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.
The general Islamic term for the period of history before the advent of Islam, as well as the pre-Islamic period of any nation’s history, is jahiliyya, or the period of ignorance and barbarism. Consequently, any art, literature, or architecture that any non-Islamic culture produces has no value whatsoever: it is all simply a manifestation of that ignorance and barbarism. The celebrated writer V. S. Naipaul encountered this attitude in his travels through the Islamic world. For Muslims, he observed, “The time before Islam is a time of blackness: that is part of Muslim theology. History has to serve theology.”
Naipaul explained how some Pakistani Muslims, far from valuing the nation’s renowned archaeological site at Mohenjo Daro, see it as a teaching opportunity for Islam:
A featured letter in Dawn offered its own ideas for the site. Verses from the Koran, the writer said, should be engraved and set up in Mohenjo-Daro in “appropriate places”: “Say (unto them, O Mohammed): Travel in the land and see the nature of the sequel for the guilty. … Say (O Mohammed, to the disbelievers): Travel in the land and see the nature of the consequence for those who were before you. Most of them were idolaters.”
Those quotations are from Qur’an 27:69 and 30:42, passages which point to the destruction of earlier civilizations as a sign of the punishment for idolatry and the judgment of Allah. In the view of Naipaul’s letter-writer (and his view was and is by no means eccentric among Muslims), Mohenjo Daro has no value for what it reveals about an ancient civilization. Its value is solely in its present condition as a ruin, a sign for the unbelievers of Allah’s wrath. Likewise in Iran. Naipaul notes: “In 637 A.D., just five years after the death of the Prophet, the Arabs began to overrun Persia, and all Persia’s great past, the past before Islam, was declared a time of blackness.”
We have also seen the fruit of this assumption in our own times in Cyprus, where Muslims attempted to use the fourth century monastery of San Makar as a hotel, and in Libya, where Qaddafi turned Tripoli’s Catholic cathedral into a mosque. And the most notorious recent example, of course, was the Taliban’s dynamiting of the Buddhas of Bamiyan.
But the new, hardline Muslim leaders of northern Mali are poised to give the Taliban a run for their money. Archaeologists are concerned about the fate of ancient manuscripts and other artifacts in Timbuktu that may soon fall victim to the Islamic supremacist destroyers. Appeals to reason and the value of history will fall on deaf ears, both trumped by the word of Allah and Ansar Dine’s zeal to cleanse the land of idolatry. And the world, as in so many cases, will be the poorer for it.