By T.O. Shanavas, New Age Islam
08 August 2020
The Church of the Hagia Sophia, or Holy Wisdom, in Istanbul was first built in the year of 350 AD. It is the third church of the Orthodox world after the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Eleven hundred years after, it was converted into a mosque by Emperor Fatih Sultan Mehmed who invaded Constantinople in 1453. Five hundred years after that, then president of the secular republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, turned it into a museum, accessible to all. Through all these changes of status, the shrine of the Hagia Sophia has remained in the heart of the Eastern Orthodox Christian world as a site of Christian worship, sanctified by the blood of martyrs. And Hagia Sophia is a UNESCO world heritage site and a global symbol of world history and multicultural representation.
Why President Erdogan chose to convert church preserved as museum to mosque? Mr. Erdogan’s current political standing after 17 years in power as prime minister and president is shaky, and he needs to feed his nationalist base. Erdogan’s shortsighted, cynical campaign struck at the very heart of world culture and Istanbul’s essential character. This is a dangerous decision of a beleaguered autocrat motivated by a desire to punish Istanbul’s inhabitants, who voted decisively against him, and by a desire to consolidate his position by stirring sectarian animosity between his pious followers and those attached to secular traditions.
Some Muslims, including myself, are not cozy with the change of the status of the museum. From many Muslims, it stands out as an unjust and unethical act contrary to Sunnah (the traditions and practices of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him). For most Muslims, the religious pluralism of the Quran echoes the protection of “monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of God is much mentioned.” (22:40.
“Mahomet sent from God to teach mankind, and declare the Divine Commission in truth, wrote these things. That the cause of Christian religion determined by God, might remain all parts of the East, and of the West, as well amongst the inhabitants, as strangers, near and remote, known, and unknown: to all these people I leave this present writing, as an inviolable league, as a decision of all farther controversies, and a law whereby justice is declared, and strict observance enjoined. Therefore, whosoever of the Moselmans Faith shall neglect to perform these things, and violate this league, and the manner of infidels break it, and transgress what I command herein, he breaks the Compact of God, resists this agreement, and condemns his Testament, whether he be a King, or any other of the faithful…I promise to defend their judges in my provinces, with my force with my Horse and Foot, Auxiliaries, and other my faithful followers; and to preserve them from their enemies, whether remote or near, and secure them both in peace and war: and to protect their Churches, Temples, Oratories, Monasteries, and places of Pilgrimage wheresoever situated whether in Mountain or Valley, Cavern or House, a plain, or upon the Sand, or in what sort of edifice so ever: also to preserve their Religion and their goods in what part so ever they are, whether at Land or Sea, East or West, even as I keep myself and my Scepter, and the faithful believers of my own people. Likewise, to receive them into my protection from all harm, vexation, offence, and hurt,…Wherefore I do conjure my people by God and His Prophet to maintain these things, and fulfill them, in what part so ever of the world they are. And the Messenger of God shall recompense them for the same; the perpetual observation of which he seriously recommends to them, until the Day of Judgement, and dissolution of the of the world…”
(Ref: The Covenants of Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World. John Andrew Morrow. Pp 227, 229).
There are other similar covenants of Prophet (pbuh) with Persian, Sinai, Najran, and Assyrian Christians. Khalif Umar Ibn Khathab (ra) meticulously self-practiced Prophet (s)’ guidance in dealing with people of other faiths. It is recorded by Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad ibn Jarīr ibn Yazid al-Ṭabarī (224–310 AH; 839–923 CE) in Ta’rikh al-rusul Wa’l muluk (The History of Al-Tabari). Here are clauses pertinent clauses to the context from the covenant of Umar Ibn Khathab with the Christian Patriarch at the time of surrender of Jerusalem:
“In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. This is the assurance of safety (aman) which the servant of God, Umar, the Commander of the Faithful, has granted to the people of Jerusalem…Their churches will not be inhabited [(by Muslims] and will not be destroyed. Neither they nor the land on which they stand, nor their cross, nor their property will be damaged. They will not be forcefully converted…’
(Ref: The History of Tabari, translated by Yohanan Friedmann, Vol.XII, p 191)
It is a well-known fact that Umar Ibn Khattab rejected to pray at Christian church because he feared that later Muslims would convert the church into mosque because Caliph prayed there:
‘Later Muslims express their contempt for the Christian belief by calling the Anastasis al-qumamah (“the Dungheap”) instead of al-quiyamah (“the resurrection”). Umar, however, showed no such chauvinism, even in the excitement of an important military victory. While he was standing beside the tomb, the time for Muslim prayer came around, and Sophronius invited the Caliph to pray where he was. Umar courteously refused: neither would he pray in Constantine’s Martyrium. Instead he went outside and prayed on the steps beside the busy thoroughfare of the Cardo Maximus. He explained to the patriarch that had he prayed inside the Christian shrine, the Muslims would have confiscated them and convert them into an Islamic place of worship to commemorate their Caliph’s prayer in the bayt al-maqdis. Umar immediately wrote a charter forbidding Muslims to pray on the steps of the Martyrium or build mosque there. Later he prayed in the Nea and again, was careful to ensure that it would remain in Christian hand.”
(Ref: Jerusalem One City, Three Faiths. Karen Armstrong. p.229).
The Hagia Sophia is an enormous architectural marvel in Istanbul, Turkey
This historical event was reported by British historian H.G. Wells, American historians John W Draper, Will Durant, and others. Umar Ibn Khattab was not only respectful to Christian holy sites but Jewish holy places also:
“For years, the Christians had used the site of ruined Jewish Temple as the city rubbish dump. The Caliph helped his Muslims to clear the garbage with his hands...”
(Ref: Holy War. Karen Armstrong. p.31)
In summary, Turkish decision to convert the Hagia Sophia into mosque is absolutely against the Sunnah (the traditions and practices of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him), and is equal to the rejection of Prophet (s). It is still not too late for the Turkish President Erdogan to revoke his shortsighted move to change the Museum into mosque. Currently with its long history in background, the preservation of Hagia Sophia as museum allowing the equal access to people of all faith is the best solution to celebrate religious pluralism of Islam, and also a solution for Erdogan and his Turkish patrons to live by the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). In a museum environment, some may choose to visit museum for the spiritual comfort and others may be attracted by its architectural or artistic splendor. Whatever may the driving force to visit museum by Muslims and Christians, they are there consumed by the radiant presence of God or for the glorification of God.
So, I implore President Erdogan to return to the Sunnah of Prophet (pbuh) and restore Hagia Sophia to its Museum status.
[Author of book: “The Islamic Theory of Evolution: The Missing Link between Darwin and The Origin of Species.” Co-author of the book with Prof. Howard J Van Till and Rabbi David Kay : And God Said, “Let There Be Evolution”: Reconciling the Book of Genesis, the Qur’an and the Theory of Evolution, by Prof. Charles M. Wynn of Eastern Connecticut University and Prof. Arthur W. Wiggins of Oakland University (Editors)
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