by Denis MacEoin
December 27, 2014
The heritage of centuries has been wiped out in little more than a year.
Eventually the need to wipe out all traces of unbelief becomes obsessive. At one time, for instance, Egyptian law demanded that any house found to contain a copy of The Apology of al-Kindi (a book containing a polemical dialogue between a Muslim and a Christian) would be demolished along with 40 houses around it.
Ethics were defined by what Allah said was good or evil in Sharia law. The Islamic State’s behaviour is solidly rooted in Islamic ideology, law and practice. It is only when this fundamental fact is grasped that we will be able to address what confronts us.
There are many wise and sensible Muslims who favour a shift to a more updated way of thinking. It is their mosques and shrines that are being crushed; it is their heritage. Today, such Muslims use the freedoms bestowed on them in the West to write, network and debate their opposition to fundamentalist interpretation of Islam by the Islamic State and other supporters of murder and destruction.
We are living through ferocious times. Stories about the self-proclaimed Islamic State [ISIS/ISIL/Da’esh] abound in the media, in what has now become a daily round of beheadings, suicide bombings, and general mayhem from Nigeria to Malaysia. It seems that wherever there is a Muslim country, there is extreme violence. But one part of the Islamic State narrative has received less attention than the gruesome rounds of killings: the continuing onslaughts on cities such as Mosul, Aleppo, Raqqa and Kobani. The Islamic State and related movements have rampaged across parts of Iraq and Syria, destroying the entire heritage of ancient regions, demolishing historic churches, synagogues, mosques, Sufi and Shi’i shrines, and major archaeological sites. All this vandalism is driven by a relentless passion to enforce religious purity on the regions they now control.
Around the world, art historians, antiquities experts, and archaeologists scarcely dare open their e-mails every day, fearing loss of another irreplaceable site. Physical destruction in the Islamic realms has now reached proportions of the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century.
In Mosul, the Islamic State set out on an operation of “cultural and historical cleansing” across the city. The group deploys a unit called the Kata’ib Taswiyya, or settlement battalions, who are ordered to identify sites for culling. The unit razes to the ground any mosques, churches or, invariably, shrines that have been built over tombs; such places may attract devotees to pray in them, thereby creating polytheism — in Islam one of the crimes most censured. In addition, the painting or sculpting of the human form is anathema; if man was created in God’s image, to represent man is to presume to know God and therefore to diminish Him.
Graveyards are flattened, headstones are bulldozed, and statues of cultural significance to the people of Mosul are destroyed.
As we face the Islamic State and all the rapidly expanding jihadist movements in the Middle East and beyond, we are starting to recognize that airstrikes have only limited results. If we are to contain or defeat the adversaries in our midst, we have to understand their motivation, their psychology, and their sense of rootedness.
Politicians who proclaim that Islam is a religion of peace do us a disservice; Islam has never been at peace with the world around it. The Islamic State’s behavior is solidly rooted in Islamic ideology, law and practice. Only when this fundamental fact is grasped will we be able to address what confronts us. It is time that not only active jihadists, but their ideological sponsors in Salafi, Wahhabi, Mawdudist, and other classical and modern interpretations of Islam, be discussed openly before they do more harm. They and we do not have the leisure to wait until the oil money runs out and leaves the Saudis or Qataris weak.
We must learn to speak the truth, especially in high places. In the tenth century, Islam abandoned reason and rational pursuits in favor of revelation and revealed law that could not be challenged. Ethics were defined by what Allah said was good or evil in Sharia law. Islam has remained frozen ever since. We cannot go on patronizing this, and nodding acceptance that Muslims know best. Very few grasp the quandary in which non-extremist Muslims, like their ancestors, are captured. Western rationalism, Western ethics, and Western standards of peace and justice need to remain, or the world we know could be trampled underfoot by men and women who prefer death to co-existence, and fundamentalism to tolerance.
There are many wise and sensible Muslims who favour a shift to a more updated way of thinking. Many cannot openly declare their thoughts for fear of reprisals and even execution; others are faithful Muslims who see a desperate need for a valid reinterpretation of their religion.
Today, such Muslims use the freedoms bestowed on them in the West to write, network, and debate their thoughts about the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam by the Islamic State, other Salafis, Wahhabis, Mawdudists, and all other clerics and extremist supporters of murder and destruction. It is their mosques and shrines and ancient monuments that are being crushed; it is their heritage — as much as that of Jews, Christians, Yazidis and Baha’is — that is being wiped from the pages of history.
Losses so far include:
- The statues of Mulla ‘Uthman al-Mawsili (1845-1923), a famous musician and poet, of a woman carrying an urn, and of Abu Tammam (788-845), author of the celebratedHamasa, one of the greatest literary compilations ever made in Arabic.
- The destruction of the greatly venerated tomb of ‘Ali ibn al-Athir al-Jazari (1160-1233), a major landmark that had stood in the centre of Mosul for centuries. Ibn al-Athir is celebrated as the author of The Complete History, one of the most important histories of Islam ever written.
- The Islamic State’s destruction of the Tomb of Yunus (Jonah) Mosque, which was blown to pieces along with all its contents. Even before the explosion, fighters took sledgehammers to ancient tombstones in the building. The mosque was of importance not just to the Muslims of the city, but as a place of pilgrimage for Jews and Christians. St. George’s Monastery church, one of the oldest in the region, has also gone forever.
