Patron's Tour Istanbul 2022

Published June 23, 2022 by Rick Sopher


"Turkey is a secular country." Really? A few days in Istanbul with the Woolf Institute, Cambridge exploring religious and social relations showed that while that statement may have been legally correct as a result of Atatürk's 1928 legislation, in reality it is simply not true today.

Our trip, arranged by the Institute and comprising a small group of Jews, Christians and Muslims, both Sunni and Shi'a, showed us that religion pervades nearly everything in Turkey: its rich history, contemporary politics, social relations and prospects for the future all have a strong religious dimension. For although 99% of Turks recognise themselves as Muslim, their religiosity, ethnicity and many other elements vary greatly. We also found that the remaining 1%, including Jews and Christians, have a significance far greater than their numbers.

It is quite fitting therefore that the Woolf Institute, which is dedicated to fostering good relations between Judaism, Christianity and Islam and between religion and society in general should visit Turkey. First of all, as Rabbi Mendy Chitrik explained on our arrival, Harran in East Turkey is where Abraham discovered God. It is where it all started.

Meeting the charming Hakham Bashi (Chief Rabbi)

Hakham is Hebrew for "wise man" (or "scholar"), while başı is Turkish for "head". It is a position created in 1453 by Sultan Mehmet II following his conquest of Istanbul and gave legal powers to self-governing minority communities. The position today is held by Isaac Haleva, who hosted and charmed us all.

The Jews in Istanbul are certainly a minority - some 15,000 in the whole of Turkey - the population of Istanbul is now some 17 million. Jews in Turkey are barely even a statistical error on the size of the total population. Yet their historical and continued presence, even if now on the wane, can be felt. It was explained to us that the reference to the exiles from Jerusalem who were in סְפָרַד (sefarad) in the Book of Obadiah 1.20 was referring to Sardis, near Izmir, meaning that Jews have lived in Turkey for some 2,000 years.

Haleva was appointed at a ceremony at the Neve Shalom synagogue, a place twice bombed, which has a neat museum showing the movements of the Jewish people into and out of Turkey. We also visited the Akhrida synagogue, a much older one with a central reading desk, called a Tevah in the shape of an ark.

The Hakham Bashi showed great interest in the work of the Woolf Institute, including its "Living in Harmony" music project, asked for an explanation of the muqaṭṭaʿāt or disconnected letters ا ل م (or A-L-M) that appear at the start of the second sura of the Qur'an Sūrat al-Baqara and pointed out that the Qur'an recognises difference as part of the divine plan by referring to the passage "He made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another"(Qur'an 49:13).

He sits on the "Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States" (what a lovely name, helped along by the Abraham Accords). Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, an enterprising Rabbi from the Chabad movement, is the founder and chairman, as he was proud to tell us. Its first meeting was attended by President Erdogan and included Rabbis from the UAE, Iran, Turkey and all the "Stans".

Mystic Sufis and Mystic Jews

Sufism has been described as Islamic mysticism. Participants claim to form an unbroken chain back to the Prophet Mohammed, through his son-in-law Ali. It is a way of approaching Islam, not a religion in itself. It is focused on dhikr, remembrance of God, murāqaba, meditation, singing and whirling. And they certainly do a lot of whirling - 3552 rotations in an hour, the whirling here representing turning around your heart, where God resides, rather than around any physical object. Salafi and Wahabi Islam is opposed to it, regarding Sufi veneration of their saints and their birthdays as shirk, polytheistic. The Republic of Turkey banned all Sufi orders and abolished their institutions in 1925, so the whirling dervishes we saw were treated as a form of art, like a ballet performance, rather than a religious order.

The Mevlewī Sufi order was founded in 1273 by Rumi's followers after his death. Rumi spoke highly of the Qur'an and tawhīd, the unity of God. But he also had a broad outlook, saying in relation to Qur’an 21:107 "The Light of Muhammad does not abandon a Zoroastrian or Jew in the world. May the shade of his good fortune shine upon everyone! He brings all of those who are led astray into the Way out of the desert." Sufism has had a following in Judaism. Bahya ibn Pakuda's Hovot Halevavot bears its influence and Maimonides' son Abraham admired Sufism. This probably led to the prevalence of mysticism in some forms of Judaism and especially the mystics of Safed.

Shabbetai Zevi

Shabbetai Zevi (1626-1676) claimed to be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah but, more likely in my opinion, was delusional and caused those around him including the authorities to be quite unsettled. He was banished from every place he settled in including Istanbul, Salonica and Jerusalem. In 1666 he was given three choices: prove his divinity, be impaled, or convert to Islam. But even after converting he was banished by the Constantinople authorities. He was widely followed, and many believed in him, but he was also strongly contested by Jewish authorities such as Hacham David Nieto of London, who were against his brand of mysticism. A few groups called dönme (Turkish for convert), or Sabbateans, apparently follow his practises today, though the ones we saw were in the cemetery. Apparently Sabbateans started to reappear recently when they found that their Sephardi heritage might entitle them to a Portuguese EU passport.

There is no mandate in Islam for forced conversion. That is not to say it didn't happen, but forced conversion is definitely un-Islamic. We may therefore treat Shabbetai Zevi's supposed "forced conversion" history as an exceptional case resulting from his pretence to be the Messiah, which he had failed to prove. He remains an enigma.

The Ecumenical Patriarch

For someone who is head of 350 million Christians, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople’s Istanbul abode seems quite understated from the outside. His very humble and approachable nature, speaking gently with each of us, patting our friend's baby's head with his rod, and generally exuding warmth explained why everyone we had met in Istanbul has a good word to say about him.

He is known for his pioneering work on relations outside his own patriarchy and had attended the inauguration of Pope Francis in 2013, the first time that the Spiritual Head of Eastern Orthodox Christians had done so since the "Great Schism" in 1054. Though when he explained his work to us, listing all the various denominations of Christianity he had reached out to, it seemed to me that he had his hands full with dialogue within Christianity. He was pleased to introduce us to one of his assistants who was doing a PhD in Cardiff University on unifying churches.

In October 2018 the synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate agreed to grant "autocephaly" (independence) to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, to reestablish a "stauropegion" (autonomous unit) of the ecumenical patriarch in Kyiv. These words are complex and the situation seems equally complex, but essentially the Patriarch helped the Ukrainian Church to break away from the Russian Church, a bigger subject than we had time to properly discuss with him.

Hagia Sophia Mosque

The Hagia Sophia is bewildering. First a pagan place, then Christian, then since 1453 a mosque, then a museum and now, since 2020, a functioning mosque. The Christian symbols have not been erased but they have been covered up. This includes by sheets over the Christian imagery on the wall in the direction of Jerusalem, which might offend Muslims praying in the direction of Mecca, only about 10 degrees further to the East. A nice guide explained that Islam owned the Christian heritage and so would try not to efface its symbols.

Nevertheless, Shaykh Ibrahim, sensitive as usual to such issues, asked why they couldn't have allocated a prayer hall for Christians when they opened the mosque in 2020. No answer yet.

The walls of the mosque also illustrate much within Islam, for alongside the circular displays of the names of Allah, and Muhammad, the names of Ali, Hassan and Husayn were also included. This says much about the influence of characters revered primarily by Shi'a, even within a Sunni mosque.

Refugees, Music and Living in Harmony

Refugees: the film called Sessiz Istila (Silent Invasion) depicts a vision of Istanbul in 2043, where hospital workers complained to their parents that speaking Turkish at work was forbidden because the staff and patients only spoke Arabic. Turkey, with a population of 84 million, hosts the world's largest refugee population - Syrians, plus some Afghans, and most recently Ukranians and Russians; local friends informally estimate the number of immigrants in Turkey at 8 million. They get free entry into university (locals don't) and healthcare on the state. Politicians campaign on the grounds of sending these refugees back to where they came from. It is a tense situation. Can music play a useful part in diffusing it?

Music is a powerful mode of expression and we enjoyed some marvellously poignant moments of music on our trip. Living next to the Turkish embassy in London, I am well aware of the power of Turkish protest music as protesters sometimes come with loudspeakers and sing along to songs like Grupo Yorum’s Bu Mahalle Bizim.

A Syrian refugee we visited in Istanbul has established a musical refuge where Syrian refugees come and play music and, rather movingly, he introduces them there to local Turkish musicians. In one quite brilliant moment, we watched a Syrian refugee sing along with a local Turkish woman whom she had barely met, alternately sing the Arabic and Turkish words of a tune they apparently both new.

They then played Qadduq al-Miyyas, a famous Syrian song popularised by Sabakh Fakhri, which contains the words "You are the most beautiful in my eyes", something which could have been said about these warm spirited musicians.

