The Fountain of Bursa: Creativity and Responsibility in Scholarship

The Fountain of Bursa: Creativity and Responsibility in Scholarship on

Sami Catovic

In the city of Bursa, in northwestern Turkey, the Ulu Camii is famous for its 192 inscriptions that adorn its walls, considered amongst the greatest examples of Islamic calligraphy. At its center, however, lies a fountain which to this day is a great example of the relationship between leadership, responsibility, adherence to Islamic law and the creativity of human expression. Al-Madina is currently touring Turkey with Shaykh Mokhtar Maghraoui. Pictures from Bursa and Al-Madina's Spiritual Tour can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/almadina.institute.

“No!”, said the old woman to the mighty Sultan. Once again the old woman refused to sell her house to the Sultan for the construction of a grand mosque in Bursa.  The Sultan had acquired the surrounding areas over the years in order to build a grand mosque for the first Ottoman capital of Bursa.  Yet, in the middle of the land he acquired, stood a defiant old woman who refused to sell her plot of land.  The mosque could not be completed without it, as it was in the center of the proposed structure.  When she died, the Sultan acquired her piece of property and ordered the construction of the mosque.  Not sure about the final intentions of the old woman, the ulama (Islamic scholars) instructed the architect to build a fountain over her land, in order that people would not pray at that actual spot of her house, thus risking their prayer to become invalid for it was prayed on land that may not have been lawfully acquired.

So goes the story I have been told many times about the unique design and presence of the large fountain in the main prayer hall.  The story may not be historically accurate, but it has nonetheless been carried on for generations.  There are various variants to the story that I have heard over the years, but the essence is the same:  A noble Sultan (Bayazid I) sought to build a mosque, an old woman was uncooperative with his noble plan, and the ulama came up with a solution to preserve the worship of the believers.  Stories, although not always historically justified, are still important to understand the ideals and values of a people.  In all the narrations of the story that I heard, I never have heard anyone criticize the Sultan for his action (for he wanted to build a mosque), nor that of the old woman, nor the solution provided by the ulama. The story speaks not only to the value that a people place on the necessity of having a noble leader, but also that he has an obligation to listen to those who do not agree with him – even if it is a poor old woman.  More importantly, though, it speaks to the necessity of having the ulama – the guardians of the sacred law – facilitate a practical solution to a conflict that preserves the needs of the community that is in accordance with the sacred law.

The story told of the fountain of Ulu Camii is one that speaks not only of the fascinating history of this glorious mosque, but also to the current situation we witness today in many parts of the Muslim world where conflict and discord result in oppression and ugliness.  The story reminds us that it is the obligation of leaders to be noble in their actions, to listen to their subjects, and for the ulama to come up with creative solutions in accordance with the sacred law, that preserves the salvation of the community and not merely rubber-stamps the actions of the leader.  The story of the fountain of Ulu Camii is a testimony that conflict, when addressed creatively and in accordance with sacred law, can result in a thing a beauty.  For indeed, when one enters the grand mosque of Bursa, one can witness first hand how conflict does not have to result in ugliness, but beauty, when the guardians of the sacred law assume their responsibility.   


By Sami Catovic , 21 Nov 2013

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