Amid a pandemic, exploring Islam and migration in Istanbul

Author: Rafael Vallejo

Vallejo Web Cropped

Editor’s note: Rafael Vallejo, a member of the Ansari Institute’s affiliated faculty, shared this reflection written during a recent visit to Turkey. While there, he researched Ibadi Islam (by coincidence, at the same time, the Ansari Institute led a spring break student trip to Oman, where Ibadi Islam is dominant). Vallejo and his wife left Istanbul for Toronto on March 20, the day before Turkey closed down flights to more than 40 countries, including Canada, amid the spread of COVID-19. 

Come, come, whoever you are, wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving, it doesn't matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vow a hundred times. Come, yet again, come. ― Mevlânâ Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī

I started writing this blog at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, here in a cosmopolitan city that has been known by many names: Byzantium, Constantinople, Nova Roma, Istanbul. Or “Islambul,” according to the folk etymological preference of the current president to highlight the Islamic character of the city. I am sipping Turkish coffee at a café overlooking the Bosphorus, after a hurried visit to Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom). This wonder of Byzantine architecture was built in 537 CE and was once the largest cathedral in all of Christendom.

Pondering the plight of refugees

Every day, thanks to the only English newspaper in the hotel lobby, I am reading developments on Turkey’s decision to open its borders to refugees. Istanbul has long been a city that receives migrants and refugees from different cultures. In 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain ordered Muslims and Sephardic (i.e. Hispanic) Jews to accept Christianity or leave and never return, the Ottoman sultan Beyazat Han extended hospitality to them, and they made Istanbul their new home. Some historians say that the Ottomans’ openness to religious freedom allowed their empire to extend from North Africa to Eastern Europe.

Today, Izmir on Turkey’s Aegean coast has become a popular stop for refugees moving on towards Europe because of its proximity to the Greek islands. From there they move upwards to the Northern Greece border and then to the West Balkans. On the other hand, Idlib, southwest of Aleppo near the Turkish-Syrian border, has become the new “Gaza in Syria,” according to some commentators. Turkey today hosts the world’s largest population of Syrian refugees.

In her essay “We Refugees” published in January 1943, Hannah Arendt speaks to the experience of refugees and stateless persons in Europe during the Second World War. In her work on The Origins of Totalitarianism, she describes the experience of refugees as “homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth.” Seeking refuge or asylum is a basic human right guaranteed by International Law, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the UN Refugee Convention (1951). There is a growing consensus, however, that the definition of “refugee” in these agreements no longer reflects the realities of contemporary forced migration and displacement. Refugees today are not just people who are forced to flee because of persecution, but also include victims of armed conflict, climate change, or economic necessity.

Refugees today are not just people who are forced to flee because of persecution, but also include victims of armed conflict, climate change, or economic necessity.

Nation-states today use surveillance technology along with an arsenal of strategies and tactics to deny entry to refugees. In May 2009, for example, Somali and Eritrean nationals from Libya were intercepted and prevented by authorities from reaching Italy and were turned back to Tripoli. Pushing back refugees has become “a feature of many EU external borders located on major migration routes” (Amnesty International, “Fears and Fences,” 2015). 

Laws that require nation-states to protect refugees also give them the power to discipline and punish, practices that have been described as “carceral humanitarianism” (Oliver, 2017). As social practices, these mechanisms of brutal expulsions (Sassen, 2014) are enabled by relations of power. And where there is power, there is resistance (Foucault, 1978). Since “seeking refuge” is a trope that recurs in biblical literature, I maintain that it is possible to do theology beginning from “the figure of the refugee” (Agamben, 2000)

In many ways, border crossings by migrants and refugees are acts of resistance against nation-states, who consider it their absolute right to decide who may or may not enter their borders. Refugees are resisting not having voice or visibility by breaking the silence and showing up in large numbers on international borders. While this kind of resistance may not be enough to improve their situation or change the system, at the very least they hope to raise awareness that something needs to be done.

