Destruction of Islamic Architectural Heritage in Saudi Arabia: A Wake-up Call
By Saeed Shehabi
In year 2002, Dr Ahmad Zaki Yamani, the former Oil Minister of Saudi Arabia, delivered a lecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, on a subject that had not been openly discussed at this level. Dr Yamani’s lecture was about a project that he had undertaken to excavate the site of the Holy Prophet’s house in Makkah. A team of more than 300 workers, engineers, archaeologists and other experts worked over a 24-hour period, excavated the house, took detailed images of its design and structure, and filled it with sand before they left. When Dr Yamani was asked why the house was hidden again, he said that there were powerful people in his country who would object to the whole operation, arguing that it was blasphemous to glorify anyone but God. During the discussion, a young Jordanian man stood up and said: “Isn’t it a waste of money and effort to do what you had done in order to unearth old stones that would benefit no one?”
Dr Yamani replied: “Thank you. You have made my task easier. Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the mentality we are facing in Saudi Arabia. I hope you now understand why we had to cover the findings in haste.”
During this year, 2006, the extent of the destruction of historic Islamic monuments has come to light with devastating impact. It is now estimated that more than 90 per cent of historic mosques, mausoleums and other artefacts have been erased from the face of the earth, to the extent that some Saudi voices, especially from the Hejaz, have begun to question the wisdom of the eradication of the country’s historic wealth. The policy of destruction and enmity to anything that is of symbolic value has now crossed the borders of Saudi Arabia to other countries. The destruction in February 2006 of the ninth-century tomb of Samarra in Iraq has extended the boundaries of this policy to other parts of the Arab and Muslim world. There is now a growing fear that other monuments and mausoleums in Iraq and elsewhere may be targeted by elements loyal to the Salafi School of Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al Wahabi, the godfather of the most destructive force in the Muslim world. In May 2001, the 2000-ye ar-old statue of Buddha in the Afghan city of Bamyan was demolished by the Taliban forces, which ruled Afghanistan for five years (1996–2001). Although several delegations from Muslim countries flew to Kabul to dissuade the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, from destroying the monument, they failed in their mission.The extremism of today’s Salafi movement has become a force of annihilation, which spares no one in its drive to dominate the Muslim world. It is closely linked to the Wahhabi movement founded by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al Wahab (1703–1792 AC). His aim was to purify Islam by returning all Muslims to what he believed were its original principles as typified by al Salaf al Şalihīn (the earliest converts to Islam). He rejected what he regarded as corruption introduced by bid‘a (innovation, reformation) and shirk (idolatry). During his lifetime, he denounced the practices of various sects of Sufism as heretical and unorthodox, such as their veneration of saints. Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al Wahab revived interest in the works of an earlier scholar, Ibn Taymiyyah (661–728AH/1263–1328AC), and his disciple, Ibn al Jawziyyah (d. 1350 AC).
Ibn Taymiyyah was reported to have said: “The leaders of Islam agreed that it is not permitted to build the mausoleums over the graves. They cannot be considered mosques and praying in them is not permitted.”
Later, Ibn Jawziyyah said: “The mausoleums that are built on graves must be demolished. It is not permitted to keep them for one day if there is the power to demolish them.” Seven centuries had passed after the advent of Islam with none of the scholars raising the issue. Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al Wahab, who came four centuries after Ibn Jawziyyah, went further in his extremism and adopted doctrines that label people with differing views as unbelievers and polytheists. Those falling into these categories, according to him, were worthy of nothing but extermination. Their lives deserved no sanctity, their wealth could be plundered and their families could be enslaved or killed. The legacy of Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al Wahab has not only survived for two centuries, but has also acquired new international dimensions. Extremists are now distributed over the five continents and are threatening not only non-Muslims but also the very fabric of the Muslim Ummah, which is being destroyed in the rising sectarian discord promoted by followers of the neo-Salafis.
