Muslims vs. Archaeology

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.