ISTANBUL… WHERE EAST MEETS WEST

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The city that is the literal definition of British Muslims – sitting between East and West…. Istanbul.

Turkey was never on my top ten list of destinations to visit. Or any list for that matter. I always thought of it to be a touristy holiday that enticed people with halal meat… How we love our meat! Yes we travel to the corners of the world, fly with Emirates, and eat big macs at the airport for a 5am flight because…we finally can!

But oh how wrong I was!

It is impossible for me to capture my experience and amazement of such an enlightening trip in one blog… A spiritual journey sums it up beautifully.

I found myself doing the Muslim version of a pub crawl…hopping from mosque to mosque praying alongside my sisters from different countries, ethnicities and cultures… even sitting alongside non Muslims from all corners of the world in awe of the architecture and peaceful atmosphere.
Yet there was one similarity we all shared… the experience.

There was no prejudice, judgmental behavior or any form of rudeness I experienced or witnessed.

Men and women both tourists and locals were kindly given appropriate garments to cover themselves, shown the dedicated areas to carry out ablution (wudu) and not bombarded or pressured with charity boxes.

Yet what I found the most refreshing was the coexistence of Islamic history with modern thought.

Under the Ottoman Empire, each religious community was autonomous in domestic affairs and could apply its own religious law in its own courts.

Sultan Mehmet the Conquerer, increased the population of the city by bringing in immigrants from different regions, and started to reconstruct the deserted and wrecked city. He granted freedom of worship and social rights to the former inhabitants.

Even today Turkey believe in the freedom to practice all religions: the infamous Topkapi Palace that inhabits the valuables of the Prophets is situated next door to a Church.
The Galata Tower being one of the wonders of Istanbul inhabited the Jewish community and acted as a safe passage for Jews seeking refuge from the horrors of the Bolsheviks and Nazis.
Also the must see Hagia Sophia that was converted from a Church into a Mosque once the Muslims took power, still exhibits Christian artefacts.

Seeing people from all walks of life in awe of the rich pedigree of history, culture and commerce was breathtaking.

However, on my return to Manchester I was welcomed with headlines of: “Woman stabbed 16 times due to wearing a hijab” and “Third Jihadists in Isis.”

What happened to the Islam that people travelled across sea and land to experience?
The perception of a peaceful and welcoming religion was shattered with extreme antics.

But it didn’t seem to sit quite right with me.
The memories of minarets and domes dominating the skyline, the call to prayer (Azaan) five times a day uniting all, the welcoming and friendly behaviour of locals, not having to worry about pick pocketers, feeling safe traveling even when sat near men with 5ft long beards and women fully veiled that nothing will surprisingly explode.

Why is the world not being exposed to this Islam…the only Islam. Not a manipulated version that strikes fear into people’s heart.

Yes, there are different perceptions of Islam across the world. Unfortunately there are prejudices and stereotypes that we all have to suffer with from time to time.

But isn’t it refreshing to know that somewhere in the world the very religion that is now associated with terrorism and extremism is showing its true peaceful and pure teachings that even non Muslims visit to indulge in the experience.

The biggest lesson I learnt from Istanbul was the history I had to be proud of… the astonishing architecture of the palaces, the ruling of the Ottomon Empire, how they were welcoming to all even though at a similar time Muslims and Jews were tortured and kicked out from Spain, which was supposedly the intellectually flourishing country at the time. The exhibitions of armour, jewels, religious artefacts and art… the list is endless.

The chance to see this side of Turkish society shed a deep light on religious and spiritual practice.

A priceless experience…

By Sameera Rafiq

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