Within Saudi Arabia itself, fear has become a major factor in silencing the voices of dissent. Despite the atrocities of recent years, which are committed by the neo-Wahhabis and neo-Salafis against non-Muslims as well as Muslims, the Saudi government has refused to disengage from its historic pact with the Wahhabis. Apart from the ideological and political consequences of this pact, the country’s heritage has been subjected to utter vandalism and eradication. Although some brave writers and commentators have questioned the wisdom of this destruction, their pleas are ignored. It is a religious or political war? What is the role of politicians in encouraging this policy? Is it an interest-based war or the result or ignorance and prejudice?Earlier this year (2006), the grave of Hashim ibn ‘Abd Manaf, Prophet Muhammad’s grandfather, in the Palestinian city of Gaza was desecrated. Mr ‘Abd al Latif Hashim, the Director of the Documentation Department at the Palestinian Ministry of Endowments, accused the Salafis and Wahhabis of carrying out this heinous act, and described the destruction of the grave as the loss of a historic monument in Palestine.
The desecration was in line with the pattern of destruction followed by the Wahhabis over the past two centuries. Muslims consider these acts a disaster for the Muslim world for several reasons. First, they are an attack on civilization and culture and the losses are irreplaceable. Second, targeting symbols that are sacred to others can only provoke sectarian and religious tension, which could lead to bloodshed. Third, it compromises the principle of tolerance that
Islam promotes among people to safeguard social and religious peace. Fourth, targeting the graves and tomb s of historic Muslim figures is tantamount to humiliating these noble ancestors and is contradictory to Islamic values and teachings.
Historically, the destruction of graves goes back to the early days of Islam, although at that time, it was carried out for different reasons. In 236 AH/850 AC, the Abbasid Caliph, al Mutawakkil, ordered the destruction of Imam Hussain’s grave. The earth was levelled and the ground flooded with water. It was a political revenge for the rebellion against the Abbasid rule, spearheaded by followers of the descendants of the Holy Prophet. It was an act to prevent the use of this holy site becoming a centre for the opposition to the Abbasids. Attacks on graves on the early days of Islam were motivated by politics rather than religion. However, during the past two centuries, enmity against religious symbolism has been presented with the support of religious edicts in line with the teachings of Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al Wahab.
Visiting tombs of disciples or faith symbols has been equated to polytheism (shirk), which is liable to the maximum punishment. Tension with other schools of juris prudence has escalated and a state of religious polarization has been forming in the Muslim world. The present Saudi rule in the early twentieth century is a marriage of convenience between the Salafi trend based on Wahhabi traditions and the Saudi ambitious political agenda. Relations among Muslims have become strained as the Salafi movement has taken root in many places, thanks to the Saudi petrodollars that have been abundant since the mid-1970s as a result of the oil boom. Two hundred years ago, the Saudi–Wahhabi alliance wreaked havoc in Iraq. When its forces invaded the country in 1816, they destroyed the mausoleum of Imam Hussain and other sacred places before they left.
