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Ramadan in Istanbul

Abdal Hakim Murad

Ramadan brings to the surface some of Istanbul’s deepest human secrets. The great City resembles the improbable arm of the sea that cuts it in half, cheerfully consistent on the surface, yet churned by strange currents known only to veteran fishermen. The fasting month, in spite of its private nature (‘Fasting is Mine’, as the hadith insists), is more of a public affair than any of the other rites of religion, perhaps because of its elemental quality; and in this city it forces each citizen to decide how he stands with God. No-one is surprised to see the men in green caps crouched behind the wheels of their old Shahins, weaving through the traffic ten minutes before sundown. More interesting are the fashionable young men with pigtails and goatees (the current fad), discreetly accepting glasses of tea as the adhan divides the City into the grateful and the guilty. The first useful lesson that Istanbul provides is never to judge by appearances.

The adhan rolls out from a thousand minarets; and foodstalls and borek parlours that have been sleepy all day, catering only for the odd tourist or religious cynic, suddenly spring into life. God seems to have thrown a giant switch, and the whole city is galvanized. Many Stambullus have been waiting at restaurant tables for an hour before sundown, and those who are still milling in the streets will now have to struggle to find a hot meal. This is the picture even in the chic Westernised suburbs of Kadiköy, Beyoglu and Sisli; while near the great mosques, their minarets beacons which summon huge crowds, fairs are now doing brisk business. Around the great mosque-complex of Sultanahmet, hundreds of street vendors, many defying the prohibition on non-Western dress, call out the virtues of their candyfloss, sweetcorn, roast chestnuts, pastries, buttermilk, lindenflower tea, and spiced sausages. The aroma of tripe soup and tobacco mingles with religious songs by Gunesdogdu, Bahriyeli and Ozer. Children gape at street performers (the fortune-teller with his baby rabbits; the shadow-puppet man, the legless beggar on wheels).

By the western gate of the Sultanahmet Mosque a man dressed in a Goofy suit suddenly appears, followed by a camera crew. This is Doggy, chief attraction of a children’s show on Hilal TV, one of Turkey’s fifteen religious channels. Doggy has come to Sultanahmet, it seems, to ask small children how old they are. The smallest are aghast, as well they might be; but the older ones are quite familiar with Doggy. They talk firmly into the microphone, giving their names and ages, and talking about what they like best about Ramadan. Back in the studio, later on, Doggy will bow his head as a child member of his studio audience recites a poem about the Prophet’s poverty. The camera zooms in on the face of a little girl, who is about to cry.

Out of place in this crowd are the tourists. Jollity forms no part of their understanding of Islam; and this happy yet entirely non-alcoholic street party seems to worry them. Once, in the days of romance-hunters like Nerval and Pierre Loti, the difference of the foule Orientale allowed Europeans an Olympian detachment, as they contemplated ‘Turkish customs’ as a raree-show of curious menagerie performances. Now, however, as the Turks’ clothes and body language have been Westernised – indeed, as young Turks look more fashionable than the tourists themselves - the difference of ‘Oriental’ from ‘European’ has been largely abolished. This new City is more challenging because less strange, and many visitors seem to respond with a grim determination to hold their breath, rather than to inhale the air which animates these happy crowds.

Some spectacular examples of this are readily found. Tourist women who are asked not to enter mosques or graveyards with their thighs exposed behave like righteous martyrs, their faces indicating all the contempt which the enlightened West will muster in the face of benighted prudishness. And once, at the Beyazit mosque, I saw a group of German men enter the mosque during the prayer. Walking up and down the rows of worshippers, they scanned their camcorders over the faces of these picturesque Turks. When the prayer was over, the Turks called the tourist police, who no doubt explained politely that the sensibilities of worshippers should be respected. I suspect that the proud Teutons, coming from a country where Muslims have to pay a tax to support the national churches, may not have understood the nature of their offence.

