The Conquest of Constantinople (1453 CE) & Conversion of Hagia Sophia into Masjid - An Islamic Viewpoint
Originally written on July 18, 2020 on Quora - Did Prophet Muhammad (saw) predict the Conquest of Constantinople (1453 CE) and as per Islam, was it justified to convert Hagia Sophia Church into a Masjid?
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday (July 10th) formally re-converted Istanbul’s sixth-century iconic Hagia Sophia into a mosque, hours after a high court annulled a 1934 decision that had turned it into a museum. For many around the world who are not much familiar with the background of the conversion of Hagia Sophia church in to masjid by 15th century conqueror Sultan Mehmed II Al Fateh (the Conqueror), are questioning this decision of the Turkish government. Apparently it is forbidden for Muslims to take over and forcibly convert non-Muslim places of worship in to masjid but this historic decision was exclusive, it was necessary for that time and situation.
The Prophet’s Prediction of Constantinople
The prediction of the conquest of Constantinople and Rome was given by Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in several traditions, long before him and the earlier Muslims hardly exercised any control in the Arabian Peninsula. In fact, their influence was only limited to a small town called Yathrib (later became Madinah). As per Islamic scholars the first conquest of the city is implied recorded in the following reliable tradition:
Abu Qateel said, "We were with Abdullah ibn Umar (r.a), and he was asked, “Which city will be conquered - Constantinople or Rome?” 'Abdullah (r.a) called for a box to be brought, and he removed from it a book. Abdullah (r.a) said, “While we were (gathered) around the Messenger of Allah ﷺ and we were writing, the Messenger of Allah ﷺ was asked: ‘Which city will be conquered first - Constantinople or Rome?’ The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: ‘The city of Hiraql (Heraclius) will be conquered first’ - i.e. Constantinople."' (Recorded in Musnad Ahmad and in Al Bidayah Wa Al Nihaya by Imam ibn Kathir - The Prophets Intimated That The Muslims Would Conquer Constantinople Before Rome - pg 71)
At this point it is also important to mention that there are other traditions that speak about a second Conquest of Constantinople by Muslims that would take place in future because Muslims will end up losing their control of this city to the Romans (most likely modern day Europeans). However, we are only concerned with the one mentioned above.
Ibn Khaldun, 14th century Arab Islamic scholar, social scientist and historian also called the father of the modern disciplines of historiography, sociology, stressed in his masterpiece Al Muqaddimah that a dynasty is like the center of a light and its rays or the water circles made when the water is struck in the center, it is strong near the center but becomes weaker as it expands. The dynasty remains strong as long as its center or capital remains strong but gradually begins to crumble at its extremities. The decay starts from the extremities, and if allowed to gradually reach the center the dynasty ceases to function and exist. The center is like the heart from which the (vital) spirit reaches the entire body, if it stops functioning, the entire body stops. He gives the example of Persian Sassanid Empire that was dissolved immediately because their capital Al Madain (Ctesiphon) was overrun in the early years of Islamic conquests, as opposed to Byzantine empire that lost all of its territories in Greater Syria yet continued to exist as long as their capital Constantinople was under its authroity. The loss of the capital is the end of an empire and this is what is meant by the following Ayah (verse) in the Quran:
(Al Quran 44:25-29) how many gardens did they leave behind, and water-runnels, and fields of grain, and noble dwellings, and [all that] life of ease in which they used to delight! Thus, it was. And [then] We made another people heirs [to what they had left], and neither sky nor earth shed tears over them, nor were they allowed a respite.
The following discussion explains how the gradual decaying of the Byzantine empire led towards their defeat at the hands of the Ottomans and complete loss of all its power at the eventual loss of their capital.
