Converting Hagia Sofia to a mosque does not serve Turkey or Muslims

Rasheed al-Khayoun
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“It has been decided that the Hagia Sophia shall be put under the oversight of the Presidency of Religious Affairs, and prayers will be held.” With these words, the Turkish President and Secretary General of the Justice and Development Party Recep Tayyip Erdogan concluded his speech. This came despite the international appeals to keep the Hagia Sophia out of the religious ebbs and flows, especially in a world in need of conversation, understanding and religious dialogue to face the major dilemmas it is going through, starting with the wave of terrorism based on religious grounds that are so far from the spirit of humankind’s religious beliefs.

Yet the Turkish president, who is a member of the Islamist “Muslim Brotherhood” organization, selected a dangerous and inappropriate time to issue such a resolution. The resolution undermines the efforts of Islamic countries and organizations to reconcile different points of view, avert the specter of war, face terrorism and deal with the world’s problems amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has disrupted life and paralyzed the economies of many countries around the world, especially poor countries.


In this context, governments should base their policies on cooperation between people of different religions and beliefs. It is well known that the Hagia Sophia, with its unique and historic architecture, has become an international public site that UNESCO declared a World Heritage Site. Around 3.5 million people from different parts of the world visit the site annually. In addition, Turkey is a country with diverse religions and sects. Since ancient times, Christians have been a key component of its native population, several centuries before the arrival of the Ottomans. The history of building the church goes back to the first half of the sixth century AD. This only shows how far Erdogan’s move is from understanding and unity based on shared Turkish citizenship, and how much it encourages antagonism and hatred instead of dialogue based on humanitarian grounds and the commonalities of religions to serve all humanity. It is also know that the Hagia Sophia building was a church built in the first half of the sixth century AD, and remained a church until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, which is when the Ottomans converted it to a mosque.

People enter to Sultanahmet (Blue) mosque on August 22, 2017 near the Hagia Sophia (in the background) during a rainy day in Istanbul. (AFP)
People enter to Sultanahmet (Blue) mosque on August 22, 2017 near the Hagia Sophia (in the background) during a rainy day in Istanbul. (AFP)

The conversion of a church is contrary to Islamic Sharia and the practices of the early Muslims in the first place. Requested by Caliph Harun al-Rashid (died 809 AD), Chief Justice Abu Yusuf (died 798 AD) wrote about the position of churches in in his book, “AlKharaj’ (“Land Tax”): “As for what you have asked about, Commander of the Faithful, regarding the non-Muslim communities under our protection and how their churches and synagogues were maintained for them in cities and other places captured by Muslims ,as they were not demolished and they were left to carry crosses during their anniversaries.” This was the rule followed by Muslims during their conquests, and without it countries would have not stabilized nor grown and would not have known tolerance and peace all throughout history.

When Muslims entered Jerusalem, they did not take over the Christian church, which remains Christian today. A mosque was built beside it, but this did not affect the church’s survival, and the Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab prayed in it.

Ibn Khaldun (died 1406 AD) said the following about the conquest of Jerusalem, or Aelia [Capitolina] as it was called throughout history: “Umar ibn al-Khattab entered Jerusalem and came and sat in the nave. When it was time for prayer, he told the patriarch: ‘I want to pray.’ He told him: ‘pray where you are.’ So Umar refused and prayed alone on the stairs at the door of the church. After he finished prayer, he told the patriarch: ‘If I would have prayed inside the church, Muslims would have taken it after I die, and they would say here is where Umar prayed and they have been ordered to pray in groups on the stairs and not call for prayer from it’.” It is said that the church was called “Qumama” (“Garbage”) before Muslims came; during disputes between Jews and Christians, garbage used to be thrown at it. Its real name is Al Qiyama (“Resurrection”), where Christ resurrected.

And from here it is clear that the decision made by the Turkish president is not related to Islamic rules in this practice. It only serves radicalism on both sides. Islamist groups see such uncalculated decisions as something that serve their extreme ideology. On the other hand, this decision will increase the presence of European radical religious and ethnic groups or Christian groups around the world who are anti-Muslim. The attack on the mosque in New Zealand is a prime recent example. We say this because we live in an era where distances and borders are no longer barriers that prevent the mingling of people. Millions of Muslims live in the West, spread all around the Christian world. So how much will this step induce hatred?

