How Strict is Islam in Turkey? Tips for Travelers

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Turkey is 98.6% Muslim. What does that mean for travelers who may not know much about Islam or the way it's practiced in Turkey?

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Battalgazi and surrounding landscapes, Turkey Photo © Getty Images/SkyVizyon

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Due in part to how Western media portrays Muslim countries, some travelers may have concerns about visiting Turkey. 

In reality, Islam shapes travelers’ experiences in overwhelmingly positive ways — through the indelible impressions it has left on everything from Turkish foodways to the country’s iconic architecture. 

Islam in Turkey dates back to the 8th century, when Turkic tribes fought alongside Arab Muslims against Chinese forces at the Battle of Talas in 751 A.D. Spurred by the influence of ruling dynasties, many people converted to Islam over the next few centuries.

Modern Turkey was founded in 1923 as a distinctly secular republic — a key difference between Turkey and countries such as Saudi Arabia or Pakistan — but Islam remains inextricably intertwined with Turkish culture. 

Turkish children are designated Muslim at birth unless their parents are affiliated with another religion, leading to a population that is 99% Muslim but diverse in how strictly individuals and families observe Islam. 

Regardless of where they personally fall on the spectrum, Turkish people tend to approach religion with respect and decorum. We spoke with Fatih Özkan, from the Süleymaniye Mosque Cultural Info Center, about what you should keep in mind while traveling in Turkey so you can do the same.

Muslim practices in Turkey

The most prevalent form of Islam practiced in Turkey is Sunni Islam — another departure from neighboring countries where most people adhere to Shia Islam. Turkey is also known for its Sufi community, an Islamic mystic tradition associated with the city of Konya and the poet Rumi. 

Devotees, known in the West as “whirling dervishes” use a spinning movement to deepen their spiritual connection. Some groups provide demonstrations where visitors can observe this tradition in person. 

It’s good to know the roots of religious traditions but, ultimately, Özkan cautions against putting too much emphasis on the different titles and sects of Islam, which the Prophet Mohammed never mentioned and are not in the Koran. 

Call to prayer in Turkey

One way that observant Muslims show their devotion is by praying throughout the day. 

In every Turkish city, the call to prayer reverberates from mosque speakers five times daily, announcing central tenets of the Islamic faith and reminding Muslims to pray. The first one takes place before sunrise and admonishes the faithful to remember that “prayer is better than sleep.” 

When they hear the call, practicing Muslims stop what they’re doing, kneel facing Mecca, and pray. Non-Muslims are not expected to partake in this, but there is some etiquette you should practice when you encounter others who do: 

  • Avoid standing in front of anyone who is praying 
  • Stay silent during the call 
  • Give worshippers their space and refrain from taking pictures of them.

Ramadan

Ramadan, called Ramazan in Turkey, is a month-long period of fasting that Muslims around the world observe each year, usually in May and June. (The actual dates vary according to the Islamic lunar calendar.) Participants eschew food and beverages — this includes water — from sunrise to sunset, breaking their daily fast with a celebratory meal, or iftar.

Taking part in the fast “is a kind of praying,” explains Özkan, and people who do are intentionally “kind of starving” as a way to build empathy. “They are trying to understand what poor people feel. Otherwise, how can we understand that?”

No one expects visiting foreigners to fast – many Turks don’t. But if, during Ramadan, you happen to be traveling in any Muslim country — or even a predominantly Muslim community or neighborhood — you can be courteous by not eating and drinking in public during the day. Opt for indoor seating in restaurants and if you need water, sip it discreetly. At sunset, head to restaurants to sample special bread, dates, and other delicacies that are traditionally served at the iftar meal.

Visiting a mosque in Turkey

Visiting a mosque is one of the best ways to learn about Muslim culture and experience unparalleled examples of Islamic architecture and design, which is typified by jewel tones, gold embellishment, and constellations of geometric patterns. Many historic mosques, including the Süleymaniye Mosque where Özkan works, are part of larger complexes that once included schools, cemeteries, and shops. 

Mosques are open to all visitors except during prayer times. (Non-Turkish Muslim travelers are always free to join in prayers, says Özkan.) You can also engage registered guides for an educational tour of mosques like Aya Sofya, the Blue Mosque, and Kariye Mosque. 

