Religion in Village Life

Robert L. Staab

Robert L. Staab, “Religion in Village Life,” in Mormons and Muslims: Spiritual Foundations and Modern Manifestations, ed. Spencer J. Palmer (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University 2002), 99–103.

At the time of the symposium, Robert L. Staab was assistant director of the Middle East Center at the University of Utah. A graduate of Texas Tech University in history, he received his MA and PhD in Middle East studies/Turkish from the University of Utah. Professor Staab conducted research in Turkey on a Fulbright-Hays program in 1974–1975.

As I thought about comparing Islam and Mormonism, I decided to focus on a small village where examining religion may be easier because it is less heavily influenced by technology or so-called westernization. When you live in a small town of 350 people, which I did for two years in Turkey, you get to know not only almost everyone in the town but also their lifestyles.

One of the first things you will find in any Islamic Middle Eastern community or village—not only in Turkey—is a small town square. And the dominating feature of that square is usually the mosque or the place of worship. Sometimes it will have a minaret, sometimes not, depending on the financial status of the village and whether they had a skilled individual who could do the brickwork or stonework.

The mosque is the focal point of the village. Many times it will be used as an assembly house for community or political meetings, especially if the back or side has smaller rooms in addition to the open meeting space. Here Muslims come and pray five times a day. Deaths, weddings, blessings of babies—the core events of human life—are linked to the mosque.

The religious leader of the mosque, the imam, is not necessarily a priest in a Western sense, but usually guides the prayer. In a village you very seldom have someone trained in a theological college in, for instance, Cairo. A very pious person, or someone who has gone on a pilgrimage, may lead the prayer. But he is usually the community leader as well—the mayor of the village, or the only literate person in the village, or the village “doctor,” who knows something about medicine. Obviously there is not the separation of church and state which westerners may feel is essential. A Muslim villager would not necessarily perceive such a separation as necessary or even as desirable.

Dr. Palmer mentioned the five pillars of Islam. The first pillar is the shahada. It simply states that one believes in God as a single being and Muhammad as His prophet. This is the ultimate Muslim belief—so intensely personal and so fundamental that I will concentrate on the last four pillars because I feel that they are more ritualistic and play more of a role in village life. This is especially true of salat, or prayer, the second pillar of Islam. Muslims pray five times a day facing always in one direction only, i.e., toward Mecca. (I visited an elementary school yesterday, and a fifth grader asked me, “If you live in Mecca, which direction do you pray in?” It was a good question. I said, “It really depends on what side of town you live in, because the focus of Islam is on the ka’ba, which is in the court of the Great Mosque in Mecca.”) Praying towards Mecca and praying five times a day unites the Islamic community and gives its members an intense feeling of cohesiveness.

Some idea of the role given to the community, the umma, is indicated in the fact that it, the umma, is the third pillar. Before Islam, the tribes tended to have ties within a tribe or possibly ties through confederations with other tribes. Muhammad expanded kinship as the only basis of loyalty and made Islam the major tie. Ideally, all Muslims are regarded as brothers and sisters. And in a small village you see a general gathering five times a day as a reinforcement of the idea of the community.

The next pillar of Islam is the zakat, almsgiving or tithing. Its original purpose was to provide general income, and it has now developed into a kind of income tax. In a village, we have something that is more important than collecting money. Village members take care of one another. Taking care of the elderly is very important—that’s part of it. It is also a matter of sharing whatever wealth you have, even a small piece of bread. When you are sitting on a curb eating in a small town and someone comes up to you, you automatically ask him if he would like some. You automatically invite a stranger into your home in the evening if he really does not have a place to stay. The particular village that I stayed in had a guest house for unexpected travelers and guests. It is very much a part of their creed to take in strangers. Obviously they took me in for two years, an American living in a small village. They never could really figure out why I was there, but the hospitality they provided for the entire two years is the important thing I remember.

The idea of community strengthens the idea of almsgiving. For example, on one particular Islamic holiday the wealthy of the village collect a number of lambs, slaughter them, and provide meat for those who cannot afford to share in the holiday rituals. I thought of our own almsgiving. When we share, do we really share with our neighbors on the street or the neighbor next door, or the lady who is eighty-five years old? Do we actually share with these people? Sometimes I doubt that we do.

Another important activity of the village is Ramadan, a month of fasting and the fourth pillar of Islam. The people abstain from food from dawn to sunset for the health of the body and of the spirit. But at the same time, it was something shared by everyone in the village, including myself. No food or drink was allowed in the village during the daylight hours. The coffeehouses and teahouses literally closed up during the entire month of Ramadan. This period of fasting was the cause of some agitation because people were obviously easily irritated, but it was also a time for very interesting discussions about life, politics, and, of course, religion. It was a time of sharing. The idea of equality among Muslims and the idea of the community played such an overwhelming role for the two years I was in Turkey that I still look back on them as the basic values in the Islamic religion. Remember, a Muslim is one who surrenders himself to God, and Islam is the religion of surrendering oneself to God. Everyone participates equally, whether it’s in prayer or in fasting or whether it is in the last of the five pillars of Islam, the hajj.

The hajj is the pilgrimage. I am sure you have seen photographs of the pilgrimage—of men, women, and children arriving in Mecca, all wearing white as a sign of purity and equality. In the pilgrimage you cannot tell who is rich or who is poor. People from Africa, from Asia, and from Europe all wear the same garb. Hence, the idea of equality before God once again becomes evident in Islam.

Restrictions against the use of pork and alcoholic beverages appear in the Qur’an, so we see that religion affects the dietary habits of the Muslim people as well. There are also customary restrictions dealing with dress. Village women by the time they were married (usually between twelve and sixteen) wore a black veil around their heads and shoulders and covered their faces, especially their mouths, when they were approached by a man. Underneath their black veil they wore beautifully colored dresses and bodices. There was such a stark contrast between the drab outer garment and the bright inner dress that it was very hard to understand it sometimes. But it was their tradition, a protection from the eyes of men, a guarantee of purity. The men in the village traditionally wore a hat—a very important tradition because in the mosque you must wear something on your head. Ataturk, the first president of Turkey, tried to ban the fez and substitute a hat like a fedora, but the village men substituted a smaller hat with a bill in the front. When they prayed they turned the hat around and could touch the floor with their foreheads, part of the ritual performed in the mosque.

I think the most encouraging aspect of what I saw in the village was the role of women. Even in 1965, 1966, and 1967, when the idea of equality between sexes was barely emerging, the role of women in a Turkish village was stronger than you can ever find in a textbook. Women played very dominant roles, especially in raising their families and running their households. This recognition of women’s prominence in their own spheres results directly from Muhammad’s attempts to equalize the sexes. Equality in Islam is vividly expressed in many forms.

I looked at every facet of village life: from birth, with the imam coming and blessing the baby, to death, when the body was put into the ground and words from the Qur’an were spoken by the imam; from circumcision, when a young boy became a young man, to weddings, which were probably the high points of individual and group life. I was married in that village. I went through a typical village ceremony, including all the Islamic prayers that were whispered by our imam. And I feel that it was probably the ultimate experience that one could have in living in an Islamic community. It drew just about everything that I have talked about into a focal point. I shared their meals, and they shared their lives with me. Because of my effort to understand Muslim feelings and rituals, I feel I understand more about what is happening to me in my own community.