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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King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz has long been known for his anti-Wahhabi views, and slow but perceptible changes could lead to the separation of Wahhabism from the state, and the transformation of the kingdom into a constitutional monarchy. Among the indicators are a renewal among Saudi subjects of the spiritual traditions of Sufism, which Wahhabis despise and have worked hard to liquidate, but to which Abdullah's predecessor, the late King Fahd, was devoted. Other promising news includes the relaxation of restrictions on reading once-banned books, and the naming of women to significant business posts.

Recently, rumors have swept the kingdom of an imminent power struggle between King Abdullah and his younger half-brother, Prince Nayef, minister of the interior and a fierce Wahhabi. King Abdullah has reportedly called for disbanding the religious militia, or mutawwa, which patrol the streets of the kingdom, harassing and even brutalizing those they claim have violated rules for modesty between men and women. (Nayef, it is said, has rejected the proposal to disband the paramilitary arm, and there are even claims that Nayef, like the Soviet holdouts in Russia in 1991, is preparing a coup to obstruct any tendency toward further reform.)

In the last decades of the Soviet era, the struggle for the freedom of artistic creation was a major feature in the epic of liberation. Regimes throughout the Soviet bloc responded to innovations in art and literature by imprisoning artists and authors, trashing art shows, confiscating manuscripts, and censoring books. Under Saudi rule, social change is expressed in cultural turmoil, but takes a different form. Faced with the very real possibility of losing their power and funding as state clerics, the Wahhabis, who still control large areas of the Saudi state, are fighting back--and the extremists have responded to pressure by an increased, even frenzied, effort to liquidate the original religious and architectural legacy of the kingdom.

In the cultural realm, this could be Wahhabism's last stand--just as the persecution of dissident writers marked the death agony of Russian communism. The difference is that the Communists feared the works of living people; the Saudi-Wahhabis are terrified at the survival of the Islamic past.

This has resulted in, among other things, construction projects that have undermined the Grand Mosque here in Mecca, leaving it unstable. In August 2002, the minaret at the Medina mosque-tomb of Ali al-Uraidh, a son of Jaafar al-Sadiq (702-765), was dynamited. (Jaafar al-Sadiq is considered the sixth imam, or religious guide, for the majority of Shia Muslims, and was the founder of Shia jurisprudence.) The razing of the vast graveyard of Jannat al-Baqi in Medina, where many of Muhammad's companions were buried, is well documented. The location was first assaulted by the Wahhabis in the 19th century, and again with the Saudi takeover of Mecca and Medina in 1924.

In 2002 the Ottoman-era Ajyad fortress, overlooking the Grand Mosque in Mecca, was demolished. The fortress was knocked down to make way for an apartment complex, called the Zam Zam Towers. The Saudi Islamic Affairs minister, Saleh Al-Sheikh, had promised that the fortress would be rebuilt in its original form. (The plot of land earmarked for the Towers was formerly under the control of pious endowments, a form of Islamic charitable institution. Some had been established by King Ibn Saud for the maintenance of the Mecca mosques.) But the sanctity of mosques proved little resistant to the sanctity of profits for the Bin Laden Group and its Wahhabi accomplices. Even more bizarre, the Zam Zam Towers are named for the famous well of Zam Zam, for which Mecca is known throughout the Muslim world. But the sources of the well have been diverted by Saudi Bin Laden builders, so that the well of Zam Zam may soon disappear altogether.

The grave of Muhammad's mother, Amina bint Wahb, has been bulldozed and soaked with gasoline. The house of Abu Bakr Siddiq, the closest companion of Muhammad--and the first of the "four rightly-guided caliphs," or immediate successors as leader of the Muslims--has been replaced by the Mecca Hilton Hotel. In Medina, of seven famous mosques erected near the site of the Battle of the Trench, in which Muhammad participated, five have been destroyed. An automatic teller machine now sits in the area. The two remaining mosques are also due for obliteration.

One of the most remarkable and, for Westerners and non-Wahhabi Muslims, shocking examples of the Saudi passion for destruction involves the house of Khadija, the wife of Muhammad, in which the couple lived while here in Mecca. The residence of Khadija was discovered in 1989 during excavations near the Grand Mosque, carried out in preparation for installation of a large paved area.