In the Muslim world, the destruction of Islamic heritage sites has been taking place for decades to either make way for hotels or for sectarian reasons, writes Dr Ilyas Mohammed.
These sites are not only spaces of reverence but also constitute a rich historical tapestry for Muslims to learn about their past. In Mecca the Saudi authorities demolished the house of one of Prophet Muhammad’s (saw) wives to make space for public lavatories. Furthermore the birthplace of the Prophet may also disappear, as part of King Abdullah’s scheme to complement the skyscrapers and shopping malls with a Grand Mosque fashioned from the same materials as a multi-storey car park in Wolverhampton.
It seems that Muslim heritage sites in Islam’s second holiest city of Medina are likely to suffer the same fate as Mecca. Muslim history will be lost if Masjid al-Nabawi was demolished. The mosque is not only the burial place of Prophet Muhammad but is also a place of reverence for many Muslims.
Many newspapers in the west, notably in the UK have written on this subject compared to a microscopic minority in the Muslim world. Some have suggested that Masjid Ghamama will also be demolished. This mosque is dedicated to Abu Bakr (ra) and Umar (ra) and it is also where the Muhammad (saw) is thought to have given his first prayers for the Eid.
Expansion is the official line for demolishing the aforementioned mosques, which is likely to be true, but as Dr Irfan al-Alawi of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation noted: “There are ways they could expand which would either avoid or preserve the ancient Islamic sites but instead they want to knock it all down”.
The destruction of the mosques has caused outrage among some Muslims but nowhere near the level that is needed to stop monster skyscrapers and lavatories being built to replace Islamic heritage sites. Muslims have to realise, regardless of their interpretive differences, the destruction of their heritage is the erasing of their history and foundations. If governments or developers even planned to demolish Jewish, Christian or Hindu sites there would be many protests, a lot of lobbying and believers of those faiths would act as shields to stop the bulldozers.
Sectarianism is another reason why Islamic heritage sites are being destroyed. In recent years we have seen the acceleration of such destruction. A good example of this is the 2012 destruction of the UNESCO protected sites in Timbuktu, Mali by an Al Qaeda affiliated group during the recent conflict between the Tuareg and the Malian government.
This destruction received worldwide media coverage and condemnation from all walks of life because the city was once the cradle of Islamic learning in Africa and had many libraries full of scholarly work going back centuries. During the destruction mosques, shrines and libraries, as well as their contents were destroyed.
Why these sites need to protected
In the UK, buildings that have historical importance or have sacred meanings are preserved and protected by laws, in addition to the government and private donors paying towards their upkeep. One just needs to look at the work that English Heritage does to realize the importance given to British heritage sites.
The British have realized the importance of their history, such that, they are constantly making new discoveries about their past and preserving it for their future generations. Heritage sites are important because they provide a window to our past.
Like British heritage sites, Islamic sites connect Muslims to their glorious past, which stretches back over a thousand years. They are spaces of reverence, as well as where learning, scientific and philosophical advancements took place. It seems that in the minds of many Muslims the significance of their glorious past has gone amiss.
During the controversy over The Satanic verses in 1988, Jyllands-Posten cartoons in 2006 and the movie Innocence of Muslims in 2012, Muslim leaders were falling over themselves to condemn what they regarded as degradation of their faith. But over the destruction of Islamic heritage by other Muslims there seems to be silence.
Jerome Taylor concluded in one of his articles for the Independent that the reason why Muslims are silent is because “It’s politically a lot more convenient to blame infidels for disrespecting your religion’s founder than it is to point the finger of blame at your own kind”.
If Muslims allow the destruction of their heritage sites to continue unchallenged, then are they in any position to condemn Islamophobes for attacking our Mosques in Britain?