Hagia Sophia’s Conversion: Political or Apolitical?

On July 10th, 2020, the entire global Media had its eyes set on the Turkish Supreme Court when the historic verdict was announced regarding the future of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hagia Sophia. To the pleasure of Muslims around the world, the Turkish court nullified the 1934 decree by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk which converted the Mosque of Hagia Sophia into a museum. Hour s after the court verdict, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the opening of the building for prayer purposes for Muslims. This building is not just another mosque convert museum. Rather, the transformation of Hagia Sophia from the 6th century Istanbul mosque into a museum by Ataturk laid down the foundation of the religious Turkish Republic. This majestic 65,000-square-foot stone structure was a symbolic emblem of the modern liberalized Turkey and its reversion to a mosque has socio-political and religious significances that go way beyond the territory of the mosque. This is the reason why the president of Turkey had to endure such harsh criticism from the world leaders after the July 10 decisions.

Background of Hagia Sophia:

Hagia Sophia has had a rich history of multiple civilizations claiming the ancient monument. It was built at Constantinople in the 6th century CE (532 –537) under the orders of the Byzantine emperor Justinian. At that moment, it was built as a cathedral called “Church of the Holy Wisdom or Church of the Divine Wisdom.” Hailed as the most significant monument of the Byzantine Empire, the Cathedral was converted into a mosque in 1453 when the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople. In 1934, when the post-WW1 saw Ottoman Empire on the losing end of the war, the fate of the mosque came under rapid alteration under the reformation drive of the post -Ottoman authorities led by the modern republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk converted the 1,500-year-old heritage site into a museum. The recent revocation of the 1934 decree granted president Erdogan the complete authority over the status of the museum. Erdogan, a man to whom the Islamic world is looking for leadership, took a mere couple of hours to restore Hagia Sophia as a mosque.

Timings of the Decision: Political or Apolitical?

It is very significant to analyze why, after 86 years since its conversion into a museum, the Turkish government has taken such a bold step despite a massive onslaught of global criticism. The decision has received severe criticism from the Catholic-Orthodox Church. While commenting in the matter, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the renowned spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians feared that in case of conversion, the monument, previously considered to be a point where the East embraced the West, will fracture the connection between the two worlds. In his words; “As a museum, Hagia Sophi a can function as place and symbol of encounter, dialogue and peaceful coexistence of peoples and cultures, mutual understanding and solidarity between Christianity and Islam.” Responding to the global criticism and apprehensions, President Erdogan clarified that; “the mosque would remain open to non-Muslims and will “continue to embrace everyone.” A t this point the question arises that why the Turkish judiciary and government chose this point in time, after 84 years, to carry out such a landmark yet controversial decision. There are a number of dimensions according to which this historical decision can be analyzed:

Apolitical and Islamic Intentions:

The Turkish government as well as Muslims all over the world believes that this landmark decision is an act to reclaim the Islamic identity of the Turkish people which, according to them, was lost with the creation of the liberalized Turkish republic under Ataturk. In the words of Necip Fazil Kis akurek, Turkey’s most famous Islamist poet of the time, What the Western world has made us do inside, through its agents among us, neither Crusaders nor the Moskof [the Soviets] nor the Hagia Sophia’s salacious coveters, the Greeks, have been able to do. President Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party had long-held the opinion that the secular republican government under Ataturk was nothing but a foreign imposition on the Islamist people of Turkey and therefore, reinstating Hagia Sophia as a mosque was equivalent to freeing the caged spirit of the Turkish people. Therefore, for the President of Turkey and his cabinet, reconverting this building into a mosque is concurrent to correcting a historical wrong. Hence, this landmark decision is revolutionary for the Islamist and pan-Turkic romanticist sections of the Turkish populace. The timing for reviving this Islamic spirit is said to be coinciding with the expiration of the treaty of Lausanne by 2023, an event that is triggering the Pa n-Islamist activists to look towards Turkey for the resurrection of the Isl amic Khilafat. Therefore, the spiritual rejuvenation of the Turkish people with the opening of Hagia Sophia as a mosque, the revamping of Muslim identity across Islamic countries through the serial “Ertugal as well as the conduction of events like the Kala Lumpur Summit; all these global events refer to the Islamist and spiritual nature of the verdict.

Political Motives and Intentions:

There are a number of critics who suspect political intentions behind the timings in which Erdogan decided to undertake the conversion. According to some analysts, the president intended to play to his nationalistic and conservative Islamist base in a time when Turkey was undergoing an influx of economic crises at the backdrop of the Coronavirus and his popularity seemed to be eroding. Apart from the domestic front, a number of critics are co-relating the decision with the rising tension of Turkey with Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean. The stormy conflict between the two sides further escalated with the verdict of Hagia Sofia as Greece called the re-conversion of the mosque an “affront to the civilization of the 21st century.” Hagia Sofia is an infrastructure carrying immense significance for Athens, the center of Orthodox Christian cathedral for several years. Therefore, the reconversion of the mosque in times when the Istanbul-Athens relations are so tensed seems to be sending a pro-active signal towards the other end.


The timings of the decision on Hagia Sophia can have a number of connotations, either political or apolitical. However, one fact is for sure. The decision has delighted Muslims all over the world who were previously accustomed to whimsical leaders following the orders of the West instead of standing up for themselves and for their nation. What the future may behold is yet to be decided.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Dunya News’ editorial stance.

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