Aliya Azam

On 25th March I visited Istanbul for the first time and was overwhelmed with the beauty of this city. I was taking a group of 30 pupils on a school trip abroad, a trip that was planned six months ago. We had a guided tour that was enriched with historical commentary of the Ottoman Empire.

What was very visible was the Muslim spirit of tolerance, which was brought to light in this dynasty by the innumerable number of churches and mosques built adjacent to each other. Our guide explained how the Ottomans’ remarkable dynasty ruled for nearly seven hundred years (1280–1924), nearly half a millennium ruling an empire as diverse as any in history. Remarkably, the poly-ethnic and multireligious society worked. Muslims, Christians and Jews worshiped and studied side by side, enriching their distinct cultures. The legal traditions and practices of each community, particularly in matters of personal status—that is, death, marriage and inheritance—were respected and enforced throughout the empire.

We first entered the Hagia Sophia and its history is fascinating. “The original church on the site of the Hagia Sophia is said to have been built in 325 CE on the foundations of a pagan temple.” The church was rebuilt after a fire, then enlarged and restored by different emperors; it was burnt again in 532 CE. This is when it was rebuilt as a cathedral in the 6th century CE (532–537). The structure now standing is essentially the 6th-century edifice. It stood as a cathedral for more than a millennium. After the Turkish conquest of Constantinople, an Ottoman sultan repurposed it as a mosque, and now it’s a museum.[1]

Interestingly, there were big circular disks on the ceiling with the names of the family of the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) written on each disk the names Muhammed, Ali, Fatima, Hassan and Hussain (peace be upon them all). There were also the names of the first three caliphs.

Our second stop was the breathtaking Topkapi Palace. This is a large palace in Istanbul and was the primary residence of the Ottoman sultans for approximately 400 years (1465–1856) of their 624-year reign.[2] On entering the gardens of the palace one felt as if in Heaven! The trees were hundreds of years old and the feeling invoked a sense of awe. It was here where I saw an 86-carat diamond.

There was a display of the staff that Prophet Moses used, as well as clothes worn by the daughter and grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). I saw the classic Blue Mosque, which is always shown on the news, and I realised that nearly every mosque in Istanbul has the same construction of a large dome surrounded by semi-domes.

The military of Turkey operated a millet system (Arabic: milla, ‘religious community’), the chief instrument by means of which the multi-religious empire functioned. The spirit of religious tolerance was the guiding principle of this system within which religious communities were permitted to govern themselves, in return for the payment of the jizya (poll-tax) and recognition of the political authority of the Ottoman rulers. The system was established under Mehmet II (r. 1451–1481) who conquered Constantinople in 1453. One of his first acts was to appoint Gennadius Scolarius as the patriarch of the Greek Orthodox community, now referred to as millet. The Patriarch was given the rank of a pașa ‘with three horsetails’; he had the right to apply the laws of the Orthodox faith to his followers, in both religious matters and such secular domains as education, hospitals, social security and justice.

It was fascinating to hear how, under the Ottomans, the Armenian Church was recognised as an independent millet in 1461. This millet came to include a host of other smaller Christian groups, and this diverse group of denominations co-existed peacefully for centuries within the framework of the Ottoman Empire.  Our guide explained how the Ottoman standards of religious tolerance should be seen not only as highly exceptional but also as expressive of the spirit of tolerance central to the Islamic ethos.

I wanted to learn more about the Sufis of Turkey, the framework within which all popular piety flowed together; its saints, dead and living became the guarantors of the gentle and co-operative sides of social life.

There were images of the twirling Sufis around the city. Sufi orders in the Ottoman empire varied greatly, from the Bektaşī tarikat, which incorporated so much popular folklore and culture, to the highly elitist Mevleviye (Arabic: Mawlawiyya), based on the teachings and practices of Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (d. 1273) described by A. J. Arberry as “surely the greatest mystical poet in the history of mankind.”[3] I have heard a lot about this famous poet. The refined ecumenism and love-mysticism of Rūmī, therefore, is by no means irrelevant to a consideration of the religious attitude of Ottoman elites in general, and their embrace of the principle of tolerance in particular. Much has been written on Rūmī’s ecumenical spirit as expressed in his poetry, and especially his masterpiece, the Mathnawī.

“The religion of Love is separate from all religions / for lovers, the religion and creed is—God.” – Rumi

Islam promotes peaceful co-existence between people, regardless of their faith, ethnicity, culture and any other identifier. Indeed, the Quran tells us “O mankind, We have created you all male and female and have made you nations and tribes so that you may know one another. Indeed, the most honourable among you in the sight of God is the most pious of you. God is All-knowing and All-aware.”[4]

This trip has shown me practically how accepting others, perceived as or known to be different, can bring about richness, harmony and dignity to all.