By Nur Aqilah Binte Rajab

As we enter the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) museum, we are awed by its beauty and the historical narrative which has taken place within this majestic building. Knowing that it took for Justinian only 5 years and 10 months to complete Hagia Sophia, the structure is really amazing considering the technological development during that era.[1]  However, this was not the very first Hagia Sophia building in history.

The very first Hagia Sophia was built by Constantine’s son and successor, Constantius and was previously known as Megale Ekklesia.[2] Constantius’s church was a simple timber-roofed basilica.[3] When Justinian took over, he rebuilt this simple architecture into a majestic building forming the core of the architecture which we see today. Many consider Justinians’s Hagia Sophia to be the greatest building in the world. However, due to the Nika Revolt[4] and series of earthquakes,[5] part of the architecture was destroyed along with the rest of the Constantinople.

On Tuesday, 29th May 1453, Sultan Mehmet II, also known to his people as al-Fateh (The Liberator), captured Constantinople.[6] Upon his entrance into this land, his first rule was to establish a mosque, similar to the actions of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w) when he entered Madinah. After inspecting the Hagia Sophia church, Mehmet II gave instructions convert this church into a mosque.[7]  In this essay accordingly I aim to look into the religio-political function of Hagia Sophia back when it was a church and compare it to its function after being converted into a mosque. Also, we would observe further the issue whether it was right for al-Fateh to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque from the Islamic perspective.

Constantius came to Constantinople with the vision of his father, which was to consolidate Christianity as the state religion. He was able to do so and established Hagia Sophia as the Imperial Church. After him, when Justinian took over, a brutal riot left the old Hagia Sophia church in ruins. Justinian wanted a new church which was more majestic in order to symbolise his authority as the emperor and a representative ordained by the divine power of heaven on Earth. Its architecture overwhelmed other martyr shrines including those in Rome.[8]He built Hagia Sophia to portray his position as an emperor and establish harmony and unity within his rule. This majestic church served as a cathedral in which the emperor and subjects, as well as the patriarch who was the chief in the hierarchy of the Eastern church, could pray and attend service.[9] Clergies would emerge to read the scripture from the pulpit. As an imperial cathedral and the principal patriarch seat of the eastern Christendom its rites were conducted in a unique manner.[10] Part of the process was to proclaim the magnificence of the emperor, his throne would be placed at the focal point of inner sanctuary where he would invoke his rights as God’s regent on Earth and bless the wine upon the altar.[11]

As the mosque Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) never represented the majesty of the ruler, though it was definitely a strong symbolic change telling the world who was the leading Islamic civilisation and Allah (s.w.t) was their Lord. Whether that was the true intention of al-Fateh for choosing Hagia Sophia, there is no conclusive evidence of such. The core activity of the mosque was definitely for prayer. On top of that, people would gather in study circles to read Al-Qur’an together or on their own. Friday prayer sermons highlighted moral, political and social issues.[12] It was also a political tool, where the Sultans would announce their names to the people indicating their position as the current ruler.

Hagia Sophia also established unity amongst the community at large. Not only does the mosque function as a point of unity for Muslims during congregation. In addition to that, within the mosque compound, there was a library, a madrasah, a kitchen which served free food for the students, the teachers and the poor people which was called imaret. All of these were established as endowments coming from businesses situated near the mosque compound as well as public baths.[13] We could see how Hagia Sophia was used as a common ground for the society, for the people in need as well as for the purposes of education.

Similar to the church, where Hagia Sophia served as a cathedral for the notables, the mosque was also the place where the Sultan would pray. Today, as we enter Hagia Sophia we are able to see an enclosed lodge created by Gaspare Fossati. This was an area for the Sultan to pray safely, protected from the assassins, as it is fronted with a gilded grill behind which the Sultan would remain unseen.[14]In terms of religio-political functions we are able to see the similarities between Hagia Sophia as a church and a mosque. After al-Fateh took over, Hagia Sophia expanded beyond just a prayer area and remained as a strong political symbol.

Islamic Civilisation is well-known for its just treatment of all, regardless of their race, ethnicity or religion. When the people of Najran met the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w) in Madina, they established a contract stating “Najran and its neighbouring area are in the security of Allah, the Almighty, and His Messenger. The property, religions and churches of the inhabitants, as well as properties, whether much or little, are under the protection of the Prophet.”[15] Therefore, was al-Fateh right to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque?

Aside from the hadith mentioned above, in Surah Al-Baqarah, Allah s.w.t says “There is no compulsion in religion…”[16] There should be no forceful act of implementing Islam upon other religions. Therefore, if the Muslims forcefully converted the church into a mosque in order to assert Islam as the true religion or its authority, then this action was wrong. In Sunan Abi Dawud, the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w) said, “On the Day of Judgment I will dispute with anyone who oppresses a person from among the People of the Covenant, or infringes upon his right, or puts a responsibility on him which is beyond his strength, or takes something from him against his will.”

