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OP-ED: The conversion of Hagia Sophia and a few questions

  • Published at 08:40 pm July 19th, 2020
Hagia Sophia
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Is there any cause to celebrate?

A fierce debate over the conversion of Turkey’s Hagia Sophia into a mosque is raging from East to West. The world has already been sharply divided into two sides over the issue, at least in the virtual world, which is for sure a true reflection of today’s world.

While a group of Muslims are celebrating, non-Muslims are expressing their anger. There is no doubt that it will have a significant impact on the relations between religious groups, as well as on international politics.

The Muslims who are celebrating it as their victory are justifying this act by arguing that Turkey just brought back the building’s old usage as a mosque, as Sultan Fateh had purchased it from Christians/non-Muslims and rightfully converted it to a mosque after he conquered Constantinople in 1453.

To justify this act, many of them are also referring to the fact that numerous mosques were converted to churches and other types of institutions in Europe during the crusades in the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries.

To walk in their shoes

My dear Muslim brothers and sisters, may I pose a few questions for our own introspection? Can we look into the issue after wearing the shoes of the non-Muslims now? And I think this is the practice that Allah SWT asked us to follow, as He said in Verse 44 of Surah Al-Baqara: “Do you enjoin righteousness on people and forget your own selves even though you recite the Scripture? Have you no sense?”

So, if I may ask a question, what would our reactions to the incident have been had we been the Christians or non-Muslims today? Are we sure that we would be happy with this decision?

What would our reactions have been today, had the Hagia Sophia originally been built as a mosque, then converted to a church (after Christian conquerors purchased it from defeated Muslims), then converted to a museum or a mosque once more, and then finally converted to a church again by a Christian/secular ruler of Turkey?

Would we have welcomed this decision? I am sure we would not have been happy in any way. It would have hurt our religious sentiments for sure. The way it hurt us, and still hurts us, when mosques were converted into churches during the crusades, this decision of converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque hurts Christians and non-Muslims across the globe, regardless of whether it was purchased by Sultan Fateh or not.

When a warrior wins a war, everything and everybody belonging to the conquered place is subdued, and no one has the courage to speak up against the conquerors, even if they are unjust. No one would dare speak up in favour of their inalienable rights.

We’ve seen this practice for years in Bangladesh and elsewhere in the world -- how people change their places of worship in a moment with changes in power.

The question is: Was there anybody who would have dared to say “no” to Sultan Fateh, a man who had just conquered the city with much bloodshed, and his decision to purchase the Hagia Sophia? I am sure there was no one. Must there not have been a sense of fear among the non-Muslims about Sultan Fateh? 

Coercion or free will? 

Then, the question naturally comes: Did the conquered Christians sell the Hagia Sophia happily and willingly? My guess is that they did so under pressure, in fear. If the Christians agreed to sell the Hagia Sophia because of a sense of fear, even a very small amount of fear, the act would be considered an act of julum (repression) in the eyes of Allah.

Many Muslim brothers are arguing that Sultan Fateh did nothing wrong by turning the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, as Muslim conquerors are allowed by Islamic law to do whatever they want, with the conquered and with their property.

I am not sure where they get this permission. I have found no Quranic verses or hadiths, no precedents from the life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his Sahabis in favour of this idea. On the contrary, Quranic verses stipulate that Muslims (not only Muslims, in fact, all humans) are in no way allowed to do whatever they want after winning a war or under any situation.

Any injustice, any julum (stripping away any sort of human rights), and even any sort of work that creates a sense of fear among the people is not allowed under any circumstance. Even in war, Islam does not allow the killing of innocent people in the name of “collateral damage.” 

The principle to follow in this case is to be the minimalist. If the war becomes inevitable, we will have to follow the means which would cause the least number of casualties.

The point to be noted here is that war is inevitable only if you are attacked. None of the wars waged during Prophet Muhmmad’s (SW) time was a willful act of Allah’s Rasul. All of them were defensive wars.

Justice and equity

There are many who argue that Muslim conquerors can make conquered people their slaves and can posses the properties of the conquered. In my understanding, Muslim conquerors can take under their possession only the wealth or belongings which are left behind, if there is no one to claim ownership. 

Again, they can be forgiven if they show their repentance the way Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) did after the conquest of Makkah. Islam in no way allows Muslim conquerors to take away the properties and rights of the people who were not directly/physically involved in the war. 

The question is: How does this same Islam then allow Muslim conquerors to carry on with unbridled killing and pillaging after winning a war? How does that same Islam allow the conversion of a church, synagogue, or temple into a mosque after the war, if there still are people there who would like to say their prayers? 

