By destroying relics, ISIS is committing the greatest blasphemy

Published: March 23, 2015

esterday, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) destroyed an ancient Christian monastery, described as the equivalent of Canterbury Cathedral.

Yesterday, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) destroyed an ancient Christian monastery which has been described as the equivalent of Canterbury Cathedral.

Just weeks earlier, it raided Mosul Museum and filmed themselves destroying all the relics on show, including priceless, irreplaceable Assyrian statues.

This is a throwback to the infamous episode of when the Taliban destroyed the ancient great Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan in 2001.

The rationalisation is the same. In typical Wahhabi-inspired nonsense, any cultural artefact that is either culturally foreign or is somehow related to a sacred theme is a threat to a “good Muslim” because that “good” and “pure” Muslim will automatically be tempted into the unforgivable sin of polytheism. To the point where there are influential elements in the Wahhabi establishment that want to destroy the tomb of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) himself.

This is obvious stupidity. It also betrays a paradoxical lack of faith in the strength of their own faith. I, for one, cannot quite see how a few statues of Assyrian cherubs and kings are likely to rekindle the cult of Ishtar.

I would, in fact, argue that Islam itself prohibits this kind of senseless vandalism. Indeed, by destroying relics of Mosul, ISIS is actually committing shirk (blasphemy). Many of these relics have existed before the days of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Not only did the Prophet (pbuh) and the Salaf – the three generations of Muslims that lived after the time of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and are believed to be the most righteous – preserve many such artefacts and relics in their own time, but almost all Muslim rulers and scholars of the past up until the advent of Wahhabism also maintained them.

Scholars I have spoken to say this new attitude of destruction is, ironically, an unsanctioned innovation and thus a form of shirk. In effect, ISIS/Taliban/Wahhabis and similarly inspired vandals are claiming they are more enlightened than Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), his companions, his immediate successors and all previous Muslim rulers and scholars. According to them, all previous Muslims including the Prophet (pbuh) himself were essentially wrong and their own interpretation of what counts as polytheism and what can inspire it is correct. So, according to them, the Prophet (pbuh) was wrong, or naïve in his reading of the Holy Quran, but have no fear, 26-year-old Mohammed from London is going to correct this error with his eminent insights after his long and arduous Islamic studies in “Information Systems”.

Now it is certainly true that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) did destroy the idols in the Kaaba, but the difference is that these idols were actually being directly worshipped by people at the time, and the cults of these gods posed a threat to the Muslim community – whereas no one is worshipping the relics in the museum. Just like no Muslims had worshipped the statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan.

Indeed, in the past, many Islamic scholars actively encouraged the preservation of great monuments and relics of civilisation, regardless of the fact that they were pre-Islamic. For example, in Egypt, the pyramids and the Sphinx were actively preserved as a reminder of a great civilisation that once dominated the land. That such a civilisation could be swept away and swallowed by the sand is also an enlightening Islamic moral – the monuments were a reminder that the Will of God transcends the shifts of history.

Still it remains a matter of historical fact that in the Golden Age of the Caliphate, the period of history that the ISIS thugs purport to “re-enact”, Islam was an open, accommodating culture, not just eager, but hungry to learn as much as there was to know about the world and its cultures, its religions, its monuments. The Caliphs, the true Caliphs, not the obscure “scholar” at the top of ISIS, did not order monuments to be destroyed or books to be burnt. They ordered monuments to be preserved, or even brought to Islam, and books from all over the world – from Hindu pagans, from Egyptian Copts, from Greek Atheists – to be translated into Arabic. When they did this, Islam was the pinnacle of civilisation. But what ISIS preaches is the exact opposite.


Azeem Ibrahim

An International Security and Geopolitics Lecturer at the University of Chicago. Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and World Fellow at Yale. He is the Strategic Policy Advisor to Imran Khan and he tweets as @AzeemIbrahim (

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