Ottoman Ethics and Charity Stones

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BismillahirRahmanirRahim,

Selam Aleykum,

More insight into the Ottoman Empire… :

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In the past, Islamic societies exhibited concern for social and ecological issues because this was built in to the very fabric of their religion. The Ottomans, for example, had practices of a resoundingly ecological nature, long before ecology was ever heard of in the West. The quintessence of ecology was, of course, expressed in the Koran: BismillahirRahmanirRahim -“Eat, drink, but do not waste.” (7: 31)

As we all know, the earth’s resources will provide for every one, as long as they are not squandered mindlessly. The “green” choice, is primarily and ethical choice; the science of ecology may tell us that the destruction of the environment will lead to the destruction of humanity, but it does not tell us why such self-destruction is wrong or bad.

In accordance with the Islamic precept, to show compassion and tolerance toward not only human beings but all God’s creatures, the Ottomans saw to it that hungry wolves in the wild were fed carrion. This not only protected villages from being raided, but prevented the predator from entering the “endangered species” list, because according to their conception, ”every living being is precious”. The means for this was a unique institution they called, “the foundation”. Thus, the Ottomans had foundations for the preservation of birds, cats, mongrels, wildlife, et al. – a delicate ecological sensibility informed all their actions. Looking at all the funds and foundations devoted to preservation in the West today, one cannot help but remember their predecessors in a less ecology-conscious age.

People in Turkey are not ordinarily told about such things, and I learned of them only by coincidence later in life. If a people themselves don’t know their own heritage, others may well be excused for their lack of knowledge in this regard.

One of the areas Ottoman culture excelled was security against poverty. What I am about to tell you may sound like a fairy tale today, yet it is the truth, and provides a graphic example of Benedict’s “syphon system”. The Ottomans had stone pillars, approximately the size of a human, which I am informed are still to be found in certain parts of Istanbul. (They are said to exist all the way from Central Asia to the Balkans.)

The purpose these stones served was not as mysterious as that of the monoliths at Stonehenge, but it may turn out to be more exciting by far in social terms. They were called “Charity Stones” (sadaka tashi) . A rich person who wanted to make a donation would reach up to a niche at the top of the stone, where he would deposit his gift.

Later on, a needy person would come along,reach up, take what was enough for his needs, and leave the rest of the money where it was so that another one in need may find solace. The purpose of this device was to preserve the anonymity of the poor, thereby saving them from shame and loss of face. No one was reduced to begging.

As a saying of the Holy Prophet (ASWS) goes, one of those who Allah’s shade will cover, on the day where there is no shade but His shade, will be one who gives sadaqa and conceals it so that his left hand does not know what his right hand gives. So, this method also saves the rich from ostentation, pride, and inflated ego.

Does that sound too good to be true? Were there not, you may ask, any thieves? Well, it was either that, or the theives themselves – unlikely as this may seem, would also be making donations. If they had thieves these were the kind they had – the Robin Hood kind.

Likewise, during the reign of the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, it is related that soldiers on the march, when they entered a vineyard and ate grapes, used to hang a bag of money at the location of the grapes they had just plucked.

If all this sounds unbelievable, it is still a great consolation to learn that the descendants of such ancestors still preserve the meaning of the charity stones as a sort of atavism. What they accomplished as a matter of course, we cannot even dream of today. The equivalent in this day and age would be an open bank account; but can you imagine the deposits not being stolen before the poor and needy got to them?

The essence of Ottoman ethics was this: Treat every human as if s/he were a jewel. This means that a person should be handled delicately, as a being of infinite worth. You will not find this stated in history books, which seldom do justice to this aspect of Ottoman life, but such was in fact the ideal – and more often then not – the practice. In an overcrowded world we stand even more, not less, in need of such conduct.

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Henry Bayman (passages taken from The Black Pearl and The Secret of Islam: Love and Law in the Religion of Ethics)

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