U.S. Muslim leader condemns Hagia Sophia decision

Dr Sayyid M. Syeed

The president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) has condemned Turkey for restoring Hagia Sophia as a mosque.

Dr Sayyid M Syeed also called Sultan Mehmed’s decision to convert the former Byzantine church into a mosque in 1453 a “desecration.”

ISNA is one of the most influential American Muslim organisations with more than 300 affiliates across the United States and Canada.

Addressing the Greek Orthodox community,  Dr Syeed said: “We need to work together to convince President Erdogan not to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque in Istanbul. Hagia Sophia was built as a Church and a pride of Greek Orthodox Church which commands the loyalty of Greek Orthodox Christians counting some 300 million in Greece, Turkey and around the world. Russian Orthodox Church which is a splinter of Greek Orthodox continues to jointly have a sacred sentiment for Hagia Sophia.

“Sultan Mohammad Al Fateh, the Ottoman King who conquered Istanbul (Constantinople), converted the Church Hagia Sophia to a Mosque. He is hailed as a Muslim hero and conqueror but the desecration of a place of worship of Christians, Jews and other faiths is strongly prohibited in Islam. The Quran 40:22 clearly states that it is against Allah’s plan to demolish places of worship and convert them into something else.

“Our beloved Prophet Muhammad PBUH emphasized that we have to protect the unarmed enemies, their crops and places of worship in a war. We have a long list of similar items that our first Khalifa, Abu Bakr gave to his army generals commissioned to fight the enemies in Syria and Iraq, protecting their sacred places was an important item among them.

“You must be fully aware of the historical event when Umar al Khattab, the second rightly guided Khalifa of our Prophet visited Jerusalem after it was conquered by his army and the vanquished governor Sophronius took him around to show the sacred Christian monuments in the city of Jerusalem. Holy Sepulcher, the Tomb of Jesus was one of them.

“Umar was overwhelmed and Sophronius could very well notice that. Sophronius was aware of the Islamic belief about Christ and he asked Umar to pray according to Islamic tradition in the Holy Shrine. Umar told him that he would not pray because if he did, later generations of Muslim rulers would convert the Holy Sepulcher into a Mosque. He made it clear that as conquerors, Muslims are  charged with the duty to protect the religious monuments of the defeated people with dignity.

“It is clear that our Islamic texts and the practice of the Prophet and his rightly guided Califs define the role of Islam as the protector of other’s holy places. While Al Fatih’s conquest of Istanbul is s source of inspiration for Muslims through history and throughout the world. But the desecration of the Hagia Sophia is not one of those acts that anyone should follow.

“It was during the aggressive secularization of Turkey by Mustafa Kamal Pasha, that Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum. In our times, under the leadership of President Erdogan, a populist sentimental wave has been rising to convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. This is seen as an ascendency of Islam. It is unfortunate that such an act is not giving glory to Islam which strongly forbids Muslims from such a sacrilegious act.

“The conversion of Hagia Sophia will reopen the wounds of the Greek Orthodox Christians, Russian Orthodox Christians, and Christian communities across sectarian bounds around the world. It brings another heinous picture to our memory in recent decades where in India a centuries old Babri Mosque was demolished by Hindu zealots thinking they were bringing glory to Hinduism and correcting a historical wrong. The perpetrators of this destruction used this wave of Hindu militancy to take over whole of India and impose a fascist interpretation of Hinduism down the throats of Muslims and the majority of Hindus who believed in pluralism and non-violence.

“We appeal to our peace-loving supporters of Turkish democracy to save it from falling into the same chaos of religious intolerance as India has. President Erdogan spoke strongly against the Indian situation. He warned Prime Minister Modi against lynching Muslims and promoting violence against them in India. But his own act of conversion of Hagia Sophia will strengthen Modi in his anti-Islam policies and produce more Modis around the world. We do not want to see Turkey to follow the same path in alienating Christians and Muslims in a big way.”

The ISNA president has subsequently clarified that his comments were his own personal opinion and do not reflect the position of ISNA itself.

He wrote on Facebook: “ISNA is a national umbrella organization of Muslims in America that represents the true diversity of America and Muslims. We are proud of our broad and rich variety of views, schools of thought, political positions, and experiences. Our policy as an organization is not to be involved in controversial international issues, therefore ISNA did not issue a statement regarding the recent development pertaining to Hagia Sophia.

“My recent personal reflection about the conversion of the Hagia Sophia back to a mosque was aimed to engage a specific circle of intellectuals in theological discussion in light of our rich Islamic history. Hence, it was not an official statement of ISNA as an organization, and ISNA’s Board adheres to a formal policy of non-involvement and not take any official position on this matter.”

Shaykh Yasir Qadhi

The decision to restore Hagia Sophia as a mosque has divided Muslims although a strong majority has backed the Turkish state’s move.

The influential writer Daniel Haqiqatjou condemned Syeed’s comments and called for a boycott of ISNA.

He said: “ISNA has a whole history of making completely unacceptable decisions against the interests of the Muslim community. They have collaborated with Zionists, with government counter extremism initiatives, and every year their annual conference is just a parade of celebrity imams and social justice deviants congratulating each other in a gross display of excess.

Shaykh Yasir Qadhi

“Do your part and boycott ISNA. If you’re in North America, refuse to go to their conferences, especially their annual one, and call out any figures who decide to participate.”

Meanwhile, the prominent U.S. theologian Shaykh Yasir Qadhi has backed the Turkish state’s decision.

Writing on Facebook, he said: “The historical arguments for returning this structure into the masjid that the Ottomans used for five centuries is valid. Sultan Muḥammad al-Fātiḥ (d. 1481), as the conqueror of the city, under both Islamic law and the norms of the time, had the right to convert it into a masjid…

“Even if, historically, there were some grey areas, today Turkey is an independent state, and times have changed. Six hundred years is not a small amount of time! When less than 0.1 % of its population is Orthodox, and the circumstances have changed drastically from the 14th Century, Turkey is within its modern legal rights to do what is beneficial for its citizens…

“How can anyone with an ounce of genuine īmān not be elated – how can our hearts not flutter with joy – when we hear the adhān being called and people praying in a structure that was abandoned for almost a century because of the anti-Islamic policies of Kemal Atatürk, an open enemy of the faith? If someone is using this for a political agenda, that is between them and Allah; we need to look at the overall picture, and not worry about individual intentions.”

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