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A face of modern Turkey


Over the years I have learned to always accept invitations, if at all possible, when traveling. It is the best way to meet interesting people. I have met more than my fair share of carpet salesmen here in Turkey, and had a lot of tea, but yesterday evening I had more interesting conversation with a “former Muslim shaykh” who has since left the faith.

He had been trained as a shaykh, a Muslim scholar responsible for delivering authoritative interpretations such as fatwas, and in that capacity had studied most of the world’s religions so that he could pass judgment on their teachings. But he had come to believe that religions only existed to control people and had nothing to do with God—if God even existed—and so he left religion.

In the United States there is a growing number of people who are “spiritual, but not religious,” a phrase of some ambiguity, but generally meaning that they feel a connection to God or to something beyond the mundane, physical world, but that they do not have an allegiance to any particular religion or religious creed.

This man did not feel that this was possible. For him, any talk of “spiritual” things was necessarily coercive, fraught with oughts.

I suggested that perhaps it was his understanding of religion that was flawed, not all religions ipso facto. For instance, I think that while many people think that Christianity is about rules, I do not. I think that at its core, Christianity is about love, and it seeks to move people to love the way that God loves, loving sinners and saints, myself and God completely, unreservedly, with every fiber of our being. When we love, then we do what is right by people, but it is the love that leads, that is the core.

This was not Islam in his opinion, but when I asked if it was close to what Sufism (a mystical form of Islam) was about he was stopped short. Perhaps… perhaps…

In any case, we spoke for six hours. I did not get back home until midnight. Accepting a simple invitation to have a short tour of the area opened into a long evening of incredible conversation about the meaning of life and religion and what might give our lives hope and meaning. This is what traveling is about.

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