The Turkish government’s decision two weeks ago to have the Hagia Sophia used as a mosque once again was met with outrage and concern throughout the world.
The first day of prayer since the Hagia Sophia’s change in status was last Friday. Thousands gathered under dark drapes covering the once glittering mosaics depicting Christ and the Virgin Mary. The top imam of the country, Ali Erbas, carried a sword while delivering his sermon from the tall minbar. When questioned about this he said: “This is a tradition in mosques that are the symbol of conquest.” Outside thousands more gathered chanting anti-Greek slogans. Commemorative coins were made in celebration of the event.
Among the many world leaders who voiced protest over this provocative act was Pope Francis. His statement was brief and reserved compared to many others. At his Sunday Angelus address he said: “I think of Hagia Sophia, and I am very saddened.” The Turkish historian, Mehmet Özdemir, retorted in an interview that Pope Francis “should also feel sad for the mosques converted to churches during Al Andalus.” Another Turkish historian, Lütfi Seyban, reiterated the same point, stating an injustice is being perpetrated against the world’s Muslims for not being allowed to pray in what was once the Grand Mosque of Cordoba, which is now serving as the Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption.
It seems drawing a parallel between the Hagia Sophia and the so-called Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba is becoming an increasingly popular strategy for those supporting the Hagia Sophia’s change in status. Such a comparison has already gone unchallenged by many media outlets. Anthropologist Khalid Yacinen, in an interview with the Turkish news channel TRT World, stated: “
When Spain expelled Muslims in the inquisition, it changed the Grand Mosque of Cordoba into a cathedral, where Muslims are forbidden to pray to this day … Many mosques were outright destroyed or converted into churches … Turkey has ruled to allow people to carry out prayers in Hagia Sophia. That hardly compares to getting arrested in the Grand Mosque of Cordoba for saying something in Arabic or converting it into a cathedral.
To help set the historical record straight, CWR asked Darío Fernández-Morera, an associate professor at Northwestern University, to answer a few questions on this topic. Professor Fernández-Morera is the author an excellent book titled The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2016), which sheds light on the true nature of the Muslim rule over Medieval Spain, correcting the widespread belief that Islamic Spain was a light of tolerance and culture in the midst of the darkness of the Middle Ages.
Father Seán Connolly for CWR: The opening discussion of your book details the state of Islamic historiography in Western academia. You expose so well the misrepresentation and ignorance of the historical record—due to ideology and the academic desire for further funding from Arab countries—which perpetuates the myth of a Andalusian golden age of Islam, a sort of paradise for not only Muslims but also Christians and Jews, who lived famously together largely at peace under tolerant Muslim rule and learned so much from each other. What was life like for the Christians of Spain under Muslim rule?
Darío Fernández-Morera: In the Islamic empire, Christians and Jews, the so-called “People of the Book [the Bible],” were given three options if they submitted without resisting: submit to the superiority of Islam and become dhimmis, which entailed accepting a subaltern condition with respect to Muslims, paying a tax, having their religious rights limited, and so forth; convert to Islam; or die. Others were given only two choices: convert or die. If Christians or Jews resisted, then upon their defeat the surviving men would be either killed or enslaved, and their women and children would be enslaved. Young women and even girls would be taken as sexual slaves of the victorious Muslim warriors. According to Muslim authorities like Bukhari and others, Muhammad had given the example of sexual relations with girls by consummating his marriage to Aisha, the youngest of his wives, when she was nine, after marrying her when she was six. For the gathered evidence see Felipe Maillo Salgado’s Las mujeres del Profeta (2017).
Professor Felipe Maillo Salgado of the University of Salamanca, an Arabist, historian and expert in Islamic law (sharia), gives many examples of the subaltern legal condition of the dhimmi in Islamic Spain (Acerca de la Conquista Árabe de Hispania: imprecisiones, equívocos y patrañas, 2016). For instance, if a dhimmi killed a Muslim, even in self-defense, the dhimmi must suffer the death penalty. But if a Muslim killed a dhimmi, even if intentionally, he must not suffer the death penalty. In legal cases, the testimony of a dhimmi was worth only half that of a Muslim man. It was equal to that of a Muslim woman, which was only half of that of a Muslim man. And in cases involving Muslims, the testimony of a dhimmi was simply not acceptable.
