My new favorite imam

My new favorite imam

There was a heart-warming news story in the Hürriyet Daily News yesterday titled: “Stray cats make their home in historic Istanbul mosque.” Accordingly, the Aziz Mahmud Hüdayi Mosque, a beautiful Ottoman artifact from the 16th century located in Istanbul’s Üsküdar district, has recently become the home of not just human worshippers but also feline refugees. In the cold winter days of Istanbul, during which the city’s innumerous cats suffer, the imam of the mosque, Mustafa Efe, made the compassionate decision to host them in his mosque. 

As a result, these days there are many cats in the Aziz Mahmud Hüdayi Mosque, who stroll around worshippers as they stand and recite the Qur’an or put their heads to the floor to prostrate to God. “Cats have been with us during prayers and sermons; they do not spoil the peace inside the mosque,” the imam told the press. “Worshippers love them as well.” 

On the one hand, this is a nice episode in itself about human compassion to animals. On the other hand, it is a broader lesson on the values of Islam and how they can be related to everyday life.

Compassion for animals, indeed, is a core Islamic value. Before the advent of Islam, pagan Arabs had no such value, as they used to treat animals quite cruelly, even to the extent of cutting off lumps of flesh to eat while the poor creatures were still alive. The Prophet Muhammad banned all such practices as well as animal fights organized for entertainment. As reported in a hadith, or “saying,” he once told a man that he could go to paradise simply by giving water to a thirsty dog.

Cats have been especially favored by the prophet of Islam, who told his followers that cats were “part of their family.” In a famous instance, when the Prophet Muhammad saw his cat sleeping on the edge of his cloak, he cut around the sleeping animal simply to avoid disturbing it. In the Ottoman Empire, this traditional Islamic care for animals was even reflected in architecture. Architects added a special place to the outer walls of mosques for birds so that they could nest. 

Now, Imam Mustafa Efe not only gave a modest example of how such traditional values of Islam can be put into practice today. His very example showed how much longing there actually is in Turkey for such a compassionate, smiling, loving Islam. 

The imam and his cats became an instant social media phenomenon, with hundreds of thousands of “likes” from people from all walks of life, from the most religious to the most secular. During a time in which Turkey has become intensely polarized between the supporters of a regime that wears religion on its sleeve, and its opponents – some of whom have begun to detest religion precisely for that reason – the story of Imam Mustafa Efe and his cats has come as a breath of fresh air.

This also provides a broader lesson, in my view, regarding what kind of imams we need in the Muslim world today. Unfortunately, we have some imams who preach anger, resentment, or outright hate. There are also many other “moderate” imams who just do their tedious jobs without adding much to society. 

What we need most are imams who will inspire minds and win hearts by personal acts of compassion, charity and humanity. We need imams who, instead of giving fiery sermons on how Islam will save the world, will save those around them – whether they are hungry people or homeless cats. God bless Imam Mustafa Efe for reminding us of that powerful lesson.