Destruction of early Islamic heritage sites in Saudi Arabia
The destruction of sites associated with early Islam is an ongoing phenomenon that has occurred mainly in the Hejaz region of western Saudi Arabia, particularly around the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The demolition has focused on mosques, burial sites, homes and historical locations associated with the Islamic prophet Muhammad and many of the founding personalities of early Islamic history. In Saudi Arabia, many of the demolitions have officially been part of the continued expansion of the Masjid al-Haram at Mecca and the Prophet's Mosque in Medina and their auxiliary service facilities in order to accommodate the ever-increasing number of people performing the pilgrimage (Hajj).
Much of the Arabian Peninsula was politically unified by 1932 in the third and current Saudi State, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The military campaign led by King Abdulaziz ibn Saud and his Bedouin army of inspired tribesmen conquered the Hejaz and ousted the ruling Hashemite clan. The new Najdi rulers, nomadic Arabs largely tribal and illiterate, found themselves at the reins of a highly sophisticated society. A cohesive political structure based on the Majlis al-Shura (consultative council) system had been in place for centuries. A central administrative body managed an annual budget which allocated expenditure on secondary schools, military and police forces. Similarly, the religious fabric of the Najd and the Hejaz were vastly different. Traditional Hejazi cultural customs and rituals were almost entirely religious in nature. Celebrations honoring Muhammad, his family and companions, reverence of deceased saints, visitation of shrines, tombs and holy sites connected with any of these were among the customs indigenous to Hejazi Islam. As administrative authority of the Hejaz passed into the hands of Najdi [Wahabi] Muslims from the interior, the Wahabi ‘ulema (body of religious scholars) viewed local religious practices as unfounded superstition superseding codified religious sanction that was considered a total corruption of religion and the spreading of heresy. What followed was a removal of the physical infrastructure, tombs, mausoleums, mosques and sites associated with the family and companions of Muhammad.
In 1801 and 1802, the Saudis under Abdul Aziz ibn Muhammad ibn Saud attacked and captured the Shia holy cities of Karbala and Najaf in today's Iraq, massacred parts of the Muslim population and destroyed the tombs of Husayn ibn Ali who is the grandson of Muhammad, and son of Ali (Ali bin Abu Talib), the son-in-law of Muhammad. In 1803 and 1804, the Saudis captured Mecca and Medina and destroyed historical monuments and various holy Muslim sites and shrines, such as the shrine built over the tomb of Fatimah, the daughter of Muhammad, and even intended to destroy the grave of Muhammad himself as idolatrous, causing outrage throughout the Muslim world. In Mecca, the tombs of direct relations of Muhammad including his first wife Khadijah bint Khuwaylid were demolished at Jannatul Mualla cemetery. The initial dismantling of the sites began in 1806 when the Wahhabi army of the First Saudi State occupied Medina and systematically levelled many of the structures at the Jannat al-Baqi cemetery. This is the vast burial site adjacent the Prophet's Mosque (Al-Masjid al-Nabawi) housing the remains of many of the members of Muhammad’s family, close companions and central figures of early Islam. The Ottoman Turks, practitioners themselves of more tolerant and at times mystical strains of Islam, had erected elaborate mausoleums over the graves of Al-Baqi. These were levelled in their entirety. Mosques across the city were also targeted and an attempt was made to tear down Muhammad's tomb. Widespread vocal criticism of this last action by Muslim communities as far away as India, eventually led to abandoning any attempt on this site. Political claims made against Turkish control of the region initiated the Ottoman-Saudi war (1811–1818) in which the Saudi defeat forced Wahhabi tribesmen to retreat from the Hejaz back into the interior. Turkish forces reasserted control of the region and subsequently began extensive rebuilding of sacred sites between 1848 and 1860, many of them done employing the finest examples of Ottoman design and craftsmanship.
On April 21, 1925 the mausoleums and domes at Al-Baqi in Medina were once again levelled and so were indicators of the exact location of the resting places of the Muhammad’s family members and descendants, as it remains to the present day. Portions of the famed Qasida al-Burda, the 13th century ode written in praise of Muhammad by Imam al-Busiri, inscribed over Muhammad's tomb were painted over. Among specific sites targeted at this time were the graves of the Martyrs of the Battle of Uhud, including the grave of the renowned Hamza ibn 'Abd al-Muttalib, uncle of Muhammad and one of his most beloved supporters, the Mosque of Fatimah Al Zahraa’, daughter of Mohammad, the Mosque of the Two Lighthouses (Manaratayn) as well as the Qubbat Al-Thanaya, the cupola built as the burial place of Mohammad’s incisor tooth, which was broken from a blow received during the Battle of Uhud. In Medina, the Mashrubat Umm Ibrahim, the home of Mohammad’s Coptic Egyptian wife Mariah and birthplace of their son Ibrahim, as well as the adjacent burial site of Hamida al-Barbariyya, mother of Imam Musa al-Kadhim, were destroyed during this time. The site was paved over and is today part of the massive marble esplanade beside the Mosque. The government-appointed permanent scholarly committee of Saudi Arabia has ordered the demolition of such structures in a series of Islamic rulings noting excessive veneration leading to Shirk.
