The Islamic State’s (ISIS) Destruction of Shrines in Historical Perspective
Over the past several months, people around the world have watched with horror as the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has seized large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, murdering thousands (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/18/iraqi-civilian-death-toll-5500-2014-isis ) and displacing hundreds of thousands of people from their homes in the process (http://www.cnn.com/2014/06/19/world/meast/iraq-refugee-statistics/ ). One of the most disturbing aspects of ISIS political control of conquered regions—aside from the obvious policy of mass murder, forced exile and the instituting of a terrifying version of Islamic law—has been the group’s systematic destruction of the cultural and religious heritage of northern Iraq and eastern Syria. In the past few weeks alone, numerous Alid shrines, the tomb of the great Muslim mystic Ahmad al-Rifa’i (d. 1182), and the shrines of the Prophet Yunus (Jonas) (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/25/isis-jonah-tomb_n_5620520.html), the Prophet Seth (http://conflictantiquities.wordpress.com/2014/07/28/iraq-mosul-islamic-state-destruction-shrine-seth/ ) and Nabi Jirjis (St. George) (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/28/islamic-state-destroys-ancient-mosul-mosque) have been reduced to rubble. In the past few days, Yezidi shrines have been destroyed as well: http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=3e8_1407121523
This follows from previous actions this group and its affiliates have taken in Syria, where the tomb of the famous companion of the Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali, Hujr ibn ‘Adi (d. 660), was demolished and the body exhumed on 27th April 2013 (http://www.aimislam.com/shrine-of-the-great-companion-hijr-ibn-adi-destroyed-and-body-stolen/). There have also been various reports that the shrines of the Companions Ammar ibn Yasir (d. 657) and ‘Uways al-Qarni (d. 657) have also been violated in the Syrian city of Raqqa, ISIS’ power center. Video footage purporting to show the destruction of the shrine of ‘Uways al-Qarni can be seen here:http://siasitv.com/footage-destroying-shrine-owais-al-qarni-raqqa/.
It should also be remembered that the vicious attack against the al-Askari shrine, where the tenth and eleventh Shi’i Imams are buried, in Samarra in February 2006 was the work of the Islamic State of Iraq, the direct precursor of ISIS. It can be seen, then, that the recent acts of cultural genocide and desecration in Mosul are the culmination of years of a policy of systematic destruction, and should not be viewed as an anomaly. Unfortunately, however, many media outlets—especially in the Muslim world—have discussed the recent actions taken by ISIS without any context about the broader phenomenon of the systematic destruction of heritage across the Muslim world. As anyone with a strong knowledge of the region will undoubtedly know, ISIS’ actions in destroying shrines and tombs—in addition to reflecting the group’s own proclivity for the destruction of cultural relics—are strongly grounded in a longer-standing religio-political tradition: Wahhabism.
Wahhabism and the Destruction of Shrines: A Brief History
A brief look into Islamic history, especially developments during the past three centuries, can help make sense of ISIS’ destruction of shrines, tombs and other cultural relics in regions under its control. While the destruction of the tombs of sacred figures is not unheard of in classical Islamic history (the early Abbasids in the 700s and the early Safavids in the 1500s were notorious for doing so), it was not until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the rise of Wahhabism, that it became commonplace. In contrast with earlier policies of tomb desecration, which were largely political in nature, the modern phenomenon is heavily inspired by certain religious ideas. Wahhabism was a doctrine developed and articulated in the mid-eighteenth century by the central Arabian cleric Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792). At the heart of the movement was a staunchly puritanical reformism which envisioned a return to the earliest generations of Islam (the so-called “salaf al-salih”). As part of his reform program, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab believed that the Islamic world should be purified of all shrines and tombs, which he—drawing upon earlier precedents such as Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328)—viewed as an indication of polytheistic tendencies. He also considered the vast majority of the Muslims, for whom shrines and the visitation of shrines played a central role in spirituality and religious practice, who opposed him be disbelievers. Shi‘i Muslims were specifically singled out by Wahhabi doctrine as polytheistic and outside the fold of Islam. Thus, the doctrines of takfir (anathematization) and an aggressive iconoclasm were two defining aspects of Wahhabism from its inception. Although initially shunned and rejected (by the largely Sunni populace of Najd), his views found a strong adherence and support following his alliance with an important Arabian warlord, Muhammad b. Sa’ud (d. 1765), in 1744 who saw the potential political usefulness of such doctrines, which would legitimize his conquests of other Muslims. Backed by the military and political might of Ibn Sa’ud, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was