The Vatican message marking the advent of Ramadan this year, addressing â€œChristians and Muslims: Protecting Together the Places of Worship,” says, â€œFor both Christians and Muslims, churches and mosques are spaces reserved for prayer, personal and communitarian alike. They are constructed and furnished in a way that favors silence, reflection and meditation. They are spaces where one can go deep in himself/herself, so favoring for God-experience in silence. A place of worship of any religion therefore is ‘a house of prayer’.”
This is an important perspective to bear in mind as a controversy erupts over the declaration of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan that he intends to open the Hagia Sophia Museum to Muslim prayers in the wake of the Turkish high court decision that takes away its status as a museum, raising concerns over its status as a UNESCO world heritage site. Hagia Sophia was a Greek Orthodox Church that became a mosque after the Turkish conquest of Constantinople and then a museum under Kemal Ataturk. The fact that the Muslims had not destroyed the Christian murals allowed their restoration.
ErdoÄŸan’s decision has sparked a lively debate on the “Sociology of Islam” listserv. Some have defended this move on the grounds that Turkey is a sovereign state and as such has the right to do whatever it pleases with state property. Others, like Sayyid Syeed of the Islamic Society of North America have objected that Islamic law itself requires respect for the places of worship of other religions, especially of the “People of the Book” citing Umar-al-Khattab’s scrupulous defense of the rights of Christians to the their churches in Jerusalem.
The mere fact that secular international law allows us to convert a museum into a mosque doesn’t mean we should do it. I am not the only one whom this controversy reminds of the incident in the Libyan teacher-turned freedom fighter Umar Mukhtar’s fight against the Italian fascists. When some of his troops wanted to kill the prisoners of war they had captured, Umar insisted there would be no killing of prisoners. When his men protested that Mussolini’s troops would surely have killed them had the battle gone the other way, Umar firmly responded, “They are not our teachers.” (And, no, I am not comparing exclusion of Christian worshipers from a mosque to murder of prisoners. I am saying that in freedom of religion no less than in the rules of war, the worshipers of the nation state are not our teachers.)
Hagia Sophia has been a church, a mosque, and a museum in its long history. We do not wish to see Turkey follow in the steps of Spain where at the Great Mosque at Cordoba, which has been originally been a church, one now sees a sign warning “Roman Catholic prayers only.” Rather than dwell on fine legal points (whether from secular law of the nation state or Muslim fiqh), let us seek a resolution facilitated by good will, magnanimity, and a common devotion to the Lord God Almighty.
Some have defended ErdoÄŸan’s actions on the grounds that Hagia Sophia was the subject of a waqf established by Muhammad Fatih Sultan and that therefore Ataturk’s conversion of the site into a museum is a violation of the terms of the religious endowment. That Ataturk violated the terms of the waqf is beyond doubt, but the implication that restoring the right of Muslims to pray in this mosque prevents respectful tourists from visiting or Christians from praying within is flatly wrong and misrepresents Islam to the world.
President ErdoÄŸan himself can turn this public relations disaster into a teaching moment about Islam. All he need do is unambiguously declare that his intention is to allow both Muslims and Christians to be allowed to pray in the museum (as both Muslims and Christians prayed in the Church of St. Vincent in Spain under Muslim rule and Muslims and Christians do to this day at the Great Mosque in Damascus). This would make it functionally both a church and a mosque even as it also remains a museum open to secular tourists that still want to admire a beautiful architectural achievement that is also a testimony to the faith of adherents of two great religions. It is surely a building such as those mentioned in the Qur’an of which Allah (swt) says, “Did not God check one set of people by means of another, there would surely have been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, in which the name of God is commemorated in abundant measure.” Let His name be commemorated there in abundant measure once again.
Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute
N.B: While I have attempted to reflect some of the points raised in the discussion of this issue on the Sociology of Islam listserv, I speak only for myself and am responsible for any shortcomings herein.