Saudi destruction of holy and historical sites
By: Sheila Musaji
We have rendered the shrine (the Kaaba) a focal point for the people, and a safe sanctuary. You may use Abraham’s shrine as a prayer house. We commissioned Abraham and Ishmael: “You shall purify My house for those who visit, those who live there, and those who bow and prostrate.” … And when Abraham and Ishmael were raising the foundations of the House, (Abraham prayed): Our Lord! Accept from us (this duty). Lo! Thou, only Thou, art the Hearer, the Knower. (2:125-127)
In 2006 we published an article about the planned Saudi destruction of the home of Prophet Muhammad, and another about the destruction of Islam’s historic sites by the Saudi’s over the past 50 years..
The current issue of Islamica magazine – the best Islamic print periodical available in English – has a series of articles on the Saudi destruction of Muslim historical sites, and the need for preservation of remaining sites in Saudi and elsewhere. (The Saudi “repair” projects in Bosnia are also a lesson in destruction of Muslim history.) Anyone who can should check with their local news stand to see if this issue is still available, or better yet, get a subscription to Islamica if you don’t already have one. Editors note: Islamica Magazine stopped publishing in 2009, and many articles are no longer available online except for those that were reprinted on other sites. In 2010 they set up a site to archive old articles and will work towards getting all the old articles online. Here are those on this topic that are now online: The destruction of the holy sites in Mecca and Medina, Irfan Ahmed –The birth and immanent death of a sacred Meccan site, Shafiq Morton – Memorializing the sacred in the Islamic civilization context, Yousef Waleed Meri
The Ottomans did an excellent job in their centuries as custodians and protected and documented historic sites, and now their meticulous care is being reversed in a short time. In fact, the Saudi’s are also destroying Ottomon history. For example, the Ajyad Fortress (Turkish: Ecyad Kalesi) was an Ottoman fort built in Mecca, in what is now Saudi Arabia, in the late 18th century. It was destroyed by the Saudi government in 2002 for commercial development, sparking a global outcry.
History is being erased in order to accommodate ever increasing numbers of pilgrims. Over 300 sites have been destroyed in the last 50 years. 95% of the sites in Mecca have been destroyed. As few as 20 structures are left that date back to the time of the Prophet. It would seem that at this rate there won’t be much for those like Congressman Tancredo who suggested Nuking Mecca to destroy. Muslim silence over the destruction is shocking.
Five of the renowned “Seven Mosques” initially built by Prophet Muhammad’s daughter and four of his “greatest Companions”: Masjid Abu Bakr, Masjid Salman al-Farsi, Masjid Umar ibn al-Khattab, Masjid Sayyida Fatima bint Rasulillah and Masjid Ali ibn Abi Talib have been demolished.
The Saudi’s have announced an award — called “Prince Sultan ibn Salman Award for Architectural Heritage” — which will be presented in three fields — research related to architectural heritage, use of architectural heritage in new designs and heritage restoration and rehabilitation. However, by the time anyone might win such an award what will be left to protect?
What we can do is at least protest any further destruction. We can contact the Saudi Embassy in Washington DC or the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission and ask them to preserve Islam’s historical sites. I am grateful that I was able to experience Hajj before this destruction began to speed up.
UPDATE February 2008
We have just published Destruction of Islamic Architectural Heritage in Saudi Arabia: A Wake-up Callby Saeed Shehabi in which he notes:
… The extremism of today’s Salafi movement has become a force of annihilation, which spares no one in its drive to dominate the Muslim world. It is closely linked to the Wahhabi movement founded by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al Wahab (1703–1792 AC). His aim was to purify Islam by returning all Muslims to what he believed were its original principles as typified by al Salaf al Şalihīn (the earliest converts to Islam). He rejected what he regarded as corruption introduced by bid‘a (innovation, reformation) and shirk (idolatry). During his lifetime, he denounced the practices of various sects of Sufism as heretical and unorthodox, such as their veneration of saints. Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al Wahab revived interest in the works of an earlier scholar, Ibn Taymiyyah (661–728AH/1263–1328AC), and his disciple, Ibn al Jawziyyah (d. 1350 AC). … The Arabian Peninsula became the launching pad for the new politico-religious trend. This led to the destruction of more than 90 per cent of Islamic monuments, holy places, tombs and mausoleums. Anything that had symbolic significance unrelated to the Wahhabi school of thought was deemed “polytheistic” and faced destruction. In 1924, ‘Abd al ‘Aziz ibn Sa‘ud and his troops occupied Makkah in the region of Hejaz. Among their first actions was the destruction of al Mu’alla graveyard, which contained the grave of Khadijah, Prophet Muhammad’s wife, and that of his uncle, Abu Talib. Two years later, in 1926, Ibn Sa‘ud occupied Madinah and demolished the tombed mausoleum over the graves of several of Prophet Muhammad’s descendants, including those of his daughter, Fatimah, and his grandson, Hassan ibn ‘Ali. Since no tangible resistance to their heinous actions was mounted by Muslims, they went even further and demolished the famous Seven Mosques of Salman al Farisi, Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, Fatimah, ‘Ali, al Qiblatayn and al Fath.
