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Ali Bulaç

Ali Bulaç
11:01, 21 December 2010 Tuesday

From the center to the periphery

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The central dome of the Şehzadebaşı Mosque in İstanbul, which was built by Mimar Sinan between 1544 and 1548, has a diameter of 19 meters and a height of 37 meters. The central dome forms a pendentive square baldachin.

The four pillars have been arranged to provide a spacious and open interior. The roof extends across the structural wings with the help of the semi-domes and exedrae. The area under the central dome is expanded by four semi-domes, one on each side, in the shape of a four leaf clover. This enables the mosque to slowly rise up. There are 12 portico pillars that sit on marble and onyx pedestals, and there are 16 domes over the porticos. The central dome of the Süleymaniye Mosque built by Mimar Sinan between 1550 and 1557 is 26.50 meters and its height is 53 meters. The central dome rests on four colossal arches that are called “elephant feet.” These four porphyry columns hold up the central dome, which is a symbol of Islam.

The reason I chose two of Mimar Sinan’s works as an example is because the social and administrative structure of the Ottoman Empire was similar to Sinan’s architectural model. There was a central administration that embraced all religious, ethnic and denominational groups. The administration was central but it was not “centralist.” In other words it was not totalitarian and homogenous. Just like the purpose of the central dome, which is supported by quarter and semi domes, is to provide a place for people who come to the mosque to worship, the purpose of Islamic law, which is open to all religions, ethnic groups and different cultures, was to allow people to take part in a pluralistic system where they could express themselves and continue to preserve their differences and lifestyles.

In other terms, everyone was a part of the general, central and universal structure. A person’s position within the structure -- like the quarter domes and semi domes in a mosque -- was in proportion to their influence and the population. All positions, roles and functions have been distributed according to the principles of justice. The small size of a different group does not mean it has been excluded from the system, oppressed or subject to injustice. The group may be small, but it owns the system as well. It is an integral part of the whole. Every piece is relatively autonomous within itself, but it is not detached from the whole. Needless to say, the Ummayad, Abbasid, Seljuk, Andalusian, Safavid and other Islamic states had in general terms a similar structure. This is a prophetic model, whose main principles were described in the Charter of Medina. Islamic states have tried to implement this model throughout history.

In the Ottoman Empire and previous Islamic states, non-Muslims were referred to as “Zımmi.” They were not “minorities” in the sense described by the West. The term minority is used for a religious or ethnic group that is deprived of certain things that the majority enjoys. The word minority entered our literature after the Ottomans became acquainted with the West. In the Ottoman Empire, non-Muslims did not exist on the edge of the system. They were main elements of the system. The idea of minorities based on religion, ethnicity and sect did not come from the historical experience of Islam or Muslims. Unfortunately, intellectuals and academia think Zımmis are minorities based on the West’s description.

Another false analogy is made between the word “teb’a” and “citizenship.” People think the word teb’a means being a servant to a servant or to god. It is for this reason that people say “we went from being a servant to a citizen.” This is completely wrong. The idea of “equal citizenship” is actually what denies religious, denomination, ethnic and cultural differences and aims to dissolve all of them in a single system. The idea of French citizenship tries to make everyone the same. For example if citizenship is based on the principle that everyone be 1.70 meters, then those with a height of 1.65 meters would try to make their height five centimeters taller while those with a height of 1.75 meters would try to shorten their height by five centimeters. In the Ottoman Empire, everyone was accepted the way they were.

Non-Muslim and Muslim societies may have separated from the Ottoman Empire by staging revolts and uprisings in the 19th century, obtained political independence and founded their own nations states (their own flag, boundaries and national anthem) but they have lost their natural positions which they had within the Ottoman system. They were natural parts of the Ottoman main structure. But after gaining independence they moved from the center to Europe’s and the West’s periphery. All of them have become insignificant determinable units on the sidelines.


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