Damage will also reach the millions of Turkish Muslims living in Europe and America and other Christian countries where they have their own mosques for different sects. Is there no fear for their lives due to this action? This is not the age of conquests and religious and sectarian intransigence; it is the age of dialogue for coexistence.

Here is an example from history about how the practices of a former leader lead to the destruction of Egypt and the Romans tightening on them. His actions were one of the reasons for the wars known as the Crusades, when some extremist European Christians took advantage of what happened to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem at the hands of the Fatimid ruler Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (killed 1021 AD) as a pretext for the Crusades, which lasted for a very long time as campaigns. Ali ibn al-Athir (died 1233 AD) says: “and in that year (398 A.H; 1008 AD) the ruler of Egypt Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah ordered the destruction of the Qumama church in Jerusalem, called by the general population Al Qiyama which is where Christians claim Christ was buried and where they travel to from different countries of the world. And he ordered the destruction of synagogues all over his kingdom, and so they were demolished.”

Ibn Taghribirdi (died 1470 AD) also confirmed this, saying: “In that year (398 A.H; 1008 AD) the ruler demolished the Qumama Synagogue in Jerusalem and other churches in Egypt and the Levant and ordered all non-Muslims under Muslim protection by what was mentioned in Tarjamat Alhakim.”

As for al-Maqrizi (died 1422 AD), he mentions another action by Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah in the year 447 A.H (1055-1056) which lead to problems for Egypt at that time. That action was related to the same church in Jerusalem and aggravated emotions against Muslims, leading to the Crusades and horrible religious war that lasted for four decades from 489 A.H/1096 AD to 690 A.H/1291 AD. “He wrote to the Abbasid Caliph Abbasid Caliph Al Qa'im bi amr Allah and sent judge AlQuthaey to Al Mustansir informing him of that and sent to the Qumama church in Jerusalem and took over everything in it and there was a lot of Christian money. Since then the relationship between the Romans and the Egyptians was ruined until they took over all the countries on the shore and besieged Cairo as will be mentioned later. Prices during that year spiked and diseases spread in Egypt and Cairo until the year 445, with that occurred the great discord which destroyed the whole Egypt region,” wrote al-Maqrizi.

Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, as well as the Ottoman Mehmed the Conquerer (died 1481 AD), and finally Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not see what Umar ibn al-Khattab did with the people of Jerusalem by preserving their church which still lies beside the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock in solidarity between Muslims and Christians. What if the Hagia Sophia was kept as a museum as it has been since 1935, where people of all sorts meet under its dome? It is said that it is the oldest structure to have a dome in a unique architecture style.

Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople commented on converting the Hagia Sophia to a mosque, saying: “Converting the Hagia Sophia to a mosque will push millions of Christians around the world against Islam.” And many international objections have been launched against this decision.

The head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Bethlehem, bishop Theophylactos, reopens the Church of the Nativity as Palestinians ease restrictions of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank May 26, 2020. (Reuters)
The head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Bethlehem, bishop Theophylactos, reopens the Church of the Nativity as Palestinians ease restrictions of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank May 26, 2020. (Reuters)

As for the taking over the Hagia Sophia church, named after Sancta Sophia, it was done without negotiation with Christian patriarchs, it was done by force. Ottoman historian Ahmed bin Yousef Qarmany (died 1610) says: “When the Sultan entered the city, he went directly to its great Church Hagia Sophia. He entered it and cleansed it from all malice of blasphemy and prayed in it and praised God and thanked him and converted it to a mosque for Muslims and allocated endowments for it.”

All that occurred after Mehmed II bin Murat Khan, known as “the Conqueror,” announced that “the spoils are theirs [for his army] and it is enough for me to have conquered the city. When they heard of that, they put all their effort and worked hard until they conquered the city.” This came after “he saw how his soldiers were exhausted by the siege.” The siege had lasted from the beginning of April until the end of May 1453, when the Constantinople fell after a siege of 51 days.

