ISIS yesterday destroyed an ancient Christian monastery which has been described as the equivalent of Canterbury Cathedral. Just weeks earlier, it raided Mosul Museum and filmed themselves destroying all the relics on show, including priceless, irreplaceable Assyrian statues. This is a throwback to the infamous episode of when the Taliban destroyed the ancient great Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan in 2001. And the rationalisation is the same: in typical Wahhabi-inspired interpretation, any cultural artifact that is either culturally foreign or is somehow related to a sacred theme is a threat to a "good Muslim" because that "good" and "pure" Muslim will automatically be tempted into the unforgivable sin of polytheism. To the point where there are influential elements in the Wahhabi establishment that want to destroy the tomb of the Prophet himself.
This is obvious stupidity. It also betrays a paradoxical lack of faith in the strength of their own faith. I for one cannot quite see how a few statues of Assyrian cherubs and kings is likely to rekindle the cult of Ishtar.
I would, in fact, argue Islam itself prohibits this kind of senseless vandalism. Indeed, by destroying relics of Mosul, ISIS is actually committing a blasphemy ("shirk"). Many of these relics have existed before the days of the Prophet Muhammad. Not only did the Prophet and the Salaf (the three generations of Muslims that lived after the time of Muhammad, and are believed to be the most righteous) preserve many such artifacts and relics in their own time, but almost all Muslim rulers and scholars of the past up until the advent of Wahhabism also maintained them.
Scholars I have spoken to say this new attitude of destruction is, ironically, an unsanctioned innovation and thus a form of shirk. In effect, ISIS/Taliban/Wahhabis and similarly inspired vandals are claiming they are more enlightened than the Prophet Muhammad, his companions, his immediate successors and all previous Muslim rulers and scholars. According to them, all previous Muslims including the Prophet himself were essentially wrong and their own interpretation of what counts as polytheism and what can inspire it is correct. So the Prophet was wrong, or naïve in his reading of the Quran -- but have no fear; 26-year old Mohammed from London is going to correct this error, with his eminent insights after his long and arduous Islamic studies in... Information Systems.
Now it is certainly true that the Prophet Muhammad did destroy the pagan idols in the Kabaa. But the difference is that these idols were actually being directly worshipped by people at the time, and the cults of these gods posed a threat to the Muslim community. Whereas no one is worshipping the relics in the museum. Just like no Muslims had worshipped the statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan.
Indeed, in the past, many Islamic scholars actively encouraged the preservation of great monuments and relics of civilization, regardless of the fact that they were pre-Islamic. For example, in Egypt, the pyramids and the Sphinx were actively preserved as a reminder of a great civilization that once dominated the land. That such a civilization could be swept away and swallowed by the sand is also an enlightening Islamic moral: the monuments were a reminder that the Will of God transcends the shifts of history.
And still it remains a matter of historical fact that in the Golden Age of the Caliphate, the period of history that the ISIS thugs purport to "re-enact", Islam was an open, accommodating culture, not just eager, but hungry to learn as much as there was to know about the world and its cultures, its religions, its monuments. The Caliphs, the true Caliphs, not the obscure "scholar" at the top of ISIS, did not order monuments to be destroyed or books to be burnt. They ordered monuments to be preserved, or even brought to Islam, and books, from all over the world, from Hindu pagans, from Egyptian Copts, from Greek Atheists to be translated into Arabic. When they did this, Islam was the pinnacle of civilization. But what ISIS preaches is the exact opposite.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is an International Security Lecturer at the University of Chicago and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute US Army War College