What is it about Islam that leads so many Muslims to see their cultural patrimony as something to be despised and even destroyed?
Harking back to the Taliban’s destruction of Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001, Muslims in northern Mali last week moved against their own country’s heritage. The Islamic supremacist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Religion) raised international concern when they began destroying some of the ancient shrines of Muslim saints in Timbuktu, “the city of 333 saints.” According to Ishaan Tharoor in Time magazine, “UNESCO, the UN’s cultural agency, says as many as half of the city’s shrines ‘have been destroyed in a display of fanaticism.’”
Why would a Muslim group destroy the tombs of Muslim holy men? “The destruction is a divine order,” an Ansar Dine spokesman explained; another added that they planned to destroy all the city’s ancient tombs, “without exception.”
UNESCO and the international media have portrayed Ansar Dine’s stance on this as unthinking fanaticism, contradicting Islam’s tenets: UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova declared that “the attack on Timbuktu’s cultural heritage is an attack against this history and the values it carries — values of tolerance, exchange and living together, which lie at the heart of Islam.”
Unfortunately for Bokova, however, Ansar Dine has ample support from within Islamic tradition for considering these shrines to be idolatrous, even though they commemorate Muslim heroes. According to a hadith attributed to Aisha, Muhammad’s favorite wife and notorious child bride, as Muhammad lay dying, “he drew his sheet upon his face and when he felt uneasy, he uncovered his face and said in that very state: Let there be curse upon the Jews and the Christians that they have taken the graves of their apostles as places of worship. He in fact warned (his men) against what they (the Jews and the Christians) did” (Sahih Muslim 1082).
Another tradition has the dying Muhammad saying, “Allah cursed the Jews and the Christians, for they built the places of worship at the graves of their prophets,” and Aisha adding: “And if that had not been the case, then the Prophet’s grave would have been made prominent before the people. So (the Prophet) was afraid, or the people were afraid that his grave might be taken as a place for worship” (Sahih Bukhari 2.23.472).
Muslims who consider the shrines of saints to be idolatrous reason from those traditions that if the grave of Muhammad himself was not to be taken as a place of worship, neither should the graves of lesser Muslims become shrines for prayer and pilgrimage. This is akin to the Islamic disdain for the pre-Islamic cultural patrimony of Muslim lands: any manifestation of idolatry, however artistically or culturally significant, is to be regarded with disdain at best.