Pat Robertson, the Taliban, and destruction of “idols”

Sheila Musaji

Posted May 26, 2012      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Pat Robertson, the Taliban, and destruction of “idols”

by Sheila Musaji

This week, Christian televangelist Pat Robertson encouraged the desruction of statues of Budha.  When a viewer asked if it was OK that her Christian friend had a Buddha statue, Robertson advised her to “break it.” 

That’s right, this was a statement made on a Christian television program in the U.S., not by some Taliban leader somewhere in Afghanistan.

It would seem that Robertson and the Taliban are following the same sort of extremist interpretation of their respective faiths.  They should be ashamed.

And, I think that the rest of us should be concerned about the spread of such caustic sentiments.

After the Taliban destroyed two 2,000 year old statues of Buddha in Afghanistan, a group of American Muslims issued this statement

The senseless policy of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan of destroying statues is a reprehensible act that must be condemned by all Muslims.  We ask the Taliban government of Afghanistan to stop the destruction of statues and relics in their country. Their decision contradict the principles of Islam and are very dangerous.

Islamic law requires the interests of the people (al-maslaha)  be met in any decree or legislation.  The destruction of shrines of other faiths runs counter to that goal, for the Taliban decision has led to hate crimes and burning of Qurans in India.

Furthermore, the Quran states:  “And had God willed, they would not have associated idols with Him.  And We have not made you a guardian over them, nor are you over them a patron (6:108); for you be your religion and for us be ours. (109:6)”  Tolerance of other faiths is not optional in Islam but a requirement, and coexistence within the framework of religious pluralism is an aspiration for all Muslims.

The statues in Afghanistan are its historic treasures. These statues have existed in Afghanistan long before Afghans became Muslims. No Afghan Muslim government in the past tried to destroy them.  They represent the past history of Afghanistan and its transformation into a Muslim community that recognized monotheism. Past generations and governments of Afghanistan did not destroy these images and yet Islam flourished in Afghanistan.

In many other countries where Muslims are a majority, and have ruled those lands for centuries, they did not destroy the religious symbols of other people. Such images and symbols of the past still exist in almost all Muslim countries.

We denounce the Taliban regime for this act and hope that will reconsider its decision and will give full assurance to the world Buddhist community, and others, about the safety of these historic relics of the past.

The world community is rightly outraged at the destruction of these statues and relics. However, it is a shame to see that there is not much concern about the death and starvation of millions of human beings in Afghanistan and Iraq due to unjust sanctions or famine and disease in Africa, not to mention the death, torture, economic blockade and political oppression against Palestinians by the Israelis. All religions teach that the life of a human being is much more important then any relic. We should have more concern for human life and their well-being.

TAM also published an article by Haroon Siddiqui Why Did the Taliban Destroy Buddhist Statues  He noted that

HAD THE Taleban not been isolated from the world by the American-led economic sanctions, starved of resources of which they had few to begin with, rendered too helpless to do anything for their 1 million internally displaced people fleeing drought or civil war, reduced to being mute witnesses to the death of starving and shivering children in winter refugee camps, would the rulers of Afghanistan have been less likely to destroy priceless pre-Islamic treasures?  Perhaps.

But of this there is little doubt: We would have had greater credibility in trying to save Afghanistan’s historic treasures had we been more helpful in saving its human beings.

While that debate goes on, there is another: What is the Islamic critique of the Taleban rampaging all statues, including two giant 2,000-year-old Buddhas?

Not much different than the secular world’s. For these Philistines are ignorant of the theology they invoke to justify their tyrannical rule.

Theirs is not so much an austere interpretation of Islam as one that distorts, often violates the words and spirit of the faith. Which is why Muslims everywhere have joined the international chorus of condemnation.

The Taleban’s shaky grip on religious doctrine shows in the confusing edict of their spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Graven images are blasphemous, he ruled. Idols are insulting to Islam. “They are the gods of the infidels.’’ But they could be preserved so long as they were not worshipped. Then changing his mind, he said all statues must be smashed, the way Prophet Muhammad destroyed the idols of Mecca. And he wondered about the worldwide fuss: “All we are breaking are stones.’‘

The old Islamic injunction against drawing the human form is similar to the Christian and Jewish prohibition of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.’‘

Swept aside long ago - with the impeccable logic that if pictures and TV can show and transmit the word of God, how can they be illicit? - the ban is now preserved only by the Luddites who, like those of any faith, fear any innovation.

Citing Muhammad’s actions in Mecca 1,400 years ago to justify intolerance today is theologically false, says Islamic scholar Mohammed Zahid of Toronto:

“The Ka’ba was the historic monotheistic centre of worship, established by Abraham, but later filled with idols. The prophet overturned that aggression,’’ but went on to establish a multireligious state.

