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Radical Islamism and Jihad ( 4 Jul 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Radical Islam, Destruction of Shrines and Cultural Memory


By Arshad Alam,  New Age Islam

4 July 2012

It is no longer shocking to hear the news of desecration of local shrines by radical Islamists in the Malian town of Timbuktu. I say it is no longer shocking because sadly this is not an isolated incident. It is part of a general trend within radical Islam and has shown its ugly face from time to time in the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas and blowing up of shrines and Sufi divines in Pakistan. And let us not forget that the most audacious and frightening of such assaults started with the Wahhabis taking over control of Saudi Arabia and trying to dismantle the mausoleum of Prophet Muhammad in which they could only partly succeed.

Shrines have been part of the Islamic landscape for centuries. It is a source of succour for many Muslims and non-Muslims who are caught up in the agony of life. In many contexts, shrines offer people healing and in most cultures, it provides solace, comfort and peace in a heartless and maddening world. Shrines have been inextricably linked with the expansion of Islam, particularly in the Indian sub-continent where they sought to create a common brotherhood by spreading a message of peace and harmony. So what is it that these sick minds want to achieve by blowing up shrines and other places which a majority of Muslims consider holy?

At one level it is about struggle for power and hegemony. Shrines are not only centres of spiritualism but they are also an important marker of political power in the local contexts. In the local arrangement of power, shrines occupy an important place in the sense that any political articulation within that context often seeks legitimacy from the spiritual and moral capital of the shrine. Radical Islam, on the other hand, wants to establish its own hegemony as it is often accompanied by and is the expression of new forces within a particular society. Such competition between different groups is not unique to Muslim societies, but in most societies this struggle would be fought in the realm of ideas. The problem with Muslim societies is that radical Islam wants to establish its hegemony through sheer force and wanton violence.

In its claim to enforce its own understanding of Islam, radical Islam harps back to the so called ‘golden age’ of Islam in which, they argue, there was no place for shrines in Islam. In their antediluvian understanding, shrines become an extra or non-Islamic thing which supposedly compromises the principle of Tauheed in Islam. The problem with this understanding of Islam is that it is both a-historical and does injustice to the inherently plural ways in which Islam articulates the sacred.

Radical Islam does injustice to Islamic history since shrines of holy people have been revered by Muslims since the beginning of the Islamic century. No wonder then that the earliest sites of Islam are dotted with shrines and mausoleums. It has helped Muslims integrate Islam within their local contexts so that Islam did not become a permanent foreign element in their cultural memory. Rather, through the shrines, Islam became encoded within the cultural matrix of time and space. It was this beautiful intermingling of great and little traditions which shrines all over the world represent. It is perhaps this intermixing of the local and the universal that radical Islam is most uncomfortable with and wants to do away with it.

This brings us to the relationship that radical Islam shares with local cultures. Time and again it has been proved radical Islam is antithetical to local cultural traditions. Radical Islam wants to create a new landscape which is devoid of any local cultural articulations. In their bid to claim authenticity, radical Islam posits this new landscape as the original Islam and therefore imputes sacredness to their violent action. The problem is that despite their best efforts, no religion, including Islam, can be separated from its cultural moorings. What gets supplanted by radical Islam therefore is a particular version of Arabian culture, which cannot claim any supremacy to other cultural practices. More importantly, this Arabian culture is wholly unsuited to other contexts which have their own specific and rich cultural traditions.

Radical Islam is therefore an unadulterated violence and its violence is not just physical but also symbolic. What we are witnessing in Timbuktu is part of the larger agenda of radical Islam to purge Islam of all its local moorings and consequently its richness of diversity. Muslim societies, like all societies, cannot function in a healthy manner without a cultural memory. It is precisely this cultural memory that radical Islam wants to erase. This form of violence should be resisted by one and all. Sadly enough, there are not enough Muslim voices condemning it.   

Arshad Alam is an author and writer, currently with Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi  He writes an occasional column for New Age Islam.