Thoughts on the Hagia Sofia Issue
The Prophet said “Islam transcends all else, and nothing shall prevail over it” ~ reported by al-Bayhaqī and al-Albānī considered it authentic.
The meaning of this hadith, which has been used in many chapters of fiqh, is that Muslims view their faith as being Divinely favored and blessed. Not all faiths are equal, and even if other faiths are allowed to practice and preserve their identity under Islamic law, that does not mean they are all the same. It is because of this that the Shariah has many specific rulings for religious minorities living under Islamic law. While there is a lot of discussion regarding the specifics, not a single school of law gave such populations the exact same rights and privileges as those given in the Shariah to believers.
For some Muslims living in the West, these laws sometimes form a source of embarrassment – how can we demand our rights when the Shariah doesn’t seem to give those same rights to others? Worse still, some Muslims believe that these laws should be permanently rescinded as they are not conducive to the spirit of Islam (a ‘spirit’ that is surprisingly modern in its notions of liberalism and religious freedom).
The reactions of some people to the announcement of returning the Haga Sophia to a masjid is demonstrative of this mindset. Some people felt embarrassed or awkward; many prominent individuals denounced the ruling as against the teachings of Islam.
Much has been said in the last week, and there’s no need to rehash it here. Just some thoughts:
– The historical arguments for returning this structure into the masjid that the Ottomans used for five centuries is valid. Sultan Muḥammad al-Fātiḥ (d. 1481), as the conqueror of the city, under both Islamic law and the norms of the time, had the right to convert it into a masjid. Reports that he purchased the land are contested (and realistically such a purchase would no doubt be under great duress – who would sell such an iconic structure willingly?); there is no need for us to go down this avenue. When the Reconquista expelled the Muslims from Andalusia, they converted thousands of masjids into churches (including the Grand Mosque of Cordoba – one of the largest and most magnificent masjids in the world). Those were different times, and such was the norm. Classical Islamic law, and the laws of world at the time, would allow the change to a masjid.
– Even if, historically, there were some grey areas, today Turkey is an independent state, and times have changed. Six hundred years is not a small amount of time! When less than 0.1 % of its population is Orthodox, and the circumstances have changed drastically from the 14th Century, Turkey is within its modern legal rights to do what is beneficial for its citizens.
– The claims that this ruling is for political purposes and in order to foster up support for the president or a political party should have nothing to do with the reality of this being a sign of the changing times. How can anyone with an ounce of genuine īmān not be elated – how can our hearts not flutter with joy – when we hear the adhān being called and people praying in a structure that was abandoned for almost a century because of the anti-Islamic policies of Kemal Atatürk, an open enemy of the faith? If someone is using this for a political agenda, that is between them and Allah; we need to look at the overall picture, and not worry about individual intentions.
– To equate this ruling with the Babri Masjid ruling in India is a gross distortion of reality. Firstly this isn’t a destruction of anything; the property still stands as is! Secondly the demographics of India (with 15 % Muslim population that is being persecuted) cannot in any way be equated when 99 % of Turkey is Muslim.
– The claims that this is a World Heritage Site, or a historical icon, are valid. But what has that got to do with allowing people to pray in it? The structure is still there – no one is destroying it! And it will still be open to the public and to tourists and visitors. Nothing will change for a visitor except that one section will be marked off for prayers.
– Lastly, the ‘awkwardness’ for Muslims living in the West needs to be resolved frankly. Let’s stop beating about the bush here. We are living in secular lands that have a different relationship with and understanding of religious freedoms. We appreciate the freedoms given to us here: we respect the laws of our lands and demand the rights that our constitutions give us. What a Muslim-majority land does, based on a different understanding of politics and religion, should have nothing to do with us demanding our rights under the laws of our lands. Such rulings in Muslim-majority lands simply cannot and should not be used as a tool against us. Since when did the American Constitution only apply on its citizens in relation to how other constitutions and governments act? We need to stop pretending that all lands in the world have the same philosophies. We are asking America to live up to its own standards, and we state clearly and unabashedly that Muslim-majority lands should live up to their standards, based on the Quran and Sunnah.
And that means, as the hadith says, that Islam shall transcend and prevail.
I have visited this iconic structure many times, and I now eagerly look forward to praying there during my next visit inshaAllah.