The news of converting back Aya Sophia into a mosque, after the long awaited court ruling to overturn the 1934 secular decree of Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk”, was welcomed across the Muslim world. The symbolic move by Ataturk was made to mark the end of Islamic rule not only in Turkey, but across the Muslim world, and the final nail in the coffin for the Ottoman Khilafah.
One architect recently highlighted “as the former capital city of Ottoman Empire might have been intentionally deprived of public funds in the early republic years, in order to let the recent traces of the Imperial rule die away”– (ITU A|Z • Vol 15 No 3 • November 2018).
The Aya Sophia was the most significant symbol of the region and converting it into a museum was to relay to Muslims worldwide that the Khilafah belongs in the history books and it is something of the past. This was part of the colonialist plan to show the Muslim world thay had destroyed the Khilafah and locked it up in a museum.
The significance of this beautiful mosque is directly linked to the opening of Istanbul. The opening was foretold in a hadith, narrated by Abdullah ibn Bishr Al-Khath’ami, from his father that he heard the Prophet ﷺ say:
“Verily you shall conquer Constantinople. What a wonderful leader will her leader be, and what a wonderful army will that army be!” (Musnad Imam Ahmad)
Inspired by this hadith, Istanbul was opened on the 29th May 1453. Sultan Fatih went directly to the Aya Sophia and the adhan was called from inside the church. The Aya Sophia was not just a church, but it had a political significance; it symbolised the power and domination of the Byzantine Empire from the time of Justinian I until the Ottoman period. This marked the end of the unjust Byzantine rule, and the dominance of Islam over Istanbul. Just as the building of the church, the Aya Sophia, signified the victory of Christianity over Paganism, the conversion of the Aya Sophia to a mosque would signify the triumph of Islam over the Byzantine Christian rule.
The outrage by the secular West, to the conversion of the museum to a mosque, reveals the true nature and the hands behind Ataturk’s original decision to convert it into a secular museum: “We are disappointed by the decision by the Government of Turkey to change the status of the Hagia Sophia…” said US State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus (The Hill). EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell calls the decision ‘regrettable’ (Reuters).
The conversion to a museum was a triumph of secularism over Islam; the move to revert it back to a mosque for the West is equivalent to letting the genie out of the bottle. They fear that this decision will bring about nostalgia for Ottoman rule in Turkey and across the Muslim world. This follows a series of Turkish dramas on Ottoman history, which have been aired globally, and has instigated debate on the glorious past of the Ottoman rule. What is surprising is the outrage from the Christian world. The Aya Sophia is not being converted from a church to a mosque, but rather from a secular museum to a mosque. So, why the outrage, unless the Christian world took the destruction of the Ottoman state and the conversion of the Aya Sophia as a Christian Crusade against the Muslim World? The access and the heritage status of the site has not changed. In fact, it has facilitated more open access to the site.
The Western media have sought to distort the true nature of the Ottoman rule and its treatment of the churches and the Christian citizens. They present a picture of oppression, and forced conversion, and disregard for places of worship. This could not be further from the truth.
When Istanbul was opened the only church that was converted was the Aya Sophia; the other churches still functioned as churches, such as the Church of the Holy Apostle, which became the administrative centre for the Greek Orthodox Christians. As the Muslim population grew in Istanbul the Church of the Holy Apostle was abandoned by the Christians. The Patriarch of the Church moved to the Christian district of Phanar and gave the deeds of the church to the Sultan. The Sultan waited ten years until the significance of the Church had diminished, before replacing it with a mosque, which was needed for the local population.
The difference between the Aya Sophia and the Church of the Holy Apostle is clear: the first was the symbol of political authority, as the rule was through the church and the other was purely a place of worship and had no political significance. During Ottoman rule, 23 churches were converted, and one was destroyed and rebuilt as a mosque; this was due to the growth in the Muslim population to 92%, during 1520-1535. There are thirteen churches still left intact in Istanbul today. The practice of converting churches to mosques was rare. In fact in Egypt, none of the churches were converted; they have remained as they were when Egypt was opened to Islam. To cite another example of a church converted for political reasons was the Cathedral of St John in Damascus. The site of this church was a historical one, which represented both the religious and the political powers that had ruled Syria. The site of the cathedral was originally a Roman temple for Jupiter, and before that it was a temple for the god Hadad. Out of the 23 churches in Damascus, 17 still remain intact today.
Historians, both Muslim and non-Muslim, have documented numerous accounts of the just treatment of non-Muslims under Islamic rule. Karen Armstrong in her book, A History of Jerusalem – One City Three Faiths, writes: “The Muslims had established a system that enabled Jews, Christians, and Muslims to live in Jerusalem together for the first time.” This system was the Khilafah, which is the system that opened Jerusalem.
It was Khalifah Umar bin Al Khattab who stated the rights of the non-Muslims in his treaty, which is enshrined in the Sharia: “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. This is the assurance of safety which the servant of God, Umar, the Commander of the Faithful, has given to the people of Jerusalem. He has given them an assurance of safety for themselves for their property, their churches, their crosses, the sick and healthy of the city and for all the rituals which belong to their religion. Their churches will not be inhabited by Muslims and will not be destroyed. Neither they, nor the land on which they stand, nor their cross, nor their property will be damaged. They will not be forcibly converted”
The 15 churches in Jerusalem, which are still standing today, bear witness to this treaty, which was enacted 1,373 years ago, in 637 CE. The keys to the most important church in Christendom, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, are in the hands of two Muslim families: the Joudeh and Nusseibehs until today. They open the church daily and maintain the peace between the various Christian denominations. This trust to maintain peace and administer the affairs of the non-Muslims is a core pillar of the Khilafah. This was witnessed by the philosopher Voltaire who wrote in his Treatise on Tolerance in 1763: “Let us leave our little corner and study the rest of our globe. The Sultan governs peacefully 20 peoples with different religions; 200,000 Greeks live safely in Constantinople; the Mufti himself nominates the Greek patriarch and presents him to the emperor; and a Latin patriarch is also allowed there. The Sultan nominates Latin bishops for some of the Greek islands, using the following formula: ‘I command him to go and reside as bishop in the island of Chios, according to their ancient usage and their vain ceremonies.’ That empire is full of Jacobites, Nestorians, and Monothelites; it contains Copts, Christians of St. John, Jews, and Zoroastrians. The Turkish annals do not record any revolt instigated by any of these religions”
In conclusion: the conversion of Aya Sophia back to a mosque symbolises the desire of the Muslim Ummah to return to the rule of Islam under the Khilafah, as it did when it was first converted to the mosque in 1453. The same alliance which destroyed the Ottoman Khilafah are voicing their objection to the conversion. This only exposes the extent they will go to prevent the re-establishment of the Khilafah.