Wanton Destruction of Islamic Heritage

November 8, 2008

Last Sunday, I attended a presentation by Dr Irfan Al Alwai on the destruction of the heritage in Islam’s holiest cities of Mecca and Medina. The presentation lasted over three hours and was wonderfully delivered. Often there was complete silence as the attendees listened intently and were shocked at the wanton destruction of Islamic heritage by Saudi religious authorities. Numerous photographs and images of historic sites as well religious relics were shown with some images dating back over a hundred years.

The presentation was a disturbing eye opener. I was simply quite shocked and deeply angered at the damage that has been done and is being done to historic and religious sites revered by Muslims worldwide for what the Saudi authorities claim are ideological reasons. The religious authorities in Saudi Arabia want to remove any site, building or shrine which has the capacity to attract pilgrims or where Muslims could potentially congregate. The reason is the mistaken belief that pilgrims who visit these places and recite a prayer at the sites are engaging in polytheism/religious innovation which is prohibited in Islam. Take for example the house of the Prophet Muhammad’s first wife Khadijah in Mecca where the Prophet lived, worshipped and where some of his children including his daughter Fatima were born. Muslims revere the Prophet’s wife who has the title ‘Mother of the believers’ and whose support in the embryonic phase of Islam was vital. Photographs of this house were shown which only a few years ago was below ground level and had been carefully excavated. The Saudi religious authorities inexplicably refused to preserve this hugely important site and decided on its destruction. Those who had been campaigning to save it managed to persuade the authorities to fill it with sand in the hope that in future it could perhaps be re-excavated and preserved as an historic site. The authorities did fill the site but then quite incredibly and insultingly built public toilets on it with the undoubted effect of water and sewerage being passed through the site.

This was simply one of numerous examples of outrageous behaviour by the Saudi religious authorities. The next key site that the religious authorities are threatening with demolition is the house where the Prophet Muhammad was born which at the moment has been converted into a library.

Mosques built by the Prophet’s companions have been razed sometimes to make way for a palace for a member of the royal family, homes belonging to very eminent companions of the Prophet demolished, graves belonging to members of the Prophet’s family have been desecrated and flattened using bulldozers as well as hundreds of historic sites destroyed and damaged. In one of the photographs showing the destruction of a shrine near Medina, a member of the Saudi religious police is seen celebrating as the bulldozer crashes into its dome.

While the heritage is destroyed, plans are afoot to build more and more skyscrapers to ensure that Mecca looks more like Manhattan where tourists go to holiday and end up spending hours shopping. A perverse obsession with building the tallest building and competing with each other has taken hold of Arabs in the Middle East with Dubai and the Saudis competing to see who can go the highest. All the old and historic buildings are being destroyed with no attempt being made at preserving any of these buildings – all being replaced with ugly skyscrapers whose prices will be out of range for the average pilgrim going to Mecca. The clear message being given is that the annual pilgrimage which is compulsory on every Muslim at least once during his lifetime will soon be for the rich only. If you don’t fall into this category, don’t come.

I was left wondering what the reaction of Muslims including the Saudis would have been if a western country especially the UK and US had done anything remotely similar to what the Saudis have done to an Islamic heritage site, a Mosque or a Cemetery. Worse still, can you imagine the outcry and anger if the Israeli government had demolished a Mosque and replaced it with a hotel let alone public toilets? How many fatwas would have been issued and how many countries would have declared such an act as an act of aggression against all Muslims?

Muslims were outraged after the publication of Danish Cartoons with marches organised throughout the world and a coordinated boycott of all things Danish – how dare these non-Muslims parody the Prophet Muhammad and insult Islam was the cry. A teddy bear inadvertently named Muhammad leads to an international outcry from Muslims but destruction of hugely important and historic sites is met with a deathly silence as the Saudi religious authorities continue to destroy all evidence of Islamic history in the Arabia that it controls. Their behaviour in destroying graves, homes, Mosques and other important historical sites is far worse than anything a Danish newspaper ever did.