Mohmad Maqbool Waggy
Hagia Sophia (Aaya Sofia in Turkish) is located in Istanbul’s heart and means ‘divine wisdom’. It was initially established as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral. When Istanbul was conquered by Sultan Mehmed II (Muhammad al-Fatih) in 1453 CE, it was converted into a mosque. It remained a mosque until it was turned into a museum by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1934. This year, President Recep Erdogan turned it back into a mosque.
Hagia Sophia was considered an engineering wonder and one of the world’s largest enclosed spaces for about a thousand years. It was designed to make an impression of the Byzantine Empire’s power and wealth upon its subjects as well as visiting dignitaries from other countries. The glorious building of Hagia Sophia seen today is the third of this name to stand on the site. The first, destroyed in a riot, was a wooden basilica established in 360 CE. A grand marble structure was the second, built during the reign of Theodosius II in 415 CE. It, too, was flattened to the floor in the Nika Revolt of 532 CE.
The structure seen today was commissioned in the 6th century by Emperor Justinian II. Construction was begun in 532 CE and the building was opened to the public in 537 CE. The current building of Hagia Sophia was present during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad as he was born in 570 CE.
The monument was desecrated in 1402 CE when Catholic soldiers ransacked it during the fourth crusade. A prostitute was seated on the throne of the patriarch. The cathedral agreed to union with Catholics to save Constantinople from the Turks in 1452 CE. However, Constantinople was conquered by Sultan Mehmed II and fell into the hands of Turks in 1453 CE. The Sultan went to Aaya Sofia and offered his prayers there. Its ownership was given to Muslims as a permanent endowment. In this way, Aaya Sofia got converted to a mosque.
In July 2020, Erdogan, following a court ruling, decreed to change Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. The court ruled that the conversion of the mosque into a museum in 1934 was unlawful as it violated its endower’s will, that of Sultan Mehmed II. Hagia Sophia was thrown open for Friday prayers after a period of 86 years on the 24th of July 2020.
The decision has caused much debate among scholars, politicians, religious leaders, and common people the world over, that whether reverting Hagia Sophia into a mosque is the right or wrong decision? Christians of all denominations who fought for regaining this historical religious monument have condemned the decision. The secularists are also sailing in the same boat. The citizens of Turkey are also divided. The majority of the population wants to reinstate it as a mosque while a significant minority favours it to be a museum.
Among the Muslims across the globe, there are also two opinions about converting Aaya Sofia into a mosque. One group supports its conversion into a mosque, providing the fact of conversion of Kabaa from the house of idolatry worship during the period of jahiliya (ignorance) into a place of practicing monotheistic beliefs of Islam, professed by Prophet Muhammad after conquering Mecca in 08 AH or 630 CE.
Contrary to them, another group challenges the decision of its conversion into a mosque, arguing that in the Holy Quran, Allah has commanded to protect the houses of worship of other faiths.
History speaks volumes about Hagia Sophia and makes us remember that Hagia Sophia was not only a church but the center of crusaders also. It fell to Ottomans when they conquered Constantinople in 1453 CE. They neither destroyed it nor converted it into a palace; instead, they renumerated it with cash and endowed it as permanent Muslim property. They transformed it into a place of worship as they believed it was the place of worship of the same Allah as that of Jews and Christians.
In secularising Hagia Sophia by converting it into a museum in 1934 CE, Kemal Ataturk did not an act out of religious pluralism. It was an anti-religious act of state power. Ataturk was an astute statesman and shrewd strategist. He did not express to the public how he would develop Turkey until he got the power to execute his vision. With great care, he employed his master plan known as Kemalist ideology and started questioning religious values publicly. He asserted that religion is not compatible with science, and secularism was imperative for modernity. Therefore, his act was an intentional act designed to suppress religion and channel money to the exchequer.
The most fundamental significance of reverting Hagia Sophia to a mosque is that the enforcement of secularism by muscle power is vanishing. It is more about rejecting the Kemalist ideology of 1934 CE than celebrating the subjugation of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 CE.
Another importance of the reconversion of Hagia Sophia is the geopolitical expression of Islam. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the question has been discussed how Islam will be expressed geopolitically. Secularism based on the Western liberal idea was projected as the victory over religion in a similar fashion to what Fukuyama, after the collapse of communism, declared as the endpoint of humankind’s ideological evolution with the triumph of western liberal democracy.
Conversion of Hagia Sophia is recognition that Islamic geopolitical leadership has to be Islamic. Turkey under Erdogan wants to play a significant role in leading the Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East, by limiting the dividing Shia-Sunni influence of Iran and Saudi Arabia, respectively. These changes have taken place under the leadership of Erdogan for many years. Converting of Hagia Sophia and Erdogan’s statement that it is a path to freeing the mosque of Al Aqsa is a confirmation of such shifts that have taken place geopolitically.
Another important significance of converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque is the revival of Islamic identity. The Hagia Sophia has been a significant cultural heritage of the Islamic world for five centuries. The severe blows of British colonialists to the Muslims during these five centuries led to the place of worship being turned into a museum. Thus, it was an important step taken by the Turkish government under Erdogan’s leadership in reviving Islamic identity and giving back Islamic heritage to the Islamic world. It is also a sign of rejection of the neo-colonialism of the West.
Lastly but equally importantly, in the words of Turkish columnist Yusuf Kaplan, the opening of Hagia Sofia mosque “is Turkey’s recovery, reclaim of its identity, history, and spirit, its mental liberation… The re-opening of the Hagia Sophia Mosque is the spark that will trigger the great journey we have been called upon so that we can escape the web spun by the West – and which we had entered voluntarily – to build the new age…”
He continues, “Hagia Sophia is a potent expression of the guarantee for non-Muslims’ religious freedom and for them to build their lives around their faith under Muslims’ sovereignty… The conversion of Hagia Sophia burdens us with a great obligation.”
The writer is a research scholar at Department of Politics & Governance, Central University of Kashmir. [email protected]