• The heritage of centuries has been wiped out in little more than a year.

  • Eventually the need to wipe out all traces of unbelief becomes obsessive. At one time, for instance, Egyptian law demanded that any house found to contain a copy of The Apology of al-Kindi (a book containing a polemical dialogue between a Muslim and a Christian) would be demolished along with 40 houses around it.

  • Ethics were defined by what Allah said was good or evil in Sharia law. The Islamic State's behaviour is solidly rooted in Islamic ideology, law and practice. It is only when this fundamental fact is grasped that we will be able to address what confronts us.

  • There are many wise and sensible Muslims who favour a shift to a more updated way of thinking. It is their mosques and shrines that are being crushed; it is their heritage. Today, such Muslims use the freedoms bestowed on them in the West to write, network and debate their opposition to fundamentalist interpretation of Islam by the Islamic State and other supporters of murder and destruction.

We are living through ferocious times. Stories about the self-proclaimed Islamic State [ISIS/ISIL/Da'esh] abound in the media, in what has now become a daily round of beheadings, suicide bombings, and general mayhem from Nigeria to Malaysia. It seems that wherever there is a Muslim country, there is extreme violence. But one part of the Islamic State narrative has received less attention than the gruesome rounds of killings: the continuing onslaughts on cities such as Mosul, Aleppo, Raqqa and Kobani. The Islamic State and related movements have rampaged across parts of Iraq and Syria, destroying the entire heritage of ancient regions, demolishing historic churches, synagogues, mosques, Sufi and Shi'i shrines, and major archaeological sites. All this vandalism is driven by a relentless passion to enforce religious purity on the regions they now control.

Around the world, art historians, antiquities experts, and archaeologists scarcely dare open their e-mails every day, fearing loss of another irreplaceable site. Physical destruction in the Islamic realms has now reached proportions of the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century.

In Mosul, the Islamic State set out on an operation of "cultural and historical cleansing" across the city. The group deploys a unit called the Kata'ib Taswiyya, or settlement battalions, who are ordered to identify sites for culling. The unit razes to the ground any mosques, churches or, invariably, shrines that have been built over tombs; such places may attract devotees to pray in them, thereby creating polytheism -- in Islam one of the crimes most censured. In addition, the painting or sculpting of the human form is anathema; if man was created in God's image, to represent man is to presume to know God and therefore to diminish Him.

Graveyards are flattened, headstones are bulldozed, and statues of cultural significance to the people of Mosul are destroyed.

As we face the Islamic State and all the rapidly expanding jihadist movements in the Middle East and beyond, we are starting to recognize that airstrikes have only limited results. If we are to contain or defeat the adversaries in our midst, we have to understand their motivation, their psychology, and their sense of rootedness.

Politicians who proclaim that Islam is a religion of peace do us a disservice; Islam has never been at peace with the world around it. The Islamic State's behavior is solidly rooted in Islamic ideology, law and practice. Only when this fundamental fact is grasped will we be able to address what confronts us. It is time that not only active jihadists, but their ideological sponsors in Salafi, Wahhabi, Mawdudist, and other classical and modern interpretations of Islam, be discussed openly before they do more harm. They and we do not have the leisure to wait until the oil money runs out and leaves the Saudis or Qataris weak.

We must learn to speak the truth, especially in high places. In the tenth century, Islam abandoned reason and rational pursuits in favor of revelation and revealed law that could not be challenged. Ethics were defined by what Allah said was good or evil in Sharia law. Islam has remained frozen ever since. We cannot go on patronizing this, and nodding acceptance that Muslims know best. Very few grasp the quandary in which non-extremist Muslims, like their ancestors, are captured. Western rationalism, Western ethics, and Western standards of peace and justice need to remain, or the world we know could be trampled underfoot by men and women who prefer death to co-existence, and fundamentalism to tolerance.