The twenty-first century has seen an increase in the demolition of sites in Mecca and Medina. As the annual Hajj continues to draw larger crowds year after year, the Saudi authorities deemed it necessary to raze large tracts of formerly residential neighborhoods around the two mosques to make way for pilgrimage-related infrastructure. In 2010, it was forecast that developers were going to spend an estimated $13 billion on the largest expansion project in the city’s history. While there is widespread agreement for the need of facilities that can accommodate greater numbers of pilgrims, the development of upscale hotels and condominium towers, restaurants, shopping centers and even two luxury spas has caused some to criticize the over-commercialization of a site which many consider to be a Divinely ordained sanctuary for Muslims. The rapid influx of capitalist investment in Mecca and Medina leads many to believe that money and economic growth are ultimately the bottom line for Saudi authorities. A proposition which critics argue works hand in hand with Wahhabi state policy that looks to impose a massive cultural and social deletion within the Holy Cities, erasing any elements that give way to practices that go against the Wahhabi creed. According to The Independent, House of Mawalid where Muhammad is said to have been born is about to be replaced by a huge royal palace, as a part of a multibillion-pound construction project in Mecca which has resulted in the destruction of hundreds of historic monuments.
Below is an incomplete list of destroyed sites:
- The mosque at the grave of Sayyid al-Shuhada’ Hamza ibn ‘Abd al-Muttalib.
- The Mosque of Fatima Zahra.
- The Mosque of al-Manaratain.
- Mosque and tomb of Sayyid Imam al-Uraidhi ibn Ja‘far al-Sadiq, destroyed by dynamite on August 13, 2002.
- Four mosques at the site of the Battle of the Trench in Medina.
- The Mosque of Abu Rasheed.
- Salman al-Farsi Mosque, in Medina.
- Raj'at ash-Shams Mosque, in Medina.
Cemeteries and tombs
- Jannat al-Baqi in Medina, leveled, still open access for men only.
- Jannat al-Mu'alla, the ancient cemetery at Mecca.
- Grave of Hamida al-Barbariyya, the mother of Imam Musa al-Kazim.
- Grave of Amina bint Wahb, Muhammad’s mother, bulldozed and set alight in 1998.
- Graves of Banu Hashim in Mecca.
- Tombs of Hamza and other casualties of the Battle of Uhud were demolished at Mount Uhud.
- Tomb of Eve in Jeddah, sealed with concrete in 1975.
- Grave of the father of Muhammad, in Medina.
Historical religious sites
- The house of Mawlid where Muhammad is believed to have been born in 570. Originally turned into a library, it now lies under a rundown building which was built 70 years ago as a compromise after Wahhabi clerics called for it to be torn down.
- The house of Khadija, Muhammad’s first wife. Muslims believe he received some of the first revelations there. It was also where his children Fatimah and Qasim were born. After it was rediscovered during the Haram extensions in 1989, it was covered over and it was made into a library.
- A Hilton hotel stands on the site of the house of Islam’s first caliph, Abu Bakr.
- House of Muhammed in Medina, where he lived after the migration from Mecca.
- Dar e Arqam, the first Islamic school where Muhammad taught. It now lies under the extension of the Masjid Alharam of Mecca.
- Qubbat’ al-Thanaya, the burial site of Muhammed's incisor that was broken in the Battle of Uhud.
- Mashrubat Umm Ibrahim, built to mark the location of the house where Muhammad’s son, Ibrahim, was born to Mariah.
- Dome which served as a canopy over the Well of Zamzam.
- Bayt al-Ahzan of Sayyida Fatima, in Medina.
- House of Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq, in Medina.
- Mahhalla complex of Banu Hashim, in Mecca.
- House of Ali where Hasan and Husayn were born.
- Destruction of Shia mosques during the 2011 Bahraini uprising
- Islamist destruction of Timbuktu heritage sites
- Jannat ul-Baqi
- Jawatha Mosque
- Yaum e gham
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The tension between Saudi Shi'ite and Wahhabi is especially intense because Saudi "Wahhabis" actively reject all veneration of man, even the prophet. At one point, they even attempted to destroy Muhammad's tomb in Medina. In contrast, the Saudi Shi'ites are "Twelvers," a branch of Islam that venerates the Prophet's son-in-law Ali, and believes that the leadership of Islam must pass through Ali's line. They venerate each of the past imams, and make pilgrimages to their tombs.
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