It could be fairly said that the entire old city of Istanbul is a mosque. Enormous, stone Islamic places of worship dot the city map—often only a few blocks apart. Five times a day, the prayers begin with chanting in Arabic broadcast over loud speakers that reach far beyond the walls of each individual mosque. In many places, young Muslim men can be seen pausing their work, laying out small personal carpets, and kneeling to offer their homage to Allah. Those who are more secular or follow non-Islamic faiths or no faith at all go on about their business, working, selling, constructing, and touristing, but no one escapes the sound of the prayers being repeated from mosque to mosque to mosque.
I had thought of the Islamic Call to Prayer as just a sounding of a horn or bell to alert everyone that it was time and summon them to prayer. I’m not sure where I got that idea, but it reveals my ignorance of Islam. Although I have read the history of Islam and its tenants and even taught comparative religions, as we moved among people living out their day-to-day Muslim faith, Aspen and I often observed what they were doing and wondered why or puzzled over what it meant. Our constant questions highlighted for me how little I really know about Islam.
The Call to Prayer (“Adhan” in Arabic) is spoken words. I was surprised to hear the prayers transmitted over loud speakers (and they were very loud) from every mosque in the city. It was an audio event that became so routine we quickly began to mark the time by it: “Oh, it must be 5:00.” The five-times-per-day call punctuated our travels throughout Turkey and Jordan and even Israel, where the sound of the prayers from the Dome of the Rock echoed off the stones of the courtyard as the Jews chanted their own prayers at the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem.
On our first whole day in Istanbul, Aspen and I visited the most famous mosque in the city, the Hagia Sophia Cammi (“cammi" is the Turkish word for mosque). It was the oldest building I had ever been in at that time (though I would step into much older ones before the end of our trip). It was built in 537 by Christian Emperor, Justinian I, as the patriarchal church of Constantinople. It remained the largest Eastern Orthodox church in the Byzantine Empire for over 900 years. After Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire, it was repurposed as a mosque in 1453. Most Christian symbols were removed and replaced with geometric Islamic artwork and flowing Arabic calligraphy. It served as a mosque until 1935, when the Secular Republic of Turkey was established, and the Hagia Sophia was repurposed again, this time as a museum. In 2020, as part of a government effort to re-Islamicize Turkiye, it became, once again, a mosque.
Walking into Hagia Sophia was an oddly neutral experience for me. I have visited many ancient cathedrals which drew my eyes upward and my heart into a sense of Divine awe, but I had no such feeling there. That made sense to me since this was not my place of worship, and these were not my symbols. It was, however, a place of great beauty, and it held a peaceful air.
Women were required to wear modest clothing and to cover their heads (before coming, I’d bought a lavender scarf for this purpose). If a woman had no scarf, a black covering was sold to her at the entrance. We saw the Muslim visitors go through a ceremonial washing of their feet before going inside, but we westerners were merely asked to remove our shoes.
Based on the requirements for entrance, I expected some kind of strict guidelines or rules for visitors inside, but the atmosphere was relaxed. We were all welcomed by signs into the “men’s section" and allowed to mill about, looking at the impressive architecture and ancient artwork. The green carpet beneath our stockinged feet was plush and soft and invited sitting, which many people did in singles and pairs and bigger groups throughout the enormous hall. Photographs and videos were permitted, and people spoke openly to their companions, some in hushed whispers, but many in normal conversational tones. Some even shared their experience with absent friends on their cell phones. Even with many people conversing, the room was not noisy; the carpet soaked up the sound, giving each group acoustic privacy.
Aspen and I looked all around, took many pictures, and appreciated the magnificent architecture. Then we, too, sat down on the floor in a corner. I told God that I wasn’t sure how I felt about hanging out in a mosque. The truth was I didn’t feel anything unusual. I’ve been in places where the touch of the Divine was unmistakable, drawing me irresistibly into prayer. I’ve visited other locations which were pervaded by an intense sense of evil—places that I vacated as quickly as possible. This was neither. It was stunningly beautiful, yet unexpectedly comfortable; fascinating, but not awe-inspiring.
Hagia Sophia and its sister across the plaza, The Blue Mosque, were massive structures, yet as impressive as they were, they were only tiny contributors to the much bigger collective mosque that sent its call out over the city. As I watched devout Muslims pause their work to pray five times each day, I was reminded of the Medieval practice of praying the hours. Monastics, like the Muslims (though I doubt they would have appreciated the comparison), paused in their daily tasks to pray and sing and worship each time the church bells rang in one of the prayer hours throughout the day and night. I found myself reflecting on my own struggles to consistently bring God into the everyday moments of my life.
For years I have tried to follow the lead of Brother Lawrence in Practicing the Presence of God (1) through constant conversation with Him. I’ve attempted to join Thomas Kelly in what he calls simultaneity: “Conducting our inward life so that we are perpetually bowed in worship, while we are also very busy in the world of daily affairs”(2). Sometimes I can maintain this constant connection with God for short periods, but eventually, the world draws all of my attention, and I forget to notice His Presence until He send something to remind me again. Why is it so difficult for me to incorporate such regularity?
Do I want my relationship with God to be prescribed into a series of have-to times? Not really. And yet my freedom to notice him whenever and wherever I wish often seems to degenerate into neglecting instead of noticing. Would a habit of prayer like I watched the Muslims follow become rote repetition, or would it facilitate fresh recognition of God’s Presence and increased constancy in my relationship with Him?
Living in a city that becomes a place of worship five times a day leads the Muslims I watched toward a persistent devotion to God as they know Him. They quite literally work, play, sleep, eat, love, struggle, learn, and live inside their church. Without the external call to prayer that they experience daily, how can I live perpetually in a cathedral that encompasses my home, my work, my rest, my friendships, and my life and continually draws my eyes and my heart up to an awareness of the God who never leaves me?
1 Brother Lawrence, Practicing the Presence of God.
2 Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion.