Destruction of early Islamic heritage sites

Destruction of early Islamic heritage sites
The desolate graveyard in Medina

The destruction of sites associated with early Islam is an on-going 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 Hajj pilgrims. Detractors of the demolitions and expansion programs have argued that this phenomenon is part of the implementation of state-endorsed Wahhabi religious policy that emphasizes the Oneness of God (Tawhid) and entirely rejects the worship of divine proxies to God or even the practices and habits which might lead to idolatry and polytheistic association (Shirk).


Saudi Arabia


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia maintains that the rapid development of Mecca and Medina is a response to the yearly increase in pilgrims to the holy sites. Saudi Arabia views itself as the birthplace of Islam and being the modern nation-state location of Mecca and Medina, the Kingdom thus considers the hosting of pilgrims not only a de jure responsibility but also a religious duty. Much of Saudi Arabia’s identity and repute between itself and the Muslim World rests on this role, which it sees not as a source of ownership but rather as an inherited custodianship before God, a sentiment that is underlined by the Saudi King’s official title as “Custodian of the Two Holy Sanctuaries.” Thus, the need for installations that can accommodate and service such a massive amount of people and the economic sustainability of the religious tourism industry are Saudi Arabia’s primary concerns.[citation needed]

Detractors of the development projects and the recent construction boom in the two cities decry it as a covert attempt by Wahhabi religious authorities to erase sites and locations that are visited by religious tourists out of idolatrous and polytheistic practices perpetrated out of ignorance of correct Islamic belief. They argue that the modernization of Mecca and Medina has given Wahhabi idealogues within the Kingdom’s powerful religious body the green light to tear down and refurbish the two cities with an anonymous façade of steel, glass and concrete in which all links to the past are wiped clean and any leeway to idolatry and religious unorthodoxy are erased.[citation needed]

Historical background

The theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–92), the progenitor of so-called Wahhabi Islam, first turned his theological movement into a political cause upon the formation of an alliance with Muhammad ibn Saud of the Al Saud Dynasty, rulers of Diriyah in the Najd, the central highlands of the Arabian Peninsula. Wahhabi ideology established itself on the belief that Islam in the Arabian Peninsula had degenerated into a series of superstitious beliefs tainted by bid’a (innovation) and heretical saint-worship. Wahhabism thus saw itself as a purifying force, seeking to root out all innovative practices that departed from the Oneness of God and implied kufr (disbelief). The alliance between Abd al-Wahhab and the Al-Saud Clan birthed three successive Saudi states, all of which sought to consolidate political power amongst the desert tribes with the Al-Saud, while promoting Wahhabi doctrine as a unifying force within the general population.

Wahhabi Islam in the Hejaz

The Hejaz region of Arabia has long been a center of cultural and commercial exchange. Being the spiritual and historical cradle of Islam and hub of all pilgrimage activity has made the region and its primary urban centers of Mecca, Medina, Jeddah and Ta’if important crossroads of Islamic culture and thought. Because of its religious significance and the commercial trade associated with the pilgrimage industry, the Hejaz has historically looked outwards towards the sea. Pilgrims from Africa, Europe, Central and Southeast Asia have long traveled to the Hejaz to perform the pilgrimage and many of them stayed on long after their religious obligations were complete to settle down and integrate themselves into the local community. The result has been a largely heterogeneous society, politically advanced, religiously tolerant and ethnically diverse.

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 Wahhabi-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.[1]

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 the Prophet Muhammad, his family and companions, reverence of deceased saints, visitation of shrines, tombs and holy sites connected with any of these were just some of the customs indigenous to Hejazi Islam.[2]

As administrative authority of the Hejaz passed into the hands of Najdi Wahhabi Muslims from the interior, the Wahhabi ‘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.[3]

What followed was a cleansing of the physical infrastructure, the tombs, mausoleums, mosques and sites connected with the rites of innovated grave and saint-worship and deemed questionable by state-dogma and the introduction of a reformed theology that espoused a uniform, ultra-orthodox Islam.[4]

Destruction of important sites

The initial dismantling of the sites began in 1806 when the Wahhabi army of the First Saudi State occupied Medina and systematically leveled many of the structures at the Jannat al-Baqi' Cemetery[citation needed]. 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 leveled in their entirety. Mosques across the city were also targeted and an attempt was made to tear down Muhammad's tomb[5].[4]

Widespread vocal criticism of this last action by Muslim communities as far away as India, eventually led to abandoning any attempt on this site[citation needed]. 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.[6]

The tribal campaigns of Ibn Saud that led to the creation of the present Saudi Kingdom led once again to the Wahhabi dominance of the Holy Cities and environs. Ibn Saud along with his Ikhwan army entered Mecca in 1925 and officiated himself as King of the Hejaz the following year. The Ikhwan once again implemented Wahhabist literal interpretations of traditional texts and set to work demolishing sites and structures that had become objects of anti-orthodox heresy. On April 21, 1925 the mausoleums and domes at Al-Baqi’ in Medina were once again leveled [6] 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 Muhammed al-Busiri (1211–1294), inscribed over Muhammad's tomb were painted over. In Mecca, the tombs of direct relations of Muhammad including his first wife Khadijah bint Khuwaylid and his grandfather Shaybah Ibn Hashem Ibn ‘Abd Al-Manaaf were demolished at Al-Ma’ala Cemetery along with the domed cupola and gate covering the Well of Zamzam within the confines of the Haram opposite the Kaaba[citation needed].

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,[6] the cupola built as the burial place of Mohammad’s incisor tooth, which was broken from a blow received during the Battle of Uhud.

Political stability inside the Kingdom and the flow of oil wealth garnered masses of Hajj pilgrims in unprecedented numbers, underlining the need for renovation and expansion of the two holy precincts at Makkah and Medina under both King Abdulaziz and his son King Fahd Ibn Abdulaziz. The expansion programs required the leveling of large tracts of residential districts and consequently the loss of many fine examples of traditional Hejazi urban architecture. More significantly, in order to expand the Masjid Al-Haram in Makkah, historic columns and cupolas supporting porticos built during Ottoman times had to be destroyed, removing fine examples of Ottoman Turkish design[citation needed].

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.[6] The site was paved over and is today part of the massive marble esplanade beside the Mosque.

The first decade of the new century has seen the greatest obliteration of historic sites of religious significance[citation needed]. Demolition has begun (as yet unfinished) of the famous “Seven Mosques of Medina,” corresponding to Fatimah (daughter of Mohammad), Ali Ibn Abi Talib (cousin, son-in-law and fourth Caliph), Salman al Farisi (companion), Abu Bakr (companion), Umar Ibn al-Khattab (companion), Al-Fateh Mosque (built on the spot where Mohammad said the Quran was revealed to him) and the Mosque of the Two Qiblas (Qiblatayn).

The House of Khadijah bint Khuwaylid in Makkah was demolished and paved over and several public protests were heard at the building of a public toilet on the same site[citation needed]. The house where Muhammad was born was converted into a library and was slated for demolition as part of an expansion project.

Theological justification

Islam’s core tenet is the recognition and worship of one supreme god, which it shares with the other Abrahamic religions. Islam espouses the direct link between a believer and the god and rejects the intercession or the existence of a medium between the two. Although this position can be considerably more complex within the different schools and strains of Islamic theology, the conservative orthodoxy of Wahhabism adheres strictly and literally to this position and prefers to abide by a more narrow and safeguarded interpretation.

The widespread demolition of gravesites, tombs, mausoleums, birthplaces, mosques or locations otherwise connected with the prophet Muhammad, his family and companions, pious individuals or important events in Islamic history after the Saudi conquest of the Hejaz was an attempt to eradicate non-orthodox practices that had become established in regional Islam during that time. The ongoing demolition of similar places until the present day may constitute the continued effort by Saudi authorities to safeguard Islamic monotheism against non-orthodox practices that are not recognized by Islam.

Controversy arises because, like any theological issues, there are wide differences in opinion concerning orthodoxy, and with what constitutes acceptable Islamic practices and what does not. This is further compounded by the countless interpretations of Islamic theology that can be present in places such as Mecca and Medina, where millions of Muslim visitors from diverse regions and backgrounds of the Islamic World can congregate in the same space at any given time.

