In recent weeks, we have seen Salafi religious and political leaders (and militants) take action to destroy Sufi tombs and monuments in the medieval African city of Timbuktu, bombing a mosque in Libya because it contains a tomb of an early Muslim military leader, and now call for the destruction of the Pyramids at Giza, Egypt, the last of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Some in the Muslim world have called for this to stop and have “condemned” the actions, as did the government of Morocco after the incidents in Timbuktu. However, no one is taking action to stop the destruction of history.
The Salafi fear of anything that is “different” than their interpretation of Islam rises not so much out of religious belief that God condemns the constructions that came before Islam or that the placement of tombs to the dead is blasphemy. It comes from fear that people might think for themselves. If people know there was a rich and long lasting culture and civilization before the coming of the Prophet, they might consider whether those “other people” might have had good ideas. With regard to the tombs and the veneration of past “saints” or leaders, the Salafist fear that if people honor those who came before then the muslim ummah might start to read the thoughts written by those long dead.
The greatest risk to the Salafist cause is education and reason, much like these two things brought about the Reformation and Enlightenment against a similarly fearful and restrictive Catholic Church in Europe many centuries ago.
The world, under the auspices of the UN or not, should not stand by and let these barbarians destroy their own people’s history. The cities of Timbuktu, Luxor, Memphis and Thebes are too important to all of humanity to let them be destroyed by zealots. Where will it stop? Will they call for the destruction of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul because it was once a church? What of the vast Phoenician and Roman ruins across Africa and the Middle East? What of the great and ancient cities of the Indus Valley, where much work still exists to decipher their script and excavate one of the earliest civilizations? What of the ancient cities of the Middle East – Nineveh, Babylon, Uruk, Ctesiphon, Persepolis, Ma’rib, Çatalhöyük, and others? The Saudi government has knowingly destroyed much of the ancient cities of Mecca and Medina, including Turkish fortresses because they want to hide the fact that the Arabs (the “true muslims” in many a Salafists view) were not always dominant in Islam.
It is fine for a country like Morocco to “denounce” the destruction in Timbuktu, but are they prepared to ACT? Words mean nothing in this situation. Mali is asking for help. But what act of history destruction by the Salafists will cause the world to act? The demolition of The Great Pyramid, which has stood for 4500 years and was already ancient when Muhammad walked the streets of Mecca?
We should also be doing whatever we can to spread knowledge and the act of reason. I would like to call out one brave soul who is doing just that. Irshad Manji and her books “The Trouble with Islam Today” and “Allah, Liberty and Love” which call on Muslims to partake in ijtihad, which in simple terms means to think for oneself… I believe that Islam can undergo an “enlightenment”. I just hope the world doesn’t have to see the destruction of history and decades or centuries of bloodshed first. Unfortunately, as we watched the Taliban destroy the Bamiyan Buddha’s in 2001, the world did nothing. And I fear we will do nothing until it is far too late.