By Sharif Abu Laith
So I am seeing a lot of back and forth about whether Hagia Sofia should be turned back into a mosque or not. Whether it was correct or incorrect for Sultan Muhammad al Fatih to have turned it into a mosque?
I think the key problem is how we in the 21st century superimpose our ideas about what the Hagia Sofia was and thus trying to retrospectively fit our rulings upon it and how Muhammad al Fatih should have acted.
For many today we see it as simply a church that was converted into a mosque thus the question is whether a “church” could be taken over by Muslims in such a manner.
Firstly the Hagia Sofia wasn’t simply a church. As we know the ottomans didn’t simply go about forcibly converting all churches into mosques. So Hagia Sofia was seen by them as a unique case. That’s because it represented the cultural and political centre of the Byzantium empire. Just like Constantinople was seen as the capital of this empire. Hence this highly politically symbolic structure that was the dominant architecture of the city was not just a simple church but represented the political and cultural centre of the Byzantine empire in the capital city of this empire.
Remember also religions and their institutions were not secular institutions as we see them today. Rather they formed the political justification of the state. Hence why there was a break from the papacy in the U.K. in the 16th century as the pope held political sway over the monarchs of these states.
Hence hagia sofia is more analogous to the White House in America or the Houses of Parliament in the U.K. or the reichstag in Germany. The point being that after the defeat of the Nazis there was a race between ussr and the west to occupy and thus take control over the building due to its symbolic power. Would they have taken over nazi Germany and then allowed the Nazis to maintain control over their symbolic structures and buildings?
Thus would it make any sense that after taking a city and defeating an empire you’d allow the main political and cultural symbol of that empire to be maintained by its original adherence? It would make no political sense.
In fact it would have been dangerous as this symbol would still hold sway over the people who may have aspirations to return the land back to Byzantine control.
In this sense there’s only one possibility that is to take control and possession of such a building and make it a symbol for Islam. In this context that would have meant for Muhammad al fatih to make it into a mosque from which the adhan would be called and people gather for jummah.
Thus doing this firmly established the Islamic dominance over the Byzantine empire and in essence finished it off as a political force.
Furthermore we know that sultan Muhammad al fatih actually negotiated with the patriarchs to provide compensation or in essence the purchasing this building.
And this symbolism wasn’t missed by Mustafa Kemal who after destroying the khilafah took possession of the hagia sofia and turned it into a museum. In essence making religion and Islam in particular a matter of the past. A museum and cultural artefact that no longer had an political nor societal significance.
As for the condemnation by some non Muslims over the returning it as a mosque. This again has nothing to do with their concern about Christians being affected.
There was no concern when it was turned nor maintained as a museum. As this fit within the symbolism and narrative of the secularisation of Turkey. No one was saying it should be returned as a church.
Hence their concern is how Islam is now increasing it’s role in public life even in this symbolic fashion.
So Muslims really need to understand and appreciate the wider political and ideological issue at hand rather than getting bogged down into some sort of mosque v church v museum debate.
This isn’t the issue the real issue is about returning Islam to its role as the dominant belief system for society and basis of law of governance.
This is what is concerning them. They have little to no concern over its use as a church. For evangelical Christians they don’t even consider orthodox Christianity as true Christianity anyways. Similarly in western countries many churches are now abandoned anyways. No one is really that concerned about xtrianity except for some pockets in the Bible Belt in America.
So irrespective of Erdogan’s agenda the issue at the heart of this is the concern the west has over the trajectory of the Muslim world. One that is further putting Islam at its centre and a rejection of the secularisation of the Muslim world.