What is certain is that Islam prohibits the deification of anything other than the god and this includes the attributing of divine characteristics (such as all-encompassing power or the control or knowledge of human destiny) to anyone or thing other than god, including prophets and saints. Furthermore, there exist within the accredited traditions of Muhammad (Sunnah) several injunctions prohibiting the visitation of sites and more specifically the erecting of structures over graves such as mausoleums and Mosques. It is according to these specific orders from the Prophetic authority of Muhammad that Wahhabi and other orthodox Muslims devise the rulings that permit the demolition referenced above.

Visitation of historical sites

The orthodox view is that the visitation of mosques and historical sites in which Muhammad himself prayed during his lifetime other than the Prophet’s Mosque and the Quba’ Mosque in Medina, and claiming that doing so is an emulation of the Prophetic Sunnah—a valid act of worship and a recommended or virtuous act, is incorrect and there is no legal evidence based on Islamic sources that encourages it as such.

The Muslim jurist Ibn Taymiyyah said the following regarding this matter: “The scholars of the early generations after the Prophet (Salaf) from amongst the people of Medina and elsewhere did not regard it as recommended (mustahabb) to visit any places in and around Medina after the Mosque of the Prophet, except for the Mosque of Quba’, because the Prophet did not specify any mosque to be visited apart from that.” [Majmu’ al-Fataawa (17/469)]

“Abu Bakr, Umar (Ibn al-Khattab), Uthman and Ali and all the predecessors of both the immigrants (muhajirun) and the Medinan supporters of the Prophet Mohammad (Ansaar) used to travel from Medina to Mecca to perform the Hajj and Umrah, or for other purpose. None of them said that he was keen to pray in the places where the Prophet had prayed. It is known that had this been recommended in their view, they would have been the first ones to do it, for they had more knowledge of the Sunnah and followed it more closely than anyone else." [Iqtidaa’ al-Siraat al-Mustaqeem]

It is also narrated in the Hadith that the companion of Muhammad, Al-Ma’rur ibn Suwayd said: “We went out with Umar ibn al-Khattab and we came across a mosque on our route. The people rushed to pray in the mosque, and Umar said, ‘What is the matter with them?’ They said, ‘This is a mosque in which the Prophet of God (Muhammad) prayed.’ Umar said, ‘O people, those who came before you were destroyed because they followed such practices until they made them places of worship. Whoever happens to be there at the time of prayer, let him pray there, and whoever is not there at the time of prayer, let him continue on his journey.’ [Classed as a sound narration by Ibn Taymiyyah’s in his Al-Majmu’ al-Fataawa (1/281)]

Another source which is used to substantiate the right to remove sites and locales in which unorthodox practices take place is the narration attributed to the companion and Caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattab in which he “heard that some people were reported to be visiting the tree under which the Prophet Muhammad had accepted the oath of allegiance of a group of visitors, so he commanded that the tree should be cut down.” [Classed as a sound narration by the jurist and scholar Ibn Hajar in the Hadith collection titled Fath al-Bari (7/448)]

When asked about the places to visit while in Medina, the late scholar and Mufti of Saudi Arabia Abdulaziz ibn Baz said: “With regard to the Seven Mosques, the Mosque of the Two Qiblas (Masjid al-Qiblatayn) and other places which some people believe should be visited as part of the pilgrimage rituals; there is no basis for doing that. What is prescribed for the believer at all times is to follow the Sunnah and not to innovate.” [Fataawa Islamiyyah (2/3130]

Scholars of Islamic Jurisprudence have also used various principles within the methodological processes to arrive at the legal rulings that have sanctioned the removal of the sites and structures in question. The celebrated jurist and commentator of the Qur'an Ibn Al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya stated in his I’laam al-Muwaqi’een ‘an Rabb al-‘Aalameen (3/143) that “Taking preventative measures is one-quarter of responsibility, for there are commands and prohibitions. The commands are of two types, one of which is the end in itself and other is the means to that end. And prohibitions are of two types, the thing that is prohibited because it is evil in and of itself, and the means that lead to that evil. So preventing the means that lead to that which is prohibited is one quarter of the religion.”

