Once the largest and most important cathedral in the world, the UNESCO World Heritage Site was initially an Orthodox Christian church for almost a thousand years on the orders of Byzantine emperor Justinian in today’s Istanbul, former Constantinople, named after the emperor Constantine who commissioned the original structure. The fall of Constantinople to Islam was foretold by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and successive Muslim armies had sought to fulfil this prophecy, starting with the Umayyad caliphate as early as the 7th century. As part of its turbulent history, the Hagia Sophia was even converted into a Roman Catholic cathedral for almost 60 years during the Crusader occupation in 1204 during the 4th Crusade.
However, the city’s capture would be overseen by Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II in 1453, the Hagia Sophia was converted into an imperial mosque in the empire’s new capital, where it functioned as such for some 500 years before the demise of the caliphate in 1924 in the aftermath of the First World War.
In line with Ataturk’s drive for secularisation in the nascent Turkish republic and as a goodwill gesture to the Orthodox Christian world, the church was made into a museum. However, although Turkey is technically a secular state, it is also an overwhelmingly Muslim-majority country, one that is also highly nationalistic too. It is therefore unsurprising that there have been campaigns for decades to restore the ancient building to a mosque. There are also Islamic jurisprudential rulings to consider on the permissibility in altering the status of a mosque, or masjid.
Previous petitions requesting the Hagia Sophia, known locally as Ayasofya, to be used for once again for prayers, as in 2016 have been rejected but it appears this time round, the courts will rule in favour of the move which is supported by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who last year described the conversion of the mosque to a museum as a “very big mistake”.
A Turkish official has already disclosed to Reuters that the court’s decision is expected to be an annulment, while an official of Erdogan’s ruling AKP party also reiterated this. According to Hürriyet columnist Abdulkadir Selvi, the court has already made the annulment ruling and is set to publish it today.
The association committed to the mosque’s restoration, backed by a team of lawyers, submitted the seasoned argument that the decision to turn the mosque into a museum was unlawful as the state lacked the authority to alter the status of the Hagia Sophia, being as it were administered by an Islamic trust known as a Waqf, much like the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the now-destroyed Babri Mosque in Ayodhya (India) and the Cordoba Mosque in Spain, which is currently a museum.
Based on Islamic jurisprudence it is largely agreed upon that a mosque belongs to Allah and cannot be sold or closed down as a place of worship, at the very least it is disliked. Although it being a former church has its own ramifications. According to Studies in Early Islamic Tradition, the classical scholar Zarkashi ruled in favour of establishing a mosque on a place that was once a non-Muslim place of prayer. It is also worth noting that the Umayyyad Mosque in Damascus was purchased from the Christians at the time, however the Hagia Sophia turning into a mosque as a result of conquest may lead to a difference of opinion, one Greek-based Mufti maintains it is still a church and it would be provocative to change its status.
However, it is believed that with recent legal precedents, the decision will be different this time round. Last year the same court revoked the museum status of the Kariye, a former Byzantine church, enabling it to return to being a mosque. In fact over the past decade four sites have re-opened as such.
Quranic recitations on 29 May at Hagia Sophia to mark the anniversary of Mehmet’s victory over Istanbul was also a telling sign of things to come.
The impending move of course is not without its critics, not only among secularist Turks but understandably from Greece, which see itself as the cultural inheritor of the Byzantine Church, in addition to fellow Orthodox-majority Russia, who consider it a threat to Christianity and divisive. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also weighed in on the debate by urging that the Hagia Sophia to remain accessible to all.
However, Erdogan amid growing pre-existing tensions with Greece, responded by saying: “Is it you managing Turkey or us?” emphasising Turkey’s sovereign right to decide on its own internal affairs. He did though, reassure concerns for religious minorities by stating that there are some 400 active churches and synagogues in the country. Concerns of accessibility are of no issue to the neighbouring Sultan Ahmet or “Blue Mosque”, which attracts tourists and Muslim worshippers alike. There is no reason why this cannot be replicated with the Hagia Sophia.
A spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry also issued a statement following Pompeo’s remarks, “Hagia Sophia, situated on our land is the property of Turkey, like all our cultural assets,” it said. Any issue regarding Hagia Sophia is “our internal affair as part of Turkey’s sovereign rights”.
Of course the political motives behind the move are also quite evident when set against the backdrop of a potential currency crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, but significantly the loss of Istanbul by the AKP in the re-run of the mayoral elections last year. The potent symbolism of Erdogan being able to perform prayers in the Hagia Sophia, centuries after the great Ottoman conqueror Mehmet before him, timed with the upcoming fourth anniversary of the failed 15 July coup is also one that cannot be missed. The fact is, such a move taps into Erdogan’s religious, conservative and ultra-nationalist support-base.
Ultimately, the decision on the status of Hagia Sophia is Turkey’s as a sovereign nation, however its restoration to a mosque will upset many liberals and Orthodox Christians but it will also be welcomed not just by Erdogan’s supporters and many of Turkey’s Muslim population, but by those far beyond Turkey’s borders in the wider Islamic world.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.