July 21, 2020 Special Dispatch No. 8853

Al-Azhar Sheikhs: Turning Hagia Sophia Back Into A Mosque Is Forbidden By Islam

July 21, 2020
Egypt, Turkey | Special Dispatch No. 8853

In a July 10, 2020 decree, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reversed the 1934 law that converted the Hagia Sophia from a mosque into a museum, thereby turning it back into a mosque. He also placed the historic structure, which had been under the authority of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, under the authority of the country's Ministry of Religious Affairs.[1]

While Erdoğan's move was praised by Muslim Brotherhood (MB) clerics, senior officials at Egypt's Al-Azhar, the most important religious institution in the country and the leading institution in the Sunni Islamic world, were vehemently opposed. They argued that turning a church into a mosque was forbidden and that the building should remain either a museum or a church. One of the sheikhs even stated that the move reflected the MB's enmity to human civilization.

The statements by the Al-Azhar officials against Turkey's changing Hagia Sophia back into a mosque reflect the unprecedented tension between Egypt and Turkey, that began in July 2013 following the ousting of Mohamed Morsi from the Egyptian presidency by Egyptian president Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi, who was defense minister at the time. Erdoğan, who was at that time Turkey's prime minister, still does not recognize the legitimacy of Al-Sisi's rule and, along with Qatar, provides patronage to Al-Sisi's opponents in the MB. The Egypt-Turkey tension has spiked recently following Turkey's increasing military involvement in support of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya, headed by Fayez Al-Sarraj. This is perceived by Egypt as an attempt by Erdoğan to establish Turkey as a regional power while threatening to destabilize Egypt. Al-Sarraj's forces, backed by Turkish military forces, have recently advanced to the oil-rich region of eastern Libya, near the Egyptian border, and this could lead to Egypt-Turkey military conflict on Libyan soil.

This report will present statements by Al-Azhar clerics opposing Turkey's turning Hagia Sophia back into a mosque:

Former Al-Azhar Deputy Sheikh 'Abbas Shuman: It Is Forbidden To Turn A Church Into A Mosque; The Houses Of Worship Of All Religions Must Be Respected

'Abbas Shuman, former deputy to the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, told the Russian Sputnik news agency in Arabic on June 10, 2020: "Islam respects the houses of worship of the various religions, and it is forbidden to turn a church into a mosque, just as it is forbidden to turn a mosque into a church. This [turning a church into a mosque] is a principle that Al-Azhar's ideology does not accept, [for] all places of worship, of all religions, must be respected... Whatever belongs to Islam is Muslim, whatever belongs to Christianity is Christian, and whatever belongs to Judaism is Jewish. This move [of turning a church into a mosque] is provocative, and contravenes the directives of Islam as we know them and which were followed by our righteous fathers of old. It is a known fact that they cared for the holy places of other [religions], protected them and did not damage them...

"Whatever its goal, this move [of turning Hagia Sophia back into a mosque] is unacceptable, whether it was meant to achieve political gains or was motivated by good intentions. It is fundamentally mistaken, and neither political aims nor good intentions justify making a mistake that is unacceptable in essence. It is not possible to revoke, add or make [new] laws in Islam that do not exist [in the shari'a]. Inventing goals in an artificial manner and claiming that they benefit Islam is a distortion of Islam's tolerant directives... Islam never turned churches into mosques by force. On the contrary, it was Muslims and their mosques that were attacked, and those responsible for this were in the wrong. The principle of turning a church into a mosque is unacceptable, just like the opposite action of turning a mosque into a church. There may be exceptions, for instance if the residents of a Christian town have converted to Islam and turned their church into a mosque in order to pray in it, which harms nobody, or if a [formerly] Muslim town no longer has any Muslim residents and all the people there are followers of a different religion, the mosques there may be turned into places of worship for that religion."[2] 

'Abbas Shuman (Source:, September 3, 2018)

Al-Azhar University Professor Saad El-Din Helaly: Hagia Sophia Should Remain A Museum; It Is The Nature Of The Muslim Brotherhood And Political Islam To Take Others' Possessions

Saad El-Din Helaly, a professor of Islamic jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University, said in a July 13, 2020 interview on the Saudi-Egyptian MBC Misr TV that by renewing Friday prayers in Hagia Sophia, the Turkish "Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated government" was escalating its hostility "against human civilization." Adding that Hagia Sophia should remain a museum and that it is the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood and of political Islam to take things from other people and religions, he called upon Muslims in Turkey to boycott the July 24 Friday prayers at Hagia Sophia. He stated further that in 1945, the world had agreed to "let bygones be bygones" and to solve conflicts peacefully, and accused Erdoğan of wanting to turn the clock back to before 1945.

To view this clip on MEMRI TV, click here or below:

Al-Azhar University Professor Ahmad Karima: Hagia Sophia, Like The Sphinx And The Pyramids, Belongs To The Heritage Of Humanity; It Should Remain A Church

Ahmad Karima, a professor of Islamic law at Al-Azhar University, said in a July 13, 2020 interview on Egypt's Channel 1 that Hagia Sophia is part of the heritage of humanity and should remain a church. He said that Al-Azhar scholars had had the same reasoning for condemning the Taliban's destruction of the ancient Buddha statues in Afghanistan. When the companions of the Prophet Muhammad came to Egypt, he added, they saw ancient Egyptian monuments such as the Sphinx and the pyramids, yet did not destroy them or turn them into mosques because they belonged to the heritage of all humanity – thus if Hagia Sophia was once a Christian church, it should remain one now.

To view this clip on MEMRI TV, click here or below:


[1], July 10, 2020.

[2], July 10, 2020.

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