The Aya Sophia although overwhelmed in terms of size, splendour and magnificence by its neighbour the Sultan Ahmet Mosque (the Blue Mosque), it still remains a potent symbol of the victory of Islam over the Christian West. It highlights Islam’s latent ability to marshal the considerable resources of the Islamic world and defeat the West in their strongest positions rather than their weakest. Conquered by Sultan Mehmed II, the 21 year old commander of the Muslim army in 1453, it marked the culmination of eight centuries of struggle and the fulfilment of the prophetic tradition:
“Verily you shall conquer Constantinople. What a wonderful leader will he be, and what a wonderful army will that army be!” and “The first army that goes on expedition to Constantinople will be forgiven” Musnad Ahmad, Al-Hakim, Al-Jami’ al-Saghir.
Sultan Mehmed II marched into the Aya Sophia and in an act of humility and gratefulness to Allah (swt), emphasising that the victory was only from Allah (swt), poured dust over his head.
Five centuries later after the destruction of the Khilafah at the hands of the traitor Mustapha Kamal, and in an act of enmity and resentment towards Islam with an eagerness to the prove his secular credentials, he converted the Aya Sophia into a museum and stopped the observance of the prayers after centuries of its observance.
On 10 July 2020 Turkey’s highest court cancelled the decision of the Council of Ministers of in 1934 which imposed the transformation of the mosque into a museum. The Council of State relied on the title of Fatih Sultan Mehmet that the building was intended to serve as a mosque and open to the public. According to the court, this mosque destination clause is imprescriptible and cannot suffer from any change.
Sultan Fatih purchased the church from the Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople, an acquisition that was carried out in his own name, not as the ruler or for the state. Payment was made from the personal wealth of the sultan not that of Bayt al-Mal (Public Treasury). It was thus a personal contract.
Following the acquisition, the sultan set up a waqf and left his new property to it. This transfer of ownership was documented by a notarial act. At the time of the building of the Land Registers (Tabu), this property was registered as exclusive property of the waqf of Muhammad al-Fatih. The state council investigation identified 27 historical documents, with them the original title (sanad tabu) specifying the owner of the building as the waqf set up by the sultan.
The international community criticised the move to re-convert the Aya Sophia and claimed that the building is a world heritage site.
If we look at the claim of a church being converted into a mosque, even though it was a museum, Aya Sophia was not simply a church. The Ottoman ruler saw Aya Sophia as a unique case. This is because it represented the cultural and political centre of the Byzantine Empire. Just like Constantinople was seen as the capital of this empire. Hence this highly politically symbolic structure that was the dominant architecture of the city was not just a simple church but represented the political and cultural centre of the Byzantine Empire.
Aya Sophia is more analogous to the White House in the US or the Houses of Parliament in the UK or the Reichstag in Germany.
After the defeat of the Nazis there was a race between the USSR and the West to occupy and thus take control over the Reichstag building due to its symbolic power. It was inconceivable they would have fought and defeated Nazi Germany and then allowed the Nazis to maintain control over their symbolic structures and buildings. It would make no sense to defeat an empire, take over its cities but then allow the main political and cultural symbol of that empire to be maintained by its original adherents.
In this sense there is only one possibility, that is to take control and possession of such a building and make it a symbol for Islam. In this context that would have meant for Muhammad Al-Fatih (the Conqueror) to make the Aya Sophia a mosque from which the adhan would be called and people gather for jummah. Thus doing this firmly established the Islamic dominance over the Byzantine Empire and in essence finished it off as a political force.
This symbolism was not missed by Mustafa Kemal who after destroying the Khilafah took possession of the Aya Sophia and turned it into a museum. In essence making religion and Islam in particular a matter of the past. A museum and cultural artefact that no longer had any political or societal significance.
As for the condemnation by some non-Muslims over returning it as a mosque: this again has nothing to do with their concern about Christians being affected. There was no concern when it was turned nor maintained as a museum. As this fits within the symbolism and narrative of the secularisation of Turkey. No-one was arguing it should be returned as a church. But today when Islamic symbols make there way to public life, Islam’s return is a problem for them and condemnation begins.
Whilst the AKP and Erdogan are taking credit for the council’s decision, this needs to be placed in perspective. The AKP and Erdogan have dominated Turkish politics since 2002 and they control all aspects of the country’s political life, despite this unprecedented power, they said nothing about the Aya Sophia for the best part of two decades. This is because the return of the Aya Sophia has no relationship with the AKP government. Indeed, it was an NGO -the Permanent Foundations Service to Historical Artifacts and Environment Association, an Istanbul-based organisation, that filed the petition seeking annulment of the decision to convert Aya Sophia into a museum after being a mosque for nearly 500 years.
The outpouring of emotion across the Muslim world is due to the sentiments the ummah has for Islam and the correcting of an injustuce. It shows when there is political will things can change and wrongs corrected. The Aya Sophia should be the beginning, the blessed land of al-Quds remains occupied, Andalus and Kashmir remain occupied. These wrongs also need to be corrected. We are speaking of Aya Sophia today as our forefathers were spreading Islam in the 16th century. Islamic rule has been abandoned in the world and this is the ultimate crime that needs to be corrected, only then can the legacy of not just the Ottomans but our prophet (saw) and the order of our creator be fulfilled.