Lunching with an Urfan Imam

by Uzra Khan

Today was an incredible day. We lunched with an imam at a mosque, went to an AK Parti pre-election rally at which Prime Minister Erdogan spoke, and ate dinner at the home of a Kurdish village leader. Posts about the latter two events will ensue.

Imam Mustafa was not the kind of man I had in mind when we were told we were meeting with an imam. I imagined someone in much more traditional garb than the kind-eyed, elderly, bespectacled gentleman in a button-down shirt who greeted us with a friendly merhaba at the entrance to a mosque ten minutes away from our hotel.

Educated in a madrasa in Urfa, and able to recite the Qur’an from memory after a year and a half of practice, Imam Mustafa gives sermons in Arabic, Turkish and Kurdish. He spoke about the process of appointment of imams, which I hadn’t realized was done by the government. Imams can even be paid their government salary and be sent abroad to serve Turkish communities; imam Mustafa had conducted prayers for such communities in France, Germany, Albania and the Netherlands. He said that the tradition of being appointed by the ruling power ahs existed since the caliphate and through the Ottoman Empire. He was quick to dispel notions about this having a political effect on religion, however. “It is just like being a government doctor, or teacher. I am appointed by a board that knows my qualifications, not the AKP.” This highlighted some of the differences between government and state that have been coming up in many of our conversations in Urfa.

He was inspired to take on this role by his father who he described as very spiritual and a guiding force. Carrying on the tradition, one of his ten children today is an imam too. He said that his other sons either didn’t want to, or didn’t make the cut—since only the most qualified are appointed.

He spoke of his love for Urfa—the way its ancient religiosity and tranquility have been conducive to the spread of tradition and learning more about Islam. He is very much a community leader, visiting hospitals to pray, conducting funerals, and soliciting advice.

He was no exception to the wonderful warmth and hospitality that we have experienced since arriving in Urfa. He told us that regardless of what our religions were, our presence added value to the mosque. He invited us to watch noon prayers, and then presented us each with a copy of the Qur’an with an English translation, followed by a sumptuous lunch of several lahmacun (‘meat with dough’; better understood as Turkish pizza), ayran (yogurt drink) and copious amount of Turkish tea—all eaten in the traditional manner, cross-legged on the floor of the mosque off newspapers.

Traditional lunch seated on the floor/(credit: Nebi Demirsoy)