Turkey

Reconversion of Hagia Sofia: Triumph or tragedy?

Print edition : August 28, 2020

Hundreds of faithfuls gather early in the morning outside Hagia Sophia for Eid-al Adha prayers, in Istanbul on July 31. Photo: Cavit Ozgul/AP

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and invited guests attend Friday prayers at Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque during the building’s first official prayers after being reconverted into a mosque, in Istanbul on July 24. Photo: Handout/Getty Images

The recent reconversion of Hagia Sophia in Turkey into a mosque is another indication of the growing strength of communal politics the world over.

Hagia Sophia was a patriarchal cathedral built by Justinian I in 537 C.E. Its conversion into the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque took place in 1453, after the conquest of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmet II, and into a museum, by Kemal Ataturk, in 1934. On July 10, 2020, it was reconverted into a mosque with the same old name. This controversial action by the Turkish government with regard to the Christian-Muslim monument signifies the growing strength the world over of right-wing politicians of all religions who misuse religion for their political ends and to stoke religio-cultural coflictss. The museum was a great tourist attraction.

I was pained at the sight of the first juma namaz held on the streets surrounding the museum and the khutba delivered by the imam, with the Ottoman-era sword in his hand. Muslims pray to one universal God to guide them to the righteous path. On seeing the video of the namaz on the streets (if those who were praying were doing so to mark their triumph), I wondered whether they were praying to Allah or to the brick-and-mortar structure. The Blue Mosque is just a few hundred feet away from Hagia Sophia. Those who wanted to pray to Allah could have done so there.

The reconversion of the Hagia Sophia Museum to the Grand Mosque is not a triumph of Islam. It is, I dare say, a triumph of politics that is alien to Islam. It is the triumph of a right-wing politician, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is accused of corruption and is rapidly losing his popularity owing to the poor performance of his government on the economic front, and whose authoritarian rule represses the opposition. Erdogan reconfigured the Kemalist state, which imposed secularism, to an authoritarian state by misusing Islam to consolidate and perpetuate his rule. United States President Donald Trump is manipulating Christian sentiments to rally right-wing Christian evangelists to back him for a second term. Former Republican President George W. Bush stoked religious sentiment by calling the U.S.’ invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2003 a crusade. Islamists such as the Islamic State (I.S.), the Taliban and Al Qaeda misuse Islam to achieve their political objective of an intolerant state. The Bodhu Bala Sena in Sri Lanka and the Myanmarese military misuse Buddhism to mobilise faithful followers for their version of Buddhist nationalism and an authoritarian state, and in India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government misuses Hindu religion to weaken all democratic institutions and push for the centralisation of power. The reconversion of Hagia Sophia will fuel Islamophobia and immensely strengthen right-wing politicians across the board.

Misusing religion

Erdogan is misusing Islam for another political objective as well—to expand the boundaries of Turkey, re-conquer the Ottoman territories and become the leader of the Muslim world. However, Muslim countries were never united as they had their respective national goals to pursue. Erdogan’s military interfered in the Syrian conflict with the objective of annexing Syria’s Kurdish-inhabited territory. It failed miserably. Then it interfered in the Lybian conflict without making much headway.

Islam respects the freedom of conscience. There are several verses in the Quran in support of the freedom of religion. The Quran explicitly states that there is no compulsion in religion. “For you your religion; and for me mine.” Jews and Christians are considered people of the book. Sufi saints in India considered even Hindus as people of the book. Allah has sent prophets to all regions of the world to guide people and the Quran reveals the same truth that has been revealed through earlier prophets. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, in his commentary on the Quran, stated that a Muslim must believe all religions to be true. Non-Muslims in Muslim-majority countries must enjoy equal rights. The Quranic righteous path is to strive for justice, struggle against inequalities in society, serve the neediest, deliver them from oppression and respect diversity. Diversity is God-ordained so that we know each other. Quran 2:148 lays down: “For each [religious following] is a direction toward which it faces. So race to [all that is] good. Wherever you may be, Allah will bring you forth [for judgement] all together.” The centre of all religions is Him, even though their ways may be different. We are ordained not to fight with each other but to compete in doing good deeds.

Political Islamists have emerged as hypocrites. They are supporting Erdogan’s conversion of the Hagia Sophia Museum. Their support is not only to a mosque, as in Islam no mosque is holier than another as you do not pray to the mosque but in a mosque, as congregational prayer is recommended. Political Islamists and Islamic evangelists feel triumphant at the conversion as they think that Islam is superior to other religions, and the Sharia, which has considerable human element and interpretation, must be established in Muslim-majority countries and imposed on non-Muslims or they should live as second-class citizens subjugated by Muslims. However, wherever they are in the minority, they claim the right to practise their religion and follow the Sharia. If the Islamists are celebrating the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, would they accept similar conversion of mosques into religious structures of other religions where Muslims are in a minority? They willy-nilly justify the treatment meted out to the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and the Uighur Muslims in China.

However, the majority of Muslims in their everyday life desire to live peacefully with non-Muslims in their neighbourhood and have an attitude of cultural dialogue, which leads to diversity within Islam. Islam is a matter of faith for them and they have learnt to live peacefully with non-Muslim neighbours. They know the place of religion in their life. Conversion of Hagia Sophia is not a conflict between Islam and Christians. It is a conflict between a minority, political Islamists like Erdogan, and the Islam of the ordinary faithful.

Monuments of power

Religion should be a source of knowledge and values. All religions have common values. They teach spirituality They teach us not to be vulgar consumerists and individualistic persons but to be conscious about our duties to society, share space with others and live in solidarity, coming to the aid of the needy. Imposing structures such as Hagia Sophia have been monuments of power and authority to overawe and mesmerise ordinary people who need livelihoods, housing, education, access to health services, and fair opportunities to work hard and succeed. Imperial religious structures mesmerise ordinary people into submission to the will and desire of the elite. Hindu nationalists are also constructing such monuments. The BJP installed a grand statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in Narmada district of Gujarat and the Maharashtra government is constructing a statue dedicated to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj in the Arabia Sea off the Mumbai coast. The proposed Ram temple in Ayodhya is also a statement of power rather than a place of piety where the faithful experience the presence of God and feel liberated and inspired to pursue truth and the true meanings of life.

There should be an end to the conversion of religious structures. Monuments like Hagia Sophia should be the heritage of humanity accessible to people of all faiths; the mosque should be restored as a museum. Those in possession of Hagia Sophia and such monuments should hold them in trust as the heritage of all. Here I am reminded of the Prophet of Islam inviting Christians who came to meet him in Medina to pray in their own tradition inside the mosque. One day, when no classroom was available for my lectures for an honour’s course on Islam at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, the college management opened its chapel for my lecture. I wonder if Muslims would open their mosques for people of other faiths to pray. The Lotus Temple in Delhi is built and maintained by the Bahai community but for people of all faiths to pray in their own traditions.

Irfan Engineer is Director, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, and Fellow of Islam and Liberty Network.

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