The Byzantine Empire During Middle (9th Century CE) & Late Period (14th Century)
After the loss of all Byzantine states in the Middle East at the hands of the early Islamic conquests in the mid-7th century and religious schism between Rome (Catholic Church) and Constantinople (Orthodox Church) in 1054 CE, the Byzantine Empire was a medium sized regional state based in Constantinople and fighting a battle for survival. During the 11th Century, not only was it under the threat of the Muslim Turkish tribes from its Eastern Front but also their Catholic co-religionists who attacked during the Fourth crusade in 1204 CE, and ruled Constantinople till its recapture in 1261. But the retaking of the capital by the Byzantines and its attempts to revival were not very successful because the empire had already lost much of its influence and power that it had before the loss of its capital to the Latin Christians. After recapturing Constantinople, the Byzantines continued to struggle against the crusades of the Catholic church and their attempts to retake the capital. Meanwhile the Eastern border lands under the control of various Turkish tribes started strengthening themselves and in particular one of them under the leadership of Osman 1 (from where comes the term Ottoman or Osmanli) began capturing lands and established themselves as independent rulers. As Byzantine empire shrank in size and became weaker in its political power in the region, they also suffered economically. The increase in the refugees fleeing from territories lost to their rivals and the decrease of treasury wealth caused the Byzantine heavy economic loss. The Byzantine power relied on outsiders for assistance against their rivals such as their support on the Catalan Company – an army of Catalonian mercenaries – to protect their territories as well as their reliance on the Mongols to fight the rulers of Turkish states (beyliks) caused them to become weaker and more dependent on others for their political power. The weak military, political and economic Byzantine kingdom could not protect nor support their own subjects from the occupation of others nor fight the corruption of their own. Additionally, the struggle for throne among contenders and the Byzantine civil war (1341-1347 CE) caused the Kingdom to overlook the challenges from outside. All these events and the failure of Byzantine revival, proved that it was time for the weak empire to be replaced by a powerful one who would not only replace them but also have the power to establish justice and order that would provide safety and protection which the subjects of the empire were deprived of.
Byzantine Relationship with Turks
The Byzantines had a continuous relationship of war and peace with the Turks from the time of Seljuk Sultanate (empire) who entered the land of Anatolia (modern day Turkey) during 9th century, with the support of several Turk nomad tribes of Central Asia. The famous Battle of Manzikert (1071 CE) where a large Byzantine army suffered defeats at the hands of much smaller Seljuk Turk force, was the beginning point in history for Turks to establish themselves as permanent residents in the former Byzantine Eastern lands of Anatolia. After the Seljuk state became weak by Mongol invasion, eventually becoming a vassal state, new Turk nomad tribes that moved into Anatolia from Central Asia escaping Mongol attacks, among them the Osmanlis (Ottomans) began establishing themselves on the crumbling Seljuk state. With the passage of time they reached such strength that Byzantine Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos (1347 – 1354 CE) was assisted by the Ottoman Sultan Orhan to gain his throne in Constantinople during the Byzantine civil war. John also married his daughter Princess Theodora in return for this favor. But soon the next emperor John V Palaiologos (r. 1354–91), who succeeded Katakouzenos, looked forward to another crusade by the Roman Pope against the Ottomans. The famous Union of Churches decided in Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438–39 CE) to launch a long-awaited crusade which was fully supported and blessed by Eastern Roman Emperor, the Patriarch of Constantinople and representatives of several Orthodox churches. However, Ottoman Sultan Murad I defeated the crusaders at Varna in 1444 and at Kosovo in 1448.
Fall of Byzantine Capital - Constantinople
After Mehmed II, Al Fateh (the Conqueror), became an Ottoman Sultan, the Byzantine emperor suggested that a grandson of the late Prince Suleyman, called Orhan, who lived in exile at Constantinople was a pretender to the Ottoman throne. His unnecessary intervention in to Ottoman ruling affair was a failure. Mehmed II already started planning the siege and the eventual takeover of the historic and legendary city. On July 1st, 1453 CE the Ottoman army entered Constantinople, the jewel in the Byzantine crown was announced as the capital of the expanding Ottoman state. Additionally, the prestige and power of the Orthodox Church, the center of which was Hagia Sophia, was tied directly to that of the Byzantine Empire. As the empire’s political power shrank in the preceding years, so too did the ability of the patriarch, the spiritual head of the Church, to exercise religious authority over Orthodox faithful, and this resulted in divisions among the Orthodox denomination. After the conquest Sultan Mehmed II, Al Fateh (the Conqueror) declared himself the protector of the Orthodox Church, appointed Gennadios as the Patriarch, the spiritual head of the Orthodox Church. The Patriarch, centered in Constantinople, was not only declared as the official spiritual head of all Orthodox faithful but in fact was able to consolidate and solidify his religious authority over all Orthodox in the former Byzantine territories, as Ottomans established their rule over those territories. In fact the Orthodox population in the former Byzantine territories, numerically superior to the Turks, accepted the rule of the Sultan over the failed and corrupt ruling system of the Byzantine authorities and the tyrannical rule of Catholic Franks and Venetians that ruled in certain parts of the empire under a feudal system that had reduced the population to serfdom. The Christians under Ottomans were fully permitted to practice their own law in all civil matters under the authority of their church with no interference from Muslim authorities whatsoever. Professor T. W. Arnold quoting Russian annalists (experts on Roman history) who speak of the fall of Constantinople due to same reasons: "Without the fear of the law an empire is like a steed without reins. Constantine and his ancestors allowed their grandees to oppress the people; there was no more justice in their law courts; no more courage in their hearts; the judges amassed treasures from the tears and blood of the innocent; the Greek soldiers were proud only of the magnificence of their dress; the citizens did not blush at being traitors; the soldiers were not ashamed to fly. At length the Lord poured out His thunder on these unworthy rulers, and raised up Muhammad, whose warriors delight in battle, and whose judges do not betray their trust.” (CHAPTER VI. THE SPREAD OF ISLAM AMONG THE CHRISTIAN NATIONS IN EUROPE UNDER THE TURKS - Preaching of Islam, pg 115 - T. W. Arnold) Hence the gradual disintegration of the Byzantine empire due to its oppressive rule of the kings and corrupt government officials caused Qudrat (the Divine) to replace them with people who were just in their rule and provided security to the lives and property of their subjects.
