Sultan M Hali
A lot of furor is being raised in the Christian world to condemn the re-establishment of Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO world heritage site in Istanbul and a global symbol of world history and multicultural representation, as a mosque. Hagia Sophia, once Christendom’s greatest church, which was converted into a mosque under the Ottomans, before becoming a museum in the 20th century, has now been reinstated as a mosque. Even the Pope expressed grief over the historic verdict and maintained silence for several minutes at his weekly Angelus prayer last Sunday, after he talked about Turkey’s decision to convert the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. Officially known as the Great Mosque of Ayasofya, the House of God has been a place of worship for both Christians and Muslims. It was completed in 537 AD at Constantinople for the state church of the Roman Empire by Emperor Justinian I. It was then the world’s largest interior space and among the first to employ a fully pendentive dome and is considered as the epitome of Byzantine style of construction and is said to have “changed the history of architecture”.
The church was dedicated to the Wisdom of God, the Logos, the second person of the Trinity while Sophia is the Latin transliteration of the Greek word for wisdom. After Sultan Muhammad Fateh conquered Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Empire converted Hagia Sophia to a mosque. One of the first acts of the conqueror Mehmed II was to pray in Hagia Sophia, effectively establishing it as a mosque. Many Muslims interpret this as a fulfilment of one of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)’s hadith, widely accepted traditionally as a prophecy, concerning the fall of Constantinople to Muslim hands.
The Pope and all those who find faults with the reinstatement of Hagia Sophia, are apparently not aware of a historical fact that Sultan Muhammad Al-Fateh, after conquering Constantinople, approached the pastors managing Hagia Sophia and offered to purchase it from his personal funds. A deal was struck and the deed was signed, with money being paid from his own purse and not the national treasury. This deed came to light a few weeks ago, when Turkey was in the process of manually reviewing 27 thousand documents and coincidentally found an original title (Tabou) that clearly shows private property ownership. Thus, the current landlords, descendants of the Ottomans, applied for absolute free use of the property as their own, and their request was to return the building to a mosque as they used it since the day they bought it. The Turkish Foreign Minister showed documentary evidence of the deed on TV. Since Islam forbids images of people to be displayed in mosques, officials plan to use lights and curtains to cover up the numerous Byzantine Christian mosaics in the Hagia Sophia, Turkey’s head of religious affairs Ali Erbaº announced on Turkish TV. After prayer, the paintings will be uncovered for visitors once again. Remarkably, entry fee has been waived off by President Erdoðan, who announced: “Like all our mosques, its doors will be open to everyone — Muslim or non-Muslim. As the world’s common heritage, Hagia Sophia, with its new status, will keep on embracing everyone in a more sincere way.”
Two wrongs do not make a right but after the Muslims lost Spain, thousands of mosques were turned into churches, bars and nightclubs. The Grand Masjid of Cordoba was converted into a church. The Alhambra Palace Mosque in Granada was converted to the Santa Maria cathedral. Masjid Qasim Pasha was changed to Saint Michael cathedral. The Jami Masjid of Cordoba was converted to a cathedral. Masjid Ibn Adees was changed to the Salvador Cathedral. Masjidul Murabiteen was converted to the Khan Khausiyyah church. Jami Masjid of Seville was changed to the Church of Mary. The Al-Dabbagin Mosque in Toledo is now a concert and exhibition hall. These are just to name a few but no one is mourning the diversity and rich Islamic history of mosques-turned-churches in Spain that surveil and monitor Muslim tourists and stop them from praying inside. In neighbouring India, the historic Babri Masjid was demolished under the false pretext of it being located on the birthplace of Hindu deity Rama and now a Hindu temple is being built on the site. Hundreds of historical mosques all over India are being razed to the ground and temples are being constructed in their place. The Al-Aqsa mosque is being converted to a Jewish temple but the world only finds fault with Turkey.
Hagia Sophia was a private property of Sultan Muhammad Fateh and his descendants’ desire to have it reinstated as a mosque has been fulfilled. Frivolous propaganda of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reviving the lost era of the Ottomans only exposes the myopic mindset of Islamophobic elements. It is being maliciously propagated that under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey is getting rid of Kemalism—that is, the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), founder of modern Turkey and a father of the nation. This couldn’t be further than the truth. The Ataturk has his own place in history, but Erdogan is definitely trying to reunite Muslims and take pride in their glorious past. The leader, who in 1997 was incarcerated for reciting: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers,” is only building mosques but extending tolerance towards other religions too. The propaganda against him is baseless.
—The writer is retired PAF Group Captain and a TV talk show host.