It is noteworthy that, whenever Muslim chronicles mention Christian churches in Spain, it is only to gloat over their destruction or their conversion to mosques. But turning Christian churches into mosques has been standard practice during the Muslim conquests. For example, the famous Umayyad mosque of Damascus was built with materials from the great Greek basilica of Saint John the Baptist, which stood on the site and which was demolished by the Arab conquerors.
In fact, any construction prior to Islam that was taller or more beautiful than Islamic ones was not allowed to stand. Thus the celebrated Caliph al-Mamun (d. 833; he also created in Baghdad the first Inquisition, the mihna, to impose, of all things, an Enlightened approach to the Islamic religious texts) attempted to destroy the great pyramid of Giza, though he failed. Harun al-Rashid (the admired Caliph of the Thousand and One Nights, the famous collection of mostly Persian and Indian tales written in Arabic) destroyed the extraordinary palace of the Persian king Chosroes (Khosrau or Kasra, d. 579) at the once-vast Persian city of Ctesiphon (near where al-Madain, Iraq, stands today).
No crosses could be displayed on the outside of churches. No bells could be rung. No new churches were allowed. Existing ones could be repaired only with the permission of the Islamic authorities, which usually denied it. No churches were allowed in the main parts of a city, but only on the outskirts, the arrabales. No Christian processions were allowed. According to the contemporary testimony of Saint Eulogius of Cordoba (the best known of the Martyrs of Cordoba, who was beheaded by the Umayyad ruler Abd-al-Rahman II in 859), in the streets of Umayyad Cordoba Catholic priests would be pelted with rotten fruit or mud or even stones. Travelers to North Africa in the 19th century report similar actions against Christian priests.
No Muslim would eat with a Christian because Christians were unclean drinkers of wine and eaters of pigs, garlic, and the meat of animals not killed according to Islamic sharia rules (the animal had to receive a cut in the yugular vein that did not kill the animal but made the animal bleed to death so that no blood remained in the meat before being cooked for consumption). No Christians were allowed to walk on Muslim cemeteries as their presence would defile the dead. Dhimmis had to pay a tax, the jizya, to be allowed to exist as dhimmis. They could not carry weapons. Christians could not hold a public position that gave them authority over Muslims.
CWR: Please provide a brief survey of the history of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in Córdoba.
Fernández-Morera: Professor of the University of Cordoba Pedro Marfil, who has directed the largest number of archaeological excavations on the site of the Cathedral of Cordoba, has shown both documentary and archaeological evidence to support the long-held view that on the site of the Cathedral there was, long before the Islamic conquest, an ancient Hispano-Roman basilica dedicated to the martyr Saint Vincent (who was killed during the persecutions of Christians ordered by Roman Emperor Diocletian). Marfil observes that the site eventually became the center of Christian worship in Cordoba, and that on it grew an entire episcopal complex of buildings (see, among others, his paper “La sede episcopal de San Vicente en la S.I. Catedral de Córdoba” published in Al-Mulk in 2006 and available online at academia.edu). This basilical complex was erected in the sixth century (the Visigoths first entered already Christianized Spain as allies of Rome in 415 but did not establish their reign in Hispania until the first half of the sixth century). Marfil has even found mosaics with Christian motifs, among them pigeons representing the Holy Spirit and crowns of thorns alluding to the Passion of Christ. Not surprisingly, the archaeological and documentary evidence is rejected by archaeologists commissioned by the left-wing municipal government of Cordoba, by an archaeologist from the Spanish Centro Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, and by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), who do not want to admit anything that might undermine the Muslim claim to the Cathedral of Cordoba. They are on the same ideological side of those academics who deny the existence of a Reconquest. Nothing can be allowed to undermine Islam.
This Christian basilica of Saint Vincent of Cordoba was demolished by celebrated Umayyad ruler Abd-al-Rahman I (731-788), whose statues adorn several places in today’s Spain. With its materials he had the Mosque of Cordoba built on the site. The Christians were allowed to build a replacement church, but only on the outskirts of Cordoba, because Islam did not allow Christian churches in important or central parts of Muslim cities.