able to realize his vision for a “purified” Arabia. The first tomb/shrine to be destroyed was that of Zayd b. al-Khattab (d. 633), a prominent Companion of the Prophet Muhammad and a brother of the second caliph ‘Umar (r. 634–644), reflecting his desire that all shrines—not just those that were explicitly “Sufi” or “Shi‘i”— should be destroyed. Throughout the eighteenth century, the movement violently expanded the borders of the nascent Saudi state and continued to grow throughout Arabia and extended to the land of the Hijaz, encompassing Mecca and Medina. In the lands conquered, thousands of Muslims were slaughtered and hundreds of historical relics and shrines were destroyed; this is according to Saudi-Wahhabi chroniclers themselves, although these facts can be verified from contemporary Ottoman, Egyptian and various non-Muslim sources as well. This was especially the case in the city of Ta’if, which attempted to resist the Wahhabis; as a result, the city was sacked, the male population murdered, and the women and children carried off into slavery. By 1802, the Wahhabi-Saudi state had even managed to raid into southern Iraq, then under Ottoman control. One of the worst massacres, greater even than the one at Ta’if, was committed at Karbala in April 1802, right before the beginning of the holy month of Muharram, during the pilgrimage to the shrine of Imam Husayn b. Ali (d. 680), the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. An eye-witness account, J.B. Rousseau in his Description du Pachalik du Baghdad Suivie d’une Notice Historique sur les Wahabis (Paris, 1809), described the events that transpired as follows:
“We have recently seen a horrible example of the Wahhabis’ cruel fanaticism in the terrible fate of the mosque of Imam Husayn. Incredible wealth was known to have accumulated in that town. The Persian shahs have, perhaps, never had something like that in their treasury. For centuries, the mosque of Imam Husayn was known to have received donations of silver, gold, jewels; a great amount of rarities…Tamerlane even spared that place. Everybody knew that the most part of the rich spoils that Nadir Shah had brought back from his Indian campaign had been transferred to the mosques of Imam Husayn and Imam Ali together with his own wealth. Now, the enormous wealth that has accumulated in the former has been exciting the Wahhabis’ avidity for some time. They have been continuously dreaming of looting that town [Karbala] and were so sure of success that their creditors fixed the debt payment to the happy day when their hopes would come true. That day came at last…12,000 Wahhabis suddenly attacked the mosque of Imam Husayn; after seizing more spoils than they had ever seized after their greatest victories, they put everything to fire and sword…The elderly, women, and children—everybody died by the barbarians’ sword. Besides, it is said that whenever they saw a pregnant woman, they disemboweled her and left the fetus on the mother’s bleeding corpse. Their cruelty could not be satisfied, they did not cease their murders and blood flowed like water. As a result of the bloody catastrophe, more than 4000 people perished. The Wahhabis carried off their plunder on the backs of 4000 camels. After the plunder and murders they destroyed the Imam’s shrine and converted it into a trench of abomination and blood. They inflicted the greatest damage on the minarets and the domes, believing those structures were made of gold bricks.” [Rosseau,Description, pp. 74–75] Another near-contemporary source, Uthman b. Abd Allah b. Bishr (d. 1872) in his Unwan al-Majd fi Tarikh Najd (Riyadh, 1982), written from the Saudi-Wahhabi perspective, gives a similar account: “In the year 1802, Ibn Sa’ud made for Karbala with his victorious army, famous pedigree horses, all the settled people and Bedouin of Najd, the people of Janub, Hijaz, Tihama and others…The Muslims [i.e. the Wahhabis] surrounded Karbala and took it by storm. They killed most of the people in the houses and the markets. They destroyed the dome above al-Husayn’s grave. They took away everything they saw in the shrine and near it, including the coverlet decorated with emeralds, sapphires and pearls which covered the grave. They took away everything they found in the town—possessions, arms, clothes, fabric, gold, silver, and precious books. One cannot even enumerate the spoils! They stayed there for just one morning and left after midday, taking away all the possessions. Nearly 2000 people were killed in Karbala.” (Ibn Bishr, Unwan al-Majd, Vol. 1, pp. 121–122)
Many of these details are corroborated by other contemporary sources, both Muslim and non-Muslim, which also emphasize how thousands of Muslims were slaughtered by the Wahhabis in Karbala, which was largely undefended and unprepared for such an onslaught. Significantly, the sack of Karbala demonstrates the way in which the motives of the Saudi state—accumulation of wealth—and the motives of the Wahhabis—and destroying shrines—went hand in hand. Religious fanaticism and worldly power were, thus, not viewed as incompatible and a union between the two lay at the very foundation of the Saudi state (and remains so to this day). The process of Wahhabi conquest elsewhere, notably in Ta’if and the Hijaz, had followed a similar pattern to Karbala. Although the Saudi-Wahhabis were defeated shortly thereafter (around 1818) by the Ottomans and Muhammad Ali Pasha’s dynasty in Egypt, they experienced a resurgence later in the century.
