The moment the historical series Ertugrul got premiered on 10th December, 2014, on Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT), hand-in-hand the process of sharing Turkish culture began. The series has been translated into many languages, and was officially broadcast in many countries. Recently, during the lockdown period, its viewership broke many records in the Indian subcontinent.
However, it is not just these records that make this series important, but the unheard voices of Turkey’s politics, history, religion, narrative and representation that echo all the time. Here is an attempt to trace down some of those voices.
This is perhaps a very serious question. With terrorism as one of the biggest threats to humanity in postmodern times, anything that supports it should be banned — this is the narrative presented by the media of the Western countries, mainly the developed ones. Is there really some sugar in this allegation or is it merely jealousy of developed countries who cannot bear to see anybody else better than them in any field, even in media?
There are many pan scenes of mortal combats, close-up scenes of heads being chopped by swords, arrows piercing the throat into two, or axes of the kind that Turgut Alp carries — this was how battles were fought in those days, and the series is perhaps a correct depiction of warfare in the era.
The important thing in the series is ideology — the character of Ertugrul is shown as a devotee of Hazrat Ibn Al Arbi, a prominent figure of Sufism. Ertugrul repeatedly seeks guidance from Hazrat, whose advise is not confined to religious prayers. At Halep, a dargah became the planning base to shut down traitors.
The characters repeatedly chanted the name of Hazrat Abdul Qadir Jelani, who is another prominent figure of Sufism. Characters believe in Al-Fatiha, Waseela, Zikr, Sama and Wajd, and constantly visit their graves. In many scenes, Ertugrul, along with his Alps, wishes that even after generations, people come to their graves and recite Fatiha. These views, practices and beliefs juxtapose together with all terrorist groups in the world.
Some people may criticise Sufism for introducing new practices in Islam — ‘bida’at’ (however, there is a concept of Bida’at e Hasana, emphasised particularly in the Hanafi School of Thought, which is a question of scholarly debate). But none can link Sufism to terrorism. In opposition to this, Sufis are frontliners, from issuing fatwas against terrorist organisations to raising up arms and joining the national force in countries including Somalia against terror groups.
Ulemas of Ahle Sunnah Wa Al Jamaat is a group often misunderstood as the alternate word for ‘Barelwi’ in the Indian subcontinent. However, in reality, it has never been confined to any such madrasa. The group comprises almost 70% of the Muslims around the world who believe in the ‘Taqleed’ of the four Imams — Hanafi, Maliki, Hanbali and Shafaii. Despite minute differences, all agree that the teachings of all these Imams were right. Therefore, one may choose anyone of them.
Various Ulemas of Ahle Sunnah Wa Al Jamaat see this serial as the Rise of the Ahle Sunnah and hope that by watching this series, those youth who were brainwashed by terror groups would return to the actual teachings, and the real purpose of Sufism — which was never limited to the present-day superstitions and practices at most of the shrines — may become clearer again.
However, such Ulemas still can’t directly propagate this drama due to various orthodox reasons, such as permission of photography, and likewise. But it is a crystal clear hidden voice for all those who are ready to do a little research in this direction. Hence, in this way, Ertugrul drama actually blocks the ideological road for terrorism.
A set visit by the Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to show his love for this drama diminishes the chance that it is against the Christian world (Venezuela comprises almost 71% Catholics and 17% Protestants and other sects, in total about 88% Christians).
It is true that Ertugrul glorifies Islamic values, but it never advocated that all the people in a particular religion as good or bad. In fact, the biggest villain in the show was Sadettin Kopek, who was an ‘Emir’ (quite a respectful post). There were greedy ones like Kurdoglu, and cruel ones like Bahadur Bey and the Ural.
In one of the scenes, the Ural purchased old slaves just to kill them for entertainment. He organised an attack on Bandit on a caravan of women and children, and didn’t shy away from giving his own sister to them. In another scene, Mah-e-Pari, wife of Sultan, was involved in poisoning her own husband. There were many more like them, all Muslims by religion. There is one scene at Halep, where a Qazi (religious judicial head) is shown as a corrupt person who agrees to give a wrong judgement for the sake of acquiring a higher position in the court.
At Sogut Bazaar, provisions were made for “Church Bell” by Ertugrul, also at Hanli Pazaar, which is shown as the symbol of religious brotherhood. When it was captured by Ertugrul, he said that one-third part of the booty collected should be distributed among the neighbouring Christian villagers, as it was the result of unfair taxes collected from them.
All traders enjoyed the same rights, Ertugrul appointed a Christian as the Head of the Financial Department, and stated that honesty and talent matters, and jobs should not be given on the basis of religion. Hacaturyan Ustad, again a Christian, was a highly respected figure, and the words that Ertugrul uttered near his grave while burying him are quite notable.
