By R Joseph Hoffman
March 11, 2015
Iconoclasm — literally, idol-smashing — is not the feature of any one faith. The ancient Hebrews developed a dislike for statues and images sometime in the first millennium BCE. Christians also recognise a rich pagan legacy of temples and statues, but most finally succumbed to the temptation to make icons, name churches after saints, and produce thousands of images to encourage their veneration. In its early days, Islamic iconoclasm expressed itself in refitting Christian churches as mosques, chipping away at mosaics, whitewashing frescoes, converting bell towers and baptisteries into minarets, as well as effacing (literally cutting the nose off) Christian statues. Catholic Christians in turn reclaimed more than a few churches, especially in Spain, and duly set about giving them new altars and stony or chalky saints.
Thus, what is happening in Syria and Iraq with the destruction of the antiquities at Nimrud and Hatra has a history. But it is a history with a difference. Radical faith has always expressed itself as an incentive to destroy the shrines of your religious enemies. It is a tangible way of saying that my beliefs are better than yours — that my doctrine is the right doctrine, based on my book and my revelation — which are also right where yours is wrong.
But one should not be misled by the mere fact that iconoclasm has a history: religious rivalries of the kind I have described happened in the real time of contemporaneous disputes and constituted a kind of ritual and theological warfare between living religious movements. The wholesale attack on the civilisation of the planet in the name of religion — the artistic and aesthetic murders we are witnessing — are scarcely related to any dispute anyone in the contemporary world is having or wants to have. To most onlookers, shredding manuscripts and hammering 3,000-year-old artefacts to powder is not an event we can locate in a contemporary matrix or in the lexicon of irrational and savage behaviour. It has the irrationality of a tornado without any of the natural beauty of a violent, natural storm. That is because we do not expect storms to be rational. We expect humans to be rational.
Many of my Muslim friends are aghast at what is going on in the Middle East, just as the world was aghast in 2001 at the dynamiting of the sixth-century CE Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. There is something especially sickening about these displays of the craven mind, especially because the ones affected by this assault on history are not affected out of religious devotion to ancient images but because they know that antiquity is physically limited: we instinctively know there is a moral imperative to preserve these uncommon treasures of our human past. That is where the revulsion comes from.
The actual modus operandi of the Islamic State (IS) is a radical belief in the ‘totalising imperative’. The scenes out of Iraq show us the demonic side of radicalism: the desire to erase history as a way of laying claim to finality. In the IS vision of the world, pre-Islamic history must not exist. In its world, every trace of history that does not corroborate its narrow definition of the truth is demonic: it must be erased, destroyed, turned to rubble because its extremist version of faith is threatened by 3,000-year-old artefacts that stand deserted and quiet in the sands of Iraq. History in their religious universe is a kind of illusion, a deception sent by the devil to distract earlier races and people from the true faith. It cannot be preserved. It must be erased, repealed. History is the incarnation of the un-Islamic for them, and the pre-Islamic is the greater part of that intolerable period before God revealed his final will to the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him). The only position for a believer, on this calculation, is to regard art, architecture, music, science, free inquiry and philosophy as heretical, while rape, arson, torture, destruction, beheading and violence (aided, to be sure by smart phones and slick media presentations) is within the confines of these interpretations.
The poisonous logic of IS fighters is that by burying the remains of the past, the past will lie still and stay dead. But quite the opposite is happening: ruins that are largely untended in the Iraqi desert are now objects of veneration to millions who had never heard of them, and their ancient ghosts have been set free to roam and haunt the modern palaces of government and civilisation — and more importantly, the modern consciousness. No force can prove that it is the fulfilment of history by hiding the evidence of the history that came before it. That is called lying. Deception. It is what the IS is based on and, when it lay still and permanently dead in the destruction it has wreaked, what it will be remembered for.
R Joseph Hoffman is a historian of religions and holds a PhD from the University of Oxford. He has been on the humanities faculty of the University of Oxford, the University of Michigan, LUMS and the University of Heidelberg