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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During the uncontrolled leveling of old buildings in the neighborhood (an objectionable practice in itself) a structure identified as the house of Khadija and Muhammad was located by Saudi Bin Laden personnel, hidden under a foundation. The house included a prayer room used by Muhammad, and was the location where five of his children were born. After the building was photographed, its presence was concealed by sand. Public toilets were erected on the spot where Muhammad had slept. The aim was, once again, to discourage prayer at the site, since Muslims, like Jews, cannot pray in a place where there is any odor of human waste.

Equally startling is a plan for "rebuilding" the birthplace of Muhammad in Mecca. Decades ago the Wahhabis turned the location into a cattle market, and then replaced it with a library. But with a new proposal for a huge real estate development, to be erected in cooperation with the London-based Le Meridien luxury hotel chain, the library is scheduled to disappear. In its place a multistory residential complex will overshadow the Grand Mosque of Mecca.

Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington, has provided perfunctory pledges that the kingdom would not abandon its historical patrimony. But the Saudis have shown little interest in protecting the cultural past, and the destruction of history, and historic artifacts, is yet another way for the Wahhabis to show that there is no other form of Islam--whether on the ground, in archives, or in the popular memory--than their own.

We may be witnessing the end of the historic legacy of Mecca and Medina. Today, fewer than 20 structures in Mecca date to the time of Muhammad. Mai Yamani, an outstanding Saudi dissident author and defender of the cultural identity and legacy of Hejaz, the region that includes Mecca and Medina, has noted that the uproar over the Danish cartoons drove "thousands of people into the streets to protest," but when sites are threatened "related to the Prophet . . . part of their heritage and religion . . . we see no concern from Muslims."

Says Yamani: The Saudi monarchy must "rein in" the Wahhabis--now. For their heedlessness may yet provoke enough disgust among Muslims, inside and outside the kingdom, to bring about a break with the Wahhabi monopoly over religious life in the birthplace of Islam--and, perhaps, faster movement toward a system of popular sovereignty.

Irfan al-Alawi is joint chairman of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation. Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.