Published at Islamonline.net (now OnIslam.net)
As I arrived at my hotel, the receptionist recognized me and offered me my regular, free upgrade to a room with a view of the Blue Mosque. The occasion, however, was different from when I visited before. I recalled my first trip to the old city; when setting sight on the Blue Mosque brought about a tremendous sense of pride in my heart. That feeling was absent this evening. Had I reached the point where the grandeur of the mosque no longer appealed? Had I become numb to its initial attraction?
Having finished my morning meeting late, I hurried back to my hotel for a quick change in order to make it to Friday Prayers. Just a hop and a skip away from the mosque, I bumped into Susan.
I suppose our chance encounter had been predestined: On my flight, a friendly, elderly Turkish lady insisted that I move from aisle seat C to B and that’s how I got to sit next to Susan, a French girl working in Germany on her way to visit a friend working in Istanbul. Having engaged in mutual “trade” (we exchanged recipes: my okra and lamb curry—which she intended to cook for her boyfriend upon her return—for her crepes), we worked out her three-day schedule in the city; where to go, what to see, what to expect.
After the shock of bumping into one another again, I asked if I could join her for lunch, as her friend had been unable to take the day off work. Of all the places, of all the possible times to bump into her, it had to be just before Friday Prayers. Imagine my dilemma: Friday Prayers, or lunch with a pretty French girl? Prayers or lunch? Prayers or lunch!
My weakness it seems, is to be a sucker for new experiences. I remember my first trip to Istanbul as an adult, in transit, on my return to America from Moscow. Laying eyes on the city, I was in awe. Every street seemed to have not one but several mosques. Was this Europe? Was this Asia? Actually, it’s both, as the city is separated by an expanse of water with a continent on each side. As a young man it had never occurred to me that there was so much Islamic history so close by.
I sat in the square between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, enjoying the moment, when I spotted a group of middle-aged Russian women nearby. I had the distinct impression that they had been on the same flight as me from Moscow. Like many travelers who are usually on short trips, they seemed eager to explore the culture which Istanbul had to offer. However, they weren’t prepared for what happened next.
“Allahu akbar, Allaahu akhbar! Allaaaaaaaaahu Akbar Allaaaaahu akbar”
Startled, uncertain what to make of the sound coming from the mosque, it took them a brief moment to adjust and return to their “comfort zone” after the shock of that sudden noise, and they were just sufficiently content to know it wasn’t something bad, when it started again, but from a different direction. So began the call to prayer, mosque after mosque; it was a chorus, an ensemble, and the muezzins made the call to prayer in tune, something rare to hear in most European mosques (at least in my experience).
Judging by the look on the Russian women’s faces for those few brief moments the Adhan had left a lasting impression. It was an experience that gave me a sense of comfort; knowing that they were sufficiently confident to explore a different city, a different culture, and sufficiently adventurous not to become scared when faced with something different.
Back to my dilemma. Prayers or lunch? Some would say the choice is easy. I rationalized my decision, knowing that as a traveler I have a prayer allowance and do not have to attend Friday Prayers.
I suggested we dine on local Turkish cuisine and took her to my favorite restaurant. Tucked away along a side street, they serve lamb ribs stuffed with rice and spices, along with a number of appetizers from different regions of Turkey, beginning with, of all things, a pomegranate syrup salad.
It was only after the half-hour walk and the 3-hour lunch that I realized the possible reason behind my encounter with this French lady. By her very nature, Suzan seemed a kind-hearted person, no different to any of the rest of us, sufficiently conservative to know right from wrong, yet friendly enough to have fun. A fairly recent graduate, she, along with her boyfriend, had traveled to different parts of the world and took an interest in its different cultures.
She grew up in a fairly small French town that also housed a number of Arab students. One of her fondest teenage memories was of eating baklava (a Lebanese pastry sweet) at the end of Ramadan. So from a young age she had been in contact with Muslims. However, she didn’t know what Ramadan was, she wasn’t familiar with `Eid, and she had no real understanding of what Muslims believed.
