Recent videos showing ISIS members destroying Mosul’s museum and with it the loss of Iraq’s cultural and historical heritage are woefully sickening. The actions are undertaken supposedly on the basis of Islamic interpretation and an attempt on the one hand to destroy idols and on the other adhering to strict prohibition on art and figurines that cast a shadow.
Treating the museum pieces as idols that might cause people to worship and associate any religious purpose to them is an insult to human intelligence and more so to Muslims themselves. To claim this destruction is intended to protect Muslims from “shirk,” associating anything with God, implies that Muslims are fickle in their theological understandings — so fickle that they are unable to distinguish history and human contribution to such an extent that would cause them easily to fall into major sin by taking these statues as partners to the One God. The group using this logic might itself believe this to be the case and as such its members are so fickle that the statues are so powerful on their own that they might cause individuals to fall away from their state of belief.
If the destruction is based on the second claim, then one has to assert that the prohibition is not a categorical one. Important distinction in classical sources is made between individuals who are creating or constructing figurines as objects of worship ascribed with power akin to the Divine versus preserving human history.
The notion that statues casting a shadow constitute an act of unbelief thus must be set aside and removed, for it is rather a recent development in terms of Islamic law. Muslims in general stayed away from fashioning human statues out of fear of objectification of historical and religious figures and the concern that venerating the statues, rather than the ideas central to Islam, might lead people astray. Nevertheless, we find animal statues and shapes of all types were rather common across the centuries.
Situating ISIS on this issue is an important aspect, since they embrace the idea that the cause of Muslim decline and loss of worldly power is the supposed emergence of innovations in all matters pertaining to Islam. For ISIS and its followers, straying away from the pure and undistorted Islamic message is what needed to be reversed.
The statues and all other forms of Islam are wrong and a distortion of purity of the faith; but the exception, indeed, is the self-serving claim of ISIS and all those of its ilk. They are on a mission of purifying Muslim societies of all innovation through mass murder, beheadings and destruction of people and heritage alike so as to arrive at a pure and uncorrupted Islam, which they and they alone define. Islam is victimized by ISIS’ innovation and the tradition is decapitated of its ethical and moral foundation in people’s minds.
Critically, the many statues in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and much of the Muslim world have been in existence and protected from the ignorant rabbles throughout the centuries — what has changed! No one of scholarly repute, past or present, has ever ruled or demanded their removal to protect Islam and Muslims. Indeed, the Qur’an calls on the believers to walk the earth and examine what earlier civilizations have accomplished, and to take it as a lesson to be humble and not filled with arrogance due to power and dominion in the world, since no power is everlasting.
The distinctive character of earlier periods in Islamic history is preservation of human heritage, collecting and studying it so as to understand the societies that produced such works and draw the important lessons from it.
It is a sign of intellectual and civilizational maturity to be able to preserve and examine elements of human contributions — even ones in total opposition and anathema to one’s own understanding and belief. How do you deal with infantile behavior shaped and given meaning only because of guns and brutality? How to answer such claims of protecting faith while ISIS’s ignorant actions cause people to flee religion altogether, since they are exhibit A to the brutal, closed-minded and irrational nature of supposed religious people!
At the same time, and as much attention is paid to ISIS’ horrible crimes against human heritage, it still falls in line with the killing and murder visited upon the people who have been put to death in a grotesque manner and celebrated through global media display. If statues are idols to be destroyed, then for sure ISIS videos and actions are the permanent objectification of evil, an electronic construction of statues and idols.
Destroying idols and humans while creating videos, images and literature to recruit is the highest level of theological incongruity. In this regard, ISIS leaders constitute themselves as human deities defending a religion they managed to obliterate and a God no longer accessible except by means of severed heads and grotesque violence.
Iraq, interestingly enough (and of all places in the world to engage in destruction), is known as the cradle of civilization and as a living lab for looking back at what human sophistication produced throughout history. Muslims at the peak of their power in Iraq itself built institutions, opened libraries, bookstores, hospitals and paid the weight of books in gold even for works diametrically opposed to everything Islam stood and advocated for. Preserving the diverse human contribution was a task and goal within the confines of Islamic epistemic, and not an affront to it.
Using the Prophet’s iconoclastic moment in Mecca to peddle a murderous, ignorant campaign is an insult to the prophetic legacy and misusing history to introduce an innovation never seen before. What can we say when innovators with guns are fighting to stop an imagined innovation!
It is a sure thing that the ignorant have inherited the earth. Surely, they know not what they have, for they are incapable of thinking beyond their inanimate internal selves fossilized into a bloody self-warship, as s substitute for worshipping a living and merciful God.