Muslims, Christians, and Hagia Sophia

by Phil Dorroll

Interior of Hagia Sophia

Around midday local time on July 24th, the first Muslim Friday prayer service in over eighty years was conducted in Hagia Sophia, its status recently changed from a museum to a mosque. A key part of weekly Muslim congregational worship is the preaching of a sermon. In this case, the sermon was delivered by Prof. Dr. Ali Erbaş, the head of the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs (the government ministry that licenses and oversees religious institutions and personnel in Turkey). Some 12 hours later, in the evening of the same day at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New York, Archbishop Elpidophoros led an Akathist service as part of a day of mourning for the change in Hagia Sophia’s status. At the end of the Akathist, Archbishop Elpidophoros also delivered a sermon.

The contrast between the texts of these sermons is remarkable. Comparing these two documents brings into focus the actual basis of the conflict over Hagia Sophia. One the one hand, Erbaş’s sermon argues for a religious politics of patronage and dominion. On the other, Elpidophoros’ sermon argues for a religious politics of pluralism and diversity. The conflict over Hagia Sophia is squarely between these visions of religion itself, not between Christianity and Islam per se. It reveals a fundamental dilemma faced by Orthodox Christians and Muslims alike: what kinds of religious politics do we choose to cultivate? Is human dominion or human diversity where we identify the traces of God’s image and will in this world?

Erbaş’s sermon presents a sacred narrative of Turkish national history, where the Turkish state is appointed by God to be the patron of all who live within its dominion. The political actions of Turkish heads of state are depicted as moments of divine guidance that structure this sacred narrative. God’s “permission” and “providence” drove the development of the Turkish nation (millet). Over the past 10 centuries, the territory of Anatolia was gradually rendered “homeland” (vatan) of the Turkish people, in accordance with God’s will. Mehmet II, the conqueror of Constantinople, is depicted as fulfilling the spiritual destiny of the city by placing it under Ottoman rule. Hagia Sophia is described as the shining emblem of a millennium-long sacred trust given by God to the Turkish state.

All of these complex events are depicted as simply miraculous occurrences. The medieval Seljuq conquest of Anatolia was not an instance of “violent overpowering, but rather revitalization; not destruction, but rather the building-up” of a new civilization. Mehmet II is said to “have not allowed harm to come to even a single stone” of Constantinople. Distinctly political acts of statecraft, such as conquest and territorial administration, are understood as sacred moments decided by God. The Turkish state today is called to defend “universal values and moral principles” in a global struggle against oppression and discrimination: but leveling a critique against the Turkish state on precisely these grounds is rendered impossible, because its actions are here understood as being directed by God.

By contrast, Elpidophoros’ sermon depicts sanctity as unbounded by any political community. Instead, the sermon proposes a “celestial vision” of religious belonging where membership in a religious community is structured around the memory of, and liturgical participation in, moments of sacred history that are not connected to the actions of any particular nation or empire. Acts of conquest and nationalist “triumphalism” are here understood as instances of tragedy, not the implementation of the divine will. The event celebrated by Erbaş as the apotheosis of Turkish national identity is here described as a day when “the very walls of our religious identity are being breached.”

In Elpidophoros’ sermon, the space of Hagia Sophia is described as sacred not because of its connection to Byzantine imperial power- but rather because it is filled with sacred icons pointing to divine archetypes. Elpidophoros’ sermon does not sacralize the political dominion of the Byzantine Empire. Hagia Sophia is made holy by the radiance of God, not the politics of Justinian. The structure of sacred narrative is held together by the history of Hagia Sophia’s celebrated apse mosaic of the Mother of God, not the history of Byzantine conquest. In this way, the sacred narrative of Christian theology itself emerges to the fore: “The Lord does not triumph by destroying others, but by destroying death by His own death.”

It is important to emphasize that both Erbaş’s and Elpidophoros’ sermons present idealized versions of history. But it is worth asking what actual ideals underpin their respective constructions of historical narrative- in other words, asking how they each choose to interpret their respective sacred traditions. This is where a distinct contrast in political values can be discerned. It is of course true that both Byzantine and Ottoman religious culture were deeply connected to imperial politics. But how Orthodox Christians or Turkish Muslims living today understand the exact theological significance of these imperial legacies is key to the development of virtuous forms of religious politics in the present day. The interpretation of sacred tradition is both a theological and ethical responsibility.

In fact, neither Islam nor Christianity prescribe a certain form of politics. Neither the Qur’an nor the Gospel identify themselves with a particular form of state, much less command the construction and maintenance of empire. Politics is composed of contingent ethical choices that are made by human beings, but these choices are meant to be decided, and judged, within the eternal light of theological truth. The stark contrast analyzed above represents two possible responses to a common dilemma faced by Orthodox Christians and Muslims since the beginning of modernity. It remains among the most urgent dilemmas that must be confronted by both of our communities.

(Note: An English version of Erbaş’s sermon is available online. Quotes above are my own translation from the Turkish original).

Phil Dorroll is Associate Professor of Religion at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.