The city of Istanbul is among the world’s most popular destinations among Muslims, largely because of the legacy of the Ottoman period and the numerous mosques and other monuments that survive there, through which Muslims can relate to a golden period of Islamic culture. Other popular destinations include Andalucia in southern Spain, where reminders of Muslim rule survive even though it is nearly 500 years since Muslims were forced from the region. Cities such as Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad and Mashhad are popular for similar reasons, understandably enough, for such monuments provide a very tangible link to the history of Islam and generations of Muslims who achieved so much and built the world we now live it.
But in all the history of Islam, the period and personages to whom Muslims owe the greatest debt and for whom we have the greatest respect are undoubtedly those of the time of the Prophet (pbuh) and the places where he and his Family and Companions lived and worked. Yet those, far from being preserved as an invaluable and irreplaceable cultural resource for Muslims now and in the future, are actually being systematically destroyed by the rulers of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia who claim to be “Guardians of the Holy Places”.
The current month of the Islamic calendar marks the 87th anniversary of the destruction of Jannatul Baqi in Madinah, the City of the Prophet (pbuh), in Shawwal 1373. Among the graves and mausoleums which were razed to the ground were those of several of the Prophet’s (pbuh) wives, his infant son Ibrahim, his daughter Ruqayyah, his grandson Imam Hasan ibn ‘Ali, and his descendants ‘Ali ibn Husain, known as Zain al-Abedin, Muhammad al-Baqir and Ja’far al-Sadiq, all Imams of the Shi’i school of thought. So too were the graves of numerous Companions, including Uthman ibn ‘Affan, the third khalifah, and later Islamic personalities, such as Imam Shamil of the Caucasus. Today, Jannatul Baqi is no more than an empty space, the significance of which is not even evident to many who visit Madinah.
The destruction of Jannatul Baqi, shortly after the Saudis seized control of the Holy Cities, prompted protests all over the Muslim world and has come to symbolise the destruction of Islamic sites that has continued throughout the period of Saudi rule. Other sites that have been destroyed include the Mosque of Fatimah Zahra; the Mosque of al-Manaratain; four mosques at the site of the Battle of the Trench in Madinah; the Salman al-Farsi Mosque in Madinah; Jannat al-Mu’allah, the ancient cemetery at Makkah; the grave of Aminah bint Wahb, the Prophet’s (pbuh) mother, bulldozed and set alight in 1998; the graves of Banu Hashim in Makkah and the tombs of Hamzah and other martyrs were demolished at Uhud. Among sites directly relating to the Prophet (pbuh), the houses where Muhammad (pbuh) is believed to have been born in 570ce, of Khadijah, the Prophet’s (pbuh) first wife, and where several of his children were born, and the house in Madinah where he lived after the hijrah, have also been destroyed, as has Dar al Arqam, where the Prophet (pbuh) taught.
Numerous sites in other areas, such as Iraq, Syria and Palestine, have also been destroyed by people influenced by the example of the rulers of Saudi Arabia. According to some sources, 90% or more of historical sites dating back to the time of the Seerah and the Sahabah have been under Saudi management and control.
Since 2007, there have been well-founded fears for the safety of the Prophet’s (pbuh) Mosque in Madinah, which was damaged when Jannatul Baqi was destroyed in 1925. This is where the Prophet (pbuh) himself, and the first two khalifahs, are buried. In 2007, the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs reportedly published a pamphlet proposing its destruction, which was endorsed by Abd al-‘Aziz Aal al-Shaikh, the current Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia. The destruction of the Prophet’s (pbuh) grave and mosque is something beyond the imagination of most Muslims, yet it must be regarded as a very real possibility under the current rulers of the Hijaz.
It is difficult to explain this behaviour, especially as the Saudis are clearly not oblivious to the importance of historical monuments and heritage. Last year, the Saudi General Commission for Tourism and Antiquities announced plans to restore 200 historical sites around the country, include the pre-Islamic site of Madian Saleh and numerous palaces and other buildings in Dir’iyyah associated with the Saudi family. The suggestion that these have greater value than Islamic sites is deeply offensive to Muslims everywhere.
There are many reasons why this issue does not get the attention that it deserves. One is undoubtedly the Saudis’ patronage of many Islamic organizations around the world in recent decades. Another may be that there are so many other issues confronting Muslims, not the least of which are the genocides of Muslim populations and the oppression of Islamic activism in almost every Muslim country, compared to which the destruction of a building may arguably appear of lesser importance. Nonetheless, it is important that every effort be made to prevent the Saudis from destroying what little remains of the heritage of Islam, for it is largely through such monuments that peoples’ historical memories are stimulated and sustained, and the destruction of these memories will have profound implications for future generations’ understanding and knowledge of Islam itself.
While it is right that Muslims focus their efforts on the political struggles going on across the Ummah, the Islamic movement must also be able to recognise the crucial importance of endeavours being done in other fields. There are some brave souls, not least in the Hijaz itself, doing their best to highlight the crimes of the Saudis and preserve what remains of the history of Islam in those regions. They deserve as much support from Muslims all over the world as the mujahideen in places such as Palestine, Chechnya and Kashmir, and their efforts, and the issue itself, deserve to be brought to the very forefront of the global struggle for Islam.