There are many wise and sensible Muslims who favour a shift to a more updated way of thinking. Many cannot openly declare their thoughts for fear of reprisals and even execution; others are faithful Muslims who see a desperate need for a valid reinterpretation of their religion.

Today, such Muslims use the freedoms bestowed on them in the West to write, network, and debate their thoughts about the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam by the Islamic State, other Salafis, Wahhabis, Mawdudists, and all other clerics and extremist supporters of murder and destruction. It is their mosques and shrines and ancient monuments that are being crushed; it is their heritage -- as much as that of Jews, Christians, Yazidis and Baha'is -- that is being wiped from the pages of history.

Losses so far include:

  • The statues of Mulla 'Uthman al-Mawsili (1845-1923), a famous musician and poet, of a woman carrying an urn, and of Abu Tammam (788-845), author of the celebrated Hamasa, one of the greatest literary compilations ever made in Arabic.

  • The destruction of the greatly venerated tomb of 'Ali ibn al-Athir al-Jazari (1160-1233), a major landmark that had stood in the centre of Mosul for centuries. Ibn al-Athir is celebrated as the author of The Complete History, one of the most important histories of Islam ever written.

  • The Islamic State's destruction of the Tomb of Yunus (Jonah) Mosque, which was blown to pieces along with all its contents. Even before the explosion, fighters took sledgehammers to ancient tombstones in the building. The mosque was of importance not just to the Muslims of the city, but as a place of pilgrimage for Jews and Christians. St. George's Monastery church, one of the oldest in the region, has also gone forever.

  • In Kirkuk, the Islamic State has destroyed the tomb of the Prophet Daniel, and in Nineveh, the ancient ruins of which lie across the River Tigris from Mosul, sprawl damaged archaeological ruins.

  • In Mosul, the 13th-century shrine of Imam Awn al-Din -- with a stunning vaulted ceiling, designed to resemble a honeycomb, inside a pyramid-shaped tower on the banks of the Tigris, and among the city's most precious sites -- was one of the very few structures to have survived the devastation of the 13th-century Mongol invasion On July 25, 2014, members of the Islamic State reduced it to rubble.

  • In Tikrit, the city's most famous and most beautiful church of St. Ahoadamah, known as the Green Church, dating from the 7th century, has been erased from history.

  • In Syria, the Jabhat al-Nusra's destruction of the Deir el-Zour Armenian Church, that stood as a memorial to the 1.5 million slaughtered in the Armenian genocide in Turkey, was blown up.

  • In Mali, much of UNESCO's World Heritage Site of Timbuktu (Mali) was destroyed during the battles of Gao and Timbuktu, fought between the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and the Islamist Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa between June 26 and 27, 2012. Afterwards, the Islamist group Ansar Dine went on a rampage identical to that of the Islamic State. An official for the group, Abou Dardar, boasted that "not a single mausoleum will remain in Timbuktu."

  • Sufi shrines have been pulverized in Egypt, Libya, Mali, Pakistan, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Tunisia, Morocco, India, and the Balkans.

  • In Bahrain, 43 Shi'i mosques and tens of other religious structures have been destroyed and damaged by the ruling Sunni government there.

  • Across Syria and Iraq, ancient archaeological sites have been wrecked. They were not just the heritage of those countries, they were central to our understanding of the ancient world, where human civilization first developed in city-states. Apamea, with its famous colonnade and beautiful mosaic, capital of the Seleucid empire, was a major center of Roman rule in the Levant, a leading city in Byzantine Syria, and at one time among the best-preserved archaeological sites in the region. Today, it looks like the face of the moon. Its devastation, the work of demolition done by looters using heavy earth-moving machines, took a mere four or five months.

