Yasir Yılmaz is a historian at the Institute for Habsburg and Balkan Studies, Austrian Academy of Sciences. His research explores trans-imperial connections between the Habsburg monarchy and the Ottoman Empire. Yılmaz has authored articles appearing in the Austrian History Yearbook and the Mediterranean Historical Review.
The decision of the Turkish government to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque occurred with many references to the fifteenth century, when Mehmed II conquered Constantinople. In mere legal terms, the conversion is based upon a lawsuit submitted to the Turkish Council of State (Danıştay) in 2016 against a decision of the Board of Ministers from 1934, which had canceled the Hagia Sophia’s mosque status and turned it into a museum. There were three claims in the lawsuit. The first was that some of the signatures of ministers on the 1934 decision were not authentic because the registers of the Turkish National Assembly showed that some cabinet members were not in the capital on the date of the decision, and thus, their signatures were forged. The second claim was that the land title of Hagia Sophia stated that it was a mosque, while UNESCO’s official website did not describe the structure as a museum. The third claim was that the Hagia Sophia was a property of an Islamic charitable trust (waqf or vakıf, in Turkish rendering) established by Sultan Mehmed II after the conquest in 1453; as such, the Hagia Sophia should function as a mosque as per the volition of the benefactor sultan who founded the trust. Among these claims, the third one has been expressed most loudly by the Turkish government and circulated most in public debates in Turkey. The consequences of such thinking extend beyond law, and that aspect of the decision forms the main framework of my essay.
I would like to first underline that discussing the decision of the Turkish government is not a breach of Turkey’s sovereignty. President Mr. Erdoğan and other government members frequently reiterated that the status of Hagia Sophia is under the mandate of the Turkish government, a statement no third-party may question. But we may discuss the broader meaning of a decision by any government to convert a world-renowned construction from a museum into a functioning temple. We may also discuss the mise en scène that accompanied the first Friday prayer on July 24, 2020, when Ali Erbaş, the chief of the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs, appeared on the pulpit of the Hagia Sophia with a sword in hand, another reference to the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople and the Hagia Sophia by force. The participation of many Turks in the prayer outside of the mosque with Ottoman-era uniforms perfectly fit the spectacle. I believe that it is worthwhile, also from the perspective of the Turkish government, to deliberate upon the intended and unintended message such images sent to the world.
What historians cannot unsee in how the story unfolded so far is the hysterical conflation of a remote past with the present. Certainly, the use of history by politicians as a wedge issue is an old trick, and Turks did not invent it. Yet, in the case of the Hagia Sophia, the Turkish government and public have very diligently singled out tiny portions of the past and present and blended them. The advocates of the Council of State’s justification of its decision via a reference to a fifteenth-century document argue that the first Turkish Code of Civil Law that came into force in 1926 and its renewed version from 2002 expressly recognize the validity of Ottoman-era judicial rulings for religious trusts that predated the modern republic.
The supporters of that decision also emphasize an Islamic ruling that once a property is declared a charitable trust, it gains an unalienable, perpetual status, and the public becomes the beneficiary of that property. Ali Erbaş reiterated that idea in the Friday sermon: “In our faith, a property of a charitable trust is inviolable; whoever touches it burns. The wish of the benefactor is irrevocable; whoever violates it is cursed.” Accordingly, the 1934 decision to convert the mosque into a museum had violated that Islamic practice.
However, those who are stimulated by the thought of reviving Mehmed II’s charitable trust are silent about the same sultan’s confiscation of reportedly more than a thousand religious foundations . They seem to be unconcerned about the miserable condition of hundreds of Ottoman-era structures as well as building complexes that allegedly belong to religious trusts today and operate as commercial businesses in the form of tea and hookah houses and cafeterias. Moreover, since 2016 the Turkish government has seized and shut down on political grounds 17 universities that were owned and run by charitable trusts. Besides, the condition of charitable trusts founded by non-Muslim minority groups has always been disputed in Turkey. Even the most recent legal amendments did not fully remove restrictive property rights that apply to non-Muslim foundations and did not decisively address the condition of properties that once belonged to them and were later acquired by third-parties including the state itself. For many, these are not considered violations of the inalienable, perpetual status of charitable trusts.
The religious pleasure some Muslims find in the conversion of a church into a mosque is also questionable. I feel urged to underline that if the picture of Ali Erbaş on the pulpit of the Hagia Sophia with a sword was a source of spiritual contentment for some Muslims, that picture will resonate deeply with the Western public and non-Muslims around the world. In the last two decades, especially since the rise of ISIS, the average Western individual has been greatly disturbed by images containing a sword. A Turkish imam on the pulpit of the Hagia Sophia holding a sword sent to the Western world the message that a nation long thought to be a friendly, Muslim-majority state may any moment become hostile—even if that was not the intended goal of that act.
The conversion is also debatable from a theological point of view. The Ottoman practice of converting the largest church of a conquered area into a mosque was certainly inspired by religious fervor, but it was essentially a secular practice and cannot be endorsed by a universal Islamic verdict. If Turkey had sought inspiration in early Islam, it could have also followed in the footsteps of Caliph Omar, who, after the conquest of Jerusalem, avoided a prayer at the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem and prohibited Muslim congregational prayer there or chanting of the Muslim call to prayer on its walls. I also think that the condition of, for instance, the Cordoba Mosque in Spain, an active cathedral today, cannot be compared to the Hagia Sophia. When compared to Christianity, Islam claims to hold the spiritual higher ground by recognizing the divine origins of Christianity (and Judaism), whereas the latter does not recognize Islam as a divine religion. Thus, as a theological act, the conversion of a mosque into a church does not create a conundrum from the perspective of Christianity, while the seizing and conversion of a Christian temple by a Muslim majority does so. Muslims should take pride in the fact that they are followers of a prophet who allowed his Christian visitors to worship inside his masjid.
Ultimately, what a state or government can do to a monumental temple has its limits. Despite changes in ownership over time, the Cordoba Cathedral is known as the Mezquita (the mosque) in Spanish, while the Turks have always called the Hagia Sophia by Ayasofya, omitting the word mosque. Political decisions did not and will not alter or erase the innate character of a temple.
- Harvard historian Cemal Kafadar has mentioned in an interview that Mehmed II seized more than "one thousand" religious foundations (accessed July 26, 2020).