WWJD, the acronym for “What Would Jesus Do?”, was a popular all-purpose catch-phrase a few years ago among Christians. I had difficulty with that phrase because too often it was used to justify what the speaker thought Jesus should do if Jesus were him or her. Thus, Jesus was used to justify the feelings (or prejudices) of the speaker.
Two days ago, July 24, 2020, the Muslim Friday Prayer was held at Hagia Sophia for the first time in 85 years, culminating the efforts of President Erdoğan to re-Islamicize Turkish politics. (I tell the story in a little more detail in my post two weeks ago, “Grandma changes her religion … again!”)
A lot has been written about this current “reversion” of Hagia Sophia back to an active Muslim mosque. Predictably, there is sadness, even outrage, from Christian sources, just as there is predictable justification and even glee from Muslim sources. They are are easy to find on the Internet. I’m not going to repeat them here.
There are, however, some perceptive voices from the Muslim world that oppose this move, or at least hope that further interreligious understanding, healing and reconciliation can come from it.
Mustafa Akyol, currently a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and one of my favorite Turkish writers, leads the charge by questioning, basically, “What Would Muhammad Do?” (Yeah, WWMD?)
He first goes back into the Qur’an and finds that God (Allah) says that “monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of God is much mentioned” should be protected (Qur’an 22:40). Most famously, the Qur’an states that there must be “no compulsion in religion” (2:256). Obviously, throughout history, many Muslims have found excuses to “get around” this directive, much like Jesus’ oft repeated command of forgiveness and love of enemies have been ignored in practice. (Wouldn’t the world be a better place if all of us were actually faithful to our foundational beliefs?)
He then cites instances of relatively harmonious agreement, even treaties, between Muhammad and his early followers and various Christian and Jewish communities, including Jerusalem itself. But, as so often happens in a theocratic society, religion became the excuse for imperialistic conquest. By the time of the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, “Islamic attitudes had long been imperialized, and also toughened in the face of endless conflicts with the Crusaders. Using a disputed license of the Hanafi school of jurisprudence they followed, they converted Hagia Sophia and a few other major churches. But they also did other things that represent the better values of Islam: They gave full protection to not only Greek but also Armenian Christians, rebuilt Istanbul as a cosmopolitan city, and soon also welcomed the Spanish Jews who were fleeing the Catholic Inquisition.”
In other words, even in conquest, the Ottomans generally respected religious pluralism, even though they could be ruthless in enforcing their imperialist will upon conquered peoples. Akyol concludes:
For the broader Muslim world, Hagia Sophia is a reminder that our tradition includes both our everlasting faith and values, as well as a legacy of imperialism. The latter is a bitter fact of history, like Christian imperialism or nationalism, which have targeted our mosques and even lives as well — from Cordoba to Srebrenica. But today, we should try to heal such wounds of the past, not open new ones.
So, if we Muslims really want to revive something from the past, let’s focus on the model initiated by the Prophet and implemented by Caliph Umar. That means no shrines should be converted — or reconverted. All religious traditions should be respected. And the magnanimity of tolerance should overcome the pettiness of supremacism.
Here are several other articles that I think are worth considering.
Turkish-American university professor, Mücahit Bilici, in “Hagia Sophia and American Muslims,” notes that “Many Muslims, American Muslims included, no longer see world affairs through the lens of traditional notions of dominance and conquest. Islamic history now lends itself to alternative interpretations.” He concludes with a warning from sociologist Emile Durkheim that when religion becomes a political affair, the god worshipped is not God but “us”.
Ezgi Başaran, a Turkish journalist who is now a scholar at Oxford University, in and article entitled,”Erdoğan could not Islamize minds, so he is Islamizing stones instead,” writes that Erdoğan goal of re-establishing Ottoman Islamicist glory is an impossible one in our world today. She extensively quotes French political scientist Professor Olivier Roy, who “sees a significant miscalculation in the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia to a mosque because it is an Orthodox Church. Putin’s policy has been to be the defender of Orthodoxy. Therefore, the Hagia Sophia’s conversion is a big blow to Russia, who seems to be Turkey’s only partner in volatile theatres like Syria and Libya. So, Erdoğan dealt a blow to Putin rather than the Pope. The second miscalculation comes from overlooking the dialogue between Muslims and Christians. For the last couple of years, this dialogue has been led by Arabs, and was initiated in Abu Dhabi, where the Pope had visited in 2019. I was there and witnessed the meeting of the two Crown Princes and Al-Azhar Mosque’s imam with the Pope. That day, a Christian church was opened in the United Arab Emirates, and the Pope led a mass. It is ironic that while Gulf countries open up to Christians, Turkey is closing down.”
Similarly, the Catholic International humanitarian organization, Aid to the Church in Need, published the views of French historian, Étienne Copeaux, who specializes in Turkey, and analyzes this move in terms of Turkish nationalism and Erdoğan’s personality. He puts the whole question of Hagia Sophia in a much broader perspective:
Why so much fuss over Hagia Sophia, since Turkish nationalists have always done whatever they wanted to non-Muslims, without any protest from the West? The terrible pogrom targeting Orthodox Christians in Istanbul in September 1955 is a case in point; this was followed by the expulsion of 100,000 ethnic Greeks from the city, Turkish citizens forced to leave for Greece, a country they didn’t know, descendants of the city’s original population driven out. Any protests should have been activated not by religion, but by a simple sense of humanity. Aren’t these facts—I’m not even talking about the Armenian genocide—more important than the return of Hagia Sophia to Islam?
What is a mosque, anyway? It’s important to note that you can just compare it to a church. On the one hand, a Catholic church is a place of ritual (the celebration of Mass) and presence (the ongoing sacramental presence of Christ in the consecrated bread reserved in the tabernacle). Nothing of that sort readily translates into Muslim faith.
For Muslims, a mosque (masjid) is a house for prayer. Period. There are only three features common to all mosques: Outside is the minaret, an elevated place from which a muzzein proclaims the call to prayer five times a day. Inside is the mihrab, which is a niche in the wall which indicates the direction of Mecca, toward which Muslims are to face when praying. Near the mihrab is the minbar, a pulpit with steps leading up to it, from which the imam, or leader of prayer, leads and delivers the sermon at the jumah or Friday prayer. Mosques are normally open every day for private prayer and study. The only official gathering in a mosque is not for any kind of ritual. It is simply a gathering for prayer together as a community once a week on Friday afternoon. It’s basically the regular daily prayer (salat) with a two-part sermon added. If you have the time, I suggest Googling “muslim daily prayer” or “salat” and you’ll find a lot. Here is a good brief article in The Conversation: “What is the significance of Friday prayers in Islam?”