During prayer, the Süleymaniye Mosque Cultural Info Center offers 20-minute presentations about Turkish culture, with complimentary tea or Turkish coffee — and sometimes even soup and baklava, says Özkan. The center’s volunteers are also available inside the mosque to answer questions about the history and architecture of this striking space.

When entering a mosque, both men and women need to have their legs covered and shoes removed. Women are expected to cover their heads with a scarf. (Don’t worry if you forget; most mosques have scarves you can borrow.) 

Note that many Muslims come to mosques to pray or read the Koran or just relax in a sacred space even outside scheduled prayer times. Respect them by refraining from public displays of affection, taking pictures of them, or engaging in disruptive and loud behavior.

Eating and drinking in Turkey

Islam does have some guidelines for food and drink, but they are unlikely to affect travelers, particularly in major cities like Istanbul. 

Pork is not widely available and very few restaurants serve it. Alcohol, on the other hand, is, even though Islam technically prohibits intoxicants. 

That being said, Özkan suggests having “clear limits” when you are drinking in public. Keep it close to your hotel if you can and understand that no one really wants to deal with drunk, rowdy foreigners. 

Other public behavior to avoid in Turkey

In addition to public drunkenness, public displays of affection are not customary in Turkey. While kissing both cheeks is a typical greeting, kissing on the mouth is considered private. 

“Muslims in Turkey and generally [in the] Islamic world, they keep these touches [and] physical things in their houses,” says Özkan. 

Turkish women also tend to dress more modestly than their Western counterparts, particularly in conservative communities like Fatih or Uskudar in Istanbul or smaller towns and villages. That being said, Özkan believes that men should refrain from staring at women — something male travelers should also keep in mind during their time in Turkey.

“Allah created us and… we have a freedom” of behavior, he says, but “that free will brings us responsibility.”

Religious extremism in Turkey

Just because a community is conservative doesn’t mean it is a hotbed of religious or political extremism — or a threat to your safety. 

Despite what Western news media may imply, Islam doesn’t make people more violent than any other religion does. You’re no more likely to encounter extremism in Turkey than you are in your home country. 

Freedom of speech and assembly is handled differently in Turkey than in Western countries, so if you encounter protests or demonstrations during your travels, it’s best to simply walk on by. Also, check your government’s current advisories before traveling to southeastern Turkey, an area of fluid politics due to its proximity to conflict in Iraq, Iran, and Syria. 

All smart travelers know the importance of paying respect to local customs and beliefs. But you are much more likely to be bitten by wild animals or get struck by lightning than you are to be kidnapped or caught within the midst of a religious or political upheaval while traveling in Turkey. 

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18 Comments

  • Vishal said

    This religion looks like god has created humans just to worship him . Is the Islam god psycho?

    Reply

  • DOUG said

    HAHAHHA The most stupid things I've ever read! what a misleading article! which idiot wrote this? Have they ever visited Turkey? What does it mean never comment on food in Muslim countries? If something is shitty you have righ to anounce it freely! Especially in Turkey Islam has no effect on public rules but only in morality of people and this is many times mixed with Islam however it's traditions and respect! Besides that go to Mosques if you are not Muslim you don't need to cover or wear anything special! Guys wear shorts this is very stupid to say stay away from shorts bla bla... Seriously talking here that's a bullshit! If anyone wants better and clear information with pros-cons I would be happy to help!

    Cheers and peace!

    Reply

  • Riz said

    Can a woman enter a Turkish mosque in bikini?

    Reply

    • Asif Iqbal said

      The number of escorts, prostitutes, and erotic belly dancers available in Turkey suggests that it is trying to snatch the title of "Europe's Bordello" away from Germany. This is not the behavior of a Muslim country as this article would lead you to believe!

      Reply

  • Hakan said

    One guy asked are Turkish all Muslims? lol only on paper. Turkey is not %99 Muslim, it is the biggest bs ever. None of my friends pray or got to a mosque and most of the Turks that claim they are Muslims are not Muslims at all. In rural areas there are more conservatives but in Cities, not many really care. You don't need to go to a Mosque to worship god. Turkey is not an Arabic country and it insults many Turks that Turkey is Middle Eastern country. There is no bs like Middle East in Geography, it is called Asia!!! Middle East was put in place to give a bad name to Muslim countries. Turkey is secular thanks to ATATURK and Ataturk is the reason why Turkey is different that all other Muslim nations. We all know where most Muslim countries in global scale. They are usually down the bottom. Turkey will always be secular and modern Turks have nothing in common with mostly over religious Arabs. Religion is personal and it cracks me up when people choose a country bc it is Muslim, Christian, Jewish whatever. Most Muslim nations are in deep chaos. Don't come to Turkey if you are uneducated or extremely religious. We have too many of these idiots that are ruining Turkey. Developed countries rely on Science not Religion!

