The nights of 'Kandil'
The word kandil - from the Arabic, 'kindil' - means candle in Turkish. Some trace the application of this word to the five holy nights back to the reign of Ottoman Sultan Selim II (1566-1574), who thought that it was appropriate to light up the minarets on mosques for these occasions.
Last Thursday (16-17 May) was Regaip Kandili among the Turks. It is a holy night in Islam that commemorates the night that the Prophet Mohammed was conceived and signifies the start of three moons or three holy months that culminate in the Eid al-Fitr or Seker Bayram at the end of Ramadan. The Prophet’s father never saw his son because he went on a trading caravan to Damascus and died before he could return. The boy’s mother was to die when he was only six.
Regaip Kandili is one of five “kandil” nights in Islam that have meaning in the life of the Prophet. These are Mevlid Kandili (the birth of Prophet Mohammad), Regaip Kandili (the beginning of the pregnancy of Prophet Mohammad’s mother), Miraç Kandili (Prophet Mohammad’s ascension into heaven and the presence of God), Berat Kandili (when the Qur’an was made available to the Muslims in its entirety) and Kadir Gecesi (the Qur’an’s first appearance to Prophet Mohammad). The word kandil [from the Arabic, kindil] means candle in Turkish and there are those who trace the application of this word to the five holy nights back to the reign of the Ottoman sultan, Selim II (1566-1574) who thought that it was appropriate to light up the minarets on mosques for these occasions. One can easily associate this tradition with the start of the mahya tradition in which special oil lamps were strung between the tallest minarets in mosques at religious holiday times and spelled out words related to them. The sixteenth century historian and geographer Katib Celebi writes that Pargali Ibrahim Pasa who was Kanuni Sultan Suleyman’s grand vizier in 1523 ordered the mosques in Istanbul to be illuminated. Yet a third source gives 1617 that mahya was first used at Sultan Ahmet Mosque.
Celebrations in the past
In the Ottoman period, the kandil nights seem to have been celebrated especially by the Turks although they were known among other Muslim communities as days on which the devout Muslim would fast. The birth of the Prophet is supposed to have been started by the brother-in-law of Saladin, al-Malik Muzaffer al-Din Kokburi in 1208 at Arbela. Then the celebrations involved parades, torch-light processions and feasts. They also included reciting poems in commemoration of the Prophet. More orthodox Muslims rejected these events and criticized them for their resemblance to festivals celebrated by Christians for Jesus Christ. However, there is nothing in the Qur’an about them and some of the hadith or traditions for them are suspect according to scholars.
We are fortunate to have a description of one of the early Ottoman celebrations of the Mevlid Kandili in the memoirs of Ignatius Mouradgea d’Ohsson (1740-1807) who served in various positions in the Swedish embassy in Istanbul in the second half of the eighteenth century. “The Mevlid is a festival which Murad III instituted in A.H. 996 (1589) in honor of the birthday of the Prophet. This solemnity is celebrated on the 12th of Rebi-ul-evel by a sermon, or rather a panegyric, on the life of the Prophet, on his miracles and on his death. This celebration is for the court only, not for the people. The ceremonies observed there, a mixture of religious practices and political display are far the spirit of t Islam.
“This Mevlid always takes place, as do the two Bayram feasts, in the mosque of Sultan Ahmed, owing to the convenience for the great retinue of the Sultan offered by the spaciousness of the Hippodrome just opposite. The service takes place at about ten o’clock, between the morning and midday Namaz. The various orders of state go to the mosque separately, each lord followed by the officers of his household or department. All wear semi-gala apparel…” (From The Mevlidi Sherif). All of the officers of state are arranged in a particular way on the basis of a special etiquette. “It is in the midst of these [arrangements] that the Sultan appears at the mosque with his usual retinue, composed only of the officers of his household, all in semi-gala dress. At the moment when His Majesty enters the loge, which he always does by a hidden doorway, one of the first gentlemen of his chamber announces his arrival by drawing aside the curtains. At this all the assembly stands, the Grand Vizier and Mufti take several steps towards the loge, and at the moment when the Sultan allows a portion of his head, or rather of his turban, to appear, these two make him a deep obeisance, and as the curtains close at the same instant, they resume their seats, as does everyone else.” (From The Mevlidi Sherif). Over the Ottoman centuries, the celebration grew to include people in general. They might fast and go to prayer services where the Mevlid would be sung. This is a poem written at the beginning of the fifteenth century in Bursa by the poet, Suleyman Celebi, in honor of the birth of the Prophet Mohammed. It’s possible that it was written so that there would be a poem in Turkish similar to those written in Arabic for the same occasion. The text, originally dated to 1409, contains anywhere from 360 and 630 couplets and is divided into three sections – the birth of the Prophet, the death of the Prophet and the death of his daughter Fatima.
In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.
Allah ! This name invoke we in beginning, / For this is ever due from us, his servants.
Allah ! The name which brings to all who call it, / God’s present aid, the weight of labour light’ning.
Did Allah’s name begin each fresh endeavor, / The end would ne’er fall short of full attainment.
With every breath repeat that name, unceasing; / In Allah’s name see every task completed.
[Transl. F. Lyman MacCallum]
Not only is the Mevlid sung on the night of Mevlid Kandili, it is also sung on the other Kandil nights, on the 40th day after a death and on other occasions. In modern times, some of the older traditions such as fasting have been lost. People no longer go to kiss the hands of elder members of their family or exchange visits. The baking of a special kind of simit, however, still happens. It is a small version of the famous simit and may or may not have sesame seeds on it. Usually the simit street sellers carry it or one can find it in bakery shops. Special dishes include helva which is made of semolina and lokma tatlisi if you like pastries dripping in honey.
Some people celebrate and some don’t but you shouldn’t be surprised if those who don’t celebrate do still abstain from alcohol on Kandil nights.