I’ve never envisioned myself as a religious person, however, the third day of our explorations of Istanbul and Islam opened my eyes to the education I received in my family’s churches. That upbringing built my ethical foundation and I now better understand religion’s guiding role in humanitarian aid.
We began our day with an early departure to walk and see the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Grand Mosque. I’ve had the the pleasure of visiting some of the most beautiful cathedrals in Europe but I’ve yet to experience the sense of humility and unity found inside a mosque. We arrived when the space was unoccupied but I could only imagine the presence of energy during worship. I was especially moved by the beautiful Byzantine architecture and I was overwhelmed by a sense of smallness yet oneness with a higher power or a presence with God. This leads me back to the lessons I learned in my family’s churches -- service to the community and people in need. Religion teaches service to the needy is a tenement of service to God (to give of yourself is an essential lesson). The group then walked three blocks to the Istanbul headquarters of IHH. Our visit was very informative and I was surprised to look up during the meeting and to see a white dove flapping its wings as it landed on the roof.
Later, we met with one of our professor’s friends for dinner. He is self-taught and acquired a great deal of knowledge for over fifteen years in the art of calligraphy. While he’s finishing his formal education, he’s playing the role of ad hoc coordinator for medical professionals and services for organizations aiding individuals displaced by the conflict in Syria.
After a brief dinner, an invitation to attend a “tekke” (a Sufi lodge) for Zikir was extended to the entire group. I was deeply moved by the welcoming brotherhood of dervishes, the Jerrahi-Halveti. When we entered the small room of about forty men they were chanting the name of God in unison. The rhythmic chant was hypnotic and rejuvenating as the tempo slowly increased and decreased. The sheikh pointed to us during the ceremony and motioned for us to join in the ritual through hand gestures. He would halt chanting between recitations to instruct on the finer details of the practice; he exuded a paternal love through his teachings. During a break, the sheikh kindly answered our questions and we humbly accepted their hospitality of tea, dates and conversation. Our host ‘Jem’ translated from Turkish to English with a small amount of Arabic being the common language. The experience was beautiful and humbling. We stayed with them and prayed after the ritual ended at midnight. Our host was kind enough to drive us back to our dormitory on the other side of the Bosphorus. Even though I didn’t sleep very much, I woke the next morning rejuvenated and refreshed with a new perspective on peace through humanity and religion.
As I write, I am still awed by the sense of community and welcoming warmth I felt throughout day. It makes me consider my secular and individualistic views and appreciate the role religion plays in uniting a community of individuals. With this experience in mind, I will end with the thought: What role does religion play when providing humanitarian aide in uncertain times? Religion provides a moral compass for communities to follow through to the resolution of crisis and conflict.