Taking a Bulldozer to History
Perhaps nothing underscores Saudi Arabia’s commitment to Wahhabism more than its willingness to eradicate Islamic history.
I first became aware of what is happening in Mecca and Medina from reading about it in the December 12, 2012 issue of Ottawa's Muslim Link newspaper. In Our Disappearing History: Islam’s holiest sites at risk of erasure, writer Mustafa Lawrence quotes extensively from Jerome Taylor's exposé Saudis take a bulldozer to Islam's history, The Independent, October 26, 2012.
In the event that the link to Saudis take a bulldozer .... is lost, following is some of what Taylor had to say:
Three of the world’s oldest mosques are about to be destroyed as Saudi Arabia embarks on a multi-billion-pound expansion of Islam’s second holiest site. Work on the Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina, where the Prophet Mohamed is buried, will start once the annual Hajj pilgrimage ends next month. When complete (at a cost of about 6 billion dollars), the development will turn the mosque into the world’s largest building, with the capacity for 1.6 million worshippers.
But concerns have been raised that the development will see key historic sites bulldozed. Anger is already growing at the kingdom’s apparent disdain for preserving the historical and archaeological heritage of the country’s holiest city, Mecca. Most of the expansion of Masjid an-Nabawi will take place to the west of the existing mosque, which holds the tombs of Islam’s founder and two of his closest companions, Abu Bakr and Umar.
Just outside the western walls of the current compound are mosques dedicated to Abu Bakr and Umar, as well as the Masjid Ghamama, built to mark the spot where the Prophet is thought to have given his first prayers for the Eid festival. The Saudis have announced no plans to preserve or move the three mosques, which have existed since the seventh century and are covered by Ottoman-era structures, or to commission archaeological digs before they are pulled down, something that has caused considerable concern among the few academics who are willing to speak out in the deeply authoritarian kingdom.
The Saudi monarchy views itself as the sole authority to decide what should happen to the cradle of Islam. Although it has earmarked billions for an enormous expansion of both Mecca and Medina, it also sees the holy cities as lucrative for a country almost entirely reliant on its finite oil wealth.
Heritage campaigners and many locals have looked on aghast as the historic sections of Mecca and Medina have been bulldozed to make way for gleaming shopping malls, luxury hotels and enormous skyscrapers. The Washington-based Gulf Institute estimates that 95 per cent of the 1,000-year-old buildings in the two cities have been destroyed in the past 20 years.
In Mecca, the Masjid al-Haram, the holiest site in Islam and a place where all Muslims are supposed to be equal, is now overshadowed by the Jabal Omar complex, a development of skyscraper apartments, hotels and an enormous clock tower. To build it, the Saudi authorities destroyed the Ottoman era Ajyad Fortress and the hill it stood on. Other historic sites lost include the Prophet’s birthplace – now a library – and the house of his first wife, Khadijah, which was replaced with a public toilet block.
Ten years ago, a mosque which belonged to the Prophet’s grandson was dynamited. Pictures of the demolition that were secretly taken and smuggled out of the kingdom showed the religious police celebrating as the building collapsed.
The disregard for Islam’s early history is partly explained by the regime’s adoption of Wahabism, an austere and uncompromising interpretation of Islam that is vehemently opposed to anything which might encourage Muslims towards idol worship.
In most of the Muslim world, shrines have been built. Visits to graves are also commonplace. But Wahabism views such practices with disdain. The religious police go to enormous lengths to discourage people from praying at or visiting places closely connected to the time of the Prophet while powerful clerics work behind the scenes to promote the destruction of historic sites.
A pamphlet published in 2007 by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs – and endorsed by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz al Sheikh – called for the dome [over the grave of the Prophet] to be demolished and the graves of Mohamed, Abu Bakr and Umar to be flattened. Sheikh Ibn al-Uthaymeen, one of the 20th century’s most prolific Wahabi scholars, made similar demands.
“Muslim silence over the destruction of Mecca and Medina is both disastrous and hypocritical,” says Dr Alawi. “The recent movie about the Prophet Mohamed caused worldwide protests... and yet the destruction of the Prophet’s birthplace, where he prayed and founded Islam has been allowed to continue without any criticism.”
The Saudi erasing of our history as it intertwines with Islam has already begun. From Faith At War, A Journey On The Frontlines of Islam by Yaroslav Trofimov (Henry Holt, 2005) on the rebuilding of Bosnia after the war (paragraph formatted for the Web):
In an informal division of labour over the following years: “the Europeans and Americans were rebuilding houses and the Saudis were rebuilding mosques,” Wolfgang Petritsch, an Austrian diplomat who served as Bosnia’s chief international administrator at the time, told me. “And any outside assistance transfers values. They did a disservice to this country and its culture by promoting the Wahhabi style.”
Rebuilding in Bosnia, the Saudi way, turned out to be more like destruction. The austere Wahhabi ideology holds frescoes and paintings to be un-Islamic, and considers elaborate gravestones and Sufi tekke, prayer lodges, a common sight in the mosques, to be miscreant abominations.
Saudi-financed rebuilding of mosques damaged in the war usually consisted of bulldozing the cemetery and tekkes – many dating back to the Middle Ages – and refashioning the mosque in a graceless Saudi style.
Even Sarajevo’s Begova Džmaija, the jewel of Balkan architecture, built in the sixteenth century and once famed as the largest European mosque west of Istanbul, wasn’t spared by Saudi “aid.” The mosque’s rich murals and shinning Ottoman era tileworks, not always respectful of rigorous Islam’s prohibition on depicting living creatures, testified to Sarajevo’s long history as a crossroads of cultures.
A few weeks after Saudi-funded renovations began, the tiles were scraped off, the ornaments stripped bare, and all the walls covered with white plaster. It was as if someone decided to renovate the Sistine Chapel by giving Michelangelo’s frescoes a coat of hospital-white paint.
The Islamists charities didn’t just transform buildings. The Saudi-funded proselytizing machine also brought young Bosnians to study in Saudi universities, converted them to the Wahhabi creed and financed radical (Bosnian) organizations such as Furkan and Active Muslim Youth.
Islamic frescoes are what is being whitewashed now. An Islamic victory over the West will not spare the Sistine Chapel, but you won't care; nobody will!
Bernard Payeur, June 22, 2013