Reconstruction or destruction?

In Religion and philosophy on 4. November 2012 at 23:23

Saudi Arabia is host to the annual pilgrimage (hajj) for Muslims around the world and its ruler beholds the title hadam al-haramayn al-sharifayn – ‘custodian of the two holy Mosques’. Although there is little in Kings doing which resembles being a custodian, as the kingdom is in the forefront of destroying the spiritual and historical heritage of Islam

During the formation of the state, Mohammad ibn Saud sought reason to legitimize and extend his new won political power outside the desert lands of Najd, but lacked the casus bell to do so. In the same period Mohammad ibn Abdul-Wahaab wanted to expand his theological interpretation of Islam but needed a base to launch from. Both Abdul-Wahaab and Saud found benefit from cooperation and joined hands – the pact sealed in mid 18th century became fundament for the later creation of Saudi Arabia. Saud could now legitimize his rule and find reason to extend territory on pretext of spreading the ‘true Islam’. Abdul-Wahaab had now territory and inhabitants to implement his ultra-conservative literalist and purist form of Islam.

The Saudi tribal forces known as Ikhwan driven by the doctrines of Abdul Wahaab (dubbed Wahabi by opponents) left an ugly record of destruction, slaughters and occupation. In early 19th century holy cities of Najaf and Karbala was attacked and the tomb of Prophet Mohammad’s grandchild Imam Hussein was sacked for its riches with about 12.000 Shia Muslims massacred. In the same time Mecca and Medina was attacked and amongst other the tomb of Imam Hussein’s mother and Prophets Daughter Fatima was razed.

While early raids were directly brutal, with the consolidation of power the Saud clan continued with this policy and by years became more and more discreet. Occasional expansions of mosques, hotels or infrastructure became reasons to raze historic buildings, while others were converted into public toilets (house of Prophets Wife Khadija) or libraries (house where Prophet was born). According to estimates from Institute of Gulf Affairs up to 95 percent of historic Mecca and Medinais gone and replaced by endless repeating rows of cold and stony pillars. Even the tomb of Prophet and the characteristically 14th century green dome covering the tomb is long planned to be razed.

But what is the reason for destroying the spiritual, cultural and historical heritage of Islam? And where is the opposition to such a development among Muslims? Let’s try to analyze these two points in the following.

When Saudi authorities are challenged for why they destroy such sites they more often argue that increase in foreign travelers to pilgrimage makes it necessary to make room for housing, services and infrastructure. About 13 million people visit the sacred sites in one year and between three to four million are present at the annual pilgrimage.

Surely does increased traffic put forth logistic problems which need to be solved, but not on the cost of destroying the very reason people travel for. While bulldozing is going on Saudi authorities also renovate, reconstruct and strengthen the old buildings of their hometown Ad-Diriyah. Saudi authorities try to bind their presence to the national identity and thus seek to preserve their home of origin with its forts and mosques as national sites of heritage. Arguing that increased number of pilgrimages leads to destruction of historical sites is not valid and thereby void.

The real reason is based on teachings of Abdul-Wahaab. His ultra-conservative literalist and purist interpretation is centered on two main pillars in its most reactionary ways. First being Oneness of God (tawheed) and the lack of belief on that which leads to polytheism (shirk). In order to preserve and propagate tawheed one has to spread the message through missionary activities (daawah) and hence the second pillar, which includes all from missionary to violent means as armed Jihad. The doctrines around tawheed, shirk and jihad is found among all other schools of thought in Islam, although these are less rigid and more normative oriented and include several layers of understanding in opposition to the presented narrow understanding.

In such a narrow scope everything which breaches against the understanding of oneness of God is polytheism which needs to be eliminated. Off course do traditional Sunnis and Shia disagree that their actions lead to such deviation, but ‘Wahabi’ teachings are obsessed with literalist understanding and does not tolerate a society where a plural understanding of faith is practiced. There is only one truth, and the truth is ours, is the creed.

Having covered why it happens, let’s look at why reactions to such destruction are more or less silence from Muslims around the world.

It is not true that Muslims remain silent on the said development – but if looking relatively to reactions on other issues as those of caricature or so called blasphemy cases the reaction in this case is almost non-existent.

Initially when Saudi forces started to conquer territories and raided shrines locals reacted strongly as did religious leaders of those times. Shia Muslims have marked yom-e-gham (day of sorrow) each year since destruction of the sites of their Imams. Although as Muslim nations started to gain independence, the autocrats came forth and started to prolong their reigns by either clinging to US or Soviet Union. Political Islamist movements on the other hand became a well organized opposition and much efficient with healthcare and welfare. Sure it was well received by people, but then these movements also used this platform to fight for own political issues. For instance the dream of a theocracy and in this process to create pariah castes and enemies to point fingers at – the favorite being USA, Israel, ‘the west’ and other religious sects.

In such a development it is in the interest of political Islamist groups linked to conservative creed to be supportive to the destruction of holy sites – a doctrine they share with Saudi clergy. Thereby, the so called Muslim anger is not that intensive as propaganda and media channels do not reach out with passionate speeches against this development. The opposition surely then only becomes visible among traditional Sunnis or Shias who are fragmented or among intellectuals who lack the ear of the common man.

As press and media is politicized and careful not to enrage rulers of own countries dissent and criticism becomes selective. Syria conflict is highlighted as a sectarian anti-Sunni conflict among Arab states, while Iran uses Bahrain issue to prove that Shia genocide is ongoing. On the other hand Arab press remains silent on Bahrain atrocities while Iranian press is selective on what happens in Syria. Further back more than dozen massacres performed by Taliban in late 90s against Shia Hazara Muslims were silenced, while Iran was almost ready to retaliate with full force after their embassy was attacked. Hardly any ears are lent to Kurdish or Sahrawi suffering, while huge cry and outburst over Rohingiya-Rakhine riots.

Last example tells it all – when Al-Aqsa mosque in occupied Jerusalem risks of falling apart due to lack of renovation much noise is made, while the willed destruction of Mecca and Medina receives silence. It is all evident whose narrative the grassroots channels dance in tune to.

Having looked at the causes for destruction, and the lack of reactions, let’s look at what is at stake.

Hijaz region traditionally was quite conservative, but it was also a mingling spot for various schools of thoughts throughout history, and hence the relatively tolerance prevailed at this place. With infusion of fatalistic regime this coexistence and tolerance is non-existing as is the distinct Hijazi-Arab legacy being lost.

In the bigger picture, Muslims spiritual home and cradle is being demolished and vanished. It is hard to find spirituality in such an environment where there are no visible structures or symbols to feel closeness to – be it Prophets Tomb in Masjid an-Nabawi or the places where he spent his life. On the other hand, the Turkish state puts huge emphasis to preserve Islamic legacy in the form of different artifacts in the renowned Topkapi palace. Ismaili-Mustali Muslim community has put huge effort and financial means to renovate the tombs of Imam Ali and Imam Hussain. The head of Ismaili-Nizari Muslims use energy on preserving sites of heritage and has one of the strongest networks to safeguard and preserve sites of historic significance around the world.

To end the silence one need to take back these channels and one need to strive forth to be understood by the average grassroots Muslim. Talking about the issue, on social media, forums, in panels, at the local bakery, in the study circle in mosques and so on becomes a powerful signal. Political leader’s follows suit on such matters and are compelled to react. The way we react to any other issue regarding Muslims the same intensity should be used on this matter, especially those who see the importance of heritage and the spiritual cradle of their faith.


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