by Caleb Elfenbein
In the Sacred Relic Room in Topkapi Palace, a former imperial residence and present-day museum of the Ottoman period in Istanbul, Turkey, visitors will find relics of the Prophet Muhammad. Among them there is a sword and a few strands of the Prophet’s hair. The devotional practices that surround these relics, concerned quite literally with the spirit of God and thus appropriately termed “spiritual,” are not expressly political. Nonetheless, the public veneration of such baraka (spiritual power)-charged relics challenges laicist traditions in Turkey, whether secularist or Islamist (both of which espouse a version of “rational Islam”). These practices remind us that spirituality is not simply a “private” or domesticated form of religion, but rather a form of devotion that always takes place within broader—and, in the modern context, public—fields of debate about the nature of religion.
Despite the relics’ nearly continuous 550-year residence in Topkapi Palace, we can profitably distinguish between the early years and the later years of their exhibitionist career. Having arrived in Istanbul via Ottoman expansion into Egypt and the Hijaz in the early sixteenth century, the possession of these objects informed the force of the sultan’s claims to authority over the entire Muslim community. They were material evidence of what God’s revelation to humanity through Muhammad made possible for believers in this life and in this world. They point to a physical man (illustrated through his hair), Muhammad, who enjoyed incredible success in nurturing, protecting (at times through his sword), and expanding a community in the service of God. The incredible growth of the Ottoman Empire in the space of a century suggests that the sultan may not have been unjustified in seeing a connection.
Today, safely ensconced in a glass case that sits in a state heritage site (itself a relic of the past), the Prophet’s relics reflect the attempted domestication of Islam in the service of a nationalist project to create and maintain the Turkish nation that can be distinguished from the Ottoman period at all costs. Despite being embalmed in a museum, however, these relics continue to function as something more than data in nationalist historiography. However much the Turkish state continues to regulate what it means to be a Muslim, the authorities cannot contain the surplus value of the Prophet’s relics. Thus we find people using a seemingly secular institution for devotional purposes, much like one finds in the Hagia Sofia, another contested state exhibition space in Istanbul.
On my own visit to Topkapi Palace, just after I entered the relic room, a large group of Turkish visitors soon followed—what seemed to be a class outing of some kind. In the midst of the clatter of young kids liberated from the classroom, I felt myself being elbowed aside by a small elderly woman. Clearly, I was not the first. A Frommer’s review of the palace warns visitors: “It’s impossible to rush through the palace, so you should allot at least a half-day and be prepared to encounter a few bottlenecks throughout the enclosed exhibition halls, especially in the Holy Relics Room where the ardent faithful, in their religious fervor, tend to obstruct the display cases.” The momentary displeasure I felt as a tourist gave way to a slight embarrassment as a non-believer: this woman, I presume, actually wanted to be close to the relics because their power was real, no matter how purposefully prosaic the setting.
As a character in Turkey’s nationalist rendering of history, the entombment of the Prophet’s sword is perhaps too obvious a prop to offer much analytic insight. Tamed by the Turkish assembly’s abolishment of the Caliphate in 1924, Islam is no longer a politico-military force with which modern societies must reckon. The Prophet’s hair is another story.
Hair, as in any other matter containing DNA, contains the breath (ruḥ) or spirit of God. Surat al-sajda, verse 9 (Sura 32, or “Prostration”), which details God’s creative capacities, reads: “and then He forms him [human] in accordance what he is meant to be, and breathes into him his spirit: and [thus…] He endows you with hearing, and sight, and feelings as well as minds: yet how seldom are you grateful!” The modern Arabic term for spirituality (and I stress the historical novelty of the term in Arabic) is al-ruḥiya, and derives from the same root as breath (r-waw-ḥ). The phrasing of verse 9 in the original Arabic is instructive: God “inflates” him (human) from His breath [min ruḥihi]. The spirit of God inhabits every nook and cranny of creation, not least every cell of the human body. Spirituality, then, though a novel term, captures a devotional emphasis that focuses attention on the enduring presence of God on earth as manifest in humanity itself.
Much to the chagrin of distinctly modern reformist perspectives across the Muslim community—a category that admits to a range of visions, from secularist to Islamist—practices focusing on the baraka of relics of one kind or another function as an important element of the devotional life of many Muslims. From the last quarter of the nineteenth century, reformists have identified such “irrational” practices as bearing much responsibility for the “backward” state of the Muslim community. Mustafa Kamal Ataturk banned Sufi orders in 1925 for two reasons: One, Sufi orders provided too great a non-state institutional space for the expression of opposition to elements of his modernization project; and two, authority within Sufi orders flowed from the baraka of sheikhs (living and past), which for Ataturk smacked too much of superstition to be welcome in the modern world. It is no coincidence that Ataturk created museums in some of the buildings formerly occupied by Mevlevi orders of dervish fame.
Over time, the Turkish state has softened its stance on Sufism. Orders are now legal but regulated. The Mevelvi whirling dervishes are one of Turkey’s most beloved exports, performing in front of audiences the world over. Nonetheless, the “religious fervor” of the “ardent faithful” in the Sacred Relic Room in Topkapi Palace suggests that, no matter the regulatory regime in place, domesticating the spirit of God lies somewhat outside of state power and authority.
For those who recognize the reality of saints’ intercession with God on humanity’s behalf, the relic room is a shrine, not to the Turkish nation or state, but to God’s presence on earth as manifest in a very special human being. The active devotional life that unfolds in a space meant to perform a break with “pre-modern” kinds of authority raises significant questions about what constitutes public religiosity. The elderly woman who elbowed me out of the way did not do so in order to make a statement about a fundamental relationship between religion and state (an absurd proposition given my memory of the situation). Nonetheless, the presence of spirit-infused relics in a public institution marks a seemingly “politically neutral” devotional practice as necessarily political. In its very effort to domesticate Islam the laicist Turkish state created a new space for (and thus a new kind of) public “spiritual” devotion that challenges common accounts of the meanings of public religiosity in Muslim-majority contexts.