- In Kirkuk, the Islamic State has destroyed the tomb of the Prophet Daniel, and in Nineveh, the ancient ruins of which lie across the River Tigris from Mosul, sprawl damaged archaeological ruins.
- In Mosul, the 13th-century shrine of Imam Awn al-Din — with a stunning vaulted ceiling, designed to resemble a honeycomb, inside a pyramid-shaped tower on the banks of the Tigris, and among the city’s most precious sites — was one of the very few structures to have survived the devastation of the 13th-century Mongol invasion On July 25, 2014, members of the Islamic State reduced it to rubble.
- In Tikrit, the city’s most famous and most beautiful church of St. Ahoadamah, known as the Green Church, dating from the 7th century, has been erased from history.
- In Syria, the Jabhat al-Nusra’s destruction of the Deir el-Zour Armenian Church, that stood as a memorial to the 1.5 million slaughtered in the Armenian genocide in Turkey, was blown up.
- In Mali, much of UNESCO’s World Heritage Site of Timbuktu (Mali) was destroyed during the battles of Gao and Timbuktu, fought between the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and the Islamist Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa between June 26 and 27, 2012. Afterwards, the Islamist group Ansar Dine went on a rampage identical to that of the Islamic State. An official for the group, Abou Dardar, boasted that “not a single mausoleum will remain in Timbuktu.”
- Sufi shrines have been pulverized in Egypt, Libya, Mali, Pakistan, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Tunisia, Morocco, India, and the Balkans.
- In Bahrain, 43 Shi’i mosques and tens of other religious structures have been destroyed and damaged by the ruling Sunni government there.
- Across Syria and Iraq, ancient archaeological sites have been wrecked. They were not just the heritage of those countries, they were central to our understanding of the ancient world, where human civilization first developed in city-states. Apamea, with its famous colonnade and beautiful mosaic, capital of the Seleucid empire, was a major center of Roman rule in the Levant, a leading city in Byzantine Syria, and at one time among the best-preserved archaeological sites in the region. Today, it looks like the face of the moon. Its devastation, the work of demolition done by looters using heavy earth-moving machines, took a mere four or five months.
- In eastern Syria, one of the world’s richest archaeological remains, Dura-Europos, the “Pompeii of the Syrian Desert,” was obliterated. Remarkable finds had been brought to light: temples, wall decorations, inscriptions, military equipment, and tombs. It had been home to a third-century painted synagogue as well as to the oldest example in the world of a Christian house-church, which contained the earliest depictions of Jesus Christ ever found, dating back to 235 AD. The Islamic State looted the site and, as elsewhere, has apparently sold its treasure on the black market of the antiquities trade, presumably using the proceeds to inflate their already swollen coffers for the promotion of jihad.
- Both Shi’i and Sufi shrines and mosques have fallen afoul of the Islamic State’s fanaticism. Jewish sites have been targeted so extensively that UNESCO has held aspecial session on threats posed to them. UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova has described the Islamic State’s activities in this respect as “a form of cultural cleansing.” Many other Jewish sites were also destroyed or under threat from Islamist entities in Libya, where an ancient Jewish heritage was all but wiped out under the regime of Mu’ammar Qadhafi, and where what is left is succumbing to fresh attacks.
|Locals survey the hill of rubble that resulted from the destruction of the Tomb of Yunus (Jonah), in Mosul, Iraq. The Islamic State blew up the tomb and mosque on July 24, 2014.
The Islamic State, however, does not restrict its demolition to Christian, Jewish or pagan sites. Its members have also evidently culled what may be thought of as their own heritage. In Tikrit, they demolished the country’s oldest Islamic site, the Arba’in (Forty) Shrine and mosque, where forty of the companions (Salaf) of the Prophet were buried.
In this, there is desperate irony, for the form of Islam followed by the Islamic State is Salafism, based on imitating the ways of Muhammad and his companions.
The heritage of centuries has been wiped out in little more than a year. There will be many who argue that this devastation is, at root, the fault of the West; that its colonization, imperial ambitions, and general interference have forced the people of the Middle East to rise up against Europe and America, and find their only solution in the creation of an Islamic state where Shari’a law will dominate and justice prevail. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Syria was never a French colony, but a mandate territory between 1922 and 1936 — fourteen years. Lebanon was a mandate territory from 1922 to 1943 — twenty-one years. Iraq was a British mandate from 1922 to 1932 — ten years. All were colonies of the Muslim Ottoman empire for centuries: Iraq between 1543 and 1918, Syria from 1516 to 1918, and were, before that, colonies of earlier Islamic empires from the Umayyads to the Abbasids to the Mamluks — and so on.
This alone exposes the reality, that the actions of groups such as the Islamic State have their true roots in Islam itself. The Prophet and his companions fought jihad wars and destroyed pagan idols as well as places they may have been concerned would become centers for cults. During the Arab conquests, many religious centers were destroyed, notably in India, where temples were looted and razed, and whole towns ruined by the Ghaznavids and Timurids.
Eventually the need to wipe out all traces of unbelief became more or less obsessive. At one time, for instance, Egyptian law demanded that any house found to contain a copy of The Apology of al-Kindi (a book containing a polemical dialogue between a Muslim and a Christian) would be demolished, along with forty houses around it.
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