On the basis of the evidence mentioned above, it was wrong for al-Fateh to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque. However, this argument needs to be considered in its context as well. According to the argument presented by Dr. Spahic Omer (2009), as churches or other forms of religious institutions are no longer in use, it is valid for Muslims to convert the place of worship into a mosque. Also, as he cited other examples of converted mosques and he notes that during the process of conversion rulers would not destroy the external architecture of the place. This act, in a way, showed respect towards the other religion. Since the place was no longer in use and it was revived back as a mosque it maintains the essence of its function as a place of worship.[17]

The following statements are accounts on the condition of Hagia Sophia and Constantinople prior to the arrival of the Osmanli rule. A Spanish ambassador Clavijo, who visited Constantinople in 1403 said, “everywhere throughout the city there are great palaces, churches and monasteries, but most of them are in ruins… the outer gates of Hagia Sophia are broken and fallen.”[18] A Florentine cartographer Buondelmonti, wrote in 1422 “only the dome of Hagia Sophia now remains, as everything else is fallen in ruins.”[19] According to Tursun Beg, he wrote an account of al-Fateh dated 30th May 1453 as he climbed upon the exterior of the church. He said there is “inconsistency and instability of the universe” and “The Spider serves as gatekeeper in the arch of Chosroes, The owl plays martial music in the castle of Afrasiyab.” Al-Fateh was saddened by the state of ruin when he looked upon the entire Byzantine city.[20] Through these accounts, we could tell that Hagia Sophia was no longer functional for years. As such, al-Fateh did not forcefully take over Hagia Sophia from the Christian worshippers as the place was already in ruins and was no longer functioning as a church.

Al-Fateh’s son, Bayezit II, during his rule, converted most of the Byzantine churches into mosques and religious schools due to the expanding population. Bayezit II told his officials to make use of the buildings available which were left vacant. A few Byzantine churches managed to survive over the centuries due to the fact that they were converted into mosques. The rest of the churches were either given to new settlers or used for other purposes. For instance, the church of Saint Sergius which was converted into a mosque in 1509 was previously used as a horse market.[21]

As Hagia Sophia was built in less than 6 years, it’s internal architecture was weak and it gave way during earthquakes.[22] The narrative of Hagia Sophia’s architecture represents the narrative of every civilisation in history including the Osmanli one. The Byzantine Empire lost its power to the Osmanli due to their internal weakness. Decades later, Osmanli Devlet eventually fell to the Western powers for the same reason. As much as we would like to blame external forces for playing a role in our downfall, the Muslims themselves paved the way for it to happen. “A great civilisation is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within”, said Will Durant.



[1]  John Freely and Ahmet S. Cakamk, Byzantine Monuments of Istanbul ( United States of America: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 91.

[2] Freely and Cakmak, Byzantine Monuments, 32.

[3] Freely and Cakmak, Byzantine Monuments, 91.

[4] Freely and Cakmak, Byzantine Monuments, 96.

[5] Freely and Cakmak, Byzantine Monuments, 97.

[6] Freely and Cakmak, Byzantine Monuments, 97.

[7] Freely and Cakmak, Byzantine Monuments, 97.

[8] W. Eugene Kleinbauer, Anthony White and Henry Matthews, Hagia Sophia ( London: Scala Publishers, 2004), 13.

[9] Kleinbauer, White and Matthews, Hagia Sophia, 13.

[10] Kleinbauer, White and Matthews, Hagia Sophia, 86.

[11] Kleinbauer, White and Matthews, Hagia Sophia, 87.

[12] Kleinbauer, White and Matthews, Hagia Sophia, 87.

[13] Kleinbauer, White and Matthews, Hagia Sophia, 100.

[14] Kleinbauer, White and Matthews, Hagia Sophia, 115.

[15] Spahic Omer, Islamic Architecture: It’s philosophy, spiritual significance & some early developments (Kuala Lumpur: AS Noordeen, 2009).

[16] Al-Qur’an, 2:256

[17] Spahic Omer, Islamic Architecture: It’s philosophy, spiritual significance & some early developments (Kuala Lumpur: AS Noordeen, 2009).

[18] John Freely and Ahmet S. Cakamk, Byzantine Monuments of Istanbul ( United States of America: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 96.

[19] Freely and Cakmak, Byzantine Monuments, 96.

[20] Freely and Cakmak, Byzantine Monuments, 84.

[21] Stèphane Yerasimos, Constantinople: Istanbul’s Historical Heritage(Germany:h.f.ullmann, 2010), 246.

[22] Public Broadcasting Service,. 2015. Hagia Sophia: Istanbul’s Ancient Mystery. Video.

Writer is a UG student at Kulliyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia