Cats in Mosques, Seeds on the Ground: The Inner Mosque of the Human Heart

Thursday, January 21, 2016 - 6:29am
Photo by Luca Moglia

Cats in Mosques, Seeds on the Ground: The Inner Mosque of the Human Heart

Winter is coming.
Winter is coming.

No, it is not about Game of Thrones. It’s the real winter. And it’s coming.

Winter to me is special. It means snow falling in that enchanting, silent way. Snow reminds me of God’s grace, covering all in a way reminiscent of God’s mercy.

There are two touching stories this week about kindness in the wintertime. Stories of human beings reaching out in simple acts of compassion that affirm my faith in kindness.

The first story is about the new imam (minister, prayer leader) of the Aziz Mahmud Hüdayi Mosque in the Üsküdar neighborhood of Istanbul. The mosque is named after a famed Sufi saint, Aziz Mahmud Hüdayi.

Many foreign travelers to Istanbul note how pet-friendly the city is. Many shops have kittens, whose overpowering cuteness helps to bring in tourists. These “cuteness traps” are part of the whole experience of visiting, living, and shopping in Istanbul. Even some of the historical monuments have their own cats, such as the famed cat of Hagia Sophia, so famous it has its own Tumblr account and Buzzfeed report.

Gli, the famed resident cat of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, greets visitors to the mosque.

(Dan / FlickrSome rights reserved.)

The imam of the Aziz Mahmud Hüdayi mosque noted that winter was coming, and the stray cats of Istanbul had no place to go in the snowy winter. So he opened the door of his beautiful, carpeted mosque to the neighborhood cats so that they could come into the mosque during the cold wintertime. This kind imam, Mustafa Efe, decided to do so not out of commitment to a Western notion of animal rights, but to fulfill his sense of what it means to be a devoted Muslim. He remembers, as do many Muslims, that the mercy of God is linked to the way that we treat God’s creation. These friends remember the legacy of the Prophet, having said:

“Be aware of God in your treatment of animals.”

The imam of the mosque shared these stories on his own social media account. The story seems to have caught on, and then some. There are now more stories on the way about this tender-hearted Muslim imam's treatment of the cats than there are about the history of the mosque itself! Some of the videos of these cats have earned more than a million views. I looked at thousands of people sharing the stories of this imam online. (Of course, cats rule the internet.)

Gli the cat perches beside a marble jar in the Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul, Turkey.

(Agnes Chang / FlickrSome rights reserved.)
Winter is coming.
Winter is coming.

The story is not a solitary one. A few days ago I was reminded when a friend posted a note on social media about an old tradition in Ottoman societies (today’s Turkey, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Bosnia, Greece, etc.). Whenever it snows, people go to the top of a mountain and scatter seeds for birds. The reason is as simple as it is immediate: birds are creatures of God. And as the Prophet said, if you want the All-Merciful God to show you mercy, show mercy to the creation of the All-Merciful.

A Palestinian friend of mine posted this story about this tradition of feeding birds, attributed back to the Muslim Caliph ‘Umar ibn ‘Abdul Aziz as following:

“Go and spread seeds on the tops of mountains —
may the birds not die of starvation in a Muslim country.”

May the cats not die of cold. May the birds not die of starvation.

Men feed pigeons in Istanbul, Turkey.

(Alexander Kuznetsov / FlickrSome rights reserved.)

This outpouring of compassion brought me back around to the very species showing kindness in this beautiful and generous way: human beings.

I thought of the millions of human refugees — in Turkey, in Lebanon, in Jordan, in Europe. Millions internally displaced in Syria. May the human homeless, the human poor, the human hungry, the human refugee not be neglected in any country.

Winter is coming.
Winter is coming.

No, I am not interested in pitting us humans against cats. This is not a zero-sum game of compassion for humanity vs. compassion for cats and birds. Our hearts are big enough.

We have enough seeds, 
enough warmth, 
enough kindness, 
enough shelter, 
    for all of us.

I know that there is something in us that calls for direct, urgent compassion. We see the need, and want to meet the need.

So long as the urge to shelter that cat remains, something of humanity remains in us. So long as we scatter seeds on the snow for the birds, we remain worthy of the name human.

That desire is beautiful.  
    The compassion, divine.

And how divine to keep extending it, keep expanding it, ‘til no one, no group, no family, is left outside.

A stray cat at the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey.

(Garrett Ziegler / FlickrSome rights reserved.)

Again, the Prophet Muhammad said if we are not moved by the suffering of another, we are unworthy of the name human. The Persian poet Sa‘di took Muhammad’s saying and wrote it in the introduction of his masterful piece, the Golestan (Rose Garden):

Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul.

If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.

If you have no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain.

So, yes, friends… the real mosques that have to be opened up are not merely the ones in Istanbul, but the inner “mosques” of the human hearts. It is these mosques that have to be barged open, so that every creature shivering in the coldness of lacking in affection can find shelter inside.

Let us open the doors of our hearts, and take each other in.
Let’s cast the seeds of compassion
Here,
There,

Until every bird/spirit 
  Can find its sustenance.

Then we will usher in a new spring
Where love’s blossoms will flower.

A pair of stray cats before the Istanbul skyline.

(Lassi Kurkijärvi / FlickrSome rights reserved.)
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Omid Safi

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York Times, Newsweek, Washington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads an educational tour every summer to Turkey, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trip is open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

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23Reflections

Reflections

Omid Safi, you keep astonishing me with the beauty of your words. The ones you use here were so perfect for this day. As many of us here in the U.S. face another onslaught of extreme winter weather, our feathered and furry friends are fighting their own battles to survive.

But what about the cold and hungry dogs? And camels, donkeys, mules, and horses?

Yes, yes to compassion for all.

"So long as the urge to shelter that cat remains, something of humanity remains in us. So long as we scatter seeds on the snow for the birds, we remain worthy of the name human.

That desire is beautiful.
The compassion, divine.
And how divine to keep extending it, keep expanding it, ‘til no one, no group, no family, is left outside."

Those words are so beautiful and true. I am reminded of the Metta or Loving -Kindness meditation I do so often and about which your co-contributer Sharon Salzberg quite literally wrote the book.
May all beings be safe and happy. May all beings be healthy. May all beings know love and peace. May all beings be free.
Keep opening, keep expanding and allow no being to be left behind.
Lovely.

Dear Michelle, Amen, Amen....

We’ll, I’ve learnt today that a fondness for cats – which I used to think connected the British and the Turks – in fact divides us. And that my attitude towards animals, indeed, has an ideological complexion that I wasn't even aware of before - a dubious ‘Western notion of animal rights’ that the new Imam of the Aziz Mahmud Hüdayi Camii apparently doesn’t want to have anything to do with. (Perhaps there’s some implicit ‘Islamophobia’ in there?) I’m afraid all this just makes me lament the passing of dear old Mustafa Düzgünman, who used to let us into the saint’s tomb, who would never have thought in terms of such a specious ‘Muslim exceptionalism’. And doesn’t this need to attribute the Imam’s treatment of the cats to ‘a sense of what it means to be a devoted Muslim’ actually contradict Saadi’s ‘Adam’s children are members of one body...’ (which suggests that our acts of kindness are, or should be, *a consequence of our common humanity* – and nothing to do with our religious, cultural or social identifications)?

Dear Omid Safi,
I deeply want to thank you for calling us to greater unity among all of humanity,all of creation.
I pray for our hearts to break open more and more,so that love will spread into all the dark corners and bring more light forth.
With your many gifts you share so freely,we readers are blessed to call you a great teacher!
Winter is coming!
Winter is coming!
But we know,the season of spring is to follow.
Blessings,
Jutta

Thank you dear Jutta, may we celebrate the coming of this beautiful spring....

Hi Omar,
I am a 56-yr old asian american who has many failures under her belt, constipating on answering "what should I do with my life?" You led me to my trail with plenty of bread crumbs. Thank you!

Dear May, we all fail together, each and every day. As I said once before, may we learn to "Fail Better" and grow together.

Hi Omar,
I am a 56-yr old asian american who has many failures under her belt, constipating on answering "what should I do with my life?" You led me to my trail with plenty of bread crumbs. Thank you!

My sister and I have always loved the Hadith that God, the Most Merciful, shows mercy to those who are merciful to His creation; indeed, words to live by. -- I also, for some reason, had a much easier time digesting the idea of the "mosque" of the human heart than the "Ka'ba" of the heart. It's all moving me closer and closer to understanding why our/my heart needs to be broken wide open, and how I'll become a better person because of it. Thank you!

dear Ayisha, thank you so much. may God bless you and yours....

Thank you, Omid. With palms together at my forehead, I bow in gratitude to my teacher.

This is lovely contribution. But why add a touch of divisiveness?

This kind imam, Mustafa Efe, decided to do so not out of commitment to a Western notion of animal rights, but to fulfill his sense of what it means to be a devoted Muslim.

You might have said simply:

This kind imam, Mustafa Efe, decided to do so to fulfill his sense of what it means to be a devoted Muslim.

The compassion and appreciation for animals that the imam feels is not different from the compassion and appreciation of those "in the West" (or anywhere) who advocate animal rights.

Thank you Susan. I appreciate the insight, and even the correction. I think it may be that we are coming from different, though I hope complimentary, perspective. For my own part, it is an observation that often when Muslims behave kindly and compassionately, it is easily attributed to them being rooted in "human rights" or "westernization". I was merely trying to make the case that for many Muslims, that kindness comes out of the depth of their own faith commitment. But I do see where you are coming from, and appreciate the wisdom of that perspective as well.

I well remember the cats I saw in Istanbul. Beautiful essay. May our circles compassion be continually expanding. My word for this year is Compassion as I challenge myself to expand my own. Thank you for giving me another nudge along that path. Blessings.

Thank you so much Machka!

My sweetest memory of Istanbul is sitting for a long time in the Sultan Ahmed mosque with a purring, sleepy stray cat on my lap.

Dear Omid
Funny how I read this beautiful piece you wrote just as I reminded my partner to check that there is enough seeds in all our bird feeders after a major snow storm! Actually, not funny at all but a reminder that all is aligned and we receive what we seek! Thank you for your words. In a time when all things Islam are tainted with hate, it is so healing for me to have a courageous warrior of peace bring to the consciousness of our world the essence of my Islam- a journey that invites us to walk in the path of being peace. The Sufi in me bows to the Light in you, dear friend. May peace continue to be with you.

May I add that no cat is stray as long as it is loved? And also, no human is without heart when one shows love and compassion for all creation?

Professor Safi wrote:

> So long as we scatter seeds on the snow for the birds, we remain worthy of the name human.

One admirable trait doesn't make one worthy.

There were more than one mass slaughterers of humans who counted themselves among those who loved animals.

I used to live in Istanbul. I remember getting on the subject of animal welfare with a friend I made there. I told him that in Christianity, the consensus was that animals did not have souls, or rather, it WAS mainstream Christian philosophy in the past. He was shocked! From him, I learned about Muhammad's concern about animal welfare, and more intriguingly and beguilingly, that Mohammad told everyone that animals also had to answer to the One. Astounding that in the very establishment of Islam there is the recognized acknowledgement of each creation's spiritual life. I get a little emotional thinking about it, actually. I, too, was struck by the average Turk's compassion towards animals. "Violent Islam" indeed.

apples