Innovation in Religious Tradition: From the Blessed Birth to the Mevlid-i Nebi, 1989-2019

Hakkı Gürkaş, Kennesaw State University


This article examines the changes in the observation of mawlid, or the birth of the Prophet Muḥammad, that have occurred in the public sphere in Turkey during the past three decades. The innovations in the mawlid tradition have contributed to ending the containment of the cultural signifiers of Islam within the private realm and have constituted a step toward the construction of a contemporary, civic expression of religion. In this study the Blessed Birth Week is used as a case study of the exploration of innovation in religious praxis as contextualized in a festive culture. This work demonstrates that some of the core rites of the Blessed Birth Week have created opportunities for claiming of public space and civic institutions temporarily for Muḥammad and by semiotic extension for Islam as a whole. While some secular groups have criticized the Islamization of Turkish society through such invented traditions, some Islamists, too, have become uncomfortable with the secular appropriations that have taken place. The Blessed Birth Week has become a subject for negotiations not only between secularist and Islamist segments of the society, but also among Islamists, and this has led to the reconfiguration of the Blessed Birth Week as Mevlid-i Nebi Week. This article demonstrates both the interactive nature and the fragility of the process of change in religious praxis.