Stepping off the plane in Istanbul in the wee hours of the morning all I could think of was getting into my cozy bed even though I knew my destination was a Sufi Lodge. I was about to be a Muslim for a Month.
Would a cozy bed feature in such an adventure? What other physical and mental discomforts would be in store for me? Oh dear! I lay back against the car seat as we whizzed along the motorway from the airport and decided to give it all up to God, or whoever. After all, I was here to learn the answers to these questions, and, as it turned out, many others I hadn’t yet learned to ask.
The Muslim for a Month program runs, with poetic license, for nine days. Accommodation is at a Sufi Lodge near the famous Eyüp Mosque, a place of great importance to Muslims. The Lodge itself is basic, but very comfortable. There is the large dining kitchen where we start and end our days. Often times a lecturer will stay for dinner, or join us for tea before an evening talk at our lecture room. Families and friends of our hosts, and soon ours, were always dropping by to visit.
The nuts and bolts of the program are varied between authentic cultural experiences, tourist sites, immersion in Islamic daily life and lectures from Muslim scholars, journalists and ordinary people with interesting stories. For example, we were lucky enough to have two lecturers from the West come to tell us of their experiences. One was a Muslim who was born and raised in Canada, now living in Istanbul and the second an English woman who converted to Islam as an adult. Scholars gave us a more formal introduction to the ins and outs of Islam. Several other lecturers talked about their lives as Muslims and how their faith helps them to view and interact with the world.
Because that is what it is all about, in the end: religion influences culture, which is the brush used to paint the interpretation of a “God” or “higher being(s),” which in turn influences how people live their daily lives, which is the building blocks of culture, which paints faith…which came first? The Prayer or the Faithful?
Even a tourist with no religious inkling cannot avoid the Muslim rhythm of the city, with the call to prayer singing out five times a day. I couldn’t help but notice that the people we met cited God or the example of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as the inspiration for their generosity and kindness. I have heard others in my life citing all kinds of reasons for their generosity and kindness. Whatever your excuse, I find that the goodness in people shines through if allowed; this is equal for the badness.
Our group took excursions to famous mosques and sacred sights in Istanbul, Bursa, Edirne and Konya, Rumi’s hometown. Personally, I found the beauty of the architecture more astonishing because I now understood why they are built the way they are, not just in an intellectual way, as might be explained by a tour guide, but in a deep way, as if I had a pocket in the brickwork all to myself. I felt a part of it.
I did not feel this way because I had learned to put on a headscarf in such a way as it didn’t fall off, or that I knew the mechanics of prayer, but because I had seen and felt God around and within me. Whether or not a person doing such a tour “believes” in God or not is irrelevant. All of humanity is aware of that special feeling and connection to others that we are lucky enough to catch glimpses of in moments of weakness we perhaps don’t want others to see. Maybe we only think it is a weakness because we are somehow ashamed for others to see that we are not a strong island; when the truth is we are all parts of the brickwork, stronger and more beautiful together.
My personal thought is that such immersions in other faiths do not share so-called organized religions, it shares God from a new perspective. One thing that each and every member of our group found was that seeing and tasting another faith in practice made them return to their own faith with new eyes. We all found things we had never seen before, right there in front of us all along. Our discussions soon moved from the basic foundations of Islam, to the nature of God and life on a level that transcended individual religious traditions. Even the atheists in our group were able to participate in conversations and debates without difficulty.
Muslims do not believe that God created Man in His image. To them the idea degrades God, who is formless, infinite and all encompassing. To them there is no separation between anyone and anything. We Jews, Christians, Atheists and Unsure together learned this and created bonds and friendships for life. As for me, well, I experience God strongest through horses. Even though it is “Muslim for a Month,” the experience stays with you for life.
(Carol Doyle, 27, is a horse trainer and massage therapist from Dublin, Ireland. She participated in the February 2011 Muslim for a Month program, affectionately called the “Pioneer Program” by the group.)