Sacred spaces: on converting churches to mosques

Okay, this story is from last month, but I’ve wanted to write about it since it first popped up and just had other things in the queue.

So apparently there’s a petition in France to stop the conversion of unused churches to mosques after the rector of the Grand Mosque in Paris said that he would support such an action.  The petition has been signed by several eminent right-wing and nationalist figures, as well as by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The issue at stake doesn’t appear to be just the repurposing of churches, as it arose out of the existence of a significant number of unused churches.  Indeed, all across Europe, churches are being repurposed as shops, cafes, restaurants – Oxford itself has a great bar called “Church,” inside a previously-abandoned Catholic church in the north of the city that features some truly gorgeous pre-Reformation frescos.  In fact, as I’ll talk more about in a second, the decline in the use of churches in Europe has been going on for most of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, a fact that spurred, in large part, the “secularization thesis,” the idea that Europe (and North America, largely by association) were becoming less religious and more secular.

So if it’s not about repurposing churches, it seems reasonable to assume the issue at stake here is that of conversion, namely the symbolic conversion of churches into mosques and the resulting effect this might have on the surrounding communities.  

The idea of using and reusing sacred spaces is not a new one – in fact, it’s an incredibly old idea.  That certain spaces promote or accentuate holiness, and thus should be used for religious services, appears in both organized religion and folkstories – it’s the same basic concept behind laylines, shrines, and sacred landmarks.  Sometimes these sacred spots develop a narrative to explain their sacredness – Mount Olympus as the home of the Gods, the Jordan River as the place where Jesus was baptized, etc. -, whereas in other cases, it seems that the space itself just became associated with the idea of holiness.  Years ago, I actually put together a research project to study this idea, as there are a number of examples of sacred spaces in the Middle East being taken over as mosques or being used as both churches and mosques, including most importantly the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, which was first a pagan temple, then a church, then a church and mosque simultaneously, and finally a mosque and Muslim shrine, but unfortunately, as with the Umayyad Mosque, most of the example sites are in Syria, so traveling to study their visual presentation is currently impossible.

Theologically, I would argue that it makes sense for newer religions to feel comfortable or even happy to take over the sacred spaces of older religions.  Since Islam understands itself as the correction of Christianity, Muslims taking over Christian sacred spaces can be understood by the Muslim community as a similar process of correction – both accepting the essentially holy nature of the space, while correcting what they understand as errors in practice and visual representation.

However, I would argue that the desire of Christians to preserve unused sacred spaces rather than allowing Muslims to use them does not make sense given most modern Christian theology, and in fact preserves two fairly outmoded theological concepts.

The first is the conversion of physical or geographical space.  In the Middle Ages, religious buildings weren’t just built as needed to accommodate the population – they were also built to serve as a physical representation of that religion’s dominance in that area.  It’s important to remember that Europe was NEVER 100% Christian – there were sizable Jewish and Muslim communities throughout Europe, and elements of paganism survived well into the late Middle Ages.  When Europeans called their kingdoms Christian, then, they weren’t referring to the entire population.  Kingdoms were Christian because their kings and ruling classes were Christian, and one way they demonstrated this ruling authority was the construction of churches.  This explains in part why so many churches are such massive edifices, even when the local population was relatively small.  They weren’t built to fit the populace, but as a physical marker for Christianity’s dominance in that territory.

In fact, the idea of conversion of geographical space isn’t unique to Christianity, but elements of it arise in the Muslim caliphate and in Asia.  Indeed, one of the most interesting variations I’ve come across is in the Buddhist conversion of Tibet – the earliest Buddhist sherpas understood the land as ruled by a giant she-demon, who had to be literally pinned down into the earth, with each new Buddhist stupas or shrine being built at one of her joints (as illustrated here).  The land was converted once the shrines were done and the demon bound to the earth.

Today, however, given our focus on individualism and individuality, even the idea of national religion strikes some people as misguided, as contradicting religion as essentially a relationship between the individual and the divine.  I wouldn’t guess many people at all would believe that the presence of a church makes the surrounding community Christian, as most of us have grown up in close proximity to churches, temples, mosques, and many other houses of worship, without ever thinking that we were part of those communities just because we walked beside their buildings on a regular basis.

This sort of leads to the second theological flaw, that seeing the conversion of churches to mosques as a threat to French Christianity is really quite putting the cart before the horse.  The churches are empty because fewer people are participating in Christian religious rituals.  There’s no reason to think that leaving them abandoned is going to spark people to start practicing Christianity. Again, I don’t think any of us has ever seen a church and suddenly thought to ourselves, “I should join that faith!”  As I mentioned earlier, this decrease in the use of Christian sacred spaces has also led scholars to speculate that France and other European nations are becoming less Christian than they had been historically, but I’d argue that even this is a more complicated theological issue.  Historically, Europeans were largely compelled to be Christian, unless they actively identified as something else, often facing serious repercussions for doing so.  In most cases, ‘being Christian’ in Medieval Europe was the path of least resistance.  It’s also unclear how many people would have know about other faiths or had the means and opportunity to learn enough to contemplate whether converting to another religion (or leaving religion for nonbelief) would better match with their own personal conception of the divine.  

This becomes a particularly important question in study the Reformation, when communities and kingdoms are understood to ‘flip’ religious affiliations quite regularly.  We’re left asking to what degree did the general populace notice these changes, or understand the theological ramifications of them?  To what degree did these changes adhere to or contradict their own religious beliefs?  The continuation of Christian sects despite political repression – the Huguenots in France, for example, as well as both the Catholics and the radical Protestant churches like the Quakers in the UK – suggest that the local communities in these areas did understand themselves as possessing an individual religious identity that might have differed from that of the king, but we’re still left uncertain if more people would have joined these or other religious movements if they had had the chance.

By comparison, we live in societies today where more and more people can actively choose their faith, and where the public expression of a variety of faiths gives people the opportunity to find one that most closely matches their own personal experience of the divine.  In the case of Europe, this means there may be fewer seats in the pews, but at least in theory, it also means that those who attend are more consciously engaged with their faith and its theology.

Again, if the secularization thesis was correct, then we should only ever see sacred spaces being repurposed as non-sacred spaces.  Society becomes more secular, the desire to separate out sacred space decreases, previously sacred spaces become bars and laundromats.  What we’re seeing instead is the transition of sacred space as a mirror of the larger transition of the population.  People aren’t becoming less religious – religious identities are expanding beyond the confines previously set, often by force, by ruling elites.  That means that religious freedom is working, that people have the opportunity to choose the expression of their religion, which in any free society should be cause for celebration, not outrage.

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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