Allah repeatedly warned us against stripping away somebody’s rights (haq), no matter the circumstances.

There is a glaring example from the life of the second Caliph of Islam Umar Ibn-ul Khattab (R) when he conquered Jerusalem. He had given the non-Muslims an assurance of safety for themselves and for their property, their churches, their crosses, the sick, and the healthy, and for all the rituals which belonged to their religions.

Many argue that Umar (R) conquered Jerusalem with an agreement, not by war. I wonder if that makes any difference in dealing with the conquered. For the sake of argument, even if  we were to assume that Muslims were allowed to destroy places of worship and convert them into mosques, will it not be an injustice to those non-Muslims, who are in no way a part of the war, especially considering the fact that Allah speaks against injustice in numerous places in the Qur’an? 

In verse 108 of Surah Al-Imran, Allah says: “These are the revelations of Allah -- We recite them to you in truth. And Allah does not intend injustice to the creatures.” So, the idea of turning churches or temples into mosques after conquering cities and states is in direct contradiction of this verse.

Again, if this practice is allowed for Muslims, it should be applicable for non-Muslims too. Will it not be an injustice from Allah (Naujubillah) if the same practice is not permitted for non-Muslims? Did Allah differentiate in any of His ruling while dealing with non-believers?

Instead, He always speaks of justice and equity among all humans, not only among Muslims, throughout the Qur’an, and that is what we Muslims are preaching as well.

So, what would you say if Mecca were to be conquered by non-Muslims, and the Kaaba were destroyed or purchased or turned into a church? What would your position be then? 

Again, will the Muslims have a moral right to speak up against such a decision taken by conquerors? Won’t it be an injustice to them, and thus, wouldn’t it go against the principle that Allah asked the believers to follow? 

As He says in Verse 8 of Sura Mai’dah: “Believers! Be upright bearers of witness for Allah, and do not let the enmity of any people move you to deviate from justice. Act justly, that is nearer to God-fearing. And fear Allah. Surely Allah is well aware of what you do.”

Some others argue that Turkey brought back a mosque to its old usage, the way Kaaba was taken back after the conquest of Mecca by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). But no, that’s not it.

First of all, the Hagia Sophia was not a mosque when it was built, but the Kaaba was. Hagia Sophia “was born as a church, one of the icons of the Byzantine world,” as began an article in The Economist. 

An example of magnanimity

Let me recall an incident of the conquest of Mecca. One day before the conquest of Mecca, Allah’s Rasul went to the Kaaba and asked for its key to say prayers, but the caretaker did not give him the key. After the conquest of Mecca, Allah’s Rasul sought the key from the same person, and naturally he gave it to the Prophet immediately.

Imagine the situation of the caretaker at that time, who refused to give the key to the Prophet. He must have been shivering in fear. After taking the key, Allah’s Rasul opened the gate of the Kaaba, removed the idols, and returned the key to the same person again and said: “None but a kafir will take away the key from you.”

So, this is the level of magnanimity Allah’s Rasul showed, as he did always, in every single case. There are numerous incidents of such magnanimity in his life. 

Such incidents are testimony to the fact that Islam is synonymous with magnanimity and justice at its highest level. This is the beauty of Islam, Allah, and His Rasul. Islam came with magnanimity, not with the power of the sword.

“There is no blame against him who avenges himself after he has been wronged (42:41). Blame attaches only to those who subject people to wrong and commit excesses on earth. A painful chastisement awaits them (42:42). But he who patiently endures and forgives, that is a conduct of great resolve (42:43).”

This is the code of conduct for humans and believers prescribed by Allah, where He prefers forgiveness and endurance to vengeance.

In my understating, at least four far-reaching impacts of the Hagia Sophia issue will be created in the world in the days to come. They are: 

1. It will help portray Islam as a religion (philosophy) of revenge, as an occupying religion (philosophy) among humans, lending some sort of credence to the Western claim that Islam came with the power of the sword.

2. It will help grow a sense of hatred against Muslims among non-Muslims across the world (the virtual world is proof of that).

3. It will encourage “anti-Islamic forces” to convert Islamic structures in different parts of the world.

4. It will tarnish Islam’s image as being a religion of insaf (justice).

I have a few humble questions for the Muslim brothers and sisters who are celebrating this as a victory: Does Islam promote hatred and violence? What would we like to achieve through this sort of action? 

Can we please think deeply with our hearts again, using our senses the way Allah asks us: “Don’t you have any sense?” 

Abu Taib Ahmed is currently doing his PhD in Journalism at the Colorado State University, USA.

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