UPDATE November 2010
A new 485-metre-high Mecca clocktower has been built. Some highlights about the project of which the clocktower is a part from an excellent Guardian article:
— The clocktower is part of a project that buckles under the weight of its own statistics. Abraj al-Bait, a complex of luxury hotels, malls and apartments, has an estimated value of $3bn (£1.86bn), a built-up area of 1.4m sq metres, 15,000 housing units and 70,000 sq metres of retail space.
— The level of pampering offered by some of the hotels – Asprey toiletries, 24-hour butler service, $270 chocolate selections – may jar with the ethos of sacrifice, simplicity and humility of hajj but it is not a contradiction felt by the customers snapping up royal suites at $5,880 a night, eating gelato or milling around hangar-like lobbies of polished marble in their Hajj clothing of bedsheets, towels or burqas. Raffles is reporting 100% occupancy for it 211 rooms.
— The view from al-Bait reveals the physical impact of this soaring ambition. All around the Grand Mosque and the Ka’bah, which are overshadowed by cranes and skyscrapers, construction continues at a frenzied pace. Mountains have been razed to make way for towers– a pile ‘em high and sell ‘em high approach to hospitality – and homes demolished.
— The mountains of Mecca – Omar, Kaabah, Khandama – will no longer exist. The Shamiya district has all but disappeared. From the terrace of al-Bait to street level there is a stench of machine oil and cement that mingles with the more familiar odours of hajj – sweat, hardship and flipflops.
An article Mecca for the rich: Islam’s holiest site ‘turning into Vegas’ was just published by the Independent in Britain. According to this article
But critics fear that the desire to expand the pilgrimage sites has allowed the authorities to ride roughshod over the area’s cultural heritage. The Washington-based Gulf Institute estimates that 95 per cent of Mecca’s millennium-old buildings have been demolished in the past two decades alone.
The destruction has been aided by Wahabism, the austere interpretation of Islam that has served as the kingdom’s official religion ever since the al-Sauds rose to power across the Arabian Peninsula in the 19th century.
In the eyes of Wahabis, historical sites and shrines encourage “shirq” – the sin of idolatry or polytheism – and should be destroyed. When the al-Saud tribes swept through Mecca in the 1920s, the first thing they did was lay waste to cemeteries holding many of Islam’s important figures. They have been destroying the country’s heritage ever since. Of the three sites the Saudis have allowed the UN to designate World Heritage Sites, none are related to Islam.
The article lists a number of sites that have been destroyed or are in danger of being destroyed.
The Independent has a very interesting photograph with notes.
UPDATE November 2012
It seems that the Saudi’s are not offended by some “cultural icons”. Paris Hilton is opening a store in Mecca. Here are a few articles on this development: — Paris Hilton Store In Holy City Of Mecca Sparks Outrage — Paris Hilton whips up a storm in holy Mecca — 3 reasons Paris Hilton’s Mecca boutique is a really, really bad idea.
Omid Safi comments on this commercialization of Mecca Saudis say No to the Prophet Muhammad, Yes to Paris Hilton
“More and more people are speaking out against the Saudi regime, and the way in which its Wahhabi ideology has linked together an utter disregard for the historical heritage of Muslims with an unabashed embrace of vapid capitalism. In both Mecca and Medina, the Saudi state has already bulldozed over 90% of the Islamic monuments going back some 1400 years. In their place, they are putting up five star hotels, parking lots, and shopping malls.
… So this is what it has come to. The so-called “Guardians of the two sanctuaries” bulldoze Islamic history, tear down the houses associated with the Prophet and his family, and in its place put up shopping malls by vapid symbols of the most crass capitalistic materialism the world has to offer. No wonder many are talking about the transformation of Mecca into another Las Vegas.
