Turkey’s glorious past, uncertain future

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If a country’s architecture can be taken as indicating its status in the world, that of Istanbul reflects fairly accurately both Turkey’s past and its present. While the grandeur of its historic buildings are vivid reminders of past glories, the blandness of its contemporary buildings–”concrete and glass boxes–”reflects the disrupting influence and ultimate vacuousness of its Westernization.

Less than a century ago Istanbul was the capital of a world power that had ruled a vast empire for nearly four centuries, since the capture of the Byzantine capital Constantinople by Sultan Mehmet II (1432-1481CE), better known as Sultan Fatih, in 1453. Renamed Istanbul, and symbolically bridging the gap between Europe and Asia, the city became the capital of a new empire that carried Islam deep into Europe, and ruled Muslim societies in three continents. Today, the city boasts some of the greatest monuments of Islamic architecture. The Blue Mosque, commissioned by Sultan Ahmet I and designed by Sedefkar Ahmet Agha, one of the most brilliant students of the great architect Mirmar Sinan, and built between 1609-1616, stands majestically opposite the Aya Sofia and Topkapi museums, flanked by the Marmara Sea to the south and the Golden Horn to the east. Topkapi–”meaning the cannon gate–”was built by Sultan Mehmet II in 1467 and served as the official residence and court of the sultans until 1839, when Sultan Abdulmecit I moved to the new palace of Dolmabahace on the Bosphorus Sea. It was later converted into a museum, which now houses several relics of the noble Prophet, upon whom be peace, including the original letter he sent to the Roman governor of Egypt, Muqaiqoos, one of his swords, and a sword that he gave to Khalid ibn Walid (ra), the companion famed as a brilliant general who led the early Muslims to many victories.

Istanbul’s other great monument is the Eyup Sultan Mosque, named after the companion Ayub Ansari (ra), in whose house the noble Prophet (saw) initially resided in Madinah after his migration from Makkah, until a modest house was built for him. Ayub Ansari (ra) is buried in a compound alongside the mosque. His grave is carefully preserved and visitors can view it through an outer railing. Worshippers and visitors throng the mosque at all times of the day and night, but the most moving scenes are witnessed during fajr (morning) and isha (night) salats. One cannot help but contrast the respect shown by the Turks to the memory of Ayub Ansari (ra) with the vandalism of historic sites in the Hijaz by the Saudis. Jannatul Maula in Makkah, Jannatul Baqi in Madinah and the cemetery of the shuhada’ at Uhud are all in a sorry state. The Prophet’s first wife Khadijah (ra) is buried in Jannatul Maula, but it suffers from neglect; it is virtually impossible to locate the grave of this illustrious mother of the believers, the first person to accept Islam. Jannatul Baqi, where numerous companions of the Prophet (saw) and members of his family are buried, has suffered even more. On the spurious pretext of the risk of shirk, the Saudis have destroyed almost all the Islamic historical sites of Makkah and Madinah, while carefully preserving relics of their own sorry history, such as the tip of the spear that was lodged in the door of the Mismak fortress when Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, founder of the Saudi dynasty struck it. After their conquest of the Hijaz in 1924, the Saudis embarked upon wholesale destruction of historic buildings and monuments. In the name of development, concrete monstrosities now tower above even the Ka’aba, and the Masjid al-Haram is surrounded by hotels and shopping malls apparently modelled on New York or Los Angeles. McDonalds and Pizza Hut stores, and other symbols of Western consumerism, stand in stark contrast to the spirituality of the Haram. Traffic congestion and noise add to the distractions from the spiritual journey that pilgrims aspire to while circumambulating the Ka’aba or running between the hills of Safa’ and Marwa.

By contrast, the Turks should be proud that the Ottomans went to extraordinary lengths to preserve Islamic monuments, especially those relating to the time of the Prophet (saw) and his companions (ra), when they ruled the Haramain. But like the Saudis, Turkey’s secular rulers are today determined to destroy their own Islamic heritage in the name of modernization and progress. The establishment in Turkey suffers from a severe crisis of identity: it wants to abandon its glorious past in order to adopt the West’s lifestyle and habits. It is one of the few countries in the world where hijab is officially banned in government offices and universities. Even the Islam-hating West does not go to such extremes. Bizarrely, the wife of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is barred from attending state functions at the presidential palace because she chooses to wear hijab, while Turkish law prohibits hijab at official events.

What Turkey’s generals fail to understand is that when Turkey held the banner of Islam, it was the leader of the Muslim world; by adopting secularism and imitating the West, it has become the sick man of Europe, facing an uncertain future. But the fact that the vast majority of Turkish women continue to wear hijab reflects a commitment to Islam among ordinary Turks that decades of aggressive secularism have failed to obliterate. This commitment holds out the hope that Istanbul might yet again emerge as a centre of Islamic civilization and power, and a source of inspiration for all Muslims, insha’Allah.

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