The Magazine

Bulldozing Islam

Historic destruction, Wahhabi style.

Oct 9, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 04 • By IRFAN AL-ALAWI and STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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The Saudi press expended a lot of energy this summer highlighting the damage to buildings and other infrastructure in Lebanon during the Hezbollah-Israel war. There was a reason: Fundamentalist Muslim clerics in the kingdom wish to divert attention from their own wholesale devastation of ancient Islamic sacred architecture and other monuments on their own soil.

The Saudis and other Muslim states have spent almost 40 years blustering over alleged Israeli threats to the Islamic precincts on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem--including the oldest artifact of Muslim architecture, the Dome of the Rock. And they were quick to protest against Western "insensitivity" when Muhammad was depicted in Danish newspaper cartoons. But they remain silent as Saudi radicals demolish the Muslim and Arab cultural heritage, and keep quiet about attacks on the shrines of the Shia sect in Iraq, carried out by Saudi-incited Sunni terrorists.

In the realm of cultural vandalism, Saudi Arabia has much to account for. For even the 2001 destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan was inspired by the doctrines and habits of Wahhabism, which remains the state-imposed interpretation of Islam in the Saudi kingdom. Yet Wahhabi depredations to the cultural legacy of Arabia have been more extensive, more thoroughly planned, and more persistent than any other such efforts in the last two centuries, except for those seen under Russian communism. And in a coincidence that may not be a coincidence at all, much of the wrecking of historic buildings in Saudi Arabia has been carried out by none other than the Saudi Bin Laden Group, the engineering and construction firm that is the source of Osama bin Laden's wealth.

Indeed, it is more than a startling piece of local news in the Arabian peninsula when ancient mosques, houses, and cemeteries, and even natural features of the landscape associated with early Islamic history, are destroyed in Mecca and Medina. Such incidents embody the battle for the soul of Islam.

Case in point: Some Wahhabis are currently demanding the removal of a cave at Medina, where Muhammad rested during a famous battle, because it draws crowds of Muslims to pray at the site. Wahhabis, as extreme simplifiers and iconoclasts in matters of religion, condemn prayer with the soul of the Prophet as an intercessor, as well as prayer at locations associated with Muhammad. And while less fanatical members of the sect suggest that fencing off the cave will deter prayer there, Sheikh Abd al-Aziz bin Saleh Al-Jarbu, of the Islamic University of Medina (a Wahhabi center), has argued that destroying the site is the only solution. He insists that a fence is insufficient, since people will climb over it.

"The only solution in my mind is to destroy it," he says. "Destroying it will solve the problem for good."

Why do Wahhabis object to Muslims gathering for prayer at a sacred site? The three monotheistic faiths--Judaism, Christianity, Islam--have all undergone violent conflicts and the devastation of cultural heritage over allegations of idol-worship. In the first two cases, however, such tragic chapters are long in the past; they ended for Christians in the last three centuries. Unfortunately, Islam remains convulsed by such controversy. Wahhabis preach that prayer at, and preservation of, historic mosques, and the tombs of holy men and women, as well as protection of graveyards of the pious and other monuments, and the decoration of new mosques, and establishment of new cemeteries, are all acts of idolatry.

Of course, most Wahhabis do not object to the construction of opulent palaces and mausoleums for Saudi rulers, but consistency is not their strong suit. In Wahhabi practice, anywhere in the Muslim world, to treat a building or a grave as something worth protecting, and to encourage Muslims to pray at such sites, makes the structure or memorial stone an idol and the worshipper an unbeliever. The Wahhabis especially hate prayers and recitations in praise of Muhammad, which are a firmly established feature of traditional Islam, but which the Wahhabis consider an abominable imitation of Christian practice.

Such details of Wahhabi ideology might be no more than examples of one excessive interpretation of Islam, incomprehensible to the non-Wahhabi mind, were it not that the ongoing campaign of historical demolition in Saudi Arabia has become an important issue in the Saudi transition from an absolutist, ideological regime. "Saudology," or the interpretation of political and theological developments in the kingdom, resembles its predecessor, Kremlinology, in that major events may be discerned behind apparently trivial details.