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Will The Real Aya Sofia Please Stand Up?

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They say history is the biography of great men and women. Well, history is also the story of great buildings. This case is rarely more painfully obvious than when it comes to identity of The Hagia Sophia or Aya Sofia (“the Holy Wisdom”).

Church, Mosque, Museum: the Aya Sofia has lived under many guises over the years and each transformation came hand-in-hand with momentous political change. This year, it was no different.

By reverting to the previous designation of Aya Sofia into a mosque, the Turkish courts have set off a firestorm of controversy across the world. It is understandable that faithful Christians would object. The sense of loss they must feel is the same feeling that many Muslims get when they see the Grand Mosque of Cordoba’s conversion into a cathedral. However, what is confusing is that some Muslims are also conflicted – or even downright hostile – to the idea of the Aya Sofia being used as a mosque.

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Why are they upset? Is there weight to their feeling that this was an act that was against the laws and spirit of Islam? How true is it that this was pure political theatre?

A summary of the arguments are detailed below as each point reveals a great deal about us as Muslims today and our current mentality:

The Vatican – a clear example of Museum and Church buildings in one

1. “It should just remain a museum…”

The Aya Sofia IS remaining a museum. The ruling states and the government echoes that it is a mosque and museum but, unfortunately, if you read the headlines you will be given the impression that the museum is being destroyed. This is not the case.

The world is full of buildings with dual functions. The White House is the seat of government and the residence of the President. The Vatican is a museum, a church and the home of the Pope. St Paul’s Cathedral is a tourist attraction as well as functioning church. If Muslims alone were somehow exempt from the ability to combine museum and mosque in one building, then that would be very strange indeed. Yet that is exactly what opponents of the mosque designation are saying.

What opponents for the reversion of the building are arguing for is not for the preservation of the museum – in fact, it will be more accessible than ever by becoming free and open till the late evening – but for the prevention of worship in a building that was built and intended for that very purpose.

2. “It was illegal to turn it into a mosque in the first place…”

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing: many Muslims quote the example of Umar (R) and his treatment of the Church of The Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. In fact, this is the number one excuse used by many so-called Muslim intellectuals who lazily have projected their own biases on to our pious predecessors. They say, not without a little pious sanctimony, that Umar (R) exemplified that Islam is not a triumphalist religion and – though he could have converted the church into a mosque – he chose not to.

For most of history, it was common practice that any conquering army gained full ownership of the conquered lands. Islamic law was actually quite progressive in this regard, stipulating that property in surrendered lands would remain with their owners and not the conquerors. It was only if a land was taken without surrender, according to Imam Al Qurtubi amongst others, should their properties be forfeit. Jerusalem surrendered and Damascus surrendered. Constantinople – despite multiple attempts requesting it to do so – did not. Therefore, Islamically and according to the norms of the time, the conversion of the Church into a mosque was legal.

This is highlighted by the case of a district of Constantinople called Psamatya (present day Koca Mustafa Pasha) whose residents surrendered to Muhammad Fatih separately. The area had the highest density of extant churches, since none were touched or taken over.

Muhammad Fatih and The Patriarch Genaddios discussing the patriarchate

3. “But it has been a museum for so long now, so why turn it back?”

Some sources say that they have found evidence of the Church being purchased by Muhammad Fatih with his own money. The evidence has yet to be verified by external sources although it is accepted by the Turkish authorities, but even if you withhold it, the established status of the entire complex as a Waqf (Islamic endowment) is definitive. Waqfs cannot be unilaterally taken over or converted to another use.

The reality is that the conversion of the Aya Sofia from mosque to museum was a highly contentious decision taken in a manner that went against the then legal, moral and spiritual standards. It was a state sanctioned action to satisfy a political objective of the hyper-secular post-war Government. This was an injustice and it is not a good look to say that an injustice should be allowed to continue because it has been there for over eight decades.

4. “We don’t need more mosques in Istanbul…”

Would anyone think it reasonable if their local mosque was taken over unilaterally by the Government and then, when they ask for it back, they are brushed off by officials saying, “there are lots of mosques in the city and many are half empty: we are keeping this one.” Of course not. So, if it is not good enough for you, why should it be good enough for anyone else? In fact, this was the argument used by the RSS in taking over the Barbari mosque in India.

