Editor’s NOTE: The following op-ed, penned by me, was published in Daily Times on November 10, 2012. I’m pleased to cross-post the article on my blog from Daily Times without any editing. (Ali Salman Alvi)
Places of pilgrimage are not the property of the country they are situated in; they belong to the entire community of the people of the same faith. Therefore the demolition of revered sites should be done only when the entire community gives its endorsement to it. In the case of Saudi Arabia, where the richest heritage of Islamic history is located, the demolition of such sites has been carried out dictatorially, merely keeping the teachings of one school of thought — Salafism — in mind. There is not a thought about the sentiments of millions of Muslims all over the world who hold these places in profound reverence for their religious significance.
The Saudi monarchy is all set to raze at least three of the world’s oldest mosques and the green dome over Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) grave as a multi-billion expansion project of the Masjid-e-Nabvi is initiated. The current expansion plan is a continuity of the Salafi agenda pursued by the Saudi monarchy that kicked off in 1925 when the first monarch Ibn-e-Saud demolished the cemetery al-Baqi that contained the graves of many of the Prophet’s (PBUH) relatives and companions. In the same year, the monarch also demolished the tombs at Jannat-ul-Mualla in Makkah where one of the Prophet’s (PBUH) wives, grandfather, and other ancestors are buried. All this happened despite protests by the international Islamic community.
In Medina, the Saudi regime bulldozed the grave of the father of the Prophet (PBUH); the house of Sayyeda Fatima (SA); the Salman al-Farsi Mosque; the Raj’at ash-Shams Mosque; the Prophet’s (PBUH) house where he lived after migrating from Makkah; the house of Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq; the house of Imam Ali where Imam Hasan (AS) and Imam Husayn (AS) were born; the house of Hazrat Hamza; the graves of the martyrs of Uhud and the complex (mohalla) of Banu Hashim in Medina. Last but not the least, the Saudis demolished house of the Prophet’s (PBUH) first wife, Khadijah, and built, of all things, a public toilet block on the site. Makkah is fast turning into the Manhattan of Saudi Arabia with the construction of scintillating shopping malls, seven-star hotels and skyscrapers.
While no one denies that due to the increasing number of pilgrims on the occasion of Hajj, the expansion of Masjid-e-Nabvi is indispensable, one can conveniently preserve these holiest and richest heritage sites of Islamic history without hampering the expansion project. But given the track record of the Saud family and the manner in which the Saudi regime is going about it, the expansion project remains a worry. Has any authority other than the Salafis been taken into confidence regarding all this expansion? The answer is no. Solely, the Saudi monarchy’s consent to demolish ancient mosques, shrines, and other historical and archaeological heritage sites of Islamic history is clearly antipathetic towards other schools of thoughts of Islam and the sentiments of millions of Muslims living worldwide. This plan of destruction is not about the Saudis’ obsession with concrete and steel; it is not merely about, as generally perceived, accommodating more and more pilgrims; in fact, it is about the Saudis’ adoption of Salafism, an austere and uncompromising elucidation of Islamic teachings that is in vehement antipathy towards mounted graves and shrines.
Rambunctious rioting on various issues has given Muslims an aggressive, intolerant tag, but the issue on which a protest should happen, there is an absolute white lull. Why on earth are all those enraged Muslims who went on a rampage not too long ago, protesting against a reprehensible video ridiculing Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), as silent as the dead on this plan of demolition? In my humble opinion, there are a couple of reasons behind this disastrous and hypocritical silence. Firstly, it is the rise of Salafism, courtesy countless seminaries funded by Saudis, and the second reason is lack of awareness about the demolition plan in the Muslim world.
I am not surprised to learn it was The Independent, a British newspaper, which carried the report, uncovering the plan of the Saudi regime. In an ideal world, the very same report should have been aired from the platform of a television network of the likes of Al-Jazeera. Needless to mention it was the Egyptian Al-Nas, a very religious channel with the motto: “A channel that will take you to heaven” that aired the trailer of The innocence of Muslims. Unheard of until that point in time, it led to widespread violent protests in the Muslim world. Even after the publication of the aforementioned report in The Independent, why Muslim media in general and Pakistani media in particular is mum over this grave issue remains a serious question. The silence speaks volumes about the Saudi influence over the so-called free media.
In most of the Muslim world, shrines have been built over the graves of some of the Prophet’s (PBUH) relatives, his companions and some saints. Paying visits to these shrines is also commonplace, but Salafism despises such practices and views them as a pagan practice before the call to Islam. Contrary to Salafi beliefs, there is a deep reverence attached to visits to these places among a significant populace of Muslims. Millions of Shia pilgrims gather at the Shrine of Imam Hussain at Karbala every year on the occasions of Ashura and Arb’een. Shias from all over the world pay visits to holy places in Iraq, Iran and Syria throughout the year.
The Saudis’ obsession with annihilating the graves has gone to such an extent that in 2007, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs of Saudi Arabia published a handbill calling for the much-venerated green dome over the Prophet’s (PBUH) grave to be demolished and the graves of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), Abu Bakr and Umar to be flattened. The pamphlet was endorsed by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz al Sheikh. Similar decrees were issued by one of the 20th century’s most prolific Wahabi clerics, Sheikh Ibn al-Uthaymeen. The connection between flattening graves and bombing shrines becomes obvious. In a nutshell, where Salafis are in power they are flattening graves, and where they are not they use violent tactics such as bombing shrines in order to deter people from visiting them. Al‘Askarî Mosque, a Shî‘ah Muslim holy site located in the Iraqi city of Sâmarrâ, is one of the most important Shî‘ah mosques in the world. Its dome was destroyed in a bombing by Salafi extremists in February 2006 and its two remaining minarets were destroyed in another bombing in June 2007, causing widespread anger amongst Shî‘ah Muslims. I strongly believe that Allah Almighty is not intimidated by mounted graves, and on a relevant note, Islam, as a religion, is in no danger from shrines. Those who think this is the case should look for another religion to embrace.
Whilst their masters are authoritatively bulldozing graves in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Islamist fanatics are busy in bombing shrines in Pakistan and curbing the entry of women into shrines in India. This is dealing a deadly blow to the Indo-Pakistan culture where scores of people, irrespective of the religion they follow, participate in festivals and devotional fairs celebrated at the shrines of the saints who spread Islam in the subcontinent with the power of the word, not the sword.
As per a report by the Washington-based Gulf Institute, 95 percent of the 1,000-year-old sites in Makkah and Medina have been demolished in just the past two decades. The silence of the Muslim world and especially of those Muslims who do not get tired of offering their lives in the name of the Prophet (PBUH) is not only disastrous but hypocritical as well. The rate at which these sites are being razed is beyond appalling. After all this ‘expansion’, what will be left in the name of Islamic heritage and history? This question haunts me big time. It is a matter of conscience and faith and it can be only be aroused by self-introspection.