By the early twentieth century, the Wahhabi-Saudi state, led by Abd al-Aziz b. Sa’ud (r. 1926–1953), was revived. After seizing most the Arabian peninsula from its rivals, it successfully managed to capture the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, where—to the absolute horror and disgust of the world’s Muslims—the shrines and tombs of the most prominent Companions and Family of the Prophet were systematically destroyed. The Jannat al-Baqī‘ (Medina) and Jannat al-Mu‘alla (Mecca) cemeteries, where these revered individuals were buried, was levelled and numerous historical sites irreparably damaged. The area outside the sanctuary of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina—which for centuries was described by travelers as being among the most beautiful and most visited part of the Islamic world—was made into a flattened desert (and remains so today). This was also the fate of the remainder of the Hijaz. Historical sites were cemented over or dynamited, shrines were levelled, and formerly sacred ground was transformed into lucrative real estate that became the foundation of hotels and shopping malls. Historical images of Jannatul Baqi’ (individuals buried here include the wives of the Prophet, al-Abbas b. Abd al-Muttalib, Fatima b. Asad, prominent members of the Prophet’s family [including Fatima al-Zahra’, al-Hasan b. Ali, ‘Ali b. al-Husayn, Muhammad al-Baqir, Ja’far al-Sadiq], and prominent Companions of the Prophet including Uthman b. ‘Affan (third caliph), Jabir b. Abd Allah al-Ansari, Zayd b. Thabit, Suhayb al-Rumi, al-Miqdad b. al-Aswad, ‘Urwa b. al-Zubayr, Abul Haytham b. al-Tihan, ‘Abd al-Rahman b. ‘Awf, Sa‘id b. Zayd, Sa‘d b. Abi Waqqas, ‘Uthman b. Ma’zoun, Abd Allah ibn Mas‘ud and Abd Allah b. Umm Maktum): Jannatul Baqi’ after the destruction: (Egyptian newspaper headline expressing outrage the day after the demolitions in Medina: “The Saudis destroy the shrines of the Noble Companions!”)
Historical images of Jannatul Mu’alla in Mecca (where the Prophet’s wife and first Muslim convert, Khadija b. Khuwaylid, is buried along with other prominent Companions and sacred personages): Jannatul Mu’alla today: The major historical relics from the earliest years of Islam through the classic period and into the Ottoman centuries were systematically destroyed in order to accommodate both Wahhabi ideology and aggressive capitalism. In fact, this process continues to this day, as has been documented by numerous sources (http://www.irfi.org/articles/articles_501_550/destruction_of_islamic_architect.htm).