Chilean poet Pablo Neruda captures the sentiment of refugees worldwide. “Podrán cortar todas las flores, pero no podrá detener la primavera (“They will be able to cut all the flowers but will not be able to stop spring.”)

Ibadi Islam in a historic city

Migration continues to shape this land and our world. I soak in Istanbul’s culture and history starting from our hotel in Sultanahmet (Old Town), the city’s 3,000-year-old core. Public spaces like Taksim Square, site of many historic anti-government protests, and the Grand Bazaar, home to 4000 shops spread out across 61 streets, are now empty. This market, one of the largest and oldest in the world, dates back to the 15th century, when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople. 

Just two days ago, I was at the shrine of Persian poet and mystic Mevlana Rumi in Konya, watching whirling dervishes dance their prayers with one hand towards the sky receiving Allah’s blessings and the other facing downward, blessing the earth. Yesterday, I was taking photos of Kadikoy (formerly called Chalcedon), site of the 4th Ecumenical Council that came up with two-natures christology in the Christian church. Before this I had already visited Nicaea (now Iznik) in Anatolia, site of the first (325 CE) and second councils that gave Christianity the Nicene Creed, and Ephesus (which in 431 CE decreed Mary as theotokos, or “Mother of God”). 

Today, I wanted to visit the Yerebatan Sarnic, the underground basilica cistern that dates back to the Emperor Justinian (600 CE). The massive structure covered an area the size of two football fields, large enough to hold some 27 million gallons of fresh water. But a large sign posted on the door in Turkish and English said that the place was closed due to the pandemic. Many of the libraries at the University of Istanbul and the museums I had wanted to visit were also closed. 

I had wanted to explore what literature was available in English on the subject I was studying: the theology of Ibadi Islam from its early beginnings (650 CE) until the present time.

Ibadi Islam, which is neither Sunni nor Shi’ite, emerged in the early Islamic period and played a pivotal role in the development of Islamic law and theology. Today, it continues to be an influential force in Oman and the Middle East in small pockets of North Africa (Algeria, Tunisia, Libya) and Zanzibar. Despite its antiquity, Ibadi Islam—and particularly Ibadi theology (ʿIlm al-Kalām)—remains little known and has often been misunderstood.

Up to now only a few book-length works devoted to Ibadi theology are available. It may take a new generation of interdisciplinary scholars to research the distinctive theological practices and teachings of this influential Islamic school and share it with a broader readership in the non-Arabic speaking world.

Art, religion, and beauty

At Hagia Sophia, the only Arabic calligraphy I could read was in two giant medallions on the dome: One for Allah, the other for the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). I learned to read them through my grandchildren, who are learning to read and write Arabic as they study the Qur’an. Learning the language of the Qur’an as part of Islamic studies strengthens their Muslim identity and deepens their faith in Allah. Just as people migrate across geographies, generations sometimes migrate across faiths. 

I also had the opportunity to admire Arabic calligraphy in an alcove adorned with exquisite 16th century Iznik tiles (see photo above). Iznik has kept this tradition of pottery, one that dates back to prehistoric times and blossomed under the Ottomans. Virtually every surface of this mosque is decorated with these floral-designed tile panels featuring tulips, roses and carnations. A Christian friend told me that Sultanahmet, or the Blue Mosque, is Istanbul’s Notre Dame. 

Turkey taught me many things that will nourish me for years to come.

Turkey taught me many things that will nourish me for years to come. I learned the practice of remembering the many names of God starting from “the compassionate, the merciful.” My Turkish friends told me: the only true religion in God’s sight is complete submission (islam) to God. (Qu’ran 3:19) I will carry that as I continue to yield to the divine embrace in my own life. 

As we stepped into the van that would take us to the airport, the call to prayer was being chanted by muezzins from atop the city’s many minarets. I felt a deep sense of reverence and gratitude as I rehearsed one of the first phrases I learned upon getting here: teşekkür ederim (“thank you”), said with my right hand on my heart. Teşekkür ederim!