By Irfan Al-Alawi
October 14, 2015
If one were to judge all Muslims or all Arabs by the destruction of ancient monuments in Syria and Iraq by the so-called 'Islamic State', and to evaluate these crimes as intrinsic to Arab culture or Islam, one would be mistaken.
Many Muslim countries have preserved their pre-Islamic, non-Islamic, and old Islamic heritage.
Morocco, Jordan, and Indonesia are outstanding examples of lands whose governments work to protect their historical legacies.
Morocco's classical Islamic cities of Fez, Marrakesh, Rabat and Meknes are maintained in pristine condition.
The four were capitals of the Moroccan Berber empires.
Fez dates from the 9th century C.E., Marrakesh was built in the 11th century C.E., Rabat was founded in the 12th century C.E., and Meknes in the 17th century C.E.
Jordan is famous for the ruins at Petra, which were cut into rock and date from before the common era.
In the Arab countries, UNESCO World Heritage Sites – of which Petra is one – are also designated in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Mauritania, Oman, Qatar, Sudan, and Tunisia, among other countries.
Indonesia has guardianship of Borobudur, a Buddhist temple complex from the 9th century C.E., and the Prambanan Hindu temple compound, from the same period.
In the confusion following the failed 'Arab Spring' and, particularly, the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, many Islamic cultural monuments have been endangered or completely demolished.
These included the great Saharan Muslim cultural centre at Timbuktu in Mali.
Timbuktu was wrecked by Islamist extremists in 2012 and many shrines and manuscripts were despoiled.
Since Timbuktu was liberated from the radical Ansar Dine (Volunteers of Faith) jihadists, international authorities have pledged its full reconstruction.
In Yemen, UNESCO World Heritage Sites are marked as endangered because of fighting by Houthi rebels backed by Iran against the national government, which is supported by Saudi Arabia.
Islamic heritage, and religious monuments in general, have not been threatened by radical Muslims alone.
In the Balkan wars of the 1990s, Muslim mosques and Catholic churches were targeted in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosova by Serbian aggression.
But the attention of the world has been seized by the recent occupation by ISIS of the ancient city of Palmyra, and the resulting demolition of key structures.
The world powers, which failed to aid the suffering of the people of Syria, have been incapable of finding a way to ameliorate the cultural devastation that has accompanied it.
If there is a wilful global blindness to the origins of such wrecking, it involves a refusal to identify the ideological background of ISIS.
The so-called 'Islamic State' is inspired by an extreme form of Wahhabism, the official interpretation of Islam in the Saudi kingdom.
Wahhabis prohibit praying at shrines or maintenance of historic sites as a purported form of idol-worship.
Wahhabi vandalism of historical sites began in the early 19th century C.E. when Wahhabi raiders attacked the Shia holy sites at Karbala and Najaf in Iraq.
During the 19th century, and following the definitive Wahhabi-Saudi takeover of Mecca and Medina in 1924-25, Wahhabi fanatics were granted power over the Holy Cities.
They proceeded to destroy the Islamic cemeteries of Jannat al-Baqi in Medina and Jannat al-Mu'alla in Mecca.
In both, the family and companions of Prophet Muhammad were buried.
The Wahhabis uprooted the shrines and gravestones there, leaving spaces with unmarked stones.
In recent times, extreme Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia have called for the removal or closure of monuments associated traditionally with Prophet Muhammad.
These include, in Mecca, the house where Prophet Muhammad is believed to have been born, the house in which his first wife Khadijah is thought to have lived, and the first place in which Muhammad is said to have taught the religion of Islam.
Two famous fatwas or religious opinions (pl. fatawa) embody the Wahhabi opposition to prayer in honour of Muhammad and the conservation of historic architecture.
They were issued by the General Presidency of Scholarly Research and Ifta', the Saudi body responsible for official religious rulings, when it was chaired by the blind Wahhabi cleric Abdul Aziz Ibn Abdullah Bin Baz [1910-99], known for his intransigent views.
In the first fatwa, ascending Jebel Al-Nur or visiting the cave of Hira, the hill and cave where Muhammad is said to have received his first revelation, was disallowed for hajj pilgrims as 'neither of the Hajj rituals nor of the acts of Sunnah (whatever is reported from the Prophet) in Islam; rather, it is a Bid'ah (innovation in religion) and is one of the means leading to Shirk (associating others with Allah in His Divinity or worship). Accordingly, people must be prohibited from ascending it.'
This ban was enunciated in the Presidency's fatwa number 5303, which remains displayed on the Presidency's website, although its date is not recorded.
The second such fatwa, number 16626, was more sweeping, and summarized Wahhabi hostility to historic preservation.
It stated, 'It is impermissible to exaggerate the importance of historical sites and buildings, because this might lead to Shirk (associating others with Allah in His Divinity or worship). The laypeople may be tempted to believe that such places are blessed, and be driven to commit acts of disbelief. The Prophet (peace be upon him) forbade building over graves and performing Salah (Prayer) by them, for that is a means of Shirk. It is, therefore, obligatory to neglect and abandon such a deed and to warn against it.'
These narrow-minded opinions had, in the past, the force of government behind them in the Saudi kingdom.
Their spirit is reproduced with greater ferocity by ISIS.
King Salman, the current ruler, should pay heed to the revulsion of the world at the scandal of Palmyra, and remove the Wahhabi clergy from their monopoly over religious life in the kingdom.
Delegitimisation of Saudi Wahhabism will weaken the appeal of ISIS.
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