    Reply

  • Hasina said

    You definetly did not read any further on Islam and you deceided to comment about the Islam and Allah. This shows how you are quick to comment after reading half the story. Mohammad requested to Allah that the people will not be able to pray 50 prayers so Allah reduced the prayers to 5 prayers. And Allah was also testing Mohammad. Allah already knew they will not pray 50 prayers and leave the prayers altogether, thats why Allah made 5 prayers for us.

    Reply

  • Yanni said

    Turkey is technically not "Middle East"

    Reply

  • Allan said

    I’m a Lebanese/Australian moslem & have visited Turkey/ Istanbul . I think & see Islam is present in turkey & is the foundation of this strong beautiful country. God bless Islam & turkey.

    Reply

  • LYNDA FILLER said

    I arrived in Turkey for a visit in Feb and came back to stay longer in April. I love Istanbul. I'm a Canadian woman and have spent enough time here now to comment. Yes, if you wish to go into the Blue Mosque you will be expected to cover your head, your shoulders and the man at the entrance will turn you back if your skirt is short--cotton pants are available to purchase or borrow, I'm not sure. I was living in Mexico for several years in the hot tourist areas. It was common to wear tank tops. I'm very conscious of not standing out because I'm single and don't want to attract the wrong attention. So I wear short sleeve t's with no cleavage. It's what the other girls do. I haven't been to the beach areas but yes, Istanbul is secular. My friends say don't worry. But be respectful.
    It's a beautiful country, amazing culture, funny aggressive people in the tourist areas. And do read about Islam, the real Islam religion. It's an eyeopener for sure. Thank you, Turkey for making this girl feel very welcome and safe in your country.

    Reply

  • Lynda said

    I'm a Canadian living in Istanbul for almost a year. I found the advice to be accurate. I'm sensitive to my surroundings and respectful. I do have a religious Turkish boyfriend so I understand more than others possibly. When we are in certain parts of Istanbul, even in a modern shopping center, he will gently pull away from walking too close or holding my hand. I find it respectful of the majority. However, in the trendy more Western downtown, touristy areas, there is no concern. I would not wear a short skirt even though I see it from Turkish girls, it attracts attention like anywhere else. Respect the religious beliefs. Everyone smokes--it drives me crazy. And most tourist restaurants serve alcohol. You can buy alcohol at the corner stores. It's secular and for sure Turks are strong-minded and will do exactly what they want no matter who is in power. I love that about the country. The people are warm, friendly, charming and very diverse in their beliefs. I love living here. And for months thought I was living in Europe--part of Istanbul is on the European side and the balance in Asia. I was surprised to see Turkey listed as the Middle East. Tourists all say the same things, they absolutely love Istanbul and want to come back. Enjoy your time here. It's truly beautiful.

    Reply

  • Wayne said

    How do Turkish people feel about cats?
    I have seen mixed things about it, but I want to be outside of the US when the elections come around, and I want to bring my two cats with me.
    What about First Nations/ Native American people, how are we treated in Turkey?

    Reply

  • Amina said

    Being a Muslim we are not allowed to wear bikkini, miniskirt, pants.... We are only allowed to cover the full body with hijab and Vale and with gown... Our religion must be superior of anything

    Reply

  • Ugur said

    Hey Arsal. Let me answer as a young Turk living in Istanbul. what you say is true Faith in religion began to decline in our country but in the 2000s we were already more secular. He further politicize the changing political climate this reason, people seem Turkey away from the line, but now secular and vice versa. What is said by our country's presidency of religious affairs also supports this. According to reports in Turkey further secularization people every year.