A mosque is not a property like every other. It is owned by Allah and not something we are allowed to rationalise or barter away. Allah has no need for even one mosque, but that does not mean we should stop building them or start giving them away. To go by the utilitarian argument, then anything that is not in full use by its owner is fair game for someone else to usurp. We would never accept this for our possessions so how can we accept it for something that does not belong to us?

The hadith about the conquest of Constantinople and praising Muhammad Fatih

5. “This is all a politically motivated…”

Every decision in a public sphere is political, or can be construed to be political, in some way. Building the Aya Sofia into a magnificent cathedral was a political decision by Justinian. Turning it into a mosque upon conquest was also a political decision by Muhammad Fatih. Stopping prayers in the mosque and converting it into a museum was a political decision by Mustafa Kemal. And now, returning the building to use as a mosque and museum is also a political decision by the current Turkish state.

The question is not whether it is a political act to convert the building: it will always have a political dimension. The question is whether you like the politics of someone who was praised by the Prophet ﷺ in a hadith and turned it into a mosque (Muhammad Fatih) or someone who insulted that same Prophet ﷺ as an “immoral Arab” and turned it into a museum (Mustafa Kemal.)

Pick a side.

The Grand Cathedral of Cordoba – formally the Grand Mosque

6. “This will hurt the feelings of non-Muslims and make us look bad.”

This is perhaps the only real argument of them all that has any weight to it. All the previous arguments are intellectual (and less than intellectual) smokescreens for the desire to not hurt the feelings of others – especially when we need all the friends we can get. This is understandable given our current geopolitical situation. This is also why you are more likely to find those Muslims living as minorities objecting to the change of status, reflecting their own precarious situations in their respective countries.

However, if looking at it objectively, we see that this argument also has limitations. Muslims are equally if not more hurt at the ethnic cleansing that took place in Andalusia. Does that mean we get the Al-Hambra or the Cordoba Mosque back? What about the Parthenon – since that used to be a mosque – conquered by the same Muhammad Fatih? What about the Kremlin, where St Basil’s Basilica was made from bricks of a Tatar mosque? And can we have the Philippines back while we are all trying to not offend each other?

Making decisions such as these on the highly subjective grounds of causing offence is not only impractical, but untenable. Many expressions of Islamic faith outside a narrow paradigm of what is palatable to specific audiences, can be seen as offensive to some. If we were to make decisions based first and foremost to protect the comfort of others, you would end up with a set of groundless rituals rather than a faith. It is the equivalent of changing your name to Bob instead of Muhammad since you were worried that even Mo was too exotic. Sometimes, the proper practice of our faith and upholding of our cultural and historical traditions will upset others not because what we are doing is deliberately offensive or wrong, but because we have different values and different standards.

Conclusion

What is most upsetting about the change of use for the Aya Sofia is the double standard at play. Athens has not even one mosque whilst Istanbul has hundreds of churches and synagogues: yet the Greeks are calling the Turks intolerant. The Roman Catholics plundered the Aya Sofia of all treasures and took them to St Marks church in Venice (where they still are to this day): yet it is the Pope that says that he is distressed at the Muslims – who preserved the Byzantine inheritance- for turning it into a mosque and Catholic churches calling for a day of mourning.

All the commentators calling for it to not be converted back into a mosque are also correspondingly mute regarding the Granada Cathedral built on site of a mosque, or the Barbri Mosque turned temple in India, or the Al Ahmar Mosque turned into a bar in Palestine.

But this is human nature and they will shoot their shot. Nonetheless, as Muslims, if we are against the reversion of the Aya Sofia to be a mosque again, then we really need to take a long hard look at ourselves. Just as Muhammad Fatih conquered Constantinople, we need to conquer our own ignorance, our own inferiority complex and our own insecurities.

