How can the transformation of St. Sophia (a church) into a mosque be explained by freedom of religion and conscience?

The Details of the Question

Non-Muslims lived freely throughout history under the administration of Muslims,. How should the transformation of St Sophia into a mosque be evaluated taking into consideration the fact that Hz. Umar did not want to perform a prayer in the church in Jerusalem? Based on what religious nass was this transformation made?

The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

According to the decrees of Islamic law of states, the temples belonging to the People of the Book in the countries that are conquered through peace are not touched; however, new ones are not allowed to be built. The ones that existed for a long time can be repaired.

Just the opposite is valid in the countries that are conquered through war. That is, if the Islamic sultan wants, he can eliminate all of the temples and deport all non-Muslims. Istanbul was conquered through war. This decree is the reason why St Sophia and some other churches were transformed into mosques. If that decree had been applied throughout Istanbul, all of the churches and synagogues in Istanbul would have been demolished.

Sultan Mehmed II (the Conqueror), who conquered Istanbul with the help of Allah and the strength of his sword, accepted a committee consisting of priests and rabbis into his presence after transforming St Sophia into a mosque.

The committee of priests and rabbis told Mehmed the Conqueror that he conquered Istanbul through war and that it was his right originating from the law of states not to leave any churches and synagogues in Istanbul if he wished. However, they asked him to treat them and their temples as if Istanbul had been conquered by peace and wanted their late entrance into his presence to be accepted as a means of this request.

Consulting the religious scholars around him, Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror accepted their requests and he did not intervene in the churches and synagogues that had not been transformed into mosques. A fatwa issued by the famous sheikhulislam Ebussuud Efendi of the Ottoman state shows that the real secret of the existence of the churches and synagogues that have survived up to now is Mehmed the Conqueror’s understanding of the freedom of religion and conscience. The fatwa is as follows:

“Did Sultan Muhammed II conquer Istanbul and the towns around it by force? The answer: It is known that he conquered Istanbul by force. However, old churches indicate conquest through peace. This issue was searched in 945. A person aged 130 years old and another person aged 110 years old were found; they witnessed that the group of Jews and Christians formed an alliance with Sultan Mehmed II secretly that they would not help the Byzantine rulers and that Sultan Mehmed II would not enslave them, and that Istanbul was conquered like that. Due to this witnessing, the old churches remained as they were. Written by Ebussuud.”

This fact is also confirmed by the information given by historians. Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror sent İsfendiyar oğlu Damad Kasım Beyas as an envoy to Byzantine on May 23 and sent with him the following message: The city will fall in the first general attack. The Empire, who is a real soldier, must accept this fact. If they surrender through peace, their lives and wealth will not be harmed; if it is conquered by war, blood will be shed and no responsibility will be accepted by Mehmed the Conqueror. Unfortunately, the Empire did not accept peace despite this message and Istanbul was conquered by force. However, Mehmed treated them as it is mentioned above. That Mehmed the Conqueror did not destroy all mosaics in St Sophia and that he did not burn the walls around Istanbul show his attitude regarding the issue.

As it is seen, the promise of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror “to permit the construction of a church near each mosque”practiced in Serbia was also applied in Istanbul. Does the existence of the ByzantinePatriarchate and the church next to the mosque in Abdi Subaşı District, Fener not show the freedom of religion and conscience in the real sense? Is it not one of the material evidences of this freedom to permit the construction of a Byzantine church opposite Mihrimah Sultan Mosque in Edirnekapı?

The claim that Istanbul was destroyed is not true. Instead of answering it in detail, we will quote a sentence from the determination made by CNN, Time and similar media companies mentioning the conquest of Istanbul among the most important hundred incidents of the last millennium:

"Before Istanbul was conquered by Mehmed the Conqueror, it was a dead city of ruins. After the conquest, it became the trade center of both Europe and Muslim countries and a prosperous world city. As a matter of fact, even the Russian historian Ouspensky said, 'In 1453, Turks treated people much more humanely and tolerantly than the Crusaders in 1204.'" (1)


1) Molla Hüsrev, Dürer ve Gürer, I/282 ff.; Mevkufati, Multaqa Translation, I/343; Damad, Majma’ul-Anhu Explanation Multaqal-Abhur, I/643 ff; Ebussuud, Ma'ruzat, Ist. Uni. Library nd. no. 1798, paper. 130/a-b; Ibni Kemal, Tevârih-i Âl-i Osman, VII. Defter, p. 62 ff.; Baştav, Şerif, “XIV. Asırda yazılmış Grekçe Anonim Osmanlı tarihine göre İstanbul’un muhasarası ve zabtı”, p. 51-82; Cin-Akgündüz, Türk Hukuk Tarihi, Vol.1, p. 448 ff.; Âli, Künh’ül-Ahbâr, Vol. V, 251-260; Solakzâde, 191-201; Âşıkpaşa-zâde, p. 141-143; Clot, Fâtih, 60 ff.; for the opposite view, see Aydın, Erdoğan, Fâtih ve Fetih, Mitler ve Gerçekler, 66-67, 94-95, 127-128.; Akgündüz-Öztürk, Bilinmeyen Osmanlı, OSAV, İstanbul, 1999, p. 106-108.

Ahmet Akgündüz (Prof. Dr.)

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