The legality of converting Hagia Sophia into Masjid
In Byzantine political ideology, as long as the empire retained its three elements—the emperor, the patriarch at Hagia Sophia Church, and the city (Constantinople)—it continued to exist. After the decision to make this city into the future capital of the Ottoman state, Mehmed II Al Fateh (the Conqueror) decided to convert Hagia Sophia (Church of Holy Wisdom), the ancient church that played a political role in the establishment of the Byzantine empire, in to a masjid, a Muslim place of worship. Hagia Sophia, a state Church, was unlike other Orthodox churches throughout the Byzantine lands. It played a very active political role in the establishment of the empire. As per their tradition Emperor Justinian (527 to 565 CE) received the plan of the church from an archangel. It was the seat where all Emperors were crowned and blessed by the Church before resuming the throne. The capital of the new Islamic State could not have function with its Christian political legacy. The Islamization of Constantinople was necessary for it to function as a capital of the Ottoman state, hence its name was changed to Islami bol (i.e. plenty Islam in it!) or Islambol, which continued through 18th century. Since the Byzantine empire became part of the museum of history, all the sections of its society that particularly played a political role in sustaining it were also going to be part of the museum, including the main Church. After conversion of Hagia Sophia in to Aya Sophia Cammi (Masjid) the Orthodox patriarchate was moved to the Church of the Holy Apostles, another 4th Century structure in Constantinople, which became the city's main Orthodox cathedral.
Some Muslims, and even non-Muslims, dispute the fact of converting this in to a Muslim place of worship was a great sin and in support of their argument they claim that Prophet Muhammad’s successor, Caliph Umar ibn Al Khattab (r.a), after entering Jerusalem rejected the request to offer prayer at the famous Church of Holy Sepulcher, in case future generations will follow his footsteps. What they need to realize is that Holy Church in Jerusalem was a general holy site, mainly religious in its functioning, and did not exercise any political influence or authority in ruling policy of the state such as those by capital of Catholic Church in Rome or Orthodox Church in Constantinople. The support for crusades and other wars fought by the Byzantine Emperors or other European Christian rulers were fully sanctioned and backed by these churches while the Church of Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, has never played any direct role in the history of politics. What Islam explicitly forbids (Al Quran 22:39-40) is attacking and conversion of those non-Muslim religious sites that are purely used for the purpose of worship and religious activities.
Turkey's President Formally Re-Converts Hagia Sophia Into a Mosque - Time.com
Encyclopedia of the OTTOMAN empire - Gabor Agoston Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. Bruce Masters Wesleyan University, Connecticut
Al Bidayah Wa Al Nihaya (The Beginning of the End) by Imam ibn Kathir
CHAPTER VI. THE SPREAD OF ISLAM AMONG THE CHRISTIAN NATIONS IN EUROPE UNDER THE TURKS - Preaching of Islam, pg 115 - T. W. Arnold
Narrative of Travels in Europe, Asia & Africa by Evliya Effendi
Al MUQADDIMAH - Abd Ar Rahman bin Muhammed ibn Khaldun - Translated by Franz Rosenthal
Church of the Holy Sepulchre - Wikipedia.com