The musical event, conducted in a wonderfully warm atmosphere, was a fitting display of the Woolf Institute's "Living in Harmony" project, which has been running for the past few years and in its latest form has involved presentations in schools. Research by Dunya Habash for this project had included work with these refugee musicians.

The traffic

A logistical difficulty was the traffic in Istanbul and the difficulty of accessing the bridges, narrow streets and generally getting anywhere on time. Fortunately the time in the minibus was good for intimate conversations between us, and also - a great highlight - Mohammed Ahmed's outstanding recital of a passage of Arabic using seven different maqāmat (musical scales).

Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk, the first Turkish Nobel Prizewinner, reminds us to treasure every experience. Why else would you mount a display of 4,200 cigarette stubs that your lover had discarded? He has campaigned for freedom of speech in Turkey, and judging by the taxi drivers readiness to offer their views, his campaign seems to have been successful.

Freedom of speech

Quite unlike in China, Russia or the much of the Middle East, people seem unafraid to talk freely in Istanbul, especially taxi drivers, who readily shared their strong opinions.

The hijab

Such was the intimacy and purpose of our group that two researchers from the Woolf Institute agreed to share their stories about how it feels as a woman to wear the hijab, or not, as social pressures can apply in both circumstances.

Our group was sympathetic to the pressures on women to wear or not to wear it; Shaykh Ibrahim thought that, if anything, it was the onlookers and not the wearers who should be blamed, for applying pressure on women; Professor Abdulla mentioned the notion that "the best clothing is piety" (Qur'an 7:26). A very rough estimate is that 30-40% of Istanbul's women wear the hijab, but that the proportion has peaked and, if anything, is declining.

The President, Finance and Social Issues

While we were not undertaking a political review, it was impossible to conduct our encounters without asking and hearing about President Erdogan and his government. The taxi drivers views (admittedly a very limited and narrowly based sample) were universally negative, either because they thought the President had abused religion to further his political aims (causing one formerly religious Muslim to recently become atheist) or because they were Kurds who felt suppressed under him. Some Turkish business friends who hosted us called Erdogan "kurnaz", which means something like "sly". Of course such issues are complex and we did hear praise from a remarkable Turkish entrepreneur young lady (who sits on a Presidential Council) for Erdogan's encouraging enterprise.

Turkey's currency, and possibly its entire financial system seems to be heading toward crisis. The Turkish Lira has halved in value over the past 6 months and inflation is running at around 60%. But that is perhaps already irrelevant as nobody seems to have any effective local currency exposure any more. This is because deposits in Lira at banks are now offered in "currency protected" form, which would normally require the bank to hold foreign currency against the deposit.

The Lira has therefore become a currency which is only used "in transit". Add to this the government's last ditch media program to encourage people to exchange the gold under their bed for bank deposits, now ineffective due to the currency protection and a financial crisis seems very probable, possibly after the 2023 elections. And we know that financial crises can test the social cohesion of society, which in Turkey seems rather fragile already.


The position of Jews in Turkey

Extracts from a speech given by Rick Sopher at Friday evening dinner at Or Yom, the Istanbul Jewish Community's old peoples' home, 3 June 2022


The portion of the Torah that is read this week is called "Bamidbar"[1], which means "in the wilderness" and the question can be asked why, if it took the Children of Israel only 49 days to travel the 700 km from Egypt to Mount Sinai, did it take as much as 40 years to travel the shorter distance, from Mount Sinai to the "Holy Land"[2]. The answer is that the generation that left Egypt were not considered worthy, or ready, to see the Land[3].

And living "in the wilderness", or in exile, not being allowed to live freely as Jews in the Holy Land has been the situation of the Jewish people for long periods. Jews have been able to live freely in the Holy Land as their home for only one-third of the time[4] between the building of the Temple in Jerusalem and today. This condition, of living for two-thirds of that time in the diaspora, or as a minority in lands ruled by others, has made the Jewish people very sensitive to the way in which they are treated by host nations and peoples.

Jews have lived in Turkey since the "Romaniote" Jews arrived in around 250 BCE[5] and today's Jewish population of around 15,000 also includes vestiges of Ashkenazi Jews who travelled from East Europe from the 1300s. But by far the main source of Jews living in Turkey came from Spain and Portugal in the years after they were expelled from those countries, in 1492 and 1496 respectively.

The Sephardi Jewish refugees

Of the 165,000 Jews that fled Iberia, some 90,000 went to Ottoman lands. And since Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1492 had a population of only 70,000, we can surmise that Jewish refugees may have perhaps reached 30% of the population of the City. The Ottoman Empire had encouraged such immigration and, as we saw in the museum in the Neve Shalom synagogue, the Jewish immigrants brought with them considerable skills including medicine, using a printing press and were able to contribute to Ottoman society in many other ways. Yet however useful the Jews might have been, any society that has an influx of refugees over a short period as high as 30% of its population (as we know from Turkey today, where refugees have reached 10% of the population) can be considered likely to have a "refugee crisis". How did the Ottoman Empire, led by its Muslim Sultans, treat these Jewish refugees?

The Qur'an, Jews, banishment, settlement and protection

The Qur'an speaks a lot about Jews. It talks about the tensions and battles at the time of Muhammad and there is indeed a sura (chapter) of the Qur'an named al-hashr meaning "the exile" which refers to the banishment from Medina of a Jewish tribe that opposed Muhammad in the 620s. But it also includes statements about the way in which Jews are to be treated eternally, not limited to such a particular historic event or period.

The all-important verse in the Qur'an defining how Muslims should treat Jews is the 29th verse of chapter 9, which is called at-tawba meaning "the Repentance".

قتِلُوا الَّذِينَ لَا يُؤْمِنُونَ بِاللَّهِ وَلَا بِالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ وَلَا يُحَرِّمُونَ مَا حَرَّمَ اللَّهُ

وَرَسُولُهُ وَلَا يَدِينُونَ دِينَ الْحَقِّ مِنَ الَّذِينَ أُوتُوا الْكِتَابَ حَتَّىٰ يُعْطُوا الْجِزْيَةَ عَن يَدٍ وَهُمْ صَاغِرُونَ

Fight those who do not believe in God or in the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what God and His Messenger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth from those who were given the Scripture - [fight] until they give the jizyah willingly while they are humbled.

Qur'an 9:29

Many Jews today have a negative impression of their family's experience in Muslim lands, which is perhaps understandable, especially in the case of those whose families had to leave Arab countries over the past 100 years. They can have the impression that the jizya was a tax on Jews, at times heavily onerous, and that their dhimmi status represented a solely negative and humiliating experience. But from the 117 references in the Qur'an to the word "jizya", while it is commonly translated as tax, it is clear that it means something given or received in exchange for something. And although the status of dhimma ( ذِمَّةً), might have felt at times like being a humiliated underclass, the use of this word in the Qur’an as well as in the Constitution of Medina[6] also means "protection"[7].

If we look over a longer period of the condition of Jews in Muslim countries, and not just at the most recent 100 year period, we find a different, more encouraging story. In practice, the Jews fleeing persecution from Catholic Spain did receive both encouragement and "protection" in the Ottoman Empire, at least most of the time and in most places.

Encouragement to settle

Sultan Mehmed II had actually encouraged the Jews to settle in the Empire, declaring in the 1550s::

"God has granted me many a country and has ordered me to look after the bloodline of Abraham and Jacob, to provide them with food, and to protect them. Who amongst you would like to come to the capital, Istanbul, God willing, and live in this city and live in peace in the shadow of vineyards and figs, deal in free trade, and own estates and prosperity?"

The Qur'an, used as an affirmation of the settlement

And despite the large numbers of Jews that had taken refuge in the Ottoman Empire in the ensuing years, an Ottoman fermān edict issued in 1602 by Sultan Mehmed III was specifically rooted in the Qur’an and provides protection for Jews, It read[8]:

"Since, in accordance with what Almighty God the Lord of the Universe commanded in His manifest book (the Qur'an) concerning the communities of Jews and Christians who are people of the dhimma, their protection …is a perpetual and collective duty of the generality of Muslims ….therefore it is necessary and important that my exalted and religiously inspired concern be directed to ensure that …these communities pay the tax to me and that they should live in tranquility and peace of mind and go about their business and no-one shall prevent them…in contravention of the Holy Law of the Prophet."

The 1603 pledge was renewed 3 times in the following 150 years. It was an important declaration which assured the Jewish residents in the Ottoman Empire their security and, remarkably, this very security was derived from the verses of the Qur'an.

Ironically, the beginning of the end for Jews in Muslim lands can be traced back to 1856, when the Ottoman Sultan had made all its citizens equal. Sultan Abd al-Majid allowed the Jews to become an autonomous and self-organising body, and the jizya payments were abolished. This meant that the dhimmi system came to an end, which ironically was not necessarily a good thing for Jews.

But before that happened, there had been hundreds, if not thousands of years where the Jews had lived in Turkey and in Muslim lands, continuously, and in relatively secure conditions, because the leaders had invoked the Qur'an, "playing by the book" in the best way, to assure the Jews protection.

A Jewish blessing for a Muslim Sultan

It was for that reason that I was moved to remember Sultan Mehmed III, and the protection he had given Jews in his 1603 fermān, issued shortly before he died. After explaining my purpose to the authorities at the Haghia Sophia mosque, they especially opened up the tomb section for us and I was able to recite a memorial prayer for Sultan Mehmed III.


The Qur'an has been good for the Jews that lived in Muslim lands. And, noting the resettlement of Jews in the UAE following the Abraham Accords, perhaps it can be again in the future. In Ottoman times, this protected treatment was explicitly based on the Qur'anic verse 9:29 cited above. The sentiment of that verse can also be felt in the following verses:

لَا إِكْرَاهَ فِي الدِّينِ

لَكُمْ دِينُكُمْ وَلِيَ دِينِ

la ikrāha fi l-dīn

lakum dīnukum wa liya dīni

There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion

For you is your religion, and for me is my religion

Qur'an 2:256; 109:6

The Encounter

One of the beautiful aspects of such a trip is the encounter, not just with locals, but with each other. By the end of a few days, our very mixed bunch of travellers had become like a family unit, all the more so when Shaykh Ibrahim announced at breakfast on the final day that he had just become a grandfather. The baby girl's name is to be Lianna, which we noted had a beautiful resonance in Hebrew as li 'ana can mean "God answered me". This announcement also resonated with us because a few years ago, Shaykh Ibrahim had promised to record a podcast in discussion with me about Abraham in faith traditions, along with Dr Ed Kessler. But on the day, Shaykh Ibrahim had to meet the potential in-laws of his son at their home in Leicester. Showing amazing dedication, he nevertheless managed both the important family meeting in Leicester and also to record the podcast with us in Cambridge and a few days later the engagement was announced. The baby Lianna is the first dividend from that union.

We learnt the value of listening to each other, as emphasised by the Hacham Bashi, who said that hearing was often the least used of the five senses. He also pointed out that the Hebrew for "ear" אֺזֶן ('ozen) and "balance/equilibrium" אִזוּן (‘izūn) were related. Our Muslim friends drew attention to Arabic translations أزن (‘uzn) and وازن (wazn), showing that the Hebrew and Arabic words for "ear" and "balance" all share the same root.

Our hosts in Turkey and indeed all we met were extraordinarily hospitable and welcoming. As we were parting ways at the end of a wonderful few days, Shaykh Ibrahim left us with a thought: the Muslim condition, just as we received it in Turkey, is one of "hospitality". When thinking about Muslims, can we please recall the Muslim hospitality that we had experienced, rather than the bad acts of a very small minority of Muslims? That seemed a very reasonable request to me.

From left to right:

Uli Boden, Pilar, Trixie Brenninkmeijer, Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, Eileen Boden, Fatma Galadari, A. Professor Abdullah Galadari (Khalifa University, Abu Dhabi), Carol Sopher, Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner (Woolf Institute Executive Director), the Hacham Bashi Ishak Haleva, Dr Ed Kessler (Woolf Institute Founder President), Rick Sopher, Deniz Baler Saporta (Director Hacham's office), Mohammed Ahmed, Dunya Habash, Ahmed Zaidi, Ugur Sevgili.

On the Bosphorous

Opening reception at the British Consul

hosted by Kenan Poleo, Consul

[1] Numbers 1.1 to 4.20

[2] The expression "Holy Land" may have appeared first in the Qur'an where it is referred to as il-arḍ il-muqadas for example at Qur'an 5:21 where Moses instruction to the Children of Israel is recorded "O my people, enter the Holy Land which God has assigned to you and do not turn back and become losers".

[3] "No-one who has treated me with contempt will ever see the land" Num 14.23.

[4] From the First Temple in 957 BCE to 2022 CE.

[5] The reference to the exiles from Jerusalem who were in סְפָרַד (sepharad) in the Book of Obadiah 1.20 was referring to Sardis, near Izmir, meaning that Jews have lived in Turkey for some 2,000 years.

[6] Known as mithāq al-madīna.

[7] As in Qur'an 9:8, 9:10.

[8] From Bernard Lewis The Jews of Islam p40.

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