The Arabian Peninsula became the launching pad for the new politico-religious trend. This led to the destruction of more than 90 per cent of Islamic monuments, holy places, tombs and mausoleums. Anything that had symbolic significance unrelated to the Wahhabi school of thought was deemed “polytheistic” and faced destruction. In 1924, ‘Abd al ‘Aziz ibn Sa‘ud and his troops occupied Makkah in the region of Hejaz. Among their first actions was the destruction of al Mu’alla graveyard, which contained the grave of Khadijah, Prophet Muhammad’s wife, and that of his uncle, Abu Talib. Two years later, in 1926, Ibn Sa‘ud occupied Madinah and demolished the tombed mausoleum over the graves of several of Prophet Muhammad’s descendants, including those of his daughter, Fatimah, and his grandson, Hassan ibn ‘Ali. Since no tangible resistance to their heinous actions was mounted by Muslims, they went even further and demolished the famous Seven Mosques of Salman al Farisi, Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, Fatimah, ‘Ali, al Qiblatayn and al Fath. Their sites have been transformed into banking facilities such cash dispensing machines.The pain of the people of the Hejaz has become so intense that their journalists have begun to raise their voices. On 10 September 2004, Muhammad al Dubaisi wrote in the newspaper, al Madinah, an article entitled “The destruction of these mosques has deprived Madinah of one pillar of its immortal history, and a minaret of its traditional glory”. Saleh al Fawzan, a Salafi writer, contributed an article in response a week later to the same newspaper, justifying the destruction of the historic mosques.The Wahhabis have gone even further. They have demolished the grave and tomb of Hamza ibn ‘Abd al Mutallib, Prophet Muhammad’s uncle. They have cleared the graveyard of the martyrs of Uhud (the second battle of Prophet Muhammad after the Conquest of Madinah). The routes of the battles of Badr and Uhud (first and second battles of Prophet Muhammad) have also been cleared. Serious consideration is now being given to the idea that the Cave of Hirā’ (where Prophet Muhammad received God’s Message from the Angel Gabriel) should be destroyed. This is not a building, but a cave in the mountain. Four years ago, heavy demolition equipment, including excavators, were dispatched to desecrate the mausoleum of Sayyid ‘Ali al Araidhi (d. 825 AC). On 12 August 2002, the grave of this respected figure (the son of Imam Jaffar al Sadiq) was removed from the face of the earth. An order is now in place to desecrate the grave of one of Prophet Muhammad’s Companions, Rafa‘ah ibn Rafi‘al Zurqi. He took part in the battles of Badr, Uhud and al Khandaq. He also participated in the Bay‘at al Ridwan. An adjacent historic mosque known as al Khandiq is due for destruction. Another symbolic site has recently been desecrated. The birthplace of Prophet Muhammad has been removed and new toilets built on the sire. There is also a plan to separate Prophet Muhammad’s grave from his mosque in preparation for the desecration of the grave itself. The connecting doors between the two sites are regularly closed as a prelude to the implementation of the plan. It is known, too, that the Ka‘bah has not been spared the heinous actions of the Wahhabis.
Early in 2006, many of the artefacts and historic items inside it have been removed and destroyed, including engraved writings, silk ornaments and curtains.
On 25 August 2005, the web site of al ‘Arabiyyah (the leading Saudi satellite channel) published an important article with the title, “A new plan for Madinah angers archaeologists…. Historians and intellectuals call for a review of the destruction of artefacts in Makkah and Madinah”. The article argued that these artefacts cannot lead to religious inventions and must not be destroyed. It quoted Dr Anwar Ishqi, a renowned thinker, as refuting the arguments that these historic items can create religious confusion and it called for the protection of the mere 10 per cent that have so far been spared destruction. Another thinker, Dr Sami Anqawi, a senior researcher in the artefacts of Makkah and Madinah and a former Director of Pilgrimage Research, called for a comprehensive view of the Muslim scholars, and confirmed that only a small percentage of historic works remain and that the continued destruction will bury Islamic history and civilization. On the same day, the Saudi daily newspaper, al Watan, confirmed that a new plan for Madinah would certainly destroy one of the most important historic quarters of the city. The area of Shraibat would be annihilated in the following months, together with all the sites relating to early Islamic and Prophetic history.
Extremist trends have mushroomed from the Wahhabi–Salafi movement and have become a threat to the political and social fabric of Muslim countries, in addition to world peace and security. Muslim scholars and thinkers are thus urged to deal effectively with this destructive ideology before it achieves the total eradication of the Islamic heritage, not only in the Arabian Peninsula but also elsewhere. The destruction of several historic sites in Iraq, including that of the Askari Mausoleum in Samarra, is a wake-up call to everyone. It must be heeded without any further delay.
Originally published on Islam21 an International Forum for Islamic Dialogue (IFID) publication. Saeed Shehabi, Ph.D. is Chairman of IFID, London, England.
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