Criticism of policy regarding religious heritage sites

The last ten years have 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 have deemed it necessary to raze large tracts of formerly residential neighborhoods around the two mosques to make way for tourism-related infrastructure. Opposition to the phenomenon discussed in this stub has been limited but vocal. While many believe that the loss of the old-world character of the two cities is the inevitable result of progress and much needed modernization, others worry that the anonymous steel and concrete façade that is reshaping the sites is detracting from the cities’ spiritual purpose. With nearly 20 million pilgrims expected to visit Mecca in the coming years, developers are forecasted to spend an estimated $13 billion dollars on the largest expansion project in the city’s history.[7] 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.[8] has caused some to criticize the over-commercialization of a site which many consider to be a Divinely ordained sanctuary for humanity (the very meaning of the Arabic word “Haram” is “sanctuary”). 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,[9] erasing any elements that give way to practices that go against the Wahhabi creed.

Destroyed sites

Cemeteries and tombs
Historical religious sites
  • The house of Mawlid where Muhammad is believed to have been born in 570. Originally turned into a cattle market, 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.[11]
  • The house of Khadija, Muhammad’s first wife. Muslims believe he received some of the first revelations there. It was also where his children Umm Kulthum, Ruqayyah, Zainab, 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.
  • House of Muhammed in Medina, where he lived after the migration from Mecca.[10]
  • Dar al Arqam, the first Islamic school where Muhammad taught.[11] It now lies under the extension of the Masjid Al Nabawi of Madinah.
  • Qubbat’ al-Thanaya, the burial site of Muhammed's incisor that was broken in the Battle of Uhud.[6]
  • 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.[10]
  • Bayt al-Ahzan of Sayyida Fatima, in Medina.[10]
  • House of Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq, in Medina.[10]
  • Mahhalla complex of Banu Hashim, in Medina.[10]
  • House of Ali where Hasan and Husayn were born.[10]

See also


  1. ^ Yamani, Mai (2009). "Devotion". Cradle of Islam. London: I.B. TAURIS. p. 2. ISBN 978-1-84511824-2. 
  2. ^ Yamani, Mai (2009). "Devotion". Cradle of Islam. London: I.B. TAURIS. p. 4. ISBN 978-1-84511824-2. 
  3. ^ Rentz, George S. (2004). "Devotion". The Birth of the Islamic Reform Movement in Saudi Arabia. London: Arabian Publishing Ltd.. p. 139. ISBN 0-9544792-2-X. 
  4. ^ Angawi, Dr.Sami (February 19, 2002). "A NewsHour with Jim Lehrer Transcript". PBS NewsHour Online Transcript. Retrieved October 29, 2010. 
  5. ^ Anthony H. Cordesman. "Saudi Arabia enters the 21st century". Praeger (April 21, 2003). ISBN 978-0275980917.'s+tomb%22&source=bl&ots=f5_i3JTnxl&sig=eoH0jVA9CK2urwZ29vv2rU1RNz0&hl=en&ei=JJk8TrD7D-KGsgKfr9US&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBgQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%22destroy%20Muhammad's%20tomb%22&f=false. "The tension between Saudi Shi'ite and Sunni 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." 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Irfan Ahmed, The Destruction of Holy Sites in Mecca and Medina, page 1, Islamica Magazine, Issue 71. Accessed online October 29, 2010.
  7. ^ Abou-Ragheb, Laith (July 12, 2005). "Dr.Sami Angawi on Wahhabi Desecration of Makkah". Center for Islamic Pluralism. Retrieved November 28, 2010. 
  8. ^
  9. ^ Laessing, Ulf (November 18, 2010). "Mecca goes Upmarket". Reuters. Retrieved December 1, 2010. 
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n History of the Cemetery of Jannat al-Baqi, History of the Shrines, (Ahlul Bayt Digital Islamic Library Project). Accessed online 16 December 2008.
  11. ^ a b Salah Nasrawi,Mecca’s ancient heritage is under attack - Developments for pilgrims and the strict beliefs of Saudi clerics are encroaching on or eliminating Islam’s holy sites in the kingdom, Los Angeles Times, September 16, 2007. Accessed online 16 December 2008.

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