In our Prophet’s practice of Islam we see that he puts more emphasis on winning people’s hearts than building places for Islam. Inspired from that we wanted to win our children’s hearts by helping them enjoy the mosque while learning about our religion.
It is every child`s dream to have a fish tank, to talk to the fish, and to be responsible from them.
What if the fish tank moves in to the mosque? How would children react to that?
It sounds impossible at first. However such a fish tank was placed in the mosque. It even inspired other mosques to follow suit. Yûsuf Dede Mosque in Scutari has an imam and preacher, Naci Şengün who believes that merry spirit and voices of children should fill in the mosque. Without further ado he took the initiative and developed “Fish Tank in the Mosque Project.”
Fish Tank in the Mall
Naci Şengün’s children would look forward to the weekends, as all family would go to the mall and spend time there together on Sundays. There was this fish tank in the mall which was the children`s favourite. They would watch the fish in the tank for hours without ever getting bored. This repeated for weeks on end. In yet another weekend his children dragged Şengün to the mall as usual and then rushed to the fish tank as they got there without leaving its side for hours. His children’s excitement and love for the fish tank inspired Naci Şengün and before long he started to think “how about we have a fish tank in the mosque.”
Naci Şengün describes from where the idea of a fish tank came to him: “The starting point was my own children. They would want to go to the mall every Sunday and pay all their attention to this one fish tank there. Then I asked them “if a fish tank were in the mosque would you always drag me to go there as well,” to which they replied “yes.”
Upon his children’s wish he started to work on a project with this concept. He says that he follows the example of the Prophet (PBUH), who used to win people’s hearts.. “In our Prophet’s practice of Islam we see that he puts more emphasis on winning people’s hearts than building places for Islam. Inspired from that we wanted to win our children’s hearts by helping them enjoy the mosque while learning about our religion.”
Fish Tank In the Mosque
During the renovation of Yûsuf Dede Mosque in 2009 Naci Şengün, the imam made sure that a giant fish tank was installed in the mosque. In his opinion renovating the walls and replacing the chandeliers made the mosque beautiful but children coming into the mosque would make it a much nicer place and it was only possible if there was something in it for them. Naci Şengün achieved that goal by installing a fish tank full of colourful fish in the mosque thus won the neighbourhood children’s hearts. Hence the mosque became an interesting and exciting place for the young mosque goers.
Children Belong in the Mosque
When neighbourhood children first saw the fish tank in the mosque they got so excited and the news spread through the word of mouth. Soon the mosque was full of children who visited to see the fish tank. The whole air in the mosque changed with the children who would come in alone or with their friends to watch the fish.
Naci Şengün appointed a child to each fish in the tank. They named their fish as they liked; Star, Teeny, Pinkie, Cutie are some of those names… The kids took great care of the fish to which they were appointed to; they would feed it regularly and looked into it if the fish got sick. Naci Şengün believes this scheme improves their sense of responsibility and instils awareness about the environment and love for nature as well as feelings of compassion and caring for others.
The children were happy to have the chance to see dozens of fish in the nearby mosque that they would otherwise not easily get to see. They would watch over their fish and make sure to feed them on time as they have embraced their responsibility. They would drop by the mosque everyday as a result. So Naci Şengün made children come to the mosque not just in the summer vacation but during the school year as well. He advocates that mosques are not for some people of age and maturity but a refuge for people of all ages. The children would come to the mosque after getting back from school and changing into casual wear. The first thing they would do in the mosque was feeding the fish. Then they would join the congregation for daily prayers and attend various Islamic classes after which they would return home.
This project taught the children to love and care for animals. They started to approach the animals on the streets or in their houses with more compassion and care and began to regard them as individuals. Hence the fish turned to a friend for each of them.
Mosque Retains Its Identity
Naci Şengün’s initiative helped the mosque become a part of social fabric of society. Thanks to his project Yûsuf Dede Mosque turned into a place not only for prayers scheduled for certain times but a place where locals stay over after prayers to have conversation or drop by anytime during the day.
Meanwhile children made new friends and began to have one-to-one conversations with the mosque goer uncles thanks to the fish tank. Naci Şengün describes this beautiful evolution as follows: “Thanks to the fish tank the children came in to the mosque. They got to know the mosque and mosque goers and the blessing of prayers.”
Naci Şengün points out that despite social media`s advantages the new generation grows up seeing life through the screens of smart phones and computers and develops apathy to their surroundings as virtual life takes over social life these days. So he tries to pull in youngsters particularly children into the social life instead of virtual life.
Naci Şengün took the first step and succeeded in winning the hearts of children by installing a fish tank in the mosque. As the number of children grew during the prayers the mind-set of the mosque goers began to change too. They have come to realize that a mosque without the voices of children was a cranky place indeed.
Now Yûsuf Dede Mosque is happier and merrier with children who daily come in to the mosque and listen to Naci khodja with their eyes shining bright as they learn compassion, respect and care for each other.
Yûsuf Dede Mosque thus became the most popular place for children in Acıbadem. Those children, who got connected with the mosque through a fish tank in 2009, passed down their responsibility of taking care of the fish to their juniors. However they did not ever grow distant to the mosque with the passing years. On the contrary they have realized the importance of this place of worship and made their bond with the mosque even stronger.
Naci Şengün reports that the first generation of children who used to come in to the mosque for the fish tank in 2009 are now senior high schoolers but their bond with the mosque did not falter. He proudly says that they would take active role in celebrations for Mawleed (the Prophet’s Nativity) at school and carry out their tasks with a deeper understanding.
Naci Şengün won the hearts of children by respectfully listening in to what they have got to say and approaching them with love. Once the intention is purely for Allah the efforts paid off and the mosque earned a place in the children`s hearts, he says.
Garden of Martyrs
Naci Şengün did not only install a fish tank in the mosque for children. He came up with new activities to instil certain sensibilities in them. “What else can I do?” he asked himself and started off to clean the abandoned and pebbled land next to the mosque. He turned it into a pretty garden together with the children and started to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and roquette there.
They named it Garden of Martyrs as they started to arrange it on 18th of March, the anniversary of Gallipoli Battle. The children would give away the vegetables they grow in the garden to the residents in the neighbourhood provided that the recipients recite Fatiha chapter once and Ikhlas chapter three times from the Quran for the souls of the martyrs. While children began communicating more with the neighbours their relationship with the soil grew stronger. The way they looked at their surroundings changed. They have developed a sense of belonging…
Naci Şengün explains the reason as to why they named the garden that they have made with children on 18th March 2014 after the martyrs: “We wanted to make sure that we remember our martyrs not only once a week or once a year but every day of the year. We wanted to make sure that we remember the souls of our fallen ones for this country. The garden was a vessel to create awareness and responsibility in the children and in all of us.”
It all started with an idea and the doors leading to the good opened one after the other… With these ideas Naci Şengün started to walk on this road with confident steps and tried to realize all the good ideas in his mind and heart to teach new things to the children everyday. He did all this by engaging the children with the actual life and let them learn by experience.