What the tourists at Sultanahmet really resent, of course, is not the existence of smiling Turks, but the fact that all this joy seems connected to the vast shadow of the imperial mosque which looms behind the fair. High above the throng, suspended between two of the six minarets, is a mahya, a pattern of lightbulbs whose message is changed every couple of days. Today it is ‘TOGETHERNESS IS A MERCY.’ In Ottoman times, the mahyaci, or master-craftsman responsible for designing and hoisting these messages, was a public celebrity. He would embroider coloured designs on pieces of satin, which he would present to the sultan, who would then choose the designs and phrases which would appear on the great imperial mosques. On occasion the mahyaci would present moving images, such as boats and fish. Abdullatif Efendi (d.1877), perhaps the most famous of all mahyacis, once presented an image of a royal barge suspended between the Süleymaniye’s minarets, on the night of the 15th of Ramadan. Pictures are now no longer seen, and in the early Republican period there was a vogue for national messages, such as ‘DON’T FORGET THE RED CRESCENT,’ ‘BUY LOCAL GOODS’, and ‘REMEMBER AIRCRAFT’; but today the slogans are purely religious once more.

Those who enter the courtyard during Ramadan will find an enormous bookfair, where sixty of the country’s leading religious publishers offer their newest works. In recent years, the older type of literature, such as poorly-printed prayer-books with garish covers, or manuals for housewives, has receded, in favour of a new, sophisticated body of writing. Publishers like Iz and Gelenek have no equivalent elsewhere in the Islamic world, bringing out works of interest by non-Muslim philosophers, as well as modern Muslim thinkers. The focus is on Western Muslim writers: Garaudy, Winkel, Valsan, Herlihy, Eaton and others; and Middle Eastern texts, apart from classical ones, are scarce. It is all rather intellectual, and even elitist; although populism is still present, and there are several concessions to the local love of conspiracy theories: ‘ATATURK THE BULGARIAN’ (banned); ‘ROBIN COOK POISONED BY MOSSAD FOR OPPOSING THE IRAQ WAR’ (fairly popular); ‘BIN LADEN THE PENTAGON’S PAWN: THE HIDDEN STORY’ (circulation unknown).

The Blue Mosque, despite its immensity, is full for Tarawih prayers; and this is not terribly surprising, given the beauty of the ceremony here. In some mosques, the full khatm is observed; but here the Tarawih lasts for less than an hour, after which the crowds rejoin the fun of the fair. After each four rak’as a brief interval of collective dhikr supervenes, in the form of the salat-i ummiyye; and at the end there comes a prayer which, booming around the vastnesses of the mosque, recalls the superb rolling dignity of the Ottoman language. As Urdu-speakers well know, prayers in a language where everything happens before the verb have tremendous dramatic impact: ‘And our sins, in this and earlier months, against You and other members of our nation, Our Lord, forgive! And the affairs of the Muslims here and in the world, Our Lord, set right! And to the soul of Sultan Ahmet, Our Lord, grant rest!’

In the Ottoman period, the great singers faced their greatest audiences during Ramadan worship; and in recent years attempts have been made to revive the symphonic quality of the Tarawih of days gone by. Knowledge of the maqam system is axiomatic here. Some younger, less qualified men with soaring voices are allowed to recite in the mosques during Ramadan, even when the ritual is televised live; but in theory only those with an ijaza in maqams can be heard. Hence the ilahi singer in the Fatih mosque, who sings a special Ramadan qasida or a ghazal after each four rak’as, may set the artistic pace for the entire ceremony. The Istanbul adhan and iqama are often in maqam Hijaz or Saba, but the yatsi prayer itself is typically in Rast, the critical musical moment being the connection between the final words of the iqama and the imam’s takbir. This produces a contrast, which is then articulated by the muezzin in the ceremonial words which gather the congregation for the Tarawih, with its twenty formal rak’as. These often begin, as tajwid conventionally does, in maqam saba, but after four rak’as the singer will modulate into one of the modes which may permissibly follow from Saba: Kurd, Nahawand, or Ushshak. The imam of the mosque will then begin the fifth rak’a in the same maqam, beginning an exquisite modal dialogue which congnoscenti hope, usually with good reason, will descend at the right pace back to saba during the Witr. Six maqams may thus be heard during the single Tarawih. Kani Karaca, the blind, aged chief muezzin of the Süleymaniye mosque, who died only recently, was certainly capable of many more, firing his voice high into the sublime, shadowy spaces of Sinan’s greatest masterpiece.