In addition to the destruction it has wrought in the holy cities of Islam in the Hijaz, Wahhabism has also had a major impact beyond the confines of the Arabian peninsula during the 20th and 21st centuries. Various militants, inspired by Wahhabi ideology, have been particularly aggressive on the point of violent iconoclasm and opposition to traditional (Sunni as well as Shi‘i) Muslim reverence for saints and shrines. The example of ISIS in Syria and Iraq are only part of the picture. From Timbuktu (http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/07/01/us-mali-crisis-idUSBRE86008Z20120701) to Somalia (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7WVYeX98bYc) to Pakistan (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-12951923) and Afghanistan (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/afghanistan/1326063/After-1700-years-Buddhas-fall-to-Taliban-dynamite.html ), various militant organizations have destroyed hundreds of shrines, ripped down cultural monuments, and subjected the historical and religious heritage of the Islamic world to systematic destruction. In 2012, the shrine of Sidi Ahmad Zarruq (d. 1492), one of the most important North African Muslim mystics, had his tomb in Misrata (Libya) destroyed and his body exhumed. The images of the shrine and mosque before the destruction and after: In many of these cases, and specifically with the recent destruction by ISIS in Mosul, these militants have invoked the teachings of Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab (and his successors) in justifying their destruction of tombs and shrines. However, it is important to remember that this is not merely the revival of an eighteenth-century phenomenon but, rather, is the product of a very modern jihadist mentality. No longer armed with mere axes and primitive gunpowder, but with bulldozers and sophisticated explosives, these militants have been able to destroy historical sites and shrines at an alarmingly quicker and more effective pace than their predecessors. Armed, also, with the favorite device of jihadists everywhere—the video camera—ISIS has been able to transform the business of destroying traditional Islamic sites, seen as embodying the old “corrupt” order, into a spectacle which is broadcast across the world, magnifying their influence and power. The fact that a group of individuals can, in the space of two weeks, destroy the heritage of the past 2000 years (as they have done in Mosul) and, within minutes, proudly distribute the footage for the entire world to see is an illustration of the frightening capabilities of modern terrorism. The use of spectacle and “creative destruction” is, in many ways, as significant and far-reaching an act as the destruction of a shrine itself. It is the fact that the latter act can be reproduced across time and space that enables it to be far more effective in conveying the terrifying implications of the political power of the new “caliphate.”
Further reading Primary Sources
Anonymous (18th-century), Lam‘ al-Shihab fi Sirat Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (Beirut, 1967). Available as a PDF upon request.
Uthman ibn Abd Allah ibn Bishr, Unwan al-Majd fi Tarikh Najd (Riyadh, 1982)
Louis Alexandre de Corcancez (trans. Eric Tabet), History of the Wahabis from their Origin until the End of 1809: Founders of Saudi Arabia (Ithaca Press, 1995)
Husayn ibn Ghannam, Tarikh Najd al-Musamma Rawdhat al-Afkar wal Afham (Cairo, 1949)
Ali ibn Abi Bakr al-Harawi (trans. Josef W. Meri), A Lonely Wayfarer’s Guide to Pilgrimage (Princeton, 2004)
J.B. Rousseau, Description du Pachalik de Baghdad Suivie d’une Notice Historique sur les Wahabis (Paris, 1809)
Hamid Algar, Wahhabism: A Critical Essay (New York, 2002)
Natana De-Long Bas, Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad (Oxford, 2008)
David Commins, The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia (New York, 2009)
Michael Cook, “On the Origins of Wahhabism,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 2 (1992): 191–202
Faisal Devji, Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity(New York, 2005)
J.S. Habib, Ibn Saud’s Warriors of Islam: The Ikhwan of Najd and their Role in the Creation of the Saudi Kingdom, 1910–1930 (Leiden, 1978)
Roel Meijer ed., Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement (New York, 2009)
Stephennie Mulder, The Shrines of the Alids in Medieval Syria: Sunnis, Shi’is and the Architecture of Coexistence (Edinburgh, 2014)
Youssef Rapoport and Shahab Ahmed eds., Ibn Taymiyya and His Times (Oxford, 2011)
Madawi al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia (Cambridge, 2010)
Abd Allah Salih al-Uthaymin, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab: The Man and His Works (London, 2009)
Alexei Vassiliev, The History of Saudi Arabia (New York, 2000)
The article was originally posted at: http://ballandalus.wordpress.com/2014/08/05/the-islamic-states-isis-destruction-of-shrines-in-historical-perspective/