Taksim Square

Two weeks ago the big news was that Turkey had paid off its IMF debt and had pledged a $5 billion loan to the IMF to help alleviate the European debt crisis. Turkey seemed to have an air of confidence. And yet today the Prime Minister, democratically elected with 49.83% of the Popular Vote in 2011, is presented as an autocratic dictator. Is this the real mood of the nation, or outside provocation?

Stimulation for the soul

Following tradition I am ill once again during my stay in Turkey. This time at least it’s not a stomach bug; I just seem to have caught a bad cold (in this heat!). Still, this hasn’t prevented me from experiencing the better things of life. I am back in Istanbul again and attended a nice Jummah prayer in an ancient mosque over looking the Bosphorus, followed by Maghrib in Taksim. Both times the Qur’an was beautiful; both times I looked around to see young people in the congregation. It is nice to be back in civilised company.

Yesterday we spent the day in the company of a Professor of International Relations and his family. He is a specialist in Turkey-EU relations, Democratisation and Human Rights – and proved interesting company. Then we spent the evening in a luxurious neighbourhood with my wife’s best friend and her family – who happened to include a Chief Advisor to the Turkish Prime Minister. All of these people were Muslims, but more than this, they were intelligent – people you could hold a sustained conversation with. No generalisations and cliches. It was a pleasing change.

The assault on the senses wrought by hours of football on Turkish TV every night and dull broken-record conversations covering the same ground again and again and again start to take their toll on you after a while. A change of environment is most welcome.

Behold the believers

Coming to Turkey for the past four years I have largely been in the company of loud and often rude atheist secularists who chain-smoke perpetually and frequently declare their dislike for Muslims. Apart from the elderly who still attend the mosque five times a day, even those Turks who would assign the label “Muslim” to themselves freely drink alcohol and mock their brethren with their atheist friends. One such person who was adamant that I sit next to him in the mosque on Eid two years ago, less that twelve hours after he made fun of me for not drinking alcohol, now exclaims “Al-Fatihah” (i.e. the name of the opening chapter of the Qur’an) as a substitute for a swear word whilst watching football. Sure enough, I have met decent Muslims here, but not many whose teeth still grace their mouths or whose hair has not yet whitened. Instead most of the people I meet my age, younger and into their middle-age follow the Cult of Ataturk which has become a new religion in its own right. Saddened, my depression came to a head last Tuesday whilst staying in a mountain settlement up above the clouds. Sitting in the white walled mosque I scribbled my thoughts down in minute characters on a scrap of paper:

I feel frustrated in this once great Muslim land. It seems like the Turks I come into contact with have lost respect for their heritage, their land and themselves. There is no-one under the age of fifty in the mosque – all the faces are aged and wrinkled, mostly ancient as if soon to pass from this world. Instead the middle-aged men spend their days drinking and gambling, mocking the religion of their forefathers. They do not believe in God or the Prophethood of Muhammad, they say; they believe in Ataturk. In respect for this cult they furiously attack the Muslims, ridiculing them to the best of their abilities. They refuse to say “Salam” because it is Arabca (Arabic) and insist instead on “Merhaba”, oblivious to its Arabic origin. They do not respect the culture which brought them beautiful mosques, gardens, homes and art – their culture is concrete apartments, satellite football and Raki.

Like their disrespect for their heritage they show how they do not care for their land. All around, the ground is little with cans of Efes Pilsner. The streams sourced by natural springs are filled with detritus, plastic bags and cigarette packets. Beneath a sign which reads, “Water gives life, do not pollute it,” the earth is hidden beneath more cans of beer. It is true that the earth will cleanse itself – when the snow comes in a month’s time the streams and land will be washed clean again by the melt that follows it – the huge boulders strewn across this landscape witness to the power of these waters when they come. But how will the people cleanse themselves when they have lost respect for their heritage and their land?

Yesterday, however, I caught a glimpse of another Turkey; one that has been shielded from me since I first set foot in this country. A young generation of Muslims exists after all and I detect an inkling that there is a living Islam out there. The stagnation and opposition I have seen thus far is only one face of this once great Muslim land. A cause for optimism at last.

Question of Fiqh

I am a little confused after attending the midday prayer at the mosque today. I arrived early and waited inside for the call to prayer. As it was read a fairly large congregation of elderly men arrived and we did the four sunnah prayers before the actual midday prayer. I haven’t developed the ability to pray at the speed of light like my Turkish brethren, so I finished later than them. I looked around me and noticed that everyone was doing more prayers; I thought at first that they were doing more sunnahs, for I know the Turks are keen on them. Then it dawned on me – everyone was praying his own midday prayer because the imam had not turned up. This seemed strange to me because I am used to someone else being appointed to lead the prayer in congregation in the absence of the imam, say at home or at a gathering.

Afterwards a man approached me to speak to me. I decided to ask him in my very basic, broken Turkish why they did not pray in congregation, to which he responded that there was no imam to lead them. He then asked me a question which I could not understand about Turkish, English and the words of the prayer. I went home perplexed.

Not long afterwards I took my wife to see the gentleman so that she could translate his question for me. It turned out that he was asking in what language I pray – whether English or Turkish. My wife explained that as Muslims we all pray in Arabic – which means that I can walk into any mosque in the world and still take part in the proceedings. My wife then asked explained that I had been asking him why they did not pray in congregation. He explained that no one felt he knew what to do exactly and that everyone was worried about incurring a sin from doing something wrong during the prayer; therefore everybody did his own individual prayer. I suggested that they should ask the imam what they should do in such circumstances the next time they saw him, to which he responded that the imam did not know anything. Finally the man advised me that on prostrating in prayer, my hands should be placed beneath my cheeks with my thumbs either side of my nostrils and not as I have been praying for the past seven years. The reason for this, he said, being that I could block my nostrils if I suddenly got a nosebleed during the prayer.

Does any of this have a basis in Hanafi Fiqh? RSVP