The mosque was extended by other Muslim rulers, most notably by Al-Mansur (“The victorious”), called by the Spaniards Almanzor (939-1002). Almanzor terrified the Christians. He was invincible and regularly burned Christian cities, finding justification in Sharia treatises current in Islamic Spain, such as the al-Tafri and the Mudawwana, which authorized the burning of infidel towns during jihad. Sharia also authorized flooding them and “cutting their trees and their fruits, killing their animals, and destroying their buildings and all that can be broken down.”
It is noteworthy that whenever the Islamic treatises explained jihad, it was always as armed Holy War on behalf of Dar al Islam, the world of Islam, against the Dar al Harb, the world of war, where the infidels are—not as a “spiritual” struggle for self-.improvement, which is how many academics and Muslims these days explain jihad’s principal meaning.
Almanzor famously burned down Barcelona in 985 and enslaved anyone he did not kill. He sacked the great Christian church of Santiago de Compostela in 997, and had its bells brought to Cordoba on the backs of Christians he enslaved at Compostela. Then he melted the bells and turned them into lamps to adorn the mosque of Cordoba, which he aggrandized using Christian slave labor. He razed the city of Leon, with the exception of a tower, which he left standing so that people could see the sort of powerful Christian fortress-town he had destroyed. The Victorious was so pious that just in a single year (981) he carried out five jihads against the Christians. He asked to be buried with the dust his clothes had gathered in his jihads against the Christians.
In 1236 the Christians reconquered Cordoba, but did not destroy the mosque. Instead, King Ferdinand III turned over the building to the Catholic bishops, who consecrated it as a Catholic church on June 29, 1236, making some changes to the inside of the building, positioning crosses outside and inside, and so forth.
In conclusion, not only was the mosque built on a Christian site, but it was also built using materials from the sixth century Christian building destroyed by Muslims in the ninth century.
CWR: Is the analogy Turkish government officials are making between this Cathedral and the Hagia Sophia accurate?
Fernández-Morera: One can make comparisons between them, but not of the kind the Muslim authorities are making. Let us see. The site where the Cathedral of Cordoba stands is a Christian site dating back to the sixth century, and with a Christian building or buildings on it to boot. So there was justification for turning the site and its new building, a mosque, back into a Christian site with a Christian building.
But the site of the Basilica of Hagia Sofia was never a Muslim site, nor did it ever have a Muslim building when Hagia Sofia was turned into a mosque by the celebrated conqueror Muhammad (Mehemet in Turkish) II.
Hagia Sofia was built by Christian Roman Emperor Justinian in 537 A.D. on a Christian site where several previous churches had been built and had been destroyed by earthquakes or fire. So there was no justification for the Muslims’ turning the basilica into a mosque after their conquest, rape, and looting of Constantinople in 1453 by the Ottoman Turks….
Oh, and the city of Cordoba, where the present-day Cathedral stands, and where the Basilica of Saint Vincent stood, was a Christian city long before the Muslims conquered the city. But Constantinople (“the city of [Emperor] Constantine”), where Hagia Sofia stands, was not a Muslim city before the Muslims conquered it on May 29, 1453. Oh, and the Christians did not change the name of the city of Cordoba; they kept the name that dated back to Roman times (Corduba, the city in Hispania where the great Roman philosopher Seneca was born) long before the Muslim conquest. But Muslims changed the name of Constantinople to “Istanbul,” to try to erase its Greek and Christian origin. But ironically, even the Turkish name given to the city of Constantinople, “Istanbul,” may be a garbling of the Greek phrase στην Πόλη [stimˈboli], meaning “in the city” or “to the city.”
The lack of justification for turning the Basilica of Hagia Sofia again into a mosque in July of 2020 increases if one considers that the Turkish dictator Kemal Ataturk (who was, by the way, one of the architects of the Armenian and Assyrian genocides; he is nevertheless one of the heroes of Turkish history) turned the building from mosque to museum.
A true analogy with the history of the Cathedral of Cordoba would be to turn the site of Hagia Sofia and the building back into what it was before the Muslim conquest, namely a Christian site with one of the greatest churches ever built—the Basilica of Hagia Sofia, Holy Wisdom.
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