. The mukhtar said so. I didn’t understand anything but the mukhtar does not trifle.” Meanwhile others in the village are seen burying books to hide them, while the official sign for the village hall is changed from Arabic to Latin script.

Burying books to hide them from secularisation officers in Turkey

A few years later an official comes into the village madrasa where Hadim’s grandfather Mecid Hodja is teaching Arabic and Quran.
“Don’t you know the new law, Hodja?”
“Which law is that?”
“It is forbidden to teach the Arabic alphabet anymore. The old alphabet is abolished. The school is opened. All of these children will learn the new alphabet there from now on.”

Sitting with grandfather reading Quran

At this news Hadim’s grandfather becomes unwell, developing a terrible cough. He wants to take the children who are memorising the Quran to the remote village of Kalafat, where his Sufi friend Tigli Hodja is teaching Arabic and Quran, in order for them to finish their memorisation.

Young boy climbing spiral staircase in the film Suveyda

The new village teacher, smartly dressed in a Western suit, arrives with the gendarmerie at the houses of those whose children are not yet attending the new school.
“Why don’t you send these kids to school? You darken their future. Look at them, they are all brilliant. Let them go to school so that they can be civil servants, managers, parliamentarians, commanders or teachers!”
Hadim’s father, Nuri the miller, is warned that he will have to send Hadim to the village school or the gendarmerie will come and force him.

Concerned about his grandfather and the madrasa ban, Hadim suggests that Mecid Hodja continue teaching secretly.
“Grandpa. We can go to houses one by one and lecture. Well, if anyone asks we say, ‘We are just visiting’. Who would know?”

A Wandering Dervish and a Dove

While memorising the Quran with another student, Hadim hears his grandfather explaining the verse about Soloman speaking to the birds.
{And David was succeeded by Solomon, who said, “O people, we have been taught the language of birds, and we have been given from all things. Indeed, this is evident bounty} 27:16
He is amazed that Prophet Solomon knew the language of the birds and wonders if he can learn it too. There is a white dove he sometimes sees which he is already fascinated by and calls Suveydâ, which is also the name of the lost beloved of a wandering dervish, who travels from village to village with his drum looking for her, and who is known affectionately in the village as Uncle Dervish.

Wandering dervish beating on a drum in the Turkish film Suveyda

Calling the adhan in Arabic is outlawed

The new Turkish state brought in policies outlawing the use of Arabic even in religious rites, arguing that the Quran should be taught in Turkish so that it was better understood. Calling the adhan in Arabic was also banned. An edict was sent out from the religious affairs department saying that calling the adhan in Arabic was now outlawed, and giving a Turkish version to be called instead. The impact of this ban is powerfully portrayed in the film Suveydâ. Sitting at the village café, the new, smartly dressed teacher is reading the newspaper and is asked to tell the others there the news.
“What does it say, Teacher? Tell us.”
“Reciting azan in Arabic is forbidden, mukhtar! It says this.”
“What are you saying, Mr. Teacher? Is it right?”
“Right, of course. From now on azans will be recited in Turkish. Otherwise, there are very harsh penalties …This nation will definitely rise to the level of modern civilization. There are still those who don’t send their children to school. There are still those who wear taqiyah and turban. There are still those who teach Arabic. You persist for nothing. Times have changed, get used to it.”
At this Hadim’s grandfather, the village Imam, dressed in his traditional turban and robe, gets up and leaves with his grandson saying la hawla wa la quwwata illa billah under his breath.
The village musician starts to sing a poignant traditional song in a strong voice affecting all those sitting at the café. “…Today is the world but tomorrow is the afterlife. Don’t you care for pleasing hearts?“

The new teacher extolling secularisation in the film Suveyda about Turkey in the early 20th century

At Maghreb the Grandfather gets his friend Hamza to go up and recite the adhan in Turkish as he can’t bear to do it himself. That night Hadim sees his grandfather weeping while praying at this new ban. His grandfather then defiantly calls the adhan at fajr prayer in Arabic, with the villagers visibly upset by his courage, as they know what trouble he will bring upon himself for flouting the new law.

Practicing calling the adhan in the Turkish film Suveyda

The Language of the Birds

Later in the film Hadim is sent to Tigli Hodja in a remote region to finish his Quranic education, as his grandfather had wished. There he finds a stash of hidden books written in Arabic and English, including the Speech of the Birds by Attar. He asks Tigli Hodja
“Does this book teach bird language?”
To which Tigli Hodja replies, “Both yes and no” and asks him not to tell anyone about the hidden books.

Books hidden due to secularisation rulings in Turkey

After a session of dhikr Tigli Hodja and some Sufi disciples are debating how they should respond to the secularisation laws. Some argue that they must rise up against them no matter what the danger. Tigli Hodja asks them what they would do in a storm, to which they reply they would wait until it is over.
“Wait now as well.” He says “Wait stubbornly. Sow your seeds and wait!”

Discussing what to do about secularisation laws in Turkey
However, all does not go smoothly, and Hadim sees a white dove in a dream which he interprets to be the angel of death. Comforting him in his sorrow at this, Tigli Hodja tells him that a white dove should be interpreted as a blessing, a harbinger of wealth, success, purity and freedom, but also as a sign of martyrdom.

Hadim in Suveyda with dove

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'Circling the House of God' is an amazing documentary interviewing renowned writer and scholar Dr. Martin Lings (1909-2005) about his pilgrimages to Mecca in 1948 and 1976, interspersed with incredible archive material of the Hajj from the early twentieth century.

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