On July 10 this year, a top court in Turkey allowed the country’s government to revert the status of the iconic Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque. The site had been a museum since 1934. The Hagia Sophia was originally built in the 6th century as an Orthodox Christian cathedral. But it was converted into a mosque in 1453 when the Ottomans conquered the prized Byzantine capital, Constantinople, and renamed the city Istanbul.
However, nearly 500 years later, the cathedral-turned-mosque was turned into a museum by the post-Ottoman Turkish Republic formed by Kamal Ataturk. Ataturk, a popular World War I officer in the Ottoman military, had come to power following Turkey’s defeat in the conflict. In 1923, he abolished Ottoman rule and declared Turkey a republic.
Blaming years of religious obscurantism and a failure to adopt modernity as reasons for the decline of Muslim political and economic influence, Ataturk initiated a series of unprecedented secular policies that not only transformed Turkey into an entirely secular Muslim-majority republic, but it also became a model for ‘modernist’ Muslim leaders and reformers.
However, from the mid-1970s onwards, because of various mutations in international and domestic demographic, economic and political trends, the tide of modernity in this context started to recede and ‘political Islam’ began to find greater traction in Muslim regions. Many Muslim states adjusted to the change by adopting elements of political Islam in varying degrees, with some hybridising it with existing secular laws, and some, such as Iran and Sudan, adopting it entirely.
The move to change Hagia Sophia’s status from a mosque to a museum was part and parcel of Ataturk’s secularisation agenda. He saw the iconic mosque as something that was a lot more than just a place of worship. He saw it as a former epicentre of Ottoman influence, just as it had been a major symbol of Orthodox Christianity during the height of the Byzantine Empire.
Turkey’s decision to restore the status of the Hagia Sophia as a mosque fits in with an old trend of using religion to achieve political ends
The new Turkish republic under Ataturk brought all places of worship under state control and employed the French idea of ‘laïcité secularism’ that strictly prohibits any involvement of religion in government affairs. Therefore, neither could Hagia Sophia be allowed to function as a mosque, because of its political significance, nor could it be returned to being a cathedral for this very reason. Instead, it became a museum.
Turkey’s recent move to revert its status back to being a mosque is being condemned by various quarters within and outside the country. But there have been celebrations too. Those defending the reversion claim that many mosques were converted into cathedrals and churches in Europe. This is a fact. However, these events took place hundreds of years ago. Otherwise, there is no likelihood of such a thing happening in a modern secular country. In fact, in the last three decades, the number of mosques have witnessed a manifold growth in the US and Europe.
Therefore, a state institution in a secular country allowing a former cathedral to once again become a mosque has been disconcerting to those who have been warning about the erosion of secular ideals at the altar of populist impulses, which, they feel, can have severe long-term effects. It must be added that an Indian court’s decision, last year, to convert an old, unused mosque into a Hindu place of worship had triggered similar concerns.
What the Turkish court’s decision has also done is that it has given momentum to a debate in the West which set off after the event of 9/11, event when reports began to emerge that mosques were being used to radicalise young people. Suddenly, many in non-Muslim countries began to see mosques in a different light. Were they more than just places of worship?
According to Hope Collins in his study of the evolution of mosques (Syracuse University, 2011) the few mosques that were built during the founding years of Islam had multiple functions. In these mosques, early Muslims prayed, gathered to formulate laws and military strategies, and to distribute food and booty.
Collins writes that, in the 640s when Islam began to rapidly expand beyond Arabia, the mosque was separated from military matters which were shifted to other buildings of the garrison towns that the Muslims built near the regions they conquered.
According to Mohamed Makki Sibai in Mosque Libraries, by 750 CE, mosques began to appear outside the garrison towns. It was during this period that the world ‘jami’ appeared, derived from the Arabic word jamma, or collective. In the mosque context, it meant collective prayers. Sibai writes that communal prayers in mosques became a lot more common after 750 or when mosques began to be built outside garrison towns.
Collins writes: ‘In terms of its social functioning, under the Umayyads and the Abbasids, the mosque became spaces where special occasions would be celebrated, where the caliphs would receive foreign dignitaries, where tales of morality would be told, and where poetry would be recited.”
According to Sibai, markets also began to spring up around mosques during this period. This is still true around mosques in many Muslim countries. During the Abbasid period (8th-13th century), mosques also became places of learning, giving birth to madressahs, where not only religious teaching was imparted, but subjects such as algebra, geometry, astronomy, philosophy and chemistry were taught as well.
Interestingly, according to Collins, “The mosque during the Ottoman period (1299–1922) no longer enjoyed the levels of political, economic, and educational importance it had under the Abbasids.” Both Collins and Sibai narrate that the act of converting a place of worship of one faith with the other is older than Islam. Muslim rulers began to do this from 705 CE. It was always a political act more than that of faith, and mostly practised by medieval Muslim and Christian empires. Collins also writes that the Ottomans used the mosques as ‘bureaucratised tools of the state’ to keep the power of the ulema in check.
With the fall of Muslim empires in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the mosque became entirely apolitical. This status was furthered by the emergence of modernist nationalist regimes and ideas in the Muslim world. But once these ideas began to waver, and Saudi Arabia rose to become an influential Muslim power from 1973 onwards, the political role of the mosque returned, especially in mosques funded or built with Saudi money. The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran also contributed to this trend.
Many mosques became places to recruit, indoctrinate and organise young Muslims, especially during the anti-Soviet Afghan ‘jihad’ in the 1980s. But today, even when memories of the commotion and bloodshed caused by such manoeuvres are still fresh, and even though the tide of so-called ‘Islamist terror’ has clearly begun to recede, it seems there are still leaders who do not hesitate to repeat the same mistakes. Erdogan in Turkey is doing it in the name of ‘national sovereignty’; and even Hindu-majority ‘secular India’ has been seduced by the dangerous idea of using religion to meet certain demagogic political ends, mistaken as noble acts of piety and nationalism.
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 19th, 2020