The Jafari sect is the largest one among the Shia that branched into many groups over time. One can even say that today the term Shia usually refers to those from the Jafari sect. This sect is known as Jafari/Jafariyya because it bases its legal rulings upon the views of Ja‘far al-S diq (d. 765). It is also known as Imamiyyah, as it accepts the concept of imam as one of the founding principles of the sect, and also as the Ithna Ashariyyah (Twelvers), as it accepts the thesis of the twelve imams. The name Jafari is used in this article as the followers of this school living in Turkey are usually known by this name.
Jafaris, who have been in Istanbul for a few centuries, are fed by the encompassing spirit of Istanbul, while they have also left their own impression on the city, contributing to the formation of today’s cultural heritage. The final period of the Ottomans was a remarkable time for the Jafaris in Istanbul. The continuation of a centuries-long peace policy between the Ottomans and Iran meant that Iranians were engaged in various functions, particularly in commerce in the Ottoman territories. Istanbul attracted the interest of Iranian merchants in the seventeenth century as the connecting point between Asia and Europe, and as a result of this interest many Iranian tradesmen settled in Istanbul after in the eighteenth century.1 Some of the merchants continued their commercial activities in Üsküdar, and another sizeable group carried out their profession in the hans (commercial buildings) located in Suriçi (inner city within the city walls) and its surroundings. Valide Han, located in the prominent commercial district of Mahmutpaşa, is still a significant center today where Iranian businessmen export their merchandise to Europe that they have brought from Iran.
The contentration of Jafaris, who occasionally come to the agenda country-wide especially with the Ashura commemoration in the month of Muharram, started increasing in Istanbul thanks to the waves migration into industrialized cities in western Turkey in 1960s. This signifies a new era of Jafari presence in Istanbul. Jafaris, who had lived in the cities of Kars and Iğdır in Eastern Anatolia, and in towns and villages of these cities, began to migrate to industrial cities. As a result of these migrations which continued until 1990s, Istanbul became the city with the highest Jafari concentration. Most of the Jafaris who lived in Istanbul during the Ottoman period were citizens of Iran, and therefore, Iranian embassy handled their relations with the state. In contrast, Jafaris who migrated to Istanbul from Eastern Anatolia were citizens of the Turkish Republic; this difference has had implications for the Jafaris’ relationship with state institutions, and the new Jafaris of Istanbul have made direct contact with the state as citizens instead of making contact via another country’s embassy.
The small number of early comer Jafari families settled in central districts of Istanbul, such as Balat, Karagümrük or Kasımpaşa. Those who came in the later years settled in other districts, such as Zeytinburnu, Bahçelievler, Bağcılar and particularly Halkalı since land in these areas was inexpensive and living conditions were easy. After some time, these places became areas of Jafari concentration. Although today there are Jafaris in small groups throughout many parts of Istanbul, Halkalı (Küçükçekmece), Haznedar (Bahçelievler), Fevzi Çakmak Mahallesi (Bağcılar) and Kayışdağı (Kadıköy) are areas which host the greatest population of Jafaris.
There is no official census with regard to the population of Jafaris in Turkey in general or with regard to Jafaris in Istanbul. All numbers given in this respect are based on estimates. As during population censuses people are not asked about their religious identity, it is very difficult to collect accurate data on this matter. Still, areas where Jafaris are most densely populated and where Ashura commemorations are held with the participation of the majority of the population, can be regarded as promising fields of observation.
Some acts of worships in the Jafari sect, in particular ritual prayer, present significant differences when compared to those in the Sunni sect. These differences are the reason why Jafaris need a mosque dedicated to their community when moving to new areas. As a natural consequence of this necessity, both during the Ottoman era and today, the institutionalization of Jafaris in Istanbul has been mosque-centered.
The number of Iranian Jafaris who started to settle in Istanbul beginning with the seventeenth century, most of whom engaged in trade, started to increase in subsequent years. When they gained the character of a community, the Jafaris petitioned the Ottoman State with the aim to have the means to carry out religious functions in the Jafari manner. Their requests were accepted and facilities such as masjid, cemetery and a gasilhane (bath for ritual washing of the dead) were provided for them.
Today Valide Han, located in the Mahmutpaşa district, still an important commercial center in Istanbul, is the center for Iranian businessmen. The masjid located in this commercial building (han) was assigned to the Iranians upon their request. This masjid, which is known today as the Iranian Mosque or Valide Han Mosque, has always been one of the most significant Jafari centers in Istanbul. The 1979 Iranian Revolution gave this mosque a special significance. Groups sympathetical toward the Revolution, in particular university students, started to frequent the mosque; thus, it became perceived as the platform of the Iranian Revolution in Istanbul. Even though inspections by the state increased in following years due to the fact that the mosque was used for activities other than its original purpose, no sanctions were enforced. This mosque, which is still open for worship, is frequented more by Iranian Jafaris rather than their Turkish counterparts.