When Karacahisar Castle was conquered, Ertugrul gathered all Christian traders and religious heads. and guaranteed religious freedom to all. He ordered his soldiers to not jump into anybody’s religious practices; otherwise, they’d face his anger.
He didn’t pay attention to the religious call from the man of Sadettin Kopek. “Will you kill me for a Christian?” but killed him instead and saved the Christian Governor and said, “The fight was never against any religion but was against the cruel corrupt system.”
2023 is a special year for Turkey. Those who are unaware of this might want to revisit their history books on the World Wars. Turkey was on the side of Germany, who lost the War. The nation signed one of the most compromising treatises, the Treaty of Versailles. Germany was not the only nation who suffered; Turkey also faced such circumstances. For a period of almost 100 years, Turkey, due to similar restrictions, could not even dig out all the resources from its own land. In the year 2023, most of these treatises are going to end and Turkey may become a superpower.
It is quite a notable fact that before going into such circumstances, Turkey had a huge Empire, the Ottoman Empire/Osmania Sultanate (whose founder was Ertugrul, the Empire itself was named after his son Osman).
The end of the Ottoman Empire was not that simple. It didn’t end just because of the World War, rather, it was also the result of Arab Nationalism, the idea that was first sowed by Lawrence of Arabia (originally a British Officer, an intellectual, who lived like a Muslim until his actual identity was revealed).
Another undisputed historical fact is that first Sharif Hussain and then Al-Saud favoured this idea and attacked Ottoman soldiers who were deployed in Hejaz (older name of present-day Saudi Arabia, which was changed to honour Al Saud). They were supported by a group of Ulemas, mainly the group who followed the preacher Wahab and called themselves “ghair muqallids” (those who don’t believe in the Taqleed of any one of the Imams).
This group considered the beliefs of the Ottomans as an addition to the mainstream Islamic views, so they justified the wipe-out of the Ottomans from the Holy Land and presented this newly formed Saud Dynasty to be the representative of the whole Islamic world (TRT World released a video in February 2020, targeting these teachings for similar religious and political reasons).
Turkey did not retaliate for two main reasons — first, because it was fighting with the superpowers in the World War; and second, because Muslims at that time could not bear any other dispute. After the loss of almost all the empires as well as institution of the Khalifa, there was no representation left so they let it go. However, there were continuous disputes, both ideological and political, between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
The recent ones were due to the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, military rebellion against the Egyptian-elected government of Mursi, relationship with Qatar, perception on Palestine, and many more similar issues. The present President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has constantly criticised the Saudi government for “not speaking” on any of the Muslim issues.
Saudi Arabia, for these reasons, was not surprisingly among the first nations thereby, to raise their voice for boycotting this drama series and similarly, the religious people who were inclined towards it, did the same. It is quite obvious that the opposition was not simply due to religious reasons, which they claim, but the politics behind this — there have been many historic-religious series on screem before Ertugrul, but none faced such opposition.
Egypt, which is currently run by Abdel Fattah el Sisi, whom Saudi backed for the military coup against the Mursi government, was the next nation to warn people against this drama series (TRT World raised this issue in a video released on 13th February, 2020).
These nations, along with developed nations, have said that Ertugrul is an attempt made by Erdogan to bring back the Ottoman Empire, both ideologically and politically. This claim may have some ground — the way Erdogan has been involved in the making of this drama series is exceptional for a President. He, along with his officials and family, visited the set many times.
Besides Erdogon, the head of the states of many other nations including Ramzan Kadyrov (Head of the Chechen Republic), were reportedly going to dinner parties with the series’ actors, which is not usual. It is possible that Ertugrul is an attempt to demonstrate the glorious past to the world and has given the nation a vision to decide whether to follow the footsteps of Kamal Ata Turk or choose the alternate way of the Ottoman legends like Ertugrul when the country, if and will, gains power in 2023.
Another aspect that makes Ertugrul important is the way women have been depicted in this series. Usually, in most adventure series, women are shown as secondary or minor characters. When a drama is based on some medieval historic adventure, women are only shown as figures waiting behind the walls of a castle, but that has not been the case with Ertugrul. Female figures were equally dominant in this drama. In fact, their roles were not confined to “helping hands” or supportive figures in the storyline.
They were running the “Jirgas” like Aslihan Hatun, and leading the tribe for a long time like Hayme Hatun. From good to bad, or flat to round characters like Maria and Selecan Hatun, who was, in fact, the plot mover of the first two seasons, women are omnipresent. No one is now talking about Ertugrul without the name of Halima Sultan.
This drama has changed the representation of women. Mehmet Bozdag (writer of Ertugrul), knowingly or unknowingly, has started a new saga in the way women should be represented in a historical drama.
There is a lot that can be said on this, as it is a very long series, and this article may not justify the efforts of the team who were involved in the making, so go and watch it, now!