Friday, December 3, 2010

The Hagia Sophia and the Nature of Islam

I had the privilege of visiting the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul recently, which I was really happy about.  It's been a dream of mine for a long time.  So when I finally got to visit what was the largest basilica in the world for over a thousand years, the place with some of the most majestic Christian art and architecture in history, the place where John Chrysostom preached, and the place which was at the center of Christendom in the East before Islam was even a thought, I was...

...really shocked to see these huge, unsightly, totally incongruous black discs with Arabic calligraphy hung around the inside of the church.  I mean, this place is clearly a church.  The place screams "I am a church" from outside and inside.  But when you walk inside and see these large black discs hanging, you realize something is out of place.

As I said, the Hagia Sophia was the world's largest Christian basilica for over a thousand years.  But in 1453 with the Ottoman Muslim conquest of the city, it was "converted" into a mosque.  The Sultan simply painted over the mosaics and hung these big black calligraphy discs and declared it a mosque.

Now this hints at something deeper about the nature of Islam.  I believe that these big black discs which are so incongruous and appear so unnatural-yet-forced inside the church are symbolic of Islam in general.  Just like these discs and some paint were used to cover over a thousand year history of tradition, Islam claims to supersede a long history of Truth that came before it, namely Christianity and Judaism.  Now on the surface it looks pretty coherent - the discs, if you look at them alone, are beautiful.  But once you see what was underneath the paint (the restored mosaics), and once you step back and look at them from a distance, you can see how out of place they are in the building.  By themselves, the discs would be fine.  But hung inside this building, they just don't "fit".

Muhammad has been described as one of the greatest "borrowers" of all time.  In fact, each of the five pillars of Islam can be shown to have been borrowed from Judaism, Christianity, or pagan Arabia.  More so, a brief look at the Qur'an itself reveals at times exact replicas of Biblical stories and at others complete gaps or revisions.  Again, borrowing and covering over.  Muhammad was truly a master of "contextualization" for his audience, adapting forms and rituals and vesting them with new meaning - to the point where the originals were nearly lost.  Thank goodness that Ataturk uncovered the mosaics in Hagia Sophia - no one would have ever known they were there!

To conclude, let's consider the exterior of the building.  You might notice that the domes and minarets that we are so quick to associate with Islam are actually almost carbon copies of Byzantine Christian architecture.  After all, the design of the Hagia Sophia was used as a model for the building of mosques all over the empire, as Christian architects were even commissioned to build mosques!  So the next time you see a mosque, remember that even that design is merely borrowed from Christianity!

1 comment:

Warrick Farah said...

This was a good post. Made me think. Thanks.