I thought to myself that this was a golden opportunity; a chance to tell someone about Islam. Didn’t Prophet Muhammad say that the best of people are those who learn the Qur’an and teach it? A few weeks earlier, in Paris, I had briefly met with a visiting American who asked almost the same questions. However, I had more or less evaded answering him and later realized that instead of speaking about the beauty of Islam, I had ended up giving a defensive explanation of the faith. From that moment onwards, I decided I wouldn’t make the same mistake again, in sha’ Allah.
During the 30-minute walk to the restaurant, we covered topics as diverse as the headscarf ban at Turkish universities to the basics of Islam, including explanations of some verses of the Qur’an in more depth.
The city itself is the perfect setting for a talk about Islam; from its expansive Islamic history, which many are familiar with, to its lesser known facts, such as the exploits of the Celebi family:
During the rule of the Turkish Sultan Murad IV, Hazarfen Ahmed Celebi, having studied how eagles fly and improving on earlier calculations, and after 9 experimental flights, took his winged apparatus to the top of the Galata tower and flew to the other side of the Bosporus. This was 200 years before it was done elsewhere in Europe. Just fifty years later, another member of the Celebi family, Ladari Hasan, created the first manned rocket, launching himself into the air with 300 lbs of gun powder.
The one gain from our encounter, aside from having a travel companion, would be Susan’s new understanding of Islam. We met, we ate, we spoke, and we parted. Will we ever meet again? God knows best.
On my return I managed to make it to the Blue Mosque in time for `Asr (Afternoon) Prayers. Rushing in to catch the last rak`ah, I found myself struck by the beauty of the interior. The ease by which I had so easily dismissed the radiance of the Blue Mosque the night before had gone. The phrase “and who lives in a house like this” came to mind. (For those not familiar with the UK TV series, it is sufficient to know that the presenter introduces a property, identifying unique aspects of the house in a bid for us to identify who lives there). My thoughts, of course, being in relation to the hadith where the Prophet Muhammad told us that the one who builds a mosque in this life, God Almighty will build a mosque for him in Paradise.
As usual, the worshippers barely made up two rows. Yet all the while, even during Maghrib (Sunset) and `Isha’ (Night) Prayers, there was a steady stream of visitors from all corners of the world at the back, watching the people pray and admiring the beauty that is the Blue Mosque.
I did wonder whether the dialogue with Susan was sufficient. Did I cover all of the aspects of Islam? Did I do justice to the meaning of faith? The truth is, I don’t know. But I hoped that when she came visit the mosque later with her friend, she would be able to share with him something more than simply gazing at the beautiful architecture.
Of the different Muslim communities of the world, how many would be tolerant enough to let a visiting Malay record the muezzin for Maghrib Prayers on his camcorder? How many would be tolerant enough to let streams of men and women walk through one of their most valuable heritage sites? I certainly can’t imagine such openness in many places, particularly when, sadly, in so many parts of the world, Muslim women can’t even visit the mosques! May God Almighty guide us!
This I contemplated while I gazed across a garden at the Hagia Sophia—the cathedral, then the mosque, then the museum. Standing in the midst of the square, recitations from the mosque came in through my left ear, and through my right ear, a jazz ensemble, part of a concert put on by students from the local university. Despite the rather funky James Brown tunes, “get up off of that thing…,” I couldn’t help but notice that the turnout for the concert was much worse than the turnout for the prayers at the mosque. Some consolation at least!
In years gone by, as the center of the Muslim world for many centuries, Istanbul functioned as a trading center between East and West. I asked myself what has changed, and I find that it terms of facilitating communication between different cultures, the city stays the same.
There are but a handful of Muslim cities where I believe there is a strong multicultural theme, plurality of society. Is Istanbul a modern Muslim city, or is it a city struggling to find its balance between faith and secularism?
Walking along the cobbled streets, I concluded that whilst rationalizing whether I attend prayers or dine with Susan, if there was any influence from Satan and his evil partnership, then it would have been towards giving preference to attending prayers. What? Am I crazy? No! Think about it for a minute. As a traveler, there is no obligation to attend Friday Prayers, and as a traveler, one can merge the Zhuhr and `Asr prayers, so the allowance is granted. Had I chosen to attend prayers, we would not have dined, nor would she have gained an insight into the meaning of Islam. To me, that’s one up for Islam, and one down for Satan. But then perhaps my understanding is wrong, and God knows best!