  • In eastern Syria, one of the world's richest archaeological remains, Dura-Europos, the "Pompeii of the Syrian Desert," was obliterated. Remarkable finds had been brought to light: temples, wall decorations, inscriptions, military equipment, and tombs. It had been home to a third-century painted synagogue as well as to the oldest example in the world of a Christian house-church, which contained the earliest depictions of Jesus Christ ever found, dating back to 235 AD. The Islamic State looted the site and, as elsewhere, has apparently sold its treasure on the black market of the antiquities trade, presumably using the proceeds to inflate their already swollen coffers for the promotion of jihad.

  • Both Shi'i and Sufi shrines and mosques have fallen afoul of the Islamic State's fanaticism. Jewish sites have been targeted so extensively that UNESCO has held a special session on threats posed to them. UNESCO's Director-General Irina Bokova has described the Islamic State's activities in this respect as "a form of cultural cleansing." Many other Jewish sites were also destroyed or under threat from Islamist entities in Libya, where an ancient Jewish heritage was all but wiped out under the regime of Mu'ammar Qadhafi, and where what is left is succumbing to fresh attacks.

Locals survey the hill of rubble that resulted from the destruction of the Tomb of Yunus (Jonah), in Mosul, Iraq. The Islamic State blew up the tomb and mosque on July 24, 2014.

The Islamic State, however, does not restrict its demolition to Christian, Jewish or pagan sites. Its members have also evidently culled what may be thought of as their own heritage. In Tikrit, they demolished the country's oldest Islamic site, the Arba'in (Forty) Shrine and mosque, where forty of the companions (Salaf) of the Prophet were buried.

In this, there is desperate irony, for the form of Islam followed by the Islamic State is Salafism, based on imitating the ways of Muhammad and his companions.

The heritage of centuries has been wiped out in little more than a year. There will be many who argue that this devastation is, at root, the fault of the West; that its colonization, imperial ambitions, and general interference have forced the people of the Middle East to rise up against Europe and America, and find their only solution in the creation of an Islamic state where Shari'a law will dominate and justice prevail. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Syria was never a French colony, but a mandate territory between 1922 and 1936 -- fourteen years. Lebanon was a mandate territory from 1922 to 1943 -- twenty-one years. Iraq was a British mandate from 1922 to 1932 -- ten years. All were colonies of the Muslim Ottoman empire for centuries: Iraq between 1543 and 1918, Syria from 1516 to 1918, and were, before that, colonies of earlier Islamic empires from the Umayyads to the Abbasids to the Mamluks -- and so on.

This alone exposes the reality, that the actions of groups such as the Islamic State have their true roots in Islam itself. The Prophet and his companions fought jihad wars and destroyed pagan idols as well as places they may have been concerned would become centers for cults. During the Arab conquests, many religious centers were destroyed, notably in India, where temples were looted and razed, and whole towns ruined by the Ghaznavids and Timurids.

Eventually the need to wipe out all traces of unbelief became more or less obsessive. At one time, for instance, Egyptian law demanded that any house found to contain a copy of The Apology of al-Kindi (a book containing a polemical dialogue between a Muslim and a Christian) would be demolished, along with forty houses around it.[1]

In more recent times, in 1802, during the first of the three Saudi states, Wahhabi armies attacked the major Shi'i religious town of Karbala in Ottoman Iraq, where they killed 5,000 inhabitants and destroyed the shrines of Muhammad's son-in-law 'Ali (the first Shi'i imam and the fourth Sunni caliph) and his son Husayn, the prophet's grandson. The following year, Wahhabi forces under the leadership of the first Saudi ruler, 'Abd al-'Aziz, entered Mecca, where they destroyed tombs and shrines, and in the process, removed much of the city's history -- as is being repeated today in Mecca and Medina.

Between 1913 and 1927, extremist Wahhabi forces, known as the Ikhwan, rampaged through the Arabian peninsula, much as members of the Islamic State do now, killing and destroying anyone and anything they deem contrary to the Puritanism of their creed, which extremists interpret as preaching the annihilation of all that is not Islam.

