On 7/10/2020, the Turkish Supreme Court issued a ruling, paving the way for the conversion of the Hagia Sophia Museum in Istanbul to a mosque. Here, the people’s reactions to this event varied, so what is the story of the Hagia Sophia mosque?
On Sunday noon, 12 Jumada Al-Awwal 857 AH, 29/5/1445 CE, the Ottoman forces led by Sultan Mehmed II entered the city of Constantinople. On that day the Sultan ordered the raising of the call to prayer from the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia (the meaning of Sofia in the Greek language is said to be “holy wisdom”). It was once considered the center of the Orthodox world, so he ordered the conversion of this church into a mosque that would later be known as the Great Mosque of Hagia Sophia. He changed the name of Constantinople to “Istanbul, or Islam Bul” which means “the city of Islam” and entered this church and prayed in it the first Friday after the conquest.
The construction of the church was completed in 537 CE, by order of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (527-565), whose rule extended from Spain to the Middle East region. As a religious edifice, it was unparalleled in the Christian world, corresponding to the Vatican the center of the Catholic world, a monument to the power of the Eastern Roman state.
The main building is 82 meters long, 73 meters wide, 55 meters high, and has nine gates. Its surface was covered with mosaic stones and the walls, after conversion into a mosque, are decorated with inscriptions of the Ottoman calligrapher, four cylindrical minarets were added in the Ottoman style.
Constantinople continued to be the capital of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) state until its fall by the Conqueror. Many struggles with the Islamic state have been fought since the time of the Prophet, Al-Rashidi, the Umayyad, the Abbasid, and the Ottoman calligraphers.
Did Al-Fatih take over the church by force?
When Al-Fatih entered the city he gave some Orthodox churches to the Armenian Christians and others to the Jews by virtue of the fact that they were deserted. As for the Muslims needing mosques, he turned some of them into mosques. The number of conquering Ottoman soldiers reached about a quarter of a million soldiers who were in urgent need of places of worship. Many Orthodox churches were retained by their owners.
As for the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia, after the conquest, the Muslims needed a large central mosque. It was not possible to build such a mosque, so the Sultan asked the Christians in the city to sell this “dilapidated church,” as it really was a dilapidated church whose condition deteriorated, particularly after the city’s conditions had completely deteriorated in the latter Byzantine era. The Greek Orthodox Pope agreed to Al-Fatih’s request and Hagia Sophia was purchased and converted into a mosque. This sale is confirmed by the documents in the Ottoman archive until today. Turkish references recently revealed a historical document confirming that Sultan Muhammad II, known as Muhammad Al-Fatih, bought the famous Church of Hagia Sophia from priests with his own money and not the state’s money. He registered it with a private entitlement deed in his name. The matter was documented through a contract of sale and entitlement of property, with proof of payment of the amount in bills of payment, after opening the city of Constantinople during his rule of the Ottoman Sultanate.
Then he endowed the property for the benefit of the Waqf association in the name of “Abu Al-Fath Sultan Muhammad.” According to historical review, in which twenty seven thousand documents were reviewed, including an original title deed clarifying private ownership of the property. Within it, the property owners submitted a request to rebuild the mosque as it was on the day of its purchase. History testifies that the buying process was not an indecency and did not exercise any kind of unfair authority. Rather, Al-Fatih insisted that the church drawings remain inside the building and still respect the feelings of Christians, but only covered them in order to pray inside. Since that time, the Hagia Sophia has become a great Islamic mosque with great symbolism among Muslims, until the military leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who ended the rule of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924 and declared a secular republic in its place, banned religious worship in it in 1931, then transformed it in 1935 to an art museum with Islamic and Christian archaeological treasures.
Some claim that Muslims do not have the right to convert this church to a mosque. Their argument is that Umar ibn al-Khattab (ra) when he conquered Jerusalem, preserved the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. He refrained from praying in it so that Muslims would not convert it to a mosque later on the pretext that Umar (ra) prayed there.
