Shifting Religious Landscapes: From Istanbul to Ayodhya

By Abtsam Saleh

This post is part of the Digital Islamic Law Lab (DILL) series, in which a Harvard student analyzes a primary source of Islamic law, previously workshopped in the DIL Lab.

On 9 November 2019, the Supreme Court of India declared the final judgement in the case regarding disputed land in the Ayodhya region in the District of Faizabad, India, where the 16th century Babri masjid once stood. The earliest recorded disputes surrounding this land date back to 1855 in which communal fights erupted over the location of a mosque in the Temple at Hanumangarhi.[1] These religious contestations continued through the years, leading up to the demolition of the Babri masjid in 1992 by supporters of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP).[2] Throughout this period, Gopal Singh Visharad, Nirmohi Akhara, and the Sunni Waqf Board filed title suits with the Allahabad High Court for possession of the site.

The High Court began the hearing in 2002, deciding on 30 September 2010 that the disputed 2.77 acres of land be divided among the three litigants. Although the three-judge bench upheld the decision, there was a dissenting opinion which held that the Babri masjid was not built on demolished Temple ruins and that the ruins predated the construction of the mosque. The remaining judges held that, based on archaeological evidence, the Babri masjid was built after the demolition of a non-Islamic religious structure. The judges reasoned that there was insufficient documentary evidence for any sole party to hold the title over the land, and instead declared that the title be jointly held by the three litigants.

However, the three parties appealed against this decision in the Supreme Court of India, yielding the 2019 decision. This decision ordered that the 2.77 acres of land be transferred over to a governmental trust for the purpose of building the Ram Janmabhoomi temple. An alternative 5 acres of land was given to the Sunnī Waqf Board in order to build a mosque. This decision was based on archaeological evidence that surveyed the foundations of the Babri masjid, as well as biographical evidence pulled from Sikh scriptural texts. From this, the Supreme Court reasoned that land’s Hindu history predates the construction of the mosque and should thus be the site of a newly constructed Hindu temple.

Disputes surrounding religious sites such as in the Ayodhya case are not uncommon. The recent Turkish decision to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque is another example of shifting religious landscapes alongside shifting political landscapes. Initially constructed as a 6th century church, the Hagia Sophia underwent several transitions, going from a church to a mosque, eventually to a museum, and, now, a mosque once again. After its initial transition from a church into a mosque following the  fall of Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia remained a mosque until 1934. That year, Kemal Ataturk, founding president of Turkey, signed a presidential decree converting the Hagia Sophia into a museum. It remained a museum until 10 July 2020 when Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a presidential decree that restored its status as a mosque and transferred its maintenance to the Presidency of Religious Affairs. This decree followed Turkey’s highest administrative appellate court’s annulment of the 1934 decision earlier that month.


[1] Julia Shaw, “Ayodhya’s sacred landscape: Ritual memory, politics and archaeological ‘fact,’” Antiquity 74, no. 285 (September 2000): 693–700.

[2] Ibid, 693.

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