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, musical standards in the great metropolitan mosques started to decline. At the Süleymaniye, however, largely thanks to a musically sophisticated partnership between Imam Muzaffer Ozak (d.1985), and the chief muezzin, Hafiz Sevket Efendi, which lasted for twenty-six years, the old traditions were faithfully preserved. One of Ozak’s pupils, the singer Ahmet Ozhan, who abandoned pop culture in favour of religious music, is working hard to maintain the transmission of this precious heritage. The founder-director of the Turkish Historical Music Society, Ozhan strives to spread knowledge of the traditional Rajab and Sha’ban songs, of the different ilahi hymns appropriate at different points in Ramadan, and the right style of leading Tarawih. A household name in Turkey, Ozhan’s efforts have already transformed the quality of religious music in many of the country’s mosques.

The high artistic standards of the Istanbul Ramadan have done much to hold the attention of the Turkish population. Some entirely secular souls will come to hear the Tarawih as they might attend the opera; and many have found God as a result.

The crowds are vast, quickly filling the immensity of the mosques. But on the 27th of Ramadan, which the Mufti decrees is the most probable date of Laylat al-Qadr, the crowds and the imams shift into a still higher gear. Sabah prayer at the mosque of Eyüp is the most popular worship experience in the city; but arrive even at two in the morning on the 27th, and you will find it hard to squeeze beyond the leather curtains into the mosque interior. Here, more than anywhere else in the City, the Turks are feasting, and feasting again, on the Qur’an.

Like a benign watchful presence, behind the five-hundred year old plane tree planted by the Conqueror’s own hand in the mosque court, lies the grave of the Companion Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, which, of the hundreds of active pilgrimage sites in the City, remains the greatest magnet for visitors. The space is ablaze with a turquoise glow, supplied by the Iznik tiles, which are among the most precious ceramic masterpieces in the world. Close beside it is the I‘tikaf chamber built for Princess Adile, who spent her Ramadans here a century ago, before being buried among the royal tombs nearby. Outside lie the graves of warlike pashas, sayyids, and ulema, including Ebussuud Efendi, the great tafsir scholar, and reviver of the Shari‘a in the time of Sultan Suleyman. Here too are the sainted ladies, and then great madrasas and tekkes, beyond the stone stairs where a new Sultan, visiting the mosque for his coronation, would descend from his horse, to walk the remainder of Enthronement Road humbly on foot. In his palace, the Sultan alone could ride; at Eyüp, he too was required to dismount.

Other holy places abound in the City, and have played their part in keeping the Turkish spirit alive. Take the ferry, for instance, from Seraglio Point to the Asian suburb of Üsküdar, and you will find the tomb-complex of Aziz Mahmud Huda’i alive with visitors from every social background (this is the suburb where wealthier religious people live). Higher up the hill is the tekke of his pupil Selami Baba, whose mineral waters are still popular, and where the cemetery contains fallen heroes of Turkey’s wars. As the ship approaches the shore, one reads ‘ISLAM IS GOOD MANNERS’ in the sky-writing between the minarets of the mosque of Princess Mihrimah, daughter of Suleyman and in her day the richest woman in the world, and whose mosque and madrasa are among the climaxes of the City’s architecture. Moored nearby is the ‘Ramadan Ship’, a smart passenger vessel chartered by the Üsküdar municipality, where one may break one’s fast, and be regaled with religious music while contemplating the incomparable skyline of the European shore.

The increasing presence of women in the mosques is posing some interesting problems. Sinan and his colleagues were Hanafis, and gave little thought to the accommodation of worshipping women. Today, however, ever-larger numbers of women come to the mosques, and this is particularly evident during Ramadan. For the Sultanahmet Tarawih, therefore, large areas in the main prayer-hall have been allocated to women. In the confined space of the Noble Mantle Mosque, however, this is impossible, so the neighbouring mosque of Hoca Uveis has been designated a women-only prayer hall during the congregational prayers, particularly at the Ogle and Ikindi prayers, when most visitors come. This process seems set to continue. Most theology students in Turkey now are women, and the country appointed, in 2005, its first female muftis. There are also over six hundred full-time female preachers (vaize).