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Dr. Muhammad Wajid Akhter - Doctor, Medical Tutor (Social Media, History & Medicine) - Islamic Historian - Founder of, and current board member to Charity Week for Orphans and needy children. www.charityweek.com - Council member, British Islamic Medical Association

15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Lily Arbee

    July 24, 2020 at 12:05 AM

    Why all the controversial, protest & dispute? Please get your history & the facts right! We never make it a big issue of our Great Mosque of Córdoba in Spain. and in Greece, as some mosques were converted into churches through renovations, while others were even used as bars or movie theaters for “adult” films. did we make all these as issue(s)? Another good reason why Haiga Sophia should be a mosque, please read below: Lily Arbee

    When Sultan Mehmet conquered Constantinople at the age of 21 and ended Byzantine Empire in the 1453, he purchased the property of Hagia Sophia from his personal wealth before converting it into a Masjid (Mosque). The details of the transaction are still stored in the Turkish Museum, as can be seen in the photo (click this image to view it as proof).This is the main reason why the court ordered Aya Sofya to be re converted into a Masjid. Stop all the hassles, we have the complete right to it, it’s ours. https://thelondonpost.net/sultan-mehmet-bought-haiga-sophia-converting-mosque-masjid-purchase-documents-submitted-turkish-supreme-court/?fbclid=IwAR0XdelNQg-06ffPPyXO4Tjg7kPXMxZRPVnSTPiQy-Mybe2izPkUbimnIOw

    • Fatima

      July 25, 2020 at 10:16 AM

      As salam alaikum.The world can think what it likes..it is Haqq for a place to be converted where the the One True God is worshipped.A very simple and powerful.analogy is-everyone would feel upset if a former school is converted into a pub whereas a pub being converted into a school is a good cause without exception unless the school kids are indulging in even greater sins.

  2. Fatima Moinuddin

    July 25, 2020 at 10:38 AM

    Its immaterial whether the world feels hurt or offended-Haqq is established in a place instead of the trinity..how can that be wrong?if a school is converted to a pub THATS a cause for grief but onto a pub being converted to a school.
    The intellectuals will come along finding numerous faults with this analogy..by Allah in a world where Israel can wrongfully take someone’s rightful land and openly defend and preach its cause,surely its extremely shameful for Muslims to feel anguished at a mosque being reclaimed.

  3. Salman

    July 25, 2020 at 11:04 AM

    As per Google maps there are at least three masjid in Athens, Greece?

    • Greg

      July 29, 2020 at 6:27 PM

      Yeah there’s a few masajid in Athens. But I presume maybe he’s talking about ancient masajid, whereas I presume these masajid today are recent developments from recent migrants? IDK.

  4. Mahmoed Bhaila

    July 25, 2020 at 5:03 PM

    I commend the author. He answered all the issues simply and comprehensively. I agree with every point he makes.
    I only want to reiterate that we expected the farcical opposition from the non-Muslim front but it is absurd for Muslims to be criticizing the reversion. The Muslims who are so vociferously opposed to this are definitely suffering from an inferiority complex and are ignorant of issues pertaining to this matter.

    • Isa

      July 27, 2020 at 12:18 PM

      Inferiority complex is a term used to describe people who compensate for feelings of inferiority (feeling like they’re less than other people, not as good as others, worthless, etc.) by acting ways that make them appear superior. They do this because controlling others may help them feel less personally inadequate.

  5. Inaam

    July 26, 2020 at 11:34 AM

    Had it been a church or synagogue, there would have not been an issue. But when it comes to Islam these so-called modern intellectuals have a double standard. This is to remind that it was the 20th century Christian Europe which is responsible for major geopolitical problems today. They randomly carved boundaries of major empires (so-called spheres of influence) that continue to bleed to this day. e.g. Kashmir dispute, Kurd dispute, Hong kong dispute, Cyprus dispute.

  6. Peter Kypros

    July 27, 2020 at 12:16 AM

    This is the 5th Ayia Sophia converted to a Mosque in Turkey during the last 10 years. In 1974 Turkey occupied part of Cyprus. 500 churches many off them over 500 years old have been looted and many converted to a Mosque. In the free part of Cyprus all mosques are well preserved not a single one has been converted into anything. This is a living example as we speak and anyone with doubts can visit Cyprus and witness it. The conversion of Churches to mosques is an Ottoman/Turkish practice and as two Islamic Scholars one Turkish and one Egyptian pointed out in articles converting Churches to mosques is against the teaching of the Prophet as written in the Koran. Looking at these conversions as Muslim versus Christian issue serves only barberic aggressions. Afterall religion is about peace and love and respect. Why would a truly muslim or christian or any other religion would like to occupy a religious building of another group and turn its into its own? What God would advocate such aggression and why would anyone appear so incapable of buidling his own religious building?

