Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Michael Blim

Committee Members

Talal Asad

Vincent Crapanzano

Samira Haj

Subject Categories

Social and Cultural Anthropology


Islam, secularism, religion and science, language, translation, Turkey


This dissertation explores the politics of language at the intersections of Islamic reformism and secular modernity, in 20th- and 21st-century Turkey. Since the formation of the Republic of Turkey, Turkish Muslims seeking to gauge Islam’s compatibility with secular epistemes have reignited age-old debates about the nature of ‘the word of God,’ and how it can be translated and apprehended within the human realm. Combining historical and ethnographic analysis, this study examines how the 'language' of religion has come to operate as a primary site for both cultivating and contesting secularism in Turkey.

The first half of the dissertation focuses on several religious language reform projects that were enacted between the 1920s and 1950, including the attempt to produce an authorized translation of the Qur’an (in the vein of the King James Bible) and the 18-year period in which the secular state enforced the recitation of call-to-prayer (adhan /ezan) in Turkish. While there is a long tradition of scriptural translation in Islam, the research undertaken for this study suggests that the reform projects in Turkey marked the emergence of a secular understanding of translatability, one which reduces the relationship between the original and the translation into a matter of semantic equivalence. Although popular discontent with these projects is often presented as a matter of Turkish Muslims’ holding on to traditional beliefs about Arabic, this dissertation shows that the widespread opposition to these reforms was shaped primarily by collective aspirations and concerns to sustain a pious form of life, rather than by epistemological presuppositions (i.e., that Arabic is a sacred language).

The second half draws on ethnographic research among proponents of ‘Qur’anic Muslimhood,’ a growing movement of reformist Muslims who believe that reliance on non-Qur’anic sources (such as hadiths, fiqh manuals, etc.) has led Muslims astray from the Qur’an’s guidance, resulting in the stagnation of Muslim societies in modernity. This view also extends into claims that while the Qur’an is a universal and timeless book, it contains knowledge that has only become accessible to humans with recent advances in modern science. Documenting the ways in which proponents of this movement navigate practical questions (e.g., how fasting times are determined, proper ablution motions, the number of daily prayers), this study shows that while their intellectual discourse centers on the idea of the Qur’an’s ‘universal accessibility,’ this claim becomes compelling for them only when it is articulated as part of a moral discourse highlighting rewards in the afterlife.

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