Hagia Sophia has a storied heritage, but at no time has she been living in the past. Her walls embellished with marvelous Abrahamic vestiges of the distant past, Hagia Sophia excites aesthetic envy the world over. Strings of naked lightbulbs line the confectionaries and kebab stands that populate her casual vicinity in warm summer evenings—her odd, mismatched minarets visible across the Bosporus from Üsküdar, where chewed sunflower seeds pepper the sidewalks. Children run around and splash in the fountains that flank her main façade, tourists take an obscene number of pictures, and mosque-goers double take, scoffing at the hookah cafes in the purlieu, before scurrying into her magisterial counterpart, Sultan Ahmed Camii, across the way.
Like many times in history, Hagia Sophia has again made world headlines. Turkish President Recep Erdogan recently announced that she will be refashioned as a mosque again. A source of perennial controversy—and a widely celebrated architectural achievement of early Byzantium—Hagia Sophia has switched hands more times than perhaps anyone cares to remember. But what has been of supreme importance is the purpose she serves.
Christians and pro-secular leaders and denizens across the world have found Hagia Sophia’s reversion to a mosque a deeply concerning change. Muslims themselves are certainly the most divided. Whereas some see this as a welcomed development, others are troubled by it. Still some say the move will inspire Hindu nationalists and Zionists to caricature or distort Islamic architecture and history in unseemly ways, although far worse has been going on for some time.
For some Muslims, the initial reaction has been filtered through a kind of anxiety. One journalist bantered:
I find the Hagia Sophia thing offensive because I grew up as a minority and have a minority-consciousness, so I tend to empathize with the perspective of the Orthodox people in Turkey and how they would interpret this.
An influx of Muslims to non-Muslim lands, the rise of professional social sciences, and globalization (and many, many other historical trends) all contribute to the array of competing reactions on display—one whose justificatory arrangements are as foreign to the Muslims of yesteryear as alcohol was to the Plains Indians. In other words, why would any Muslim have reason to oppose Hagia Sophia’s return to a mosque? In the past 100 years, things have changed. A lot.
The Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1924, and the Islamic world no longer plays the dominant role it used to for the first 1300 years of the faith’s history. Moreover, given the rise of American internationalism and a powerful secular human rights paradigm, the way different religious groups engage with each other and with the past has changed in the 96 years since the fall of history’s most enduring Caliphate.
Indeed, the fight over symbols can be interpreted as a slight on Muslims themselves, and their unenviable position. So why the celebration? Maybe it’s the experience of grandeur in praying in a marvelous space. Or the sense of recovery from what was an especially violent secular birthing of a modern nation-state. Or making a city feel like home again. To borrow from one literary critic: “It is to feel acutely bereft of a tradition, as a tolerated house-guest of Europe, a precocious but parasitic alien.”
In a centuries-long cycle of humiliation, an insufferable stillness fills the air. A reclamation of this magnitude—despite, or maybe because of, the backlash it arouses—comes from a place not only of delight but also frustration. It is a move that implicates joy, pride, but also irreverence and mockery. A snub at the international order that has pillaged the hubs and far reaches of the globe, one that gorges on its own ideals—even as it denies others the same.
But the hypocrisy of colonialism and later liberal democracy should not preclude the much-needed reflection for Muslims on what is their exceptionally miserable condition. Hagia Sophia’s born-again status is a largely symbolic move, with little material impact on Turkish Muslims and the Muslim world. In fact, the groaning rejoinders heard round the world suggest that the move wasn’t necessarily the best one.
Maybe retrieving the brass rings of bygone eras is the easy thing to do. And when it comes to dealing with the protracted geopolitical and economic turmoil now indigenous to swathes of Africa and Asia, the usual suspects are often to blame: policymakers in Washington, weapons manufacturers, the BJP, Zionists, and, most recently, the Chinese Communist Party.
For the not-so-cunning skeptic, this is garden variety victim blaming. Yet, for the acolytes of a faith who claim victimhood as its latest sounding bugle, it is a most important thing to embrace the victory and conquest that suffuse Hagia Sophia’s legacy. She marks a deep sadness within traditional Muslims about a triumphalist past long gone. In a world where their histories and creed alike are contested and endlessly queried, is it a mark of faintness that all Muslims can do is change the status of a splendid stone structure?
As such, even a sympathetic appraisal of this moment can be read as a mere distraction, a confusion of what is really at stake, and the limitations of the global Muslim population in doing anything about its pitiable state. Around every corner are well-endowed autocrats, protracted social ills, and utter abjection of a most pervasive, boring kind. So maybe this blast from the past is not a solution for something deeper as much as it is an escape from the daily strife and embarrassment that many Muslims experience today—a tonic of existential relief. Reality resists the neat stories we tell about it, and Hagia Sophia provides the best ones.
Photo Credit: historyontheorientexpress
About the Author: Shahrukh Khan is a JD candidate at Emory University School of Law. His interests are in intellectual history, American constitutional law, and linguistics. He received his BA in Social Studies from Harvard College. You can follow him on Twitter here.