    In the east, except for the areas in the rural areas, you can walk around the west lane as you wish. As a faithful Turk, I suggest you not to compare the religious understanding in our country with other Muslim countries (jordan, saudi arabia, Iran etc..) selling alcohol is completely free, kissing on the street and holding hands is completely free. As a Turk who grew up in a Muslim family, my father, my mother and my relatives both prayed and drank alcohol. this is not a problem. As everywhere, the only thing expected here is respect.

    Reply

  • Managed Cyber Security said

    I love greece especially their mythology

    Reply

  • Can said

    Please read! Im a turk living in Turkey, but im born and raised in germany and moved to turkey when I was 15, and living here for almost 10 years.
    So there are many false information here in the comments. So first The reason İs because some Turks in turkey are hating Islam, some are muslims but try to show turkey as a mordern country where all women can go to a Mall with bikini, and some tourist who came here met just the wrong person or hotel and are thinking that all people here are such like this.

    Now read carefully this is the only honest comment you will ever need to read:

    First at all I would say that turkey is the best country in the world which practises Islam. But what does that mean? Does it mean that you have to cover like in iran, or are not allowed to drink alcohol? No it doesn’t. Because Islam says that everybody can practis their own believes as the wish. So let me explain turkey:
    -you can buy alcohol in almost ever market (no joke in almost EVERY. In fact (fun fact) most small markets make their profit due to alcohol (and sadly cigarettes), otherwise they wouldnt have a good income.
    -as a women you can wear short clothings. In fact (I’m a German citizen and go to Germany often) there are even more girls in turkey who wear short clothings then in germany. That’s no joke. Turks who never left the Country and only see western girls from tv or youtube tend to think that all western women wear all the time bikinis even when they go to the market. But I garantee you if you come to turkey you will be shocked that most girls even west sexier and better clothing than you(and you will be even jeloous I garantee you that from the bottom of my heart) because turkish women and many men are very fashioned in clothing.
    -if you come to turkey you will maybe meet some guys who are very perverse. But in which country you don’t meet guys like that? Its sad but true. In the bus or metro yes you will see that kind of delusional guys. But not because you are wearing short clothing. They do it all the time. They do it to our turkish girls, wifes etc. the best thing to to is to ether ignore these poor idiots and just leave the area, or to call to a authority Person, like the bus driver or the rastaurant manager. In fact in turke we don’t like behavior like that, we even best them up. Expecially if it is a tourist who comes to our country who want to see the beauty of turkey (and maybe Islam) we don’t want these idiots to represent our culture in such way. But these men are in every country. I’m sorry if you met or will meet one of them. Just ignore. Be aware of taxis, because a lot of taxi drivers are uneducated guys and CAN tend to get your number for „help“ or do inappropriate things, just be careful (naybe have your phone and camera open for evidence)The same is appllied for Turkish girls. But don’t worries, it just sounded like every taxi driver is a perverse what isnt the case. In fact I think that in most countries these positions are held by those guys.
    - In Antalya (where also most tourist go) I saw some women go with the bikini to the mall( which I never saw in Germany) so I would even say that in turkey you can be more relaxed. Nobody said anything, but of course people will look like in every country. Be realistic in every behaviour you do and don’t judge the country or religion.
    - - not everything I’m saying is for every city in turkey. In the east of turkey you have to behave more strict. You cant go out with a bikini in mardin. But you can in Antalya. Most tourists go to west turkey anyways.
    -you can drink alcohol in public. For example in İstanbul there are a lot of parcs with hundreds of people just sitting with friends and drinkin beer and have a good time. A lot of them are even teens, who are just chilling . As a tourist you can even join them, they will love you and maybe even buy you a beer..
    -if you love clubs keep in mind that in turkey in the weekends there are a lot of bars and clubs and People are goind there do mich that some are very Full, so a lot of Turkish bars or clubs want you to come with a girl if you are just a Male. The reason is because the bars and clubs are so full anyways on weekends, the owners don’t want pervert guys to come drink and harass girls. So they want you to come with a girl. But if you look like a Western tourist and have your passport or western ID you can show it and say you’re a tourist, most when not all will accept you even if you are just guys. They wont break you. And as always money speaks (expecially if you are a tourist)
    -the only thing I can say about turke where you have to worry is if you are gay(Male) here are gay people and transgenders, transgender hooker etc, but they don’t Do it in public. That’s the only thing you have to worry about turkey. People here don’t like to see two males kissing in public, here are a lot of homofobic people. They maybe even harass you if they see you with another guy holding hands or kissing. Be aware of that. Do these thing in your hotel room.
    -kissing in public: it’s so funny when I read the articles and comments. Come in guys. In turkey people always kiss in public. They cuddle in parcs on banks they kiss. I even had a girl grinding on me for 15 minutes next to a bus station. Okay Dont overdo it and make sex on the highway, but you get the idea. It would be maybe better with small and quick kisses, don’t overdo the sexual and french kisses in public, but the reason is there are many older people here or families with children who can look in a bizarre way to you, but I guess this is normal. Most younger people won’t even care, the ones who care are just jeloide people, trust me. If they had a girl or man like yours, they would even kidd in the bus.
    - you can enter a Hotel if it isn’t your husband or wife. I didnt understand the comment here. Maybe you visited a wrong hotel. In fact smaller hotels make a good amount of money by younger people going to a hotel for a quick adventure with their partner. There are even a lot of hotels who rent rooms for some hours. Come on guys who writes these comments. You just were in the wrong places..
    -I don’t know if you have to cover in mosques if you are a tourist.. I guess for a 10 20 minute tour in a mosque it isn’t really important, If they say cover then just cover and leave. It is true that there are clothing to cover in most mosques though.. you can cover your Head in a fashoined way and go in, just don’t go in with a bikini or shorts or skirts, its more a thing with respect. But if you go in with a short or don’t cover your head it might be that they ask you to do so, but most won’t say anything is my guess, people here are not like if you don’t cover we will throw rocks at you, in fact if someone overdo his „Islamic“ believes in a way of misrepresenting or doing harm to Islam, most Muslims will interrupt the man and say something and be on your side. As long as you don’t do a Big harm like shooting at the mosque building or going in with a bikini.. we are not stupid, we will not on the side of a man who haresses you just because you don’t cover in a mosque(you are a tourist after all, maybe you didnt know the rules, maybe you forgot) we are not silly people. In fact we love tourist everybody who visited turkey will tell you this
    -of course there are bad people like in every country, but I went to a lot of countries (thanks to my German citizenship) and I can Tell you in turkey you will love the most people. You will be shocked. You will say „why was I so worried about“. I visited a lot of countries and Turkish girls and men (the younger generation) are on fact the most fashioned
    People I saw in clothing. We like fashioned clothing. We like cool Outfits.
    These are thing that come to my mind.. search on google cities like İstanbul Antalya İzmir and type girls or beach I don’t know just search and look how Turkish people look like..

