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Islamic Culture ( 28 May 2015, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Islamist War on History

By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

28 May, 2015

As the ISIS comes ominously close to sacking Palmyra, the world is haunted with the same question again: what is Islam’s problem with history? To be sure, sites like Palmyra and the Bamiyan Buddha were within Muslim contexts for centuries and no one ever thought that these sites ever had the potential or the power to threaten Islam. Rather, over centuries of layering of historical consciousness, they had become part and parcel of the local Muslim cosmology. And yet, over the years, there has been an incremental discourse which started to treat these monuments as a blot on Islam or more accurately as a curse which had to be removed from Islamic consciousness.

Part of the problem is the political theology of Islamism which divides the world into Jahiliya and Islam. Jahiliya does not only denote the arrangement of life before Islam but is also used as a troupe of otherization. Thus anything remotely problematic to the idea of political Islam gets dubbed as Jahiliya. For Maududi and for other political Islamists therefore, modern education and the modern state were the perfect example of this age of ignorance. So Jahiliya can be invoked not just for things, places and events which predate Islam, but within political Islam Jahiliya is also here and now, woven into the contemporary fabric of life.

But of course it is a matter of political choice what gets marked as ignorance and what does not. Thus the statues in Bamiyan and irreplaceable artefact like in Nimrud and other places in Iraq, Syria and Libya become part of the age of ignorance precisely because of its huge symbolic value. Its destruction, carried worldwide, gives these cultural marauders unprecedented media coverage, something which is an essential part of their method. The images of them smashing statues and blasting away the gates of ancient palaces in their epistemology are understood as an attack on something which the ‘West’ holds dear. The more one talks and shows the barbarity of these warriors against Jahiliya, the more we become complicit in their propaganda. It seems as if they set the agenda and the rest of the world follows them. On the other hand, not talking about this cultural genocide amounts to an ominous silence which one also cannot afford. So we have this classic predicament where whether we talk or not, we are condemned either ways.

But what of the theological justifications for their act. Can these historical places really be considered as an invitation to idol worship? Did the Muslims living in these regions regard them as holy: to be worthy of respect and sacredness reserved for God? This is a facetious argument because Islamic roots have only strengthened rather than weakened over the centuries despite the presence of these sites. So to say that these sites have the potential of being subversive is simply absurd. Even God would have laughed at this argument. For God certainly would not have thought that He could be dislodged by these beautifully harmless figurines. But for these warriors of Allah, they perhaps know better that Allah himself.

But the ISIS is not alone in arguing the weakness of Allah and acting on his behalf. It is not the only one which is erasing the cultural memory of Muslims. What it is doing is no different from what the Saudis are doing to Mecca. Historical sites associated with important personalities in early Islamic history have made way for public lavatories and luxury hotels. Mecca today is all set to become a consumer’s paradise; in this consumer city, Muslims will be able to consume the Hajj the same way they consume burger with coke. In short, there is no room for reflection, an interior dialogue with one self which was the sole point of this pilgrimage, rather it is being replaced by an air conditioned Hajj where you could look down at the Kaaba from your suite in one of the many hotels which would eventually dominate the skyline and eventually engulf (and perhaps eclipse) the House of God. And all this, in the name of removing ignorance; the battle against Jahiliya will make the house of Saud richer, like the smuggling of historical and cultural artefacts makes the ISIS richer by millions. The point that is being made is to see the similarity between the war on cultural memory being waged by ISIS and the Saudis. Despite this we have hardly seen any protest regarding what the Saudis are doing to the collective memory of the Muslims worldwide.

Arshad Alam is writer and commentator on contemporary Muslim issues.