    • Selim

      July 27, 2020 at 2:53 AM

      Did you read the article, Peter?
      Stop being a hypocrite! Greeks in Greece as well as in Cyprus converted mosques into churches and to some other functions!

  7. Greg

    July 29, 2020 at 9:35 AM

    This article is GOLD! Jazak Allahu khayran!

  8. S

    July 30, 2020 at 10:31 AM

    Very well written article, the facts are there. People will always misinterpret according to their own desires. May Allah make us all strong in our emaan. Ameen.

  9. Michael Elwood

    July 30, 2020 at 12:36 PM

    I disagree with what is obviously a political stunt by Erdogan. When the Mufti-Jami Mosque in Feodosiya, Ukraine was converted to an Armenian Catholic Church, the government graciously restored it back to a mosque. Erdogan and his government of Sunni fanatics clearly lack such grace and class.

    However, I also think that critics of the stunt like yourself, Kay, could benefit from a little humility and a lot more knowledge about the history of church construction around the world. It’s funny watching Christians act like what Erdogan did is without historical precedent. The number of churches that were converted to mosques is huge. They include: Baza Cathedral in Granada, Spain; Cathedral of St. Mary the Crowned in Gibraltar; Cathedral of the Savior of Zaragoza in Zaragoza, Spain; Church of Nossa Senhora da Anunciação in Portugal; St Nicholas’ Church in Madrid, Spain; Church of the Assumption in Uzundzhovo, Bulgaria; Church of the Holy Archangels Michael and Gabriel in Brăila, Romania; Ciutadella de Menorca Cathedral in Menorca, Spain; Granada Cathedral in Spain; Cathedral of Córdoba in Spain; Iglesia de Santiago del Arrabal in Toledo in Spain; Jaén Cathedral in Spain; Mezquita-Iglesia de El Salvador in Toledo, Spain; Downtown Candlemas Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Pecs, Hungary; Cathedral Church of Saint Mary in Murcia, Spain; Cathedral of Santa Maria of Palma in Palma, Spain; Church of San Sebastián in Toledo, Spain; Seven Saints Church in Sofia, Bulgaria; Seville Cathedral in Spain; Shrine of Our Lady of Europe in Gibraltar; Silves Cathedral in Portugal; Cathedral of Saint Mary of Tudela in Spain. The list of non-Christian sites converted to churches would grow considerably if I were to include the number of churches that were built upon pagan temples (Greek, Roman, Incan, Aztec, etc).

    The aforementioned mosques were not rickety storefront mosques, either. They had every bit as much architectural merit as the Hagia Sophia. So, if Islam is sad for converting one church into a mosque, then how much sadder is Christianity for having converted all these mosques into churches?

    I’m also not sure how you see Israel as more hospitable to Christians given the spat of church destruction by Jewish fanatics. For example, in 2015 the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha, Israel was set on fire. In 2017, a cross, a statue of the Virgin Mary, and a stained glass window were destroyed in St. Stephen’s Church, Beit Jamal, in Jerusalem. When questioned about these acts, Rabbi Benzi Gopstein said “Idol worship must be destroyed.” Rabbi Gopstein is the leader of a group of anti-Christian and anti-Muslim Jewish fanatics called Lehava, which means flame in Hebrew. Ironically, lehava is apparently the Hebrew cognate of the Arabic word lahab, which also means flame. The Prophet Muhammad’s nemesis during his lifetime was named Abu Lahab.

    • Michael Elwood

      July 30, 2020 at 1:50 PM

      Oops, I meant to say the number of mosques converted to churches is huge.

  10. Goodword

    August 8, 2020 at 3:43 AM

    ‘Babri’ mosque, not ‘Barbari’.

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