Recent Case Roundup: On the Turkish Decision on Hagia Sofia

On July 2, 2020, a division of Turkey’s highest administrative appellate court annulled a 1934 presidential decision by Kemal Ataturk, founding president of Turkey, converting Hagia Sophia (tr. Aya Sofya) into a museum.  Days later, on July 10, 2020, Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a decision based on the court ruling, restoring its status as a mosque open to worship and transferring its maintenance to the country’s Presidency of Religious Affairs. Following a Turkish administrative court ruling that revoked an earlier administrative decision (1934) converting the mosque into a museum, President Erdogan of Turkey was expected to restore Hagia Sophia’s status as a mosque.  Upon his decision to restore the site’s status as a mosque open to worship, Erdogan personally inspected the site and the preparations to have it ready for the Friday prayer on July 24, 2020. The government quickly named 3 imāms, one a professor of religious studies, for Hagia Sophia. On July 24, 2020, Erdogan, accompanied by top government officials and politicians, participated in the first Friday prayer at the site after a 86-year hiatus where he recited passages from the Qur’ān. 350,000 people are estimated to have been in attendance.

  • In an interview in 2014 (Turkish), Professor Cemal Kafadar of Harvard University made the point that arguments based on the inalienability of waqf property, and by extension the waqf property of Mehmed the Conqueror, often omitted a crucial historical fact that Mehmed the Conqueror himself had expropriated many waqf properties during his reign.
  • In his analysis (Arabic) on Erdogan’s decision, Ridwan al-Sayyid describes it as a decision not in the interest of Islam and Muslims, but rather as a political and strategic move.
  • Mike Ghouse, founder and president of the Center for Pluralism urged Erdogan “to let it remain a museum” and consider “the sunnah, or traditions, of Muhammad.”
  • Sayyid M. Syeed, president of the board of directors of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), condemns the decision to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque, arguing that the conversion of the Byzantine church into a mosque in 1453 by Mehmed the Conqueror is contrary to Islamic principles.
  • Some commentators have likened the move to several moves made by the Modi government in India to convert mosque sites to Hindu temples, citing historical reasons for doing so. Judith Herrin, emeritus professor at King’s College London, criticizes the conversion into a mosque as “an act of cultural cleansing.”
  • Professor Hussein Solomon questions whether the Turkish government’s move to restore Hagia Sophia’s status as a mosque could paradoxically “backfire” and accelerate Turkey’s ongoing secularization process.
  • Others have welcomed the court decision revoking the 1934 order to turn Hagia Sophia into a museum and the subsequent decision by Erdogan to restore its status as a mosque, arguing that both the court decision and Erdogan’s presidential decision serve to restore religious freedom. Mark Jefferson of the Omran Strategic Studies Institute has described the legal controversy as “a bid to restore religious freedoms.”
  • Turkish historian Salim Agdoghan notes that international criticism at the decision ignored the fact that Hagia Sophia had become the personal property of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror upon his capture of Istanbul and purchase of the church from his personal funds, who then decided to convert the building into a mosque.
  • Turkish university professor Dr. Omair Anas similarly notes that “[f]rom the Islamic perspective, Ottoman Sultan was not legally and technically wrong to convert Hagia Sophia.”
  • Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a museum was a difficult process, not merely because of the socio-political controversy the decision had stirred, but as this article recalls, also because of the great lengths an Ottoman art historian, Ibrahim Hakki Konyali, went to preserve the artifacts in and part of the site during the conversion.
  • The decision to restore the site’s status as a mosque open to worship has attracted international criticism. Greece’s culture ministry has described the move as an “open provocation.” UNESCO has expressed dismay at not being notified by Turkish officials and has further stated that they would reconsider Hagia Sophia’s status as a cultural heritage site. U.S. and Russian officials have also expressed concern. UAE Minister of Culture and Youth described the Turkish authorities’ move as having been “effected without any regard to the civilisational value of this historical edifice.”

Leave a Reply