… Furthermore, in place of these historical monuments, many of which hold a sacred significance to all Muslims outside of the Wahhabi sect, the Saudi state is building five star hotels that cost as much as $7,000 a night. In other words, these policies are not only bulldozing the history of Islam, they are also subverting the radical egalitarian teachings of Islam most beautifully symbolized in the rich and poor standing shoulder to shoulder wearing simple unadorned clothing in the House of the One God. Now the poor teeming masses are below, and the ultra-rich can reside in their 5-star suites looking down at the Ka’ba. Lastly, these absurd towers even displace the very symbolism and centrality of the Ka’ba.
The Saudis make a great deal of their honorific as the “Caretaker of the two Noble Sanctuaries” in Mecca and Medina. One has to wonder about a kind of Care that says no to the legacy of Muhammad, bulldozes it, and invites Paris Hilton in its place. …
A 35-minute video has been put online Wahabi Destruction Of Makkah’s Historical Places which gives a great deal of information. And, another 9 minute video Vandalization of the Holy Places also on YouTube.
Shehnaz Kermali has written an excellent article about the fact that the Saudi elite are proud of the British Museum’s current Hajj exhibition, and notes that “it’s a shame they don’t feel the same about all their heritage”.
It has been reported that the Saudi’s plan to raze Prophet Mohammed’s tomb to build larger mosque.
The key Islamic heritage site, including Prophet Mohammed’s shrine, is to be bulldozed, as Saudi Arabia plans a $ 6 billion expansion of Medina’s holy Masjid an-Nabawi Mosque. However, Muslims remain silent on the possible destruction. Work on the Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina, is planned to start as soon as the annual Hajj pilgrimage comes to a close at the end of November.
… Concerns are growing that the expansion of Masjid an-Nabawi will come at the price of three of the world’s oldest mosques nearby, which hold the tombs of Prophet Mohammed and two of his closest companions, Abu Bakr and Umar. The expansion project which will cost 25 billion SAR (more than US $6 billion) reportedly requires razing holy sites, as old as the seventh century.
… The authorities in Saudi Arabia have begun dismantling some of the oldest sections of Islam’s most important mosque as part of a highly controversial multi-billion pound expansion. Photographs obtained by The Independent reveal how workers with drills and mechanical diggers have started demolishing some Ottoman and Abbasid sections on the eastern side of the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca.
… But such a transformation has come at a cost. The Washington-based Gulf Institute estimates that 95 per cent of Mecca’s millennium-old buildings have been demolished in the past two decades alone. Dozens of key historical sites dating back to the birth of Islam have already been lost and there is a scramble among archaeologists and academics to try and encourage the authorities to preserve what little remains. Many senior Wahabis are vehemently against the preservation of historical Islamic sites that are linked to the prophet because they believe it encourages shirq – the sin of idol worshipping. But Dr Irfan al-Alawi, executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation which obtained the new photographs from inside the Grand Mosque, says the removal of the Ottoman and Abbasid columns will leave future generations of Muslims ignorant of their significance. …
What has changed?
In Saudi Arabia, Muslim historic sites, graveyards, mosques, etc. stood for centuries (some from the earliest days of Islam in the 6th century) and were protected by the Ottomans and previous generations. Under the Saudi’s these sites are being destroyed. The Saudi’s began destroying historical sites as soon as they came to power in 1806, but were stopped by the Ottomans who even attempted to restore some of the sites. The Saudi’s did not get an opportunity to continue with their destruction until after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century.
What changed between the 6th century and the 20th/21st centuries?
The destruction of Islamic cultural heritage has gone far beyond Saudi Arabia.
The Buddhas of Bamiyan stood in the Bamyan valley of Afghanistan since the 5th century AD. Islam came to this area between the 7th and 9th centuries AD. There was some damage done to the statues over the centuries, blamed on various individual kings & emperors. But the statues stood for 1,000 years in a predominantly Muslim country. The Taliban commander responsible for destroying the statues in 2001 was prevented from doing so for some years by local authorities, and even by Mullah Mohammed Omar. The Guardian reported “But the Taliban then decided to take a more pragmatic view of Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic past. In July 1999 Mullah Omar issued a decree that said the Bamiyan buddhas should be preserved. There were, he pointed out, no Buddhists left in Afghanistan to worship them. But he added: “The government considers the Bamiyan statues as an example of a potential major source of income for Afghanistan from international visitors. The Taliban states that Bamiyan shall not be destroyed but protected.”
