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Islam debates its own iconoclasm

THE CITIES of Mecca and Medina, sacred to Muslims and barred to non-Muslims, are under threat, warns the Gulf Institute. The Institute, which is based in the United States, reports that in the past two decades 95 per cent of the most ancient buildings in the cities have been demolished, with the permission of the Saudi authorities ( Comment, 19 August).

The bulldozed sites are said to include the house of Ali-Oraid (the grandson of Muhammad), as well as villages once inhabited by Jews (who are not permitted now to worship or settle in Saudi Arabia). Ancient sites that remain include the birthplace of Muhammad, but it, too, is marked for destruction. Dr Sami Angawi, the founder of the Haj Research Centre, has said: "This is the end of history in Mecca and Medina and the end of their future" ( The Independent, 6 August).

Commentators identify both pragmatic and theological reasons for this seeming disregard of history. The annual pilgrimage to the two cities, which now involves four million people annually, is expected to grow five-fold in the coming years. In expectation of this, the Saudi government is investing about US$13 billion on building projects.

The most impressive of these is the Jabal Omar scheme, which will cover a 230,000-square-yard area next to the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and include two 50-storey hotel towers and seven 35-storey apartment blocks. Such projects are clearly lucrative for developers, but Dr Angawi laments: "Mecca should be the reflection of the multicultural Muslim world, not a concrete parking lot."

Even though many pilgrims might be attracted to visit Muhammad's birthplace and other sites, there is also a theological reason for the destruction. The Gulf Institute reports that a senior council of Saudi religious scholars issued a fatwa, or judicial opinion, in 1994, to the effect that preserving historical sites could lead to idolatry. Worshippers might focus on buildings rather than God.

This fatwa provided a window into the relationship between the ruling House of Saud and religious scholars in the country. Dr Aslam Abdullah wrote on the Islamicity website (an influential modernist site based in California) of how " Saudi monarchy has developed a strong alliance with the religious hierarchy of Saudi Arabia." In return for the monarchy giving carte blanche to religious authorities to push a conservative Wahhabi agenda, religious scholars do not challenge the Saudi royal family's construction plans.

THE POLICY has triggered heated debate, and opposition to the demolitions has come from diverse Muslim sources. Criticism has appeared on websites maintained by Islamic activist groups, such as Islamicity and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (UK).

On the Islamicity site, almost equal numbers were in favour of and opposed to the demolitions. One writer commented: "Anything we will do in our lives has to conform with the Islamic Teachings, period. Improving our lives by having new and viable structures for shelter is one of those things that Islam does not go against."

Another contributor was critical of Dr Abdullah's rejection of Saudi policy: "I see this author as being ignorant of Islam and . . . like the kuffars [infidels] in attaching themselves to meaningless objects, rather than solving the problems of Muslims."

Muslim opponents of Saudi policy were equally outspoken, however. One declared: "The historical places of Islam should be preserved for the future generations, specially the house of our prophet."

THE DEBATE has a broader context in Islam. The conservative revolution in the Arabian peninsula, led by Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, father of the Wahhabi movement in the late 1700s, included among its goals eradicating visits to saints' tombs. Muslim communities in places as diverse as Indonesia, India, and Arabia had long attributed sainthood to influential scholars after death. It became commonplace to seek blessing at the tombs of these saints, and to leave offerings.

When conservative Wahhabi thinking spread beyond Arabia, destruction of saints' tombs became a favourite preoccupation of conservative extremist groups, who called Muslims to focus their attention on God rather than graves and buildings. There was a case of this in northern Iraq in recent years (Comment, 3 January 2003).

There are echoes of such concerns in other religious contexts. The Taliban's destruction of the Bamiyan buddhas in Afghanistan in 2000 was motivated by a belief that they might deflect the attention of Muslims from the unseen God. In the Christian tradition, iconoclasts called for the destruction of religious images.

Nevertheless, there seems to be some hypocrisy in the contrast between the Saudi authorities' repeated statements of concern about the sacred Muslim sites in Jerusalem, and their disregard for sites in Mecca. Furthermore, the Islamic authorties have provided no evidence that the sites being destroyed in Arabia actually lead Muslims away from God - hence the outcry of Muslims worldwide, both specialists and lay people.

Concern over the demolition policy is also finding expression in Christian circles. One Christian contributor to an internet chat line commented: "Even I, a kuffar [sic], would like to see Muhammad's birth house preserved, as it is a world heritage site and protected by UNESCO, not torn down by barbarians."
Peter G. Riddell is Professor and Director of the Centre for Islamic Studies and Muslim-Christian Relations at London School of Theology, and the author of Christians and Muslims: Pressures and potential in a post-9/11 world (IVP, 2004).

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