Islam vs. History

by Daniel Pipes
July 2, 2012

updated Jan 11, 2014
Cross-posted from National Review Online: The Corner

The Islamist destruction underway in Timbuktu (including the tomb of Sidi Mahmoudou, d. 955, and the doors of the Sidi Yahya Mosque, ca. 1400) raises a question: What is it about Islam that so often turns its adherents against their own patrimony? Consider some examples:

  • The destruction of Hindu temples in medieval India.

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    The doors of the Sidi Yahya Mosque, built ca. 1400, which were only to open at the end of time, smashed apart today by Islamists.

  • The Mamluks using the Great Sphinx of Egypt as target practice and the Great Pyramid as a quarry.
  • The Turkish destruction of churches in northern Cyprus since 1974.
  • The Saudi destruction of antiquities in Mecca since the 1990s,
  • The Palestinian sacking of the Tomb of Joseph in 2000.
  • The Taliban destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha in 2001.
  • Al-Qaeda’s bombing of Ghriba synagogue in Tunisia in 2002,
  • The pillaging of Iraqi museums, libraries, and archives in 2003.
  • The destruction of an historic Malaysian Hindu temple in 2006.
  • The destruction of L’Institut d’Égypte in 2011.

In addition, some intentions to destroy antiquities (Khomeini contemplated razing Persepolis, a grant mufti of Egypt banned exhibiting statues) might yet be realized. (On the other hand, the story about Muslims burning the ancient Library of Alexandria appears apocryphal.)

Although these examples include both non-Muslim and Muslim artifacts, motives differ in the two cases: eliminating infidel remnants establishes the superiority of Islam, while eliminating Muslim ones establishes the superiority of Islamism. In both cases, the motive is foul and the results are, historically speaking, tragic. (July 2, 2012)

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Islamists in the process of destroying a centuries-old Timbuktu shrine.

July 3, 2012 update I am adding a “top comment” to all those commentators who provide other examples of Muslim destruction of antiquities, starting with S.C. Panda‘s information about Hindu temples post-1947. I expect information on quite a few examples.

July 11, 2012 update: Raymond Ibrahim writes today that “Calls to Destroy Egypt’s Great Pyramids Begin.”

July 25, 2012 update: Irfan Al-Alawi reports about “More destruction of Sufi tombs shows Islamists are not defeated” in Libya.

Feb. 11, 2013 update: “Syrian rebels loot artifacts to raise money for fight against Assad” reads the Washington Post article by Taylor Luck. One excerpt:

Since the onset of the conflict in Syria, the international community has expressed alarm over the fate of the country’s diverse heritage landmarks and stunning archaeological sites, as rebel and government forces have transformed historical treasures such as the 1,000-year-old Aleppo souk and the crusader castle Crac des Chevaliers into theaters of war. As the war nears its third year, the United Nations and conservationists warn that Syria’s historical sites face a new and more dangerous threat: a sophisticated network of smugglers and dealers ­ prime among them members of the cash-strapped insurgency ­ looking to capitalize on the country’s cultural riches.

Feb. 16, 2013 update: Michael Curtis provides another take on this same issue today at “Islamists Eliminating History.” His introduction:

A new form of warfare by Islamists is being waged. This new offensive is not only a military campaign for jihad and for the creation of Islamic states ruled by sharia law; rather it is explicitly for the elimination of the non-Islamist past—an ideological offensive to remove the memories, historical artifacts, monuments, buildings, or any other evidence of the history and contribution of Judaism, Christianity, and even the moderate forms of Islam to civilization. This offensive is potentially more dangerous than any violence or vandalism or acts of revenge directed against supposed enemies.

Apr. 1, 2013 update: The ancient Jobar Synagogue in Damascus was looted and burned to the ground as Syrian government and rebel forces blamed each other for the destruction. It is one of the oldest synagogues in the world; and while an inscription at the building read, “Shrine and synagogue of prophet Eliahou Hanabi since 720 B.C.,” its actual date of founding is disputed.

More broadly, the two-year civil war in Syria has damaged or destroyed six UNESCO-designated World Heritage sites.

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Sign at the Jobar Synagogue in Damascus.

Apr. 14, 2013 update: Abeer Ayyoub writes in “Hamas Military Wing Damages Gaza Heritage Site“:

Earlier last month, amid overwhelming criticism from public figures and nongovernmental organizations, the military wing of the Islamic movement of Hamas, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, bulldozed a part of the ancient Anthedon Harbor in northern Gaza along the Mediterranean Sea. The Brigades damaged the harbor in order to expand its military training zone, which was initially opened on the location in 2002, according to Ejla.

The Anthedon seaport, which dates back over 3,000 years to the Mycenaean era, is considered one of the most important sites in the Middle East and is the oldest harbor in Gaza. It was designated an international heritage site by UNESCO in 2012. The location was discovered in 1997 on the space of 180,000 square meters. It contains mosaic floors with historical pillars from the Roman, Byzantine and Islamic ages.

May 5, 2013 update: More on Syrian destruction, this time on ancient castles now under fire in the civil war, from an article today in the Washington Post by Abigail Hauslohner and Ahmed Ramadan:

Modern Syria is dotted with medieval castles and citadels, many built high upon the ruins of earlier Roman or Mesopotamian dynasties in an archaeological landscape that experts say is among the richest in the world. But as the fortified structures gain new strategic purpose in Syria’s devastatingly modern civil war, archaeologists worry that what withstood ancient armies and earthquakes may now fall victim to airstrikes, shelling and other forms of 21st-century warfare.

Because of limited access, archaeologists and other experts say it is close to impossible to confirm reports of damage and looting to Syria’s castles and citadels, including the famed crusader castle Crak des Chevaliers, whose south wall has been nearly destroyed in the fighting, according to Syrian rebels.

But it is certain that they and many other historical and archaeological sites “have been affected by violent fights or occupation by armed forces for military purposes,” said Veronique Dauge, chief of the Arab States Unit at the UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Both the rebels and the Syrian government have pledged publicly to protect the nation’s ancient structures. But they are intensely battling for their control.

July 2, 2013 update: An inventory of manuscripts in Timbuktu finds, according to David Stehl of UNESCO, that “Of the 46,000 manuscripts that were held by the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research, 4,203 manuscripts were either burned by the Islamists or stolen.”

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A manuscript at the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu.

July 19, 2013 update: The Archaeological Institute of America reports from Istanbul that

Byzantine-era walls in the historic Yedikule Gardens have been damaged by earthmovers constructing a new park, according to a warning issued by the Istanbul branch of the Association of Archaeologists. “The area lies in a protected strip of land walls that are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and is also a part of the historical peninsula, which is protected,” reads the report. Vegetable plots had been growing in the area, which is slated for a decorative pool.

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Jan. 6, 2014 update: Arsonists destroyed an estimated 2/3s of the Saeh Library in Tripoli, Lebanon, on the grounds that its founder, Father Ibrahim Sarouja, a Greek Orthodox priest, had written an anti-Islamic article and that the library contained anti-Islamic materials. Founded in 1972, the library held about 80,000 books, meaning 50,000 were burned.

Source material can be found at this site.

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