What does Islam teach about seizing Christian churches to become mosques?

What does Islam teach about seizing Christian churches to become mosques? August 14, 2020


What does Islam teach about seizing Christian churches to become mosques?


The bitterly contested Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”) in Constantinople (the city now named Istanbul) was the grandest church in Christendom across nine centuries. Then Muslim conquerors under Mehmed II confiscated the church in 1453 and converted it into the Aya Sofia Mosque. In 1935, Turkey’s government secularized it to be an interfaith museum, but three weeks ago turned it into a  working mosque once again.

Christian leaders worldwide are aggrieved by that latest development. But apart from Christian feelings and fears for the future of the building’s celebrated artwork, in strictly Islamic terms was the 1453 takeover of a church proper? Should it be perpetuated in 2020, and are such takeovers legitimate today? Turkey’s summertime action has sparked new debate among Muslims.

A traditionalist view is well articulated at www.muslimmatters.org by Muhammad Wajid Akhter, a physician on the council of the British Islamic Medical Association who studies Islamic history.

He notes that Christian conquerors in Spain took over the Al-Hambra Palace and Cordoba Mosque, and built Granada Cathedral over the site of a mosque. That is accurate. But when was the last time Christians confiscated a mosque? Those events occurred in 1236, 1492 and 1529. In the centuries since, the world has gone through the Enlightenment, the rise of democracy and widespread support for human rights.

Tolerance-minded Muslims say Istanbul has plenty of mosques already and didn’t need to add one in 2020, Akhter, however, contends that a mosque “is owned by Allah” and Muslims have no right to simply give away “something that does not belong to us.” By the same reasoning,  of course, Christians can say Hagia Sophia is sacred ground that belongs to their God, not Mehmed and his forces of 1453.

Akhter dismisses the concern some Muslims express about Christian sensitivities as  “impractical” and “untenable.” He says many expressions of Islam “can be seen as offensive to some” and inevitably the “upholding of our cultural and historical traditions will upset others.” He does not address the obvious follow-up question fellow Muslims might pose: Whether and why church takeovers are such an important practice that believers need to uphold.

In a New York Times op-ed, Mustfa Akyol of the libertarian Cato Institute raises a commonplace point from Muslim moderates, the first important precedent on this matter. Umar was one of the Prophet Muhammad’s closest Companions and his second successor as the ruling caliph. When his troops laid siege and were set to conquer Christian Jerusalem in 637, Umar enacted a treaty in God’s name that guaranteed protection of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and other Christian properties in the holy city.

Regarding that, Akhter relies on a distinction drawn by such medieval religious jurists as the Imam Al Qurtubi. In this view, if inhabitants of an area surrender to Muslim invaders without resisting and waging combat, as the Christians in Jerusalem did, they can retain ownership of their properties. But Akhter says that “Constantinople – despite multiple attempts requesting it to do so – did not. Therefore, Islamically and according to the norms of the time, the conversion of the church into a mosque was legal.”

Akyol, in turn, contends that such jurists were reflecting a bygone culture of national imperialism, not the Islam taught by the founders. In this view, rulings issued in the circumstances of long-ago wars of religion no longer  bind 21st Century Muslims.

Turning from fiqh jurisprudence to scripture, the Quran is respectful toward the faith of Jews and Christians, and Muslim moderates believe that protection of religious rights and property is implicit in this from 2:256-7: “There is no compulsion in religion; true guidance has become distinct from error. Thus he who disbelieves in the Devil and believes in Allah grasps the firmest handle that will never break. Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing. Allah is the Supporter of the believers.” (Majid Fakhry translation).

However, the holy book provides no explicit teaching on the specific question of seizing or not seizing churches. Islam’s other major source of guidance for believers is the Hadith, authoritative compilations of the words and deeds of the Prophet. In the current debate, Akhter does not quote any Hadith text in which Muhammad advocated turning churches into mosques, and The Guy’s admittedly superficial research found no such citation elsewhere.

There’s another, lesser-known source on the Prophet’s teaching that has been researched by Craig Considine, a Rice University sociologist who specializes in Islam. In a 2016 article, complete with 102 footnotes, he examined four “covenants” that Muhammad personally arranged with Christians during his lifetime.

One involved envoys from Najran, in present-day Yemen, then the  Arabian Peninsula’s most important Christian community.  The others were with Christians in neighboring Persia, with monks living at Mount Sinai, and with Christians in general. As with the Hadith, there are complexities about the authenticity of these texts that Considine examines carefully. (See his article at https://www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/7/2/15).

In one covenant, for example, Muhammad stated, “I grant security to them, their churches, their businesses, their houses of worship.” Considine’s historical conclusion from this material is that “Muhammad desired a pluralistic society in which citizenship and equal rights were granted to all people regardless of religious beliefs and practices.” If so,  21st Century Islam has much to reconsider well beyond confiscation of churches. Take another example in Turkey.  Since 1971, Christians have not been allowed to operate their own schools, including the celebrated seminary on Halki island owned by Turkey’s ethnic Greek minority in the Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate.

What Would Muhammad Do?

NOTE THIS NEWS SINCE THE ABOVE ARTICLE WAS POSTED: https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2020/august/turkey-chora-church-mosque-kariye-museum-hagia-sophia-istan.html?utm

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