By Dr. Mehnaz Afiridi
As a Muslim woman and Professor, I have been teaching a class in Venice, Italy every winter on “Venice and the Other,” it is a class that focuses on the Jewish and Muslim historical and artistic influences in Venice. We discuss the impact of Islam and Judaism on the architecture, the thousand years of history intermingled with Christian, Muslim and Jewish relics that resulted in wars that robbed one another’s architecture and styles. However, we applaud the power of interreligious influences and study Venice as one of the most beautiful cities in the world not for it’s pure aesthetic but it’s religious and intellectual history. As Muslims, we are taught to respect the faith of others and to respect their places of worship and preserve and protect our brothers and sisters from destruction.
Recently, Turkeys’ government has decided to change the status of Hagia Sophia to a functioning mosque in a move to pander to some Muslims who believe that Islam is the only real faith in the world and they need more space for prayers. It seems that they have not read the Qur’an nor understood the ethical breach that they are in as Muslims. Hagia Sophia was built 1,500 years ago as an Orthodox Christian cathedral, then it was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1453. In 1934, it was turned into a museum under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of secular Turkey. The Church/Mosque has been declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.
When I entered Hagia Sophia for the first time, I felt a deep transcendence, to see the Arabic calligraphy laid in gold with the words “Allah” and “Mohammed” next to the mosaics of a loving Byzantium Mary (Miriam) and the most beloved prophet of Islam, Jesus (Isa), it was a moment of emotional and spiritual feeling that is hard to explain. I recalled the verses in the Qur’an 5:48 that ask Muslims to accept differences between us because G-D has challenged us to live amongst diverse people:
“And We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], the Book in truth, confirming that which preceded it of the Scripture and as a criterion over it. So, judge between them by what Allah has revealed and do not follow their inclinations away from what has come to you of the truth. To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so, race to [all that is] good. To Allah is your return all together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ.”
I felt so proud that a predominant Muslim country had preserved the heritage and sacred spaces of another religion, Christianity. Sadly, though we have seen the Turkish government taking the name of Islam as a way to sanction their moves to change the museum into a mosque, I see a deep contradiction especially in Islamic ethics and terms. I recall that when Mohammed and his followers went back to Mecca from Medina (the Hijrah 622 AD), our beloved prophet Mohammed asked his followers not to damage any property, nor hurt women or children. In the Qur’an, all monotheistic centers of worship and all monotheist devotees seem to have a protected status; it is only the idolaters who were explicitly prohibited from entering the Meccan sanctuary, according to the Qur’an:
It is not for the idolaters to tend God’s sanctuaries, bearing witness against themselves of disbelief. As for such, their works are vain and, in the Fire, they will abide. He only shall tend God’s sanctuaries who believes in God and the Last Day and observes proper worship and pays the poor-due and fears none save God. For such (only) is it possible that they can be of the rightly guided. (9:17-18)
O you who believe! The idolaters only are unclean. So, let them not come near the Inviolable Place of Worship after this their year. If you fear poverty (from the loss of their merchandise) God shall preserve you of His bounty if He will. Lo! God is Knower, Wise. (9:28)
I hope, we do not live in the medieval ages when it was a common practice of conquerors everywhere to convert places of worship of the defeated for the practice of their own religion. There have been a number of examples where Christian churches were turned into mosques, Jewish synagogues destroyed, Hindu temples destroyed and mosques turned into churches. Hagia Sophia was also such an example. By turning it into a mosque, I feel that Islam has lost faith in itself, it has lost the tolerance and love for others, making space for others, loving the people of the book, and sending the terrible message that we have to trample on the faith and admiration of others in order for us to pray. Muslims can pray anywhere and especially in Istanbul where there is the majestic Blue Mosque and about 3,000 active mosques. When I was inside Hagia Sophia, I said a prayer as I stood there. I prayed for the artisans with pride for the colossal talent of so many architects and calligraphers that Christianity and Islam have produced.
I felt the power of my beloved prophets, Musa, Isa and Mohammed (PBUT), I saw Miriam (Mary) who gazed at me lovingly and signified to be a woman of faith and courage. I felt that the religious symbolism of these sacred images and scripture can be perhaps the bridge where we can share in a deep interreligious spirituality and dialogue today. Venice, Istanbul, Jerusalem, and Sarajevo, my favorite cities and remain to be the few places that have preserved mosques, synagogues and churches. Magical cities with incredibly challenging history and simultaneously a diverse past of religious partnerships.
Turkey is one of the most beautiful countries enriched with talent, love, and hospitality. A place of deep education, Islamic philosophy and history. It is a special place that is influenced by the beauty and the uniqueness of the Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire and the cradle of the East and West. I hope that the Turkish government has not lost faith in Islam and if they have perhaps they should call it something else?