By Dr.Aslam Abdullah
In 2019, more than 3.7 million Muslims and non-Muslims visited Hagia Sofia, and Turkey earned millions of dollars from tourists. Why Turkey did change its status from a museum to a mosque?
From 537 E.E. till 1454 C.E, Hagia Sofia (literally means the wisdom of God) was under the control of various Christian denominations. In 1453, Sultan Muhammad won the war and decided to convert it into a mosque. He removed the statues of Jesus and Mary, but retained the structure and kept the Christian artifacts. In 1931, Kamal Ataturk turned it into a museum of Christian and Muslim artifacts. The museum displayed Christian symbols and a copy of the Quran written by the third Caliph Uthman.
In July 2020, a Turkish court decided to restore its status as a mosque. Christians of all denominations who fought for centuries for the possession of this historical religious monument and secularists condemned this. The Turks have divided opinion. A majority want it as a mosque while a minority wants it to retain its museum status. The Muslim community, all over the world, is divided and has four opinions. A group of Muslims supports the Turkish court decision. A group condemns it. Another group calls it a bad move and says it would hurt Muslims in countries where they are in the minority, and the fourth groups prefer to stay neutral.
How should one develop an opinion based on divine teachings? There are two opinions among Muslim scholars on the issue of conversion of non-Muslim places to worship. One group states that if Muslims take over land and others abandon their places of worship, they should turn them into mosques. They quote the Quran verse. “And say, Truth has come, and falsehood has perished. Indeed falsehood, [by its nature], is ever perishing/bound to perish.” (17:81)
The second group argues that Muslims should protect the houses of worship of others, especially Christians. In support of their argument, the quote the following Quranic verse. those who were ousted from their homelands against all right for no other reason than their saying. “Our Sustainer is God!” For, if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, all] monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques – in [all of] which people abundantly extol – the name of God would surely have been destroyed [ere now]. And God will most certainly assist him who succors His cause: for, verily, God is most powerful, mighty, (22:40)
They also quote a letter; the Prophet send to monks of Mt. Saint Catherine that reads as follows:
They [Christians] must not give anything of their income but that which pleases them—they must not be offended, or disturbed, or coerced or compelled. Their judges should not be changed or prevented from accomplishing their offices, or the monks disturbed exercising their religious order…
He will be regarded as one who has corrupted the oath of God, disbelieved His Testament, rejected His Authority, despised His Religion, and made himself deserving of His Curse, whether he is a Sultan or any other believer of Islam.
Whenever monks, devotees, and pilgrims gather together, whether in a mountain or valley, or den, or frequented the place, or plain, or church, or in houses of worship, certainly we shall protect them. For they are under my Protection.”
History reminds us that Hagia Sophia was not only a Church but also a center of crusaders. It fell to the Turks when they won the war. They did not destroy it; the way victors used to do during those times. They kept it intact. They did not convert it into a palace or cause its desecration. They transformed it into a place of worship of God. They believed it was the God of Christians and Jews also.
Was their decision divinely inspired and guided. No. The politics of war and the hostility between the Turks and others determined their action. But was that the options the Turks had? They had seen the Haga Sophia play a pivotal rule in conspiracies against them. They were not willing to take another chance. Instead, they transformed it into a mosque out of political necessity.
Was the decision to turn it into a museum the right one in 1931? No. If religious sensitivity was the concern for this decision, then the mosque should have been restored to Christians. It was a place of worship. The choice of Ataturk opened the wounds again.
Is the 2020 decision the right one? No. It is against a decision based on politics. Turkey could have pioneered a new chapter in interfaith relations by offering a unique action on the issue. Haga Sophia has acres of land. A decision allowing Muslims and Christians to hold their prayers in their own legally designated spaces while retaining the museum in its original form could have convinced all parties. It might still be within the theological framework of Islam.
The tears of the world over the Turkish decision are crocodile’s tears. The world’s secular and political leadership is not sincere in its fake concern over the issue. The UNESCO or human rights group did not show its outrage when Spain, Greece, Italy, India, and Israel demolished thousands of mosques or changed their status. It was silent when China destroyed hundreds of mosques. It remained quiet when India, under a judicial order, handed over the Babri Masjid to Hindus based on their concocted claims.
The so-called world that is now crying over the decision has remained a silent witness to Muslims’ atrocities for centuries. Is it not a fact that the Roman Catholic Church organized inquisition against Muslims in Spain? Is it not a fact that Jews of Israel are carrying a systematic genocide against Muslims?
The Turkish decision emerges from their understanding of global politics. If the Turkish government had given priority to divine guidance, the outcome might have been different. What the Quran says about conflicts among people is as follows:
But [since] good and evil cannot be equal, repel thou [evil] with something better and lo! he between whom and you was enmity [may then become] as though he had [always] been close [unto thee], a true friend! (41:34)
- 360 – Inauguration of Hagia Sophia, under the rule of Constantius II.
- 404 – The original roof got destroyed in a fire.
- 415 – Restored and rededicated by Theodosius II.
- 532 – Burned down once again in the Nika riots beginning in the Hippodrome of Constantinople. The church got completely destroyed alongside various others. After a mere 93 days, construction of the Hagia Sophia began.
- 537 – The reconstruction got completed with the lavish decorations and ornaments
- 553 – An earthquake shook Hagia Sophia, weakening the crown of the Eastern arch.
- 558 – Another earthquake hit, causing a break between the two halves. A few months after, the main dome collapsed alongside the eastern semi-dome. It destroyed the ambo, ciborium, and the Holy Table.
- 562 – Reconstruction completed.
- 726 – Hagia Sophia got stripped of religious illustrations and sculptural work with the abolition of the veneration of icons (iconoclasm).
- 842 – The Second Council of Nicaea commenced the redecoration of Hagia Sophia and reinstituted t icons.
- 859 – A great fire damaged the Hagia Sophia.
- 869 – An earthquake caused a half dome to collapse.
- 989 – Another massive earthquake caused the collapse of the western dome.
- 994 – Hagia Sophia reopened after reconstruction took place.
- 1204 – Hagia Sophia became a Roman Catholic Cathedral.
- 1261 – Hagia Sophia was converted to an Eastern Orthodox Church again.
- 1344 – An earthquake caused severe damage throughout the striation
- 1346 – Various parts of the building collapsed, and the church was closed.
- 1354 – Hagia Sophia reopened after construction.
- 1453 – Following the fall of Constantinople, Sultan Muhammad ordered the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Some say he purchased the building.
- 1573 – The exterior changed and altered to follow the customary mosque appearance.
- 1717 – Renovations on the interior began.
- 1734 – Hagia Sophia added a library and a Quranic School.
- 1847 – The structure underwent another restoration.
- 1849 – The mosque reopened.
- 1919 – The Divine Service in Hagia Sophia, after the Salvation in 1453, started and completed by a Greek military priest.
- 1935 – The building transformed into a museum on the order of the first President of Turkey Ataturk.
- 2020 – The 1935 decision to convert the Hagia Sophia to a museum; the Turkish President signs a decree converting it into a working mosque.