The response to this is that the Ottoman Sultan bought the church first and because the legal ruling on converting churches to mosques depends on the type of agreement with the people of the lands opened to Islam. The opening of Jerusalem by Umar (ra) was peaceful and he agreed with its people what is known as the Umari Covenant to keep their churches, crosses and religious symbols, something that Muslims honored throughout their rule of the city. However, if the land was forcibly conquered, by war and force, then the Muslim ruler would act in accordance with the public interest and if he opined the conversion of a temple to a mosque, he would do so.
One who opposes this behavior may object, considering it a violation of the religious sanctities of non-Muslims. We say to him: These are universal norms practiced by all peoples and nations. If you object to this conduct of Muhammad Al-Fatih, you must object at the same time to the conversion of the mosques of Andalusia to churches, including the Great Mosque of Cordoba. If you remain silent about what happened to Andalusian mosques, converting them into churches, then you must keep silent about what Al-Fatih did. If you consider the work of Al-Fatih contrary to “international law,” which the European states constructed to confront the Ottoman Caliphate, or that there is a lack of respect for other religions, let us hear your voice calling for the return of the Andalusian mosques to their Islamic origin and their owners, the Muslims.
Another matter: If this is the case with the temples of the lands that were forcibly opened, then let the demand for the practice of the Umari Covenant apply upon the cases of the mosques of the Muslims that were converted into churches after agreement between the Muslims and their enemies, such that the occupiers maintain the mosques of Muslims as they are. This was so in the case of the mosques of Granada. After the surrender treaty was concluded between Abu Abdullah Al-Saghir, Fernando II and Isabella, the first rulers of Al-Andalus after the Spanish occupation, in the aftermath of the founding of the Andalusian revolution that led to the end of Islamic rule of Andalusia, the Spanish began to violate the treaty little by little. The agreement was overturned such that the mosques of Granada and the rest of Andalusia were converted into churches!!
Returning to the Conquest of Constantinople, Muhammad al-Fatih was quick to transform the Church of Hagia Sophia into a mosque for a political purpose, in order to deter all the Orthodox powers in the world from thinking about attacking and restoring Constantinople, after it became the capital of the powerful Ottoman Sultanate. Surprisingly, no Orthodox Christian has demanded from that incident until now that the church be returned to them. No one objected when Mustafa Kemal converted the mosque to a museum. Neither the Orthodox nor others called to returned the museum/mosque to its origin; a church. When the Turkish Supreme Court announced the cancellation of Ataturk’s decision to convert the mosque into a museum, Russia announced that converting Turkey’s Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque is an internal Turkish affair, expressing its hope that the Turkish authorities will take into account the importance of this historic landmark, proclaiming “We decline comment, this is an internal matter for the Turkish Republic.” The Russian Orthodox Church regretted that the Turkish judiciary had not listened to “the concerns of millions of Christians.” In Greece, the Greek Ministry of Culture said that the ruling of the Turkish court that paved the way to transform the Hagia Sophia Museum in Istanbul into a mosque, represents “open provocation” of the civilized world. “Today’s decision, which came as a result of the political will of President (Tayyip) Erdogan, is an open provocation to the civilized world which recognises the unique value and ecumenical nature of the monument” said Culture Minister, Lina Mendoni, according to Reuters news agency. The minister said that Greece does not intend to interfere in Turkey’s internal affairs, but Hagia Sophia is a monument of importance for all of humanity. However, it seems that their statements are nothing more than registering protest.
Regardless of Erdogan’s motive for this action, it is an action that has restored things to the right path and is on the right track, although Erdogan announced in 2013, when he was prime minister, that he would not consider changing the status of any of Hagia Sofia, as long as there is another great Islamic monument in Istanbul that is almost empty of worshipers, Sultan Ahmed Mosque, whose construction dates back to the 17th century, whilst pointing out that the city has more than three thousand mosques. This suggests that his action of reopening the mosque is for political purposes, the most important of which is to raise his popularity in preparation for the upcoming elections.