Status Update

India’s telling silence on the Hagia Sophia controversy

30 July 2020
The Hagia Sophia was a mosque until 1935, when it became a museum in a new, secular Turkish republic. The change of status was annulled last month, and the building is now a mosque again.B
KARGOPOULO / ALINARI ARCHIVES, FLORENCE / GETTY IMAGES
The Hagia Sophia was a mosque until 1935, when it became a museum in a new, secular Turkish republic. The change of status was annulled last month, and the building is now a mosque again.B
KARGOPOULO / ALINARI ARCHIVES, FLORENCE / GETTY IMAGES

Turkey’s highest administrative court ordered on 10 July that the Hagia Sophia be reconverted from a museum to a mosque. This prompted immediate responses from many countries, but, worryingly, none came from India.

The Hagia Sophia was built as a Christian church in the year 537 by the Eastern Roman emperor Justinian I, in what was then Constantinople. The building stood as the largest cathedral in the world for nearly a thousand years. When the city fell to the Ottomans in 1453, Mehmed II converted it into a mosque, destroyed its relics, plastered over iconography he considered idolatrous and added Islamic features such as the minarets that encircle its magnificent dome today. The Hagia Sophia remained the principal mosque of the city, renamed Istanbul, for over a century and a half, until the Sultan Ahmed Mosque—colloquially called the Blue Mosque—was completed in 1616.

By the First World War, the Ottoman Empire was in shambles, yet its sultan was considered the Khalifa, the spiritual and temporal leader of the entire Islamic world. After the empire’s defeat by the Allied powers, an international movement of Muslims arose to protect the authority of the Khalifa from their imperialist designs, and put down deep roots in British India. But rather than a resurgent Caliphate, what emerged was a Turkish independence movement. Its leader, Mustafa Kemal, established a republic and was determined to build a modern, secular nation. Recognising the Hagia Sophia’s historic significance and looking to bridge religious divides, he pushed through a cabinet decision to convert the building into a museum. It was thrown open to all members of the public, whatever their faith, in 1935. Last month, the Turkish court declared the cabinet’s act illegal. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, announced that the Hagia Sophia would soon be opened for Muslim worship—a gesture to fortify his conservative Islamic base. Before the month was out, he led a Friday prayer in the reconverted building.

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    Ishan Mukherjee is an assistant professor at the Jindal School of Journalism and Communication. He has a PhD in History from Trinity College, University of Cambridge.

    Keywords: Hagia Sophia mosque Babri Masjid Ayodhya erdogan Modi Khilafat movement Gyanvapi mosque Shahi idgah
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