- Posted June 24, 2014 by
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Save Your Tears Bamiyan Statues - Here We come: ISIS, iconoclasm and Iraq
The ISIS advance is a specter that haunts Sunnis and other minorities. It is a new face of fundamentalism that has brought to fore the capacity of human beings to be intolerant, and has also revealed the weak kneed policy of the West that has often kneeled before terror and injustice, till a leader of vision emerges.
One of the major threats made by the ‘Islamic State for Iraq and Shaam’ or ISIS has been that they will destroy the shrines of Imam Ali in Najaf, the shrines of his two sons in Karbala as well as other shrines important to many Sunnis not to mention Churches and other places of religious significance. In a press release, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani recently stated that his group intends to cleanse the ‘filth-ridden’ cities of Najaf and Karbala. Groups like ISIS have long advocated the destruction of tombs and shrines as they believe that such places become objects of worship and thus go against their idea of monotheism. This is part of the reason that they feel such deep antipathy towards Shias, Sunnis and especially certain Sufi Sunnis, though for the time being there seems to be an understanding between ISIS and certain Naqshbandi groups.
The visceral hatred towards the remembrance of the dead or a commemoration of their final resting place is not a new phenomenon in Islamic history. Between the 7th and 8th centuries a series of Abbasid Caliphs including Al-Mansur, Haroun ar-Rashid, Al-Mutawakkil and others destroyed the shrine for theological as well as political reasons. In the 1801, Saudi Wahabi’s sacked the shrine of Imam Hussain in Karbala in keeping with the pledge sworn in 1744 between Mohammad ibn Saud and Mohammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, the ideological progenitor of the Wahabi movement. The Wahabis had already started demolishing various shrines and tombs in the Hijaz before this time with a view to ‘cleanse’ Islam of superstitions and polytheism and since then many historical and religious sites have been demolished, often in the name of development. In the 20th century Saddam Hussain’s army attacked the shrines of both Najaf and Karbala and the treasuries, including priceless historical artifacts and manuscripts, were looted.
In a bid to increase awareness of the historical significance of the shrines of Karbala, an annual festival — Rabee ash-Shahadah — is sponsored by the administrations of the two shrines. This year delegates from 49 countries and of various religious affiliations, including prominent Shia and Sunni scholars, were invited and apart from lectures, visits were organized to various important sites. This included a trip to the museum in Imam Hussain’s shrine where Shawqi al-Musawi, the curator, gave us a tour. Apart from the various historical artifacts, two new exhibits caught my eye in particular. As it happened both had been placed right near the entrance of the museum. One was a list of the names of various people, including the ones mentioned above, who had at various times sacked the shrine and looted its treasury and also a list of the people who stole various belongings of the Imam after the battle of Karbala. The names and dates were written in Arabic, while an orangish red glow emanated from depictions of logs ‘burning’ at the bottom of the panel. Next to this was a LCD screen with a photo slideshow of the havoc that was wrecked on the shrine by Saddam Hussain. These two exhibits, jarring because of their content as well as the artificial light, give some insight into the reasons why the threat to their holy places has evoked so much anger amongst the Shi‘a.
Shawqi al-Musawi’s art also illustrated the huge toll that sectarian violence has taken on all Iraqis. An educated and soft-spoken man as well as a prolific artist, Musawi’s most recent work is a poignant reminder of the brutal civil war in Iraq in 2006 when headless bodies were being found all over Iraq. The powerful yet simple modernist canvases, some painted over multiple panels, depict decapitated heads. Many were representations of single heads and others showed piles of heads staring out at the viewer, forcing one to confront the reality of the brutal killings in a way that is not possible when reading statistics of the violence in a newspaper. At times Musawi also engages with symbols from Iraq’s ancient past but all of his newer work is in sharp contrast with his earlier paintings, which are lighter and calmer.
Meeting Musawi reminded me of many Sunni Iraqi artists whom I had met in Damascus a few years ago and who had also fled the violent insurgency raging in their homeland. Jassim Mohammad from Mosul was one such artist whose work I saw at an UN sponsored exhibition. Jassim later made a painting for me with a saying from the 6th Imam, Jafar as-Sadiq: ‘the most beloved of my brothers is he who points out my shortcomings.’ It seems however, that groups like ISIS, far from even realising their shortcomings, think that they are infallible: a concept which they accuse the Shi‘a and certain Sunni groups of using to elevate the position of the Prophet and his descendants.
In Syria, ISIS and its affiliates have already destroyed the shrines of Owais al-Qarani and Ammar ibn Yassir, companions of the Prophet, apart from many other religious sites. The recent bombings of various shrines in Mali were carried out by groups that espouse a similar ideology and most recently, a Dominican Church and the tomb of ‘Izz al-Din al-Athir, a 13th century historian were destroyed in Mosul. Now there are wide spread fears that the tomb of the Prophet Yunus or Jonah in Mosul will also be destroyed. Today as various powers contemplate how to redress the crisis in Mosul which is in the Nineveh province, it is worthwhile to recall that Jonah, in the face of overwhelming difficulty and fear, initially ran away from God’s injunction that he preach to the people of Nineveh, for ‘a great wickedness’ had arisen amongst them and only returned later to show them the error of their ways. Do not cry Statues of Bamiyan, we are coming to keep you company, cry these doomed shrines.