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How IS justifies its iconoclasm

22 April 2016

Islamic State draws on legal traditions to rationalise its destruction, says David Keys

Image of conquest: a photo-montage by the Islamic State group for its magazine, Dabiq, imagining its flag flying in St Peter’s Square, in the Vatican

Image of conquest: a photo-montage by the Islamic State group for its magazine, Dabiq, imagining its flag flying in St Peter’s Square, in the Va...

THE destruction by the self-styled group Islamic State (IS) of the ancient temples in Palmyra, in Syria, is part of a much bigger picture. The ruin of churches, mosques, and shrines (as well as ancient pagan temples) by the extremist Islamist Jihadi organisation over the past two years has been the largest campaign of religiously motivated iconoclasm and destruction for several hundred years.

You would need to go back to the 16th-century European Reformation and anti-Buddhist movements in 17th-century China to find religiously motivated iconoclastic campaigns of greater magnitude — although, of course, politically motivated iconoclasm and attacks on religious buildings took place, often on a vast scale, in Communist Russia in the 1930s, and Communist China in the 1960s, and, to an extent, even now (News, 14 August 2015).

Since 2014, IS has destroyed scores of churches and other religious structures in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. Its rationale for targeting Christian churches is a complex mix of political, theological, and Islamist legal arguments.

Historically, and therefore politically, IS identifies Christianity with Western power — partly by harking back to the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire’s 400-year-long conflict with Islam, and partly by constantly resurrecting the memory of the 200-year Christian-Islamic struggles of the Crusades.

From the former conflict, IS borrows early Islamic texts prophesying the conquest of Rome — a geopolitical term that is sometimes today interpreted literally, and sometimes interpreted as symbolising Christianity and the Western world in general. Indeed, the October 2014 issue of IS’s glossy propaganda magazine Dabiq showed an image of the black flag of IS flying over St Peter’s Square in the Vatican (pictured).

IS’s preferred term for the people of the modern Western world, especially those from the United States and Western Europe, is “Crusaders”.

IS’s attitude to Christianity is also coloured by significant theological differences. Like all traditional Islamists, IS sees Christianity’s trinitarian beliefs as incompatible with monotheism. Muslims believe that Jesus was a messenger of God, not the Son of God.

Second, like all Muslims, IS strongly disapproves of the veneration of images, including the icons, pictures, and sculptures that adorn many churches.

These political and theological differences, however, would not be enough under Islamic law to justify the demolition of a church. So IS seems to have used Islamic legal arguments rather than solely political and theological ones to condemn so many churches to oblivion.


ONE key argument appears to be that the churches are in violation of a treaty between a seventh-century caliph and Christian communities in his area. That pact — important within Islamic jurisprudence — was said to stipulate that no new churches or monasteries were to be built, and that existing churches could not be repaired.

In Islamic legal tradition, there is also another legal argument that IS may have used as an additional excuse to destroy churches. Historically, the ability of Christian communities to retain their religious and communal rights depended on how the Muslim conquerors of the seventh century acquired each particular territory. Territories that resisted conquest had no automatic rights, whereas those that surrendered without a fight were guaranteed their religious and communal rights, as long as they abided permanently by their terms of surrender.

Not only are these legalistic arguments part of traditional Islamic jurisprudence, but they also almost certainly appeal strongly to IS because its self-proclaimed Islamic State sees itself as the reconstituted successor of the caliphates that framed those original Muslim-Christian treaties.

“ISIS seeks to rationalise their actions by drawing on the Islamic legal tradition — so as to try to ensure that their actions are in line with God’s law as they perceive it,” the Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Nottingham, Dr Jon Hoover, says.


IS’s devastating campaign of iconoclasm is the largest such catastrophe for the past few centuries; but the phenomenon goes back millennia, and has often centred on clashes between believers in different definitions of monotheism, and between polytheists and monotheists.

The earliest known iconoclastic campaigns took place in Egypt in the 14th century BC, when a political and religious struggle erupted between traditional polytheism and an early form of monotheism.

The book of Exodus also, of course, relates one of the most famous clashes between polytheism and monotheism: when the People of Israel temporarily lapsed into the worship of a deity other than Yahweh — that of the golden calf. Moses then destroyed the idol, and ordered that those who failed to return to monotheism should be killed. Of course, the Ten Commandments, which Moses had just brought down from Sinai, expressly prohibited the worship of other gods and also the veneration of man-made images.

In Hellenistic times, one of the polytheistic successors of Alexander the Great tried to impose on the Jews the worship of Zeus, the king of the Greek polytheistic pantheon. The Jewish repossession of their Temple in Jerusalem is still commemorated every year by Jews at the festival of Hanukkah.

Some 250 years later, the Jews rebelled against polytheistic Rome. As a consequence, the Romans sacked Jerusalem and destroyed its great Jewish Temple. When, in the fourth century AD, the Emperor became Christian, however, monotheistic Romans destroyed substantial numbers of pagan temples and sacred artefacts throughout much of their empire.


DIFFERENT definitions of some aspects of monotheism (particularly the status and veneration of the Virgin Mary and the saints) also, of course, underlay parts of the 16th-century Reformation in Europe, and the iconoclastic campaigns that it triggered.

Although the second commandment (the prohibition of graven images) was most commonly used as the reason for iconoclastic destruction, some Reformation theologians cited the first commandment (“Thou shalt have no other gods before me”) as the basis for their disapproval of religious images, or at least of veneration of them. Indeed, one of Martin Luther’s associates, Andreas Karlstadt, expressed that view when he argued in 1522 that “to assume a posture of veneration before images is contrary to the first commandment”.

Much of the world’s religiously motivated acts of destruction over recent centuries has been in the Islamic world. At the beginning of the 19th century, the early Saudis destroyed many sacred Shia and Sunni Muslim sites in what is now Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

When the Saudis captured the holy city of Medina in 1804, they destroyed many important Sunni monuments associated with Muhammad’s closest associates — including the shrine built over the tomb of Muhammad’s daughter Fatima. In Mecca itself, they demolished the tomb of Muhammad’s first wife. Further attacks took place on Sunni sites, again in what is now Saudi Arabia, in the early 20th century.

It is this strict religious perspective, whose origins lie in Saudi Arabia, that represents a crucial part of the iconoclastic historical tradition that is being expressed by IS today.

Unfortunately, history suggests that iconoclasm and the destruction of religious buildings is not confined to only one religion, but has been an unacceptable aspect of many, down the centuries. Although it has not always been the sole preserve of monotheists, it is none the less the more extremist elements of the monotheistic faiths that have been responsible for the bulk of religiously motivated attacks.

Our world’s mainstream religions have always had to face up to — and still need to wrestle with — the apparent moral contradiction between values such as mercy, kindness, altruism, and purity of thought, on the one hand, and aspects of religious law and traditional theological belief on the other. It is a contradiction that is not likely to disappear quickly.


David Keys is the archaeology correspondent of The Independent.

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