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Hala Sultan: The hidden jewel of Cyprus

Umm Haram bint Milhan (Hala Sultan) was a female companion of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) who fell martyr in Cyprus

By Ertan Karpazli / World Bulletin / 08 Mar 2014

The religion of Islam is today the fastest growing religion in the world with around 1.5 billion followers from many places and backgrounds. Although the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was an Arab based in the cities of Mecca and Medina in the Hejaz region of the Arabian peninsula, his message was intended to reach the ears and hearts of all people.

Even though the the message of Islam attracted many converts from different parts of the world during the lifetime of the Prophet, due to the socio-geographical starting point of this call, the responsibility to carry this message to the rest of the world mainly fell upon the Arab companions of the Prophet after his death.

From Arabia, his companions spread across the world, covering a region from Portugal to Indonesia and from the northern Caucasus to the southern Sahara. Some of them arrived as conquerers whereas others arrived as merchants, migrants and governors, while some arrived simply to call people to faith in the one true diety. In doing so, some never returned home, and instead chose to be buried in foreign soil, serving as a reminder of their great sacrifice for generations afterwards.

One such companion is Umm Haram bint Milhan, who unlike what one would typically imagine these fearless companions to be, was not a dashing young man galloping through the desert on his horse. Rather, Umm Haram was an old woman, perhaps in her eighties or nineties. Nonetheless, that did not prevent her from accompanying the Muslim army in their first naval conquest of the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

Umm Haram was the sister of Umm Sulaym bint Milhan, which also made her the maternal aunt of one of the Prophet's closest companions, Anas bin Malik. She was also a paternal relative of the Prophet via his great grandmother, who was from the Banu Najjar tribe. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) would often visit her.

During one such visit, the Prophet was taking a nap in her home, upon which he woke up laughing. When Umm Haram asked the Prophet why he was laughing, the Prophet replied that he had seen a dream of his companions 'sailing on the sea like kings'. Umm Haram, despite her age, had a very youthful character and was an adventurous woman who liked to travel. The concept of sailing on the sea was unknown to most Arabs at the time, who were bound to the rough and tough deserts of Arabia.

Umm Haram could not contain her glee on hearing this, and asked the Prophet to pray that she be among those companions. The Prophet made a supplication for her and went back to sleep, before he woke up again in the same manner. Again she asked the Prophet what he had seen, to which he gave the same answer, and then asked him to pray for her one more time. 'You will be with the first group,' the Prophet reassured.

Long after the Prophet passed away, during the reign of the third Caliph Uthman, the governorship of Shaam (modern day Syria, Lebanon and Palestine) decided to form the first Muslim naval fleet under the command of Umm Haram's husband Ubadah bin al-Samit, who was the judge of Palestine. With the orders of Muawiyah, who was the governor of Syria at the time (later to become the first Umayyad Caliph), the fleet set sail in the year 647 to Cyprus, which was under Byzantine control at the time.

The fleet arrived at the eastern shores of Larnaca, where they sought to continue their expedition on land. Shortly after mounting their horses, however, they came under siege and in the chaos that unfolded, Umm Haram fell from her horse and suffered a fatal injury. As was custom for martyrs, she was buried on the spot she fell, by the beautiful Salt Lake of the city.

The Arabs continued their presence on the island of Cyprus for centuries afterwards. After the Ottomans conquered the island in 1570-1571 from the Venetians, they gave great importance to Umm Haram. In around 1760, a scholar by the name of Sheikh Hassan built a mosque close to her burial site, which became known as the Hala Sultan Tekke.

The mosque was, and still is, an important monument representing the 1,400-year history of Islam in Cyprus for all Muslims, especially the Turkish Cypriots. After the Cyprus war of 1974, which saw the island split with Turkish Cypriots forming the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the north and Greek Cypriots maintaining control of the south, the mosque remained with the Greek Cypriot administation.

Turkish Cypriots were unable to access the mosque for thirty years until the borders were finally opened due to a breakthrough in negotiations. Today, Turkish Cypriots are campaigning for the Greek Cypriot administration to recognize the building's status as a place of worship. As it is currently registered as a museum, it is subject to museum opening and closing times, restricting Muslims from visiting and performing their prayers outside opening hours.

Nonetheless, the glorious landscape around the mosque still draws visitors from all over the world, all coming to seek inspiration from the sacrifices Umm Haram made to leave Islam's mark on Cyprus and to pray for her soul. Her story inspired the likes of the wife of Sharif Hussein, the ousted post-Ottoman leader of the Hejaz and founder of the Hashimite royal dynasty in Jordan, who insisted on being buried in the same soil as Umm Haram.

Upon entering the room in which Umm Haram's grave is located, one is almost suffocated by the sweet smell of musk. Despite this, the caretakers of the mosque insist that they have never perfumed the room, and that it is a natural aroma emanating from the grave itself. In 2013, out of their respect to Umm Haram, the Turkish Cypriots named a new theology faculty in Lefkosa (Nicosia) after her.


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