The Taliban destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan which was condemned by most Muslims at the time it happened. This passage from an American Muslim condemnation of this act expresses the shock that such a thing could have happened:
The statues in Afghanistan are its historic treasures. These statues have existed in Afghanistan long before Afghans became Muslims. No Afghan Muslim government in the past tried to destroy them. They represent the past history of Afghanistan and its transformation into a Muslim community that recognized monotheism. Past generations and governments of Afghanistan did not destroy these images and yet Islam flourished in Afghanistan. In many other countries where Muslims are a majority, and have ruled those lands for centuries, they did not destroy the religious symbols of other people. Such images and symbols of the past still exist in almost all Muslim countries.
What changed between the 9th century and the 20th/21st centuries?
In Libya, the graves of scholars and Sufi saints have stood since the 15th century. In 2012 extremists began destroying these graves. In Timbuktu, Mali, hundreds of thousands of manuscripts have been lovingly maintained in its libraries since the 14th century. In the 20th century hardline extremists attempted to destroy many of these manuscripts. They set fire to some libraries, and also smashed graves and shrines. In Tunisia, extremists have attacked almost 40 Sufi shrines in the past few years. In Somalia, Iraq, and Pakistan, extremists are attacking Sufi shrines regularly. InBosnia, Saudi Arabia has offered to help restore mosques and historical sites damaged during the war. Instead, under the pretense of helping restore them, they have been destroyed and rebuilt. Old Ottoman era cemeteries and Sufi shrines have been razed.
What changed between the 15th century and the 20th/21st centuries?
In Egypt, Malaysia, Kenya, extremists are targeting Sufi shrines regularly. Extremists are attacking minority communities, including Shia, Ahmadi, Christians, Sikhs, Sufis, etc. Even in countries where communities have lived together in relative peace for centuries, there is now a lack of tolerance, and even violence towards minorities. In Pakistan, whose “Quaidi Azam” or great leader and founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was a Shia, the Shia are now undergoing intense persecution.
What changed in the 20th/21st centuries?
Something new and destructive became a force within many Muslim communities. Certainly, colonialism and the many destructive legacies of colonialism have had a negative impact. The formation of the State of Israel by decree of former colonial powers and without taking into consideration the rights of the existing local community had a profound effect on not only the Middle East, but on the world. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire also had a negative impact.
All of these are important – but one negative force is rarely mentioned. That is the rise of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, followed by the discovery of vast oil resources making the Saudi’s extremely wealthy. This allowed them to use those vast resources to spread their particular interpretation of Islam around the world. The destructive impulse has spread around the world wherever Wahhabi teachings have gone.
Saudi Arabia funded madrassas that produced the Taliban and many other extremist groups. They spread their ideology through sending Imams around the globe. They provided their own “revised” translations of the Qur’an, as well as “new” translations that provide only an extreme interpretation in line with their interpretation. We saw this right in the U.S. with the “revised” Yusuf Ali, and the Hilali-Khan translations that were given away free by the case to mosques across the country. They have funded all of this with petro-dollars. And, although they are anti-traditional Islam, and anti-West, because of their oil, they have been supported by the West.
It is past time for Muslims around the world to speak out against this destruction of our heritage. It is not only buildings that are being destroyed.
It has been reported that in Istanbul, Turkey
Hundreds of would-be pilgrims denied the chance to travel to Mecca made a virtual tour of the Muslim holy sites on Thursday after breaking their fasts next to an Ottoman mosque on Istanbul’s Bosphorus shore.
Saudi Arabia’s religious authorities last month approved a request by the government to reduce the number of pilgrims, including those from abroad, permitted at the hajj this year to allow expansion work at Mecca’s Grand Mosque.
A real hajj guide and seven actors in the Istanbul square, their shadows projected on three giant screens showing videos of Mecca, tried to recreate the pilgrimage. …
The Huffington Post just published Mecca Clock Tower Photo Shows Kaaba In The Shadow Of Abraj Al-Bait Building. The article opens with: “The Kaaba once took center stage, but now it appears as a minute structure at the foot of a clock tower and hotel, which opened in 2012. The Abraj Al-Bait Towers loom over the Masjid Al-Haram in an ostentatious show of luxury that stands in stark contrast to the piety and history symbolized by the Kaaba, a cube-shaped structure believed by Muslims to have been originally built by the prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael.” But this photo included in the article says everything without words. It deserves to be used as a meditation on “what has changed”.