ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Harun Yahya is one of the most widely distributed authors in the Muslim world. He may also be among the most widely criticized Muslim authors in the Western world.
His glossy books and DVDs on religion and science sell in Islamic bookshops around the globe. He gives away thousands of expensive volumes and lets readers download much of his work from his websites for free.
The Council of Europe accuses him of trying to infiltrate schools with religious extremism and French teachers are told to keep his work from their students.
Unknown outside Muslim circles two years ago, Adnan Oktar -- the 52-year-old Turk behind the pseudonym Harun Yahya -- caught the attention of scientists and teachers in Europe and North America by mass-mailing them his 768-page “Atlas of Creation.”
His lavishly illustrated book preaches a Muslim version of creationism, the view scientists usually hear from Christian fundamentalists who say God created all life on earth just as it is today and oppose the teaching of Darwin’s evolution theory.
“Every academic I know says they’ve got one of those,” retired University of Edinburgh natural history professor Aubrey Manning told the Glasgow Herald when “The Atlas” turned up in Scotland early this year. “And it’s peddling an absolute, downright lie.”
But Oktar, whose reclusive ways and opaque business have prompted many rumors about why and how he gives away so many books, brushed off all criticism in a rare interview with Reuters.
“This huge impact shows the influence of the book,” the author, stylishly turned out in a white suit, red tie and clipped beard, said through an interpreter.
The controversy stirred up by “The Atlas” has turned the spotlight on a publishing empire that boasts about 260 books in 52 languages, over 80 DVDs and dozens of websites.
Well-illustrated and free of theological jargon, they preach that Islam is the one true faith and Darwinism, by undermining religious belief, has led to the discord, atheism, terrorism and extreme political ideologies plaguing the world.
Reader-friendly, the books appeal to Muslims trying to square modern science with their faith in an inerrant Koran, much like Christian evangelicals who read the Bible literally and support creationism or intelligent design theories.
Oktar offers his works for free download, even the huge Atlas which in printed form sells for $99 on his website. His other printed books are standard size and sell at more modest prices.
The flood of free books prompted suspicion among baffled Western scientists and teachers that U.S. creationists or Saudi financiers might be helping finance the campaign.
Oktar said the giveaways -- he estimated them at about 10,000 out of print runs of over 200,000 -- were normal public relations funded by profits from sales of “The Atlas” and other books.
“That seems implausible -- this book is expensive,” said Taner Edis, a Turkish-American physicist whose 2007 book “An Illusion of Harmony” analyzed Islam’s approach to science. “And to my knowledge, it’s not selling like hotcakes.”
Edis doubted the rumors of funds from U.S. creationists, saying: “American creationists I talk to basically envy Harun Yahya’s financial resources. If there were any fund flowing, it would be from Adnan Oktar to the creationists.”
Saudi funding also seems unlikely because Oktar’s message, while basically Sunni Muslim, mixes in Shi‘ite and Sufi elements that clash with the kingdom’s austere Wahhabi school of Islam.
“The Saudis don’t like that,” said an Istanbul Islam expert who asked not to be named because he feared litigation by the Harun Yahya group if quoted criticizing it. He thought Oktar was mostly funded by a small group of affluent young Turks who make up the core group of his supporters.
Long wary of the media and portrayed as the guru of a sect, Oktar has opened up recently, possibly because of a trial in Istanbul on charges of creating a criminal organization. He was sentenced to three years in May but denies the charges and is appealing the verdict.
Oktar says the “Atlas of Creation” campaign and Harun Yahya publishing empire are part of his religious vision of the end of the world in which he plays a role hinted at in his pseudonym.
Harun is Arabic for Aaron, the brother of Moses. Yahya is Arabic for John -- in this case, John the Baptist, he said.
“Harun was the helper of the prophet Moses. Yahya was also the helper of Jesus Christ,” Oktar said. “When Jesus Christ comes to the world, we also would like to be helping him ... You might say this is a prayer for that.”
Oktar said Koran verses and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed about the end of the world revealed Jesus would return soon as a Muslim to help Islam’s savior, the Mahdi, defeat the Dajjal or Islamic Anti-Christ and establish Islam around the world.
“Our biggest project right now is to lay the grounds for the coming of Jesus Christ,” he said. “We understand this is going to be in the next 20 to 25 years.”
The idea of Jesus returning as a Muslim is standard Islamic teaching about the end of times. But Muslims normally stress the end times less than evangelical Christians do, and Oktar’s focus on this has prompted rumors he thinks he is the Mahdi.
“I do not make such a claim,” he said. “Because of parallels in what I have written and the hadith (sayings) of the Prophet Mohammad, some people have thought I could be him... but in Islam it is forbidden for me to make such a claim.”
Asked if he planned another enormous book like “The Atlas,” Oktar said he would simply continue to turn out anti-Darwin books. “I am preparing a book about skulls,” he said. “I show skull fossils as evidence that there was no evolution.”
Editing by Sara Ledwith