Another important center for Iranian Jafaris in Istanbul is the Iranian cemetery and the adjacent Seyyit Ahmet Deresi Mosque located inside Karaca Ahmet Cemetery in Üsküdar. This mosque and the gasilhane were built around the same time with the cemetery which was reserved for Jafaris around the middle of the nineteenth century. Since that time, Iranian Jafaris have been buried in this cemetery. Abdülbaki Gölpınarlı, an important Jafari scholar, and the singer Cem Karaca, who was from a Jafari family, are also buried in this cemetery. Today the cemetery, which is, as mentioned above, known as the Iranian cemetery, is preferred by Iranian Jafaris. The Turkish Jafaris, who live in various areas of Istanbul, get buried in local cemeteries, and there is no discrimination between the Turkish Jafaris and the Sunnis in terms of graveyards.
Jafaris who migrated from eastern parts of Anatolia preferred to establish a neighborhood around a mosque, too, much like the Iranian Jafaris. The first Jafaris who came to Istanbul settled in places like Balat and Kasımpaşa, close to Valide Han Mosque, and performed their Friday prayers in this mosque. The Jafari community that grew to a significant size by the end of the 1970s started to construct their own mosque named Zeynebiyye which was opened for worship in 1981. After the mosque was opened for worship, Jafaris who lived in other parts of Istanbul moved to Halkalı, and as a result, Halkalı has become the district with the highest concentration of Jafaris in Istanbul and the Zeynebiyye Mosque has turned into the most important Jafari center in the city.
Jafaris who have been dwelling in other parts of Istanbul have built their own mosques at the first opportunity. Today there are around 40 Jafari mosques of varying size in Istanbul. Imam Ali Mosque located in the Fevzi Çakmak district of Bağcılar, Merkez Mehdiyye Mosque in Haznedar in Bahçelievler, Ebu Talip Mosque in Ikitelli and Imam Hüseyin Mosque in Kayışdağı in Kadıköy are the largest Jafari mosques and the locations they are built in are areas with the highest concentration of Jafaris. In addition to these, there are also Jafaris in areas like Yakacık, Ortaköy, Zeytinburnu, Tepebaşı, Esenyurt, Arnavutköy, Altınşehir and Mahmutbey; although fewer in number, these populations also have their own mosques.
For Jafaris, mosques are not just places of worship, but also multi-functional centers where various social activities are carried out. One finds wedding and conference halls, as well as gyms next to the mosque; this is particularly true for larger ones. Even civil society organizations initiated by Jafaris such as societies, charity endowments and sports clubs have been built around mosques. Of note, CAFERIDER (Association to Introduce, Research, and Educate in Jafari Beliefs), CABIR (Association of Jafari Scholars of the World) and the Association of Ehl-i Beyt Scholars are the most important Jafari civil society organizations. The prayer leaders (imam) who work in these mosques are known as ahunt; as a result of institutionalization that is centered around the mosque the ahunts assume leadership in the society in every aspect of life. Selahattin Özgündüz, who is known as the leader of Jafaris in Turkey, has assumed the leadership of the community in Istanbul in organizing the Jafaris and building mosques.
The most important ritual of the Jafaris, in addition to acts of worships, is the Ashura commemoration/lamentation performed in the month of Muharram. Ashura lamentations, which are organized every year to commemorate the suffering of Hussein who was martyred in Karbala, are performed differently throughout the world wherever Jafaris are. From the Ottoman times until today, Istanbul in fact has witnessed different Ashura commemorations in every period. During the Ottoman period, until the beginning of the 1900s Iranian Jafaris carried out Ashura lamentations in the month of Muharram. Although it is not exactly known when these lamentations began, it is known that there was greater attendance in the second half of the nineteenth century as compared to other periods. Lamentations were usually carried out in Valide Han Mosque and Seyyit Ahmet Deresi Mosque, both of which were accepted as a Jafari center at the time. According to historical records, lamentations were very noisy events. Shedding blood in order to mourn the death of Hussein and reciting elegies were the main rituels in these lamentations. The Jafaris who performed acts of lamentations by a variety of activities from the first until the tenth night of Muharram in the Mahmutpaşa hans would cross by boat from Eminönü to Üsküdar on the tenth day of Muharram and completed their lamentations at the Seyyit Ahmet Deresi.
In the Republican period, it became no longer possible to carry out Ashura lamentations as a result of the changing social, political and religious structure of Istanbul. Turkish Jafaris who migrated to Halkalı and adopted it as center started to revive the Ashura lamentations after the 1990s. After 2000, these lamentations, which used to be held in small groups in the early years, have developed into international ceremonies attended by tens of thousands of Jafaris, including political and religious representatives from countries that have a considerable Jafari population, particularly Iran.
The developments mentioned above reflect a unique example of Istanbul’s encompassing spirit and its social structure fed by this spirit.
1 According to a census dated 1851, 243 Iranians were engaged in trade and lived in various parts of Istanbul (see: BOA, İ.HR, 74/3603).