Laylat al-Qadr is followed by another change in mood. The sky-writing at Sultanahmet now reads: ‘INTERCEDE O MESSENGER OF GOD!’ Most poignant is the Arefa Day, the last day before the Bayram (its name is a curious borrowing from the fasting day before the Great Bayram). The television stations are alert to the bitter-sweet quality of this time, especially as the adhan for aksam prayer approaches. The team of men in suits who have been sitting in a boat in the Bosphorus every afternoon in Ramadan, talking about Religion and Life, are now discussing forgiveness. A live broadcast from the Eyüp mosque shows the mufti of Kayseri ending the fast with a long prayer. Even the commercial breaks are few. (MUMMY, I WANT A HITTITE BISCUIT. GIVE ME A HITTITE BISCUIT PLEASE. HAYIR GAS: BECAUSE YOUR LIFE IS PRECIOUS TO US. BELLONA FURNITURE: HOW HAPPY AM I TO HAVE FOUND IT.)
Next day, the fast ends with the Lesser Bayram. Unless one is attracted to the prospect of an hour shivering beneath the October rain, it is wise to set out for the mosque shortly after Sabah prayers, or even to stay in the mosque from Sabah until the Bayram Imam appears in splendour, an hour after sunrise. So I leave my house in Stygian darkness and walk through the silent streets of my ghetto district. The graffiti is just visible: PEST CONTROL CALL 538 244 7622.  DOWN WITH FENERBAHCE. HE WHO LOVES ALLAH WILL NOT THROW HIS RUBBISH HERE. More decorously, high above the street, competing politicians wish us well. MAY YOUR BAYRAM BE BLESSED AND PROSPEROUS. (SALVATION PARTY). WE WISH YOU A MERRY BAYRAM. (REPUBLICAN PEOPLE’S PARTY). MAY YOU AND YOUR FAMILIES AND ALL OUR COUNTRY ENJOY A PEACEFUL AND PROFITABLE BAYRAM. (AK PARTY.)

Inside the mosque of Sultan Beyazit, popular with Sufi pietists as a mosque built only with entirely lawful funds, there is still room for me. In the mihrab, a hoca is giving us Surat al-Rahman in a local hadr style. The qafla is crisp, and the quarter-tones immaculate. This is good news, since we still have an hour to go. I notice that after every minute or so, the hoca pauses, while everyone in the mosque recites the Bayram takbir. He then reads a translation of his text. This audience participation means that the hoca’s voice must remain in a single maqam for an hour, and this he manages, in an austere performance that is entirely in keeping with the atmosphere of this restrained and ascetical building.

The Bayram Imam appears, and the men near the mihrab rise in respect. He reminds the congregation of the Hanafi traditions of the Bayram namaz, and then the great crowd is hushed in prayer. After the teslim, he ascends the minbar, one step at a time, until, after almost a minute, he is three steps from the summit. Here he bows briefly to the qibla, hand on heart, and then turns, to allow the voice of religion to fill the mosque, as it has done for a thousand Bayrams before. He speaks of the need to maintain the momentum of Ramadan, and not to leave compassion and worship behind as we travel onwards from the month.

After the khutba, in the courtyard of the mosque, many in the crowd have formed a circle beneath the colonnade. To the sound of the salat-i ummiyye, everyone moves around the circle, embracing everyone, until, reaching its end, they stand in their turn. The procedure takes a long time; but it is voluntary, so I find a side exit, and re-enter the now busy streets. Shops are closed, but buses and trams are free for the three days of the holiday, and many Stambullus are already beginning the round of visits to friends and relations which lie at the heart of this family festival.

That evening, high above the eastern minarets of Sultanahmet, the sky writing reads Elveda: Farewell.

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