Inside the blue mosque at prayer time

I love you when you bow in your mosque, kneel in your temple, pray in your church. For you and I are sons of one religion, and it is the spirit.” —Khalil Gibran

“I am in love with every church and mosque and temple, and any kind of shrine. Because I know it is there that people say the different names of God.” –Hafez

The impressive Sultan Ahmet mosque is my favorite place in Istanbul and one of my favorite temples all over the world. The Sultanahmet Camii, built during the rule of Ahmet I -between 1609 and 1616- contains Ahmet’s tomb in the dedicated crypts. The sultan appointed his royal architect Sedefhar Mehmet Aga, to be in charge of the Mosque construction. According to age-old legend, the architect misheard the Sultan, who asked for Gold minarets (altın minareler) rather than six minarets (altı minare). This became the center of some rivalry within the muslim world, as this particular feature was unique to the Ka’aba mosque in Mecca. Subsequently, the Sultan in Mecca ordered a seventh minaret to be built, affirming its primacy over any imperial mosque.

Stepping into the Blue Mosque is a travel back in time as well as into a different culture. A feast for the eyes, a unique and breathtaking experience. I entered the mosque, respectfully and with great anticipation, feeling overwhelmed. I was inside this magnificent building, once again. It was crowded, a horde of noisy tourists was roaming inside. I did not like the feeling, as they were not respectful, shouting at each other trying to get the right pose for the perfect photo. There were worshippers already praying at that time, and the chatter from the tourists was covering the voice of the imam’s chanting prayers.

I looked at the magnificent ceiling, and my breath was, once again, taken away by the unmatched beauty of it. A sparkling sea of blue tiles, playing games with the sun rays gleaming in through the vitro windows, accentuated this place’s serene and harmonious atmosphere; Domes within domes, an unimaginable beauty. Ancient calligraphy quotes, passages from the Qur’an adorning the walls. Men, women, children sitting on the colourful woven carpets, discussing quietly, praying.

It was that time, again, to immerse myself into this alluring beauty.

I tried to find a quiet place to give myself a chance to enjoy the serenity and absorb the beauty. I started walking around and finally found a quiet spot. There, I let myself observe everything around me, trying to isolate any noise, concentrate on the imam´s chant and getting lost in my thoughts.

It was at this moment that I noticed a glass room, and in front of it, a small bookcase, containing some books and some leaflets about Islam. I started opening the leaflets, reading them, collecting the ones that I found interesting. After a while, a door opened beside me and a muslim cleric came out, asking me politely what I was looking for, and if I needed any help. I answered that I’m interested in reading about religion and I have found what I was looking for. But he went on asking if I could give him some time so he could talk to me about Islam. He was a mullah, a muslim cleric. Mullah is the name given to teachers or scholars of Islamic texts, or the leaders of mosques. No question about it, I found the idea extremely interesting, so I accepted.

He started by asking me to define religion. (I explained to him my point of view;) For me, religion is the spirit -as Khalil Gibran so gracefully defined-, the moral code of each one of us, that determines good and evil. I explained that I believe we are all brothers under the sun, beautiful people on this beautiful planet with so many differences, yet more similarities that we must embrace to coexist. Religion, for me, is the hope and belief I see in the eyes of the faithful, the devotion, their profound need to turn to a higher being.

He corrected my thoughts, of course, given that they lacked one element, obedience … “to the laws of the God”, as he said. Eventually, he started talking about religion, the code and the rules. About the differences in religions, as well as the common things. He mentioned Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Noah. He went on about the way they are preparing themselves to conduct their prayers, so many things… he treated with respect the other religions, pretty much saying that “there is one God, we just give him different names”. He seemed astonished, and smiled when I completed his thoughts by saying “lā ilāha ʾillā llāh”This phrase belongs to the Shahada, an Islamic creed, one of the five pillars of Islam, declaring belief in the oneness of God. This statement of faith continues ‘muḥammadun rasūlu llāh’, meaning the acceptance of Muhammad as God’s prophet.

We even referred to same-sex marriage, on which we had -not unexpectedly- a conflict…

I got lost in the discussion for quite some time, nothing could distract me…

Then, another man came from that door, speaking to him in their language. He explained that we could go inside the room to continue our talk. I replied that I loved the atmosphere right there, enjoying our conversation, while at the same time listening to the imam praying for the believers. However, at that moment, I realized that the vibe around us was different than before; it was quiet and tranquil, and “oh! where are all the people?”. I looked around and there were no more tourists walking around the corridors, just worshippers kneeling and praying to their God. I shared with him my surprised observation. He smiled and explained that at times of prayer, the doors close and the nonbelievers step out. I apologized instantly and said that I had to go. He smiled once again and replied, “not you, dear”..

My emotions peaked when I realized I was the only foreigner inside the Blue mosque, among people praying. I couldn’t believe my luck! All my friends know how emotional I get inside religious monuments. I have a very soft spot for these places. The atmosphere there fills me with warmth, peace, serenity and causes profound emotions.

We continued talking for a while, my heart was beating fast and the excitement was overwhelming. Finally, I excused myself, it was time to go, since I was meeting with a friend. The mullah asked me if I was going to come back, so we could continue our discussion. He entered the room and instantly came back, saying “I have a present for you”. He was holding a tiny Qur’an, and another small book, the Salat – the way a worshipper has to prepare for his prayer. I thanked him, promised we will meet again the next day and I started walking my way out, gazing around me with tears in my eyes. It was the moment, as I call it. A known feeling, one that always occurs to me, when visiting spiritual places. An uncontrolled sobbing, accompanied with a sense of wild joy, a total release of the emotion…

Contradictions? oh yes! Most people find Islam aggresive and hostile. I have met many muslim people in my wanderings, I do have muslim friends and they are some of the kindest persons I am privileged to have in my life.

I enjoyed the discussion with the mullah. It was a completely enriching experience, despite our different views on many things, but hey, isn’t that the point of any discussion? I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend your right to say it, as long as there is mutual respect and no attempt for imposition and force.

I do not know about how this cleric felt, I guess he recognized the respect in my attitude and generally he liked it, too. He even offered to take a photo of me 🙂