    Reply

  • hasid said

    Turkey is an Islamic country. Turkey will one day rule the world with Islam Inshallah.

    Reply

  • ateistturk said

    Come on guys, we are talking about Turkey, but not about iran or saudi arabia. First of all, the government wants to show people as muslim even if they are not. For example in state records i am a muslim but in fact i am pure ateist. I can say that 20% of population is not muslim. 50% of population is muslim but not even once goes to a mosque. They are just calling themselves as muslim in terms of an identity. Only %30 are like middle-easterners. My wife is a russian and she tells that women in russia do not wear as women in turkey. She tells me that if women wear such things in russia, russians will call them as whores :) so come and have an awesome holiday, if that is your goal

    Reply

  • Elif said

    I was born in İstanbul and i spent my whole life here. Don’t worry about drinking and wearing shorts and stuff. Some neighborhoods can be more conservative, that’s true. As a tourist you’ll visit some places that we’re not living our ‘daily life’. Because they are in the borders of old city. But still even in these neighbourhoods it’s ok to walk around freely. I can talk about my opinion as i practiced the life in İstanbul. In many neighbourhoods you can drink on streets also. You just need to get informed and learn about the places. Beyoğlu, Taksim, Kadiköy, Galata, Karaköy, Nişantaşı... these are the places you can wear and do what ever you want. For the places around old city wear maybe longer shorts:) For the rest of the Turkey it depends. For example at the eagean and mediterranian sides people almost more liberal than the most of the habitans of İstanbul. There are also many places like capadoccia which the habitans earn money from tourism formmany years. So don’t be scared people used to see some booties and it’s normal to drink alcohol in restaurant and bars at most of the places in Turkey.
    All you need to ask a local and be respectful for the sake of cultural and sometimes religional concerns. For example don’t make out at the in front of a mosque :) Have fun

    Reply

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