Today, the Mecca and Medina of the first and second centuries of the Islamic faith have been all but wrecked, not by the Islamic State or any other radical entity, but by the Wahhabi Saudi government. Over the past two decades, major historical sites in Mecca and Medina, all related to the lifetime of the Prophet and shortly after, have been destroyed or disfigured to the point where neither city is recognizable save for the Ka'ba and the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and the Prophet's Mosque in Medina.

Although much has been done to accommodate the increasing millions of pilgrims who go there for the hajj pilgrimage, most of the demolition appears to relate to a Wahhabi and Salafi fear that pilgrims may pray at the graves of Muhammad's companions, at the house where he was born, or at other buildings associated with the first era of Islam. There seems to be an insistence that anything that might compromise God's oneness must be eradicated, and this concern may have prompted the country's rulers to destroy them.

The vast Jannat al-Baqi cemetery, which holds so many remains of Muhammad's family, close companions and the earliest Muslim saints, has been levelled, and all domes and mausoleums turned to dust. That act followed earlier levelings by Wahhabis in 1206 and the Ikhwan in 1925. Those included the graves of the martyrs of the Battle of Uhud and that of Hamza, the prophet's uncle and most beloved supporter. So too the Mosque of Fatima (Muhammad's daughter), the Mosque of the Manaratayn (the twin minarets), and the cupola that marked the burial place of the prophet's incisor tooth.

In Medina as well, the home of Muhammad's Ethiopian wife, Maryam, where his son Ibrahim was born, has been paved over.

In Mecca, the house of his first wife, Khadija, the first person to whom he divulged his mission, has been turned into public toilets. In 1998, the grave of the prophet's mother, Amina bint Wahb, was bulldozed in Abwa, after which gasoline was poured on it. There is much more.[2]

Destruction of the sacred places of rival faiths or denominations is nothing new; it has happened throughout history. Henry VIII wrecked Catholic abbeys and monasteries; their ruins still pepper the English countryside. The destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya by Hindus in 1992 led to two thousand deaths. The Roman demolition of Judaism's Second Temple marks a watershed in world history and is central to the current conflict in the Holy Land. But the most consistent use of elimination through the centuries has been the Muslim war on non-Muslims. Despite much controversy, it has been claimed that over 2000 Hindu, Jain and Buddhist temples and holy places were destroyed by Muslim conquerors in India. Churches and synagogues have been demolished or converted into mosques in many places.

When Jordan controlled East Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967, all but one of the Old City's synagogues was reduced to rubble or converted into stables and chicken coops; the main Jewish cemetery was desecrated, and Jewish homes destroyed.

Today, in Iran, the Islamic regime has demolished all the holy sites and graveyards of an indigenous faith, the Baha'i religion.

If the depredations of the Islamic State are to have any meaning in the end, perhaps it will be because they will have shown how right the non-extremist Muslims are in calling for a deep change within Islam.

Dr. Denis MacEoin, based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, is a lecturer in Arabic and Islamic Studies and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.

[1] Robert Reilly, The Closing of the Muslim Mind, Wilmington, 2010, p. 36.

[2] Websites where readers can read of these destructions at length include: Irfan Ahmed, "The Destruction of the Holy Sites in Mecca and Medina," Islamica Magazine; Laith Abou-Ragheb, "Dr. Sami Angawi on Wahhabi Desecration of Mecca: Developers and Purists Erase Mecca's History," Center for Islamic Pluralism/Reuters, 12 July 2005; Ziauddin Sardar, " The Destruction of Mecca," The New York Times, 30 September 2014; Carla Power, "Saudi Arabia Bulldozes Over Its Heritage," Time, 14 November, 2014; Jerome Taylor, "Medina: Saudis take a bulldozer to Islam's history," The Independent, 26 October 2012; Jerome Taylor, "The photos Saudi Arabia doesn't want seen – and proof Islam's most holy relics are being demolished in Mecca," The Independent, 11 December 2014.

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