Will The Real Aya Sofia Please Stand Up?
Church, Mosque, Museum – the Aya Sofia has gone under many guises and many purposes over the years and each change comes at times of momentous change. This time, it was no different. By designating that the building would go back to being a mosque, the Turkish courts have set off a firestorm of controversy across the world. It was understandable that faithful Christians would object. It cannot be anything but galling to see one of the greatest church buildings of Christianity turned into one of the worlds most famous mosques. It is the same feeling that Muslims get when they see the grand mosque of Cordoba used as a cathedral. However, some Muslims were also sometimes conflicted or even downright hostile to the reversion of the Aya Sofia to a mosque. Why were they upset? Was there weight to their feeling that this was an act that was against the laws and spirit of Islam? How true is it that this was pure political theatre? I decided to examine each argument as each point says much about us and our current mentality. 1. It should just remain a museum It IS remaining a museum. The ruling and the government says it’s a mosque and museum, but unfortunately, if you read the headlines you’ll be given the impression that the museum is being destroyed. This isn’t the case. So if the museum remains, the only thing that people are really objecting to is the right for Muslims to pray in the building. Yet, the Vatican can be a functioning Church and a Museum? No problem. Yet, St Paul’s Cathedral can be a tourist attraction and a Cathedral at the same time? No problem. Yet the Granada cathedral can be a cathedral and a tourist attraction at the same time? No problem. Only the Muslims are somehow exempt from the ability to combine museum and mosque in one building. There is no logic to this. Instead, this argument is full of the arrogance of those who have been far to used to applying one rule for themselves and one rule for others. 2. It was illegal to turn it into a mosque in the first place? A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. This issue shows the truth behind that saying very clearly as many Muslims quote the example of Umar and his treatment of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. They say, not without a little pious sanctimony, that Umar exemplified that Islam is not a triumphalist religion and though he could have converted the church into a mosque, he did not. Islam isn’t a triumphalist religion, but it also isn’t a lawless wasteland where people can just make up rules as they go along. Amongst the many, many rules of engagement are that if a land surrenders, the inhabitants keep their property and buildings and if they don’t, they forfeit them. Jerusalem surrendered and Damascus surrendered. Constantinople (despite multiple attempts requesting it do so) did not. Therefore, Islamically, the conversion of the Church into a mosque was legal. This is highlighted by the fact that a district of Constantinople called Psamatya (present day Koca Mustafa Pasha) surrendered to Muhammad Fatih separately. The area had the highest density of extant churches since none were touched or taken over. 3. But it has been a museum for so long now, so why turn it back? Some sources say that they have found evidence of the Church being purchased by Muhammad Fatih with his own money. Even if you choose not to believe this as the evidence has yet to be verified, the fact that the entire complex became a Waqf (Islamic endowment) is definitive. Waqfs cannot be unilaterally taken over or converted to another use. The simple universally acknowledged truth is that the conversion of the Aya Sofia from mosque to museum was a decision taken in an illegal manner. It was nothing less than state sanctioned theft to satisfy a political objective of the hyper-secular post-war Government. This was injustice and it is not a good look to say that injustice should be allowed to continue because it has been doing so for over 8 decades. 4. We don’t need more mosques in Istanbul? I wonder if anyone would think it reasonable if their local mosque was taken over unilaterally by the Government and when they asked for it back they brushed off by officials saying, “there are lots of mosques in the city and many are half empty. We are keeping this one.” Of course not. So if it is not good enough for you, why should it be good enough for anyone else? At the end of the day, the return of the building to the original Owner – Allah – is not something we are allowed to rationalise or barter away. Allah has no need for even 1 mosque, but that does not mean we should stop building them or start giving them away. This same logic can be applied to anything – you have 10 pairs of shoes. You cannot possibly wear 10 pairs of shoes at the same time so the state will unilaterally take over some of them. It seems cringeworthy that we even need to resort to such crude analogies for how ridiculous some of the arguments – but here we are. 5. This is all a politically motivated Every decision in a public sphere is political or can be construed to be political in some way. Building the Aya Sofia into a magnificent cathedral was a political decision by Justinian. Turning it into a mosque upon conquest was also a political decision by Muhammad Fatih. Stopping prayers in the mosque and converting it into a museum only was a political decision by Mustafa Kemal. And now, returning the building to use as a mosque and museum is also a political decision by the current Turkish state. So the question is not whether it is a political act to convert the building – it will always have a political dimension. The question is whether you like the politics of someone who was praised by the Prophet ﷺ in a hadith (Muhammad Fatih) or someone who insulted that same Prophet ﷺ as an “immoral Arab” (Mustafa Kemal.) 6. This will hurt the feelings of non-Muslims and make us look bad This is probably the only argument with any weight in it. All other arguments are intellectual (and less than intellectual) smokescreens for the fact that we don’t want to unnecessarily hurt the feelings of others – especially when we need all the friends we can get. This is understandable given our current geopolitical situation. This is also why you are more likely to find Muslims living as minorities objecting to the change of status, reflecting their own precarious situation in their respective countries. However, if we look at it objectively we see that this argument also has limitations. Muslims are equally if not more hurt at the ethnic cleansing that took place in Andalusia. Does that mean we get the Al-Hambra or the Cordoba mosque back? What about the Parthenon since that used to be a mosque – conquered by the same Muhammad Fatih? What about the Kremlin where St Basils Basilica was made from bricks of a Tatar mosque? Oh, and can we have the Philippines back while we are all trying to not offend each other? The sense of entitlement, the arrogance and the colonial mindset that makes people believe that they have an automatic right matter to override the history and faith of the people who rightfully care for, preserve and use the Aya Sofia today is breathtaking to behold. The hypocrisy that makes them demand of the Muslim world an action that they have never – not once – done themselves and in the same week as the anniversary of the genocide at Srebrenica (for which they remain deafeningly silent) shows what everyone has as their priorities. Still, I understand all that because it is human nature. They’re shooting their shot. But as a Muslim, if you are against the reversion of the Aya Sofia to be a mosque again and a museum – then just like Muhammad Fatih conquered Constantinople, maybe we need to conquer our own inferiority complex, our own ignorance and our own insecurities.
2020-07-24 | #Current Affairs, History and Seerah, News and Views | English | MuslimMatters