Islam extended to Christians and Jews, whose prophets they shared, full protection of the state, calling them dhimmis, from dhimma, guarantor. Declared Muhammad: “Whoever oppresses a dhimmi, I shall be his prosecutor on the Day of Judgment.’‘

The sharia, the governing law of a Muslim state, dictated harmonious relations for the whole millet, multireligious community. The duties of the governor included ensuring that non-Muslims lived free of religious harassment.

The state was to provide non-Muslims even the right to be tried under their own religious laws - a feature not duplicated by any other system, “legal exclusivism being the very essence of national or political sovereignty,’’ in the words of the authoritative Cultural Atlas Of Islam (Macmillan, New York, 1986).

When Muslims conquered Persia, they extended full protection to Zoroastrians.

When they defeated the Byzantines, the caliph signed a treaty granting Christians “security of their persons and all their properties, their churches and their crosses, large and small.’‘

When the first Muslim conqueror came to the Indian subcontinent in 711, not far from where the Taleban rule, he had never heard of Hindus or Buddhists. So he sought instructions from head office in Damascus. There the caliph called a synod of senior theologians. They wrote back that minorities “must remain free to worship their gods as they please, to maintain their temples and to determine their lives by the precepts of their faiths.’‘

The Taleban would be unaware of all this. Ironically, also most people in the West. They are seeped in the folklore, rooted in the legacy of the Crusaders and replenished daily by the dictates of modern geopolitics, that Islam was spread by the sword and is, inherently, intolerant.

Muslims often ruled empires where the faiths of the non-Muslim majority thrived.

Some conquerors and rulers, as those of any faith, did invoke religion to spill much blood and destroy many holy places, including Hindu temples in India. But the greater truth remains, to which the Taleban also remain oblivious: that Muslims often ruled empires where the faiths of the non-Muslim majority not only survived but thrived, and their religious relics and monuments were preserved, proof being that we have them today - European churches, the Pyramids, Petra, the temples of India and beyond.

The Taleban - as indeed some other Muslim rulers these days, even if far less obscurantist than they - may read the Quran, the holy book in Arabic, but clearly don’t understand and certainly don’t follow its clear dictates.

It is also important to consider the fact that these statues have stood there and Buddhist pilgrims have visited them for the past 2,000 years, including the last 1,000 plus years that the area has been Muslim.  Islam has been the dominant religion in this area since the 9th century.  The Taliban and their new interpretations are the source of this bigotry.

And, as Chandra Muzaffar notes in another article on TAM Muslims and Buddhists in Asia

On the whole the two communities have maintained harmonious relations since time immemorial. Muslims came into contact with Buddhists from the late seventh century onwards, in places such as Eastern Persia, Afghanistan, Sind and of course, China. Though Muslim military conquests were part of this initial contact, there is also ample evidence to show that the interactions between Muslim Sufis and ordinary Buddhists were much more enduring. Indeed, the spread of Islam in what were Buddhist regions was due largely to these gentle Sufis with their peaceful, universal approach to religion.

It was partly because of the congenial atmosphere that they created that Muslim scholars wrote in such glowing terms about the Buddhists that they encountered. One such account came from Ibn-a-Nadim (died 995) who praised the courtesy, the kindness and the compassion of the Buddhists living in his midst. The illustrious savant, Al-Biruni (died 1051), who was undoubtedly the first, and one of the greatest students of comparative religion in history, even produced a book on Buddhist monuments in Afghanistan entitled “The Story of the Two Statues of Bamiyan”.  His account is of special significance in view of the destruction of those statues by the bigoted Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001. 

Another towering figure of Islamic scholarship from the early period, Al-Shahristani, who lived in the twelfth century and who is widely regarded as the first person to author an encyclopedia of religions, also discussed the Buddha and Buddhism with a great deal of understanding and objectivity. He probed the five precepts (Panca Sila) and the ten precepts (Dasa Sila) in the Buddhist texts and even identified the Buddha with the Quranic figure of Al_ Khidr whom the majority of Quranic commentators accept as a Prophet. The fourteenth century scholar, Rasheeduddin Fadlullah, was yet another outstanding student of Buddhism who focussed upon the sublime life of Sakyamuni (the Buddha).  In recent times, Muslim scholars such as Hamidullah, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Chaiwat Satha-Anand and Imtiyaz Yusuf, among others, have adopted an empathetic approach to Buddhism in their writings.


American Muslims Issue Statement Against Taliban Destruction of Buddhist Statues

Freedom of Religion in Christian, Buddhist, Sunni, and Shi’a Jurisprudence, Dr. Robert D. Crane

Islamic-Buddhist Dialogue, Dr. Alexander Berzin

Ladakh Violence and the Buddhist-Muslim Counter-Perspective, Yoginder Sikand

More than 70 Indian Muslim scholars denounce the Taliban destruction

Not to be outdone by Robertson, Mohler claimed that Buddhism, Hinduism, and Marxism are “demonstration[s] of satanic power”

World reaction to destruction of Bamiyan Buddha’s

Why the Taliban are destroying Buddhas,  W.L. Rathje