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Hagia Sophia: Has Erdoğan failed his litmus test?

Now Hagia Sophia is one of the most important tourist attractions in Istanbul and also a UNESCO world heritage site

Saturday July 18, 2020 3:34 PM, Mohammad Al-Mahdi, ummid.com

Hagia Sophia

[The writer, Mohammad Al-Mahdi, standing inside the Hagia Sophia when it was a Musium.]

From the main streets of Istanbul one is astonished to see the two monuments standing side by side, in full glory. Together, the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque represent glory and magnificence of God. While the Blue mosque, or Sultan Ahmet we call it, is a later addition, a symbol of Turko-Islamic ascendance, the Hagia Sophia stands there for the last fifteen hundred years or so. Standing inside Hagia Sophia I was amazed by its huge structure and majestical plan. There was a feeling of spirituality bordering on wisdom, a true Wisdom.

When I entered the monument someone told me that it was now a museum. The building was meant to be a church. However, after the fall of the Constantinople the Turks converted it into a mosque. From inside I could easily feel the two great cultures in unison. The monument contained the best of both Islamic and Christian cultures.

There was an Islamic pulpit alongside the portrait of Mary and Apostles and the big murals depicting the names of God, and the family of the prophet. Suddenly a conversation started in my mind. Why conquerors usually convert the religious identity of places of worship.

The mosques in Spain, for example, after the Christian occupation were converted into churches. Is it really necessary for the conquerors to alter the existing cultural heritage?

Also Read | 'Open Provocation': World reacts to Erdogan reconverting Hagia Sophia into a mosque

The Hagia Sophia or Sancta Sapientia which means holy wisdom is one of the oldest monuments built some 1483 years ago. The building functioned as a church from 537 till 1454. After the Muslim conquest however it became a mosque. In 1935 it was turned into a museum by Ataturk.

Now it is one of the most important tourist attractions in Istanbul and also a UNESCO world heritage site.

Given its historical importance, recently President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced the conversion of the monument again into a mosque. Erdoğan’s decision has alarmed the Christian world. Even the pope said that he was ‘hurt’ by the decision made by the Turkish parliament. On social media, we see people protesting against the move and among the them are both Muslims and Christians. Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Noble Laureate also expressed his displeasure.

"I am angry, the Turkish nation is very proud to be the only secular Muslim nation and this was the biggest sign of it. Now they took away that pride from the nation", Pamuk said.

Brushing the criticism aside, Erdoğan has said that the transformation of the site into a mosque is a “resurrection”, an act of loyalty to the nation’s forefathers.

Those who are in favor of the move are arguing that it was right to transfer the museum back into a mosque because the act of Ataturk was against the law, and no one can use the mosque for other proposes. It is right that the mosque is not any one's property and no one can change its identity, but was it right to change the church into a mosque in 14th century in the first place?

Hagia Sophia also represents an internal problem of the Christendom. The problems started when in 1204 the western church, sacked and pillaged Constantinople, including the Hagia Sophia. The Byzantine ruler was executed and the people enslaved. The western Christianity occupied the structure. In 1453, when Mehmet the Conqueror took over, his Christian advisers suggested him to merge the two churches.

However, the emperor Loukas Notaras at that time said “Better the Turkish turbans than the papal tiara.” This is why due to the internal feuds between the two warring Christian factions the Hagia Sofia fell to Muslims. The Building which since its inception represented the soul of Orthodox Christianity for about 900 years finally became a mosque.

Today it is common to purchase a Church building. It was not so in the 15th century, though. Hence the argument that it was bought by the Muslim conquerors holds no water. It can be argued that under duress no Church can be bought and turned into a mosque. In Islam, no place of worship can be converted or pulled down. They are no ordinary buildings but the Houses of God almighty. We read in the Quran:

[They are] those who have been evicted from their homes without right - only because they say, "Our Lord is Allah." And were it not that Allah checks the people, some by means of others, there would have been demolished monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of Allah is much mentioned. And Allah will surely support those who support Him. Indeed, Allah is Powerful and Exalted in Might. (Surah al-Haj: Ayah: 40)

Mind you, here Churches, Synagogues and mosques are mentioned in the same breath, at par with each other, in which God’s name is spoken in abundance. When God does not differentiate between the Church and the mosque who are we to undermine one or the other? If our Turkish Sultan had done a wrong in the past, can it become a justification to commit another wrong for us today?

[Mohammad Mahdi is a young student scholar. He writes on religion and philosophy. Recently, he has completed his class 12th from Shaheen Academy. He lives in Aligarh. He can be reached at mahdimohammad2002@gmail.com. Views expressed are personal.]

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