The historian Qarmani confirms, who as mentioned had lived in the prime of the Ottomans, that the castle of the city in the end of the siege was taken for Mehmed the Conqueror and said: “When the Muslims entered the city of Constantinople, the owner of mistake (sic) sent the key of the castle and so it was opened and the Muslims entered and rushed to its old mosque.”

Will Durant (died 1981) says similar. Durant was the Western historian who did most justice to Islam and its ideology and talked in his book “The Story of Civilization” about what happened on the day of the fall of Constantinople and the takeover of the church. It was not through negotiation or purchase and was not left to its people according to the teachings of Islam as many Muslim Caliphates had done with other churches. He said: “The victors killed thousands until every attempt to defend had stopped. Then they started looting and stealing, which is what victors do. They took the spoils and driven by their lust raped indiscriminately the nuns and other women. The Christian lords and servants after their distinguishing robes were taken off from them, found themselves suddenly equal in slavery which does not discriminate. And when Mehmed the Conqueror saw an armed man driven by his religious emotions and destroying the marble corridor of the Hagia Sophia’s church, he struck him with his royal sword and announced that all buildings must be preserved to be spoils organized by the Sultan. And the Hagia Sophia church was converted to a mosque after proper cleansing as all Christian signs were removed and mosaic was painted white and what was there for 500 years was forgotten. A person calling for prayer (athan) climbed the highest towers of the Hagia Sophia the same day the city had fallen, the next Friday, and called Muslims to pray there. Mehmed II prayed in the most famous shrine of the Islamic world.”

It is true that the fall of Constantinople was catastrophic for the Christian world, but at the same time it benefited Europe and the West in general as many scientists and artists migrated to Italy and France and there the intellectual and artistic renaissance flourished while Constantinople name changed to “Islam bul” then to “Istanbul” and remained behind Europe.

The radicals see this step as benefitting Islam, and an illustrious victory, but they do not know that it goes against the interests of Islam and Muslims. The benefit today lies in dialogue between humans, and at the forefront comes the dialogue between religions, especially after the terrorism committed by radical groups. In addition to what is understood by the step taken by Erdogan as seeking support and solidarity, especially after Turkey’s support to radical groups by Political Islam, which was a step meant to touch the sentiment of Muslims and gain their support in establishing the Islamic Caliphate dream as an heir to the Ottoman Empire. The first step was to surround himself with Ottoman Guards and that is what Political Islam figures called for. The Turkish president is ranting about achieving the Ottoman dream lately, which is based on his ideas of Political Islam, saying: “Turkey is larger than present-day Turkey, so we cannot be trapped in 780,000. Because the borders that separate our bodies and hearts are different. Our brothers in Mosul, Kirkuk, Hasaka, Aleppo, Homs, Misrata, Scopy, Crimea and Caucasus could be indeed outside of our borders, but they are within our emotional borders. We will address those trying to determine the history of Turkey and our nation ninety years. We will take all measures, review the textbooks.” With this, it is certain that converting the Hagia Sophia to a mosque is not intended for Islam or Muslims, but to be a symbol of the Ottoman Empire and to attract the sentiment of terrorists. Otherwise, there are no bigger mosques than the ones in Istanbul.

To conclude, we say we have no blame for what happened during the days of the Ottoman Conqueror Mehmed II, nor the practices of the Ottoman Sultans in general. That happened long ago and is hard to judge with our modern day tools. But apparently President Erdogan does not distinguish between different ages, and this in general is a tradition of Political Islam; it equates between times and ages because it wants to live in the 21st century/15th Century A.H wearing the gowns of Mehmed the Conqueror without looking at what has changed. Humanity has become intertwined. Erdogan has instead revolutionized a religious matter that had not been raised by international Islamic centers nor Muslim scholars of all sects. He is triggering this matter for electoral gains in an attempt to rule the Islamic world by exploiting religious sentiment that could serve Erdogan personally in rousing religious emotions, and apparently that is what he wants. But that does not serve Turkey or its people or the Islamic world. Instead, it absolutely harms them.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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