ISIS' cultural vandalism

A trail of destruction

Cultural barbarism prevails in the territories declared a "caliphate" by the radical Islamic group ISIS. The sad irony of this is that its members are even destroying monuments to the companions of Muhammad, whom they themselves supposedly revere. Joseph Croitoru reports

The declaration of a "caliphate" by the Islamist militia ISIS could have devastating consequences for the many cultural and historical sites in the regions of Syria and Iraq that have fallen under the group's control. The Sunni insurgents have already left an appalling trail of barbaric acts of destruction carried out since the start of their offensive.

ISIS' Wahhabi-influenced religious zealots tolerate nothing that could be seen as a manifestation of respect for outstanding intellectual and cultural human achievements. As well as the gravestones of renowned thinkers, this also includes the burial sites of notable religious figures. The ISIS Islamists detect in these the veneration of saints, a practice they despise. Public images of key intellectual and cultural figures, both national and local, are also a thorn in their side. These are now in danger of being erased from the face of the earth wherever the jihadists appear.

Immediately after the extremists entered the pluralist provincial capital of Mosul, several cultural symbols fell victim to their fury. The monumental statues of the Abbasid poet Abu Tammam (788-845) and of the Iraqi musician and poet Osman al-Mawsali (1854-1923), images that were a defining feature of the cityscape, were removed with the help of a crane and, according to some accounts, blown up with explosives.

Ignorance of history

The Islamist iconoclasts also knocked the huge stone statue of the Virgin Mary off the tower of the Chaldean-Catholic archdiocese church in Mosul, and are said to have vandalised a substantial number of icons. The zealous holy warriors then turned on the tomb of the Muslim historian Ali Ibn al-Athir (1160-1233) and used a digger to demolish it.

ISIS supporters in Raqqa celebrating the declaration of the caliphate. Photo: Reuters
Competing Islamist groups: The destruction of sites of religious and cultural significance may be a by-product of the rivalry between ISIS and another radical group, Jabhat al-Nusra, which operates in Syria

ISIS' campaign of destruction is a direct attack on the rich heritage of Arab culture. The radical Islamists have no place for this in their dominion.

Abu Tammam was one of the most important Arabic-language poets of the Middle Ages. He spent the last year of his life in Mosul, and the city wears his name with pride. He was able to capture some of the Arab rulers’ drinking sessions in verse, and was already highly regarded during his lifetime, though he was also criticised for his style – innovative in form, but conservative in content. Abu Tammam is best known for compiling an anthology called the "Hamasa", the most comprehensive Arabic diwan, containing 881 poem fragments. The first German translation, by the renowned poet and scholar of Oriental languages Friedrich Rückert, was published in 1846.

It is a sad irony that the statue of Abu Tammam fell victim to the fundamentalists' assault on images shortly before they declared a caliphate. The Abbasid Caliph al-Mutasim (794-842) was profoundly moved by Abu Tammam's poetry, became his patron, and was the one who helped him achieve true fame.

This is not the first statue of the poet to have been destroyed by jihadists. Another memorial statue, located in Abu Tammam’s Syrian birthplace, Jasim, was set on fire and blown up in July of last year by the rival Islamist militia Jabhat al-Nusra. The fact that ISIS religious fanatics attacked the Abu Tammam memorial shortly after seizing Mosul is evidence of the macabre competition being waged by rival extremist groups, on every level.

Religious sites not spared

The destruction of the tomb of Ibn al-Athir, another of the city's sons, is also an irony of history. Not only did this thirteenth-century Arab historian compile an extensive compendium on the companions of Muhammad – whose aura the desecrating jihadists claim shines upon them – he is also one of the most influential Arab chroniclers of the Crusades. To this day, Islamists eagerly cite the Crusades as evidence of European aggression, deriving from them their favourite term of abuse for Westerners, al-salibiyin (Crusaders).

Much of what Ibn al-Athir chronicles in his annals "Al-Kamil fi’l-Tarikh" (which loosely translates as "The Complete Story") seems startlingly pertinent today against the backdrop of the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars – not least his merciless portrayal of the brutality of some Muslim commanders, which matched that of their Christian opponents.

In Baghdad there are now fears that, in the first flush of victory, the shock troops of self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may turn their attentions to the tomb of the prophet Jonah (Yunus), which is also in Mosul. This concern was voiced recently in the Iraqi newspaper "Az-Zaman" by a high-ranking cultural official, who also spoke of the necessity of systematically documenting the increasingly frequent Islamist attacks on the nation's cultural assets. Such fears have been further fuelled by reports that ISIS gangs murdered the imam at the mosque where Jonah lies buried.

Islamic houses of God are not, it seems, exempt from the extremists' destructive rampage. A short time ago ISIS used explosives to destroy a magnificent mosque complex in the Syrian town of Raqqa, triggering abject horror in the Islamic world. The Sunni Islamists' destructive fury is likely to have been directed at the tomb of the Shiite Sufi Uwais al-Qarani, which was located there. The complex of buildings also included the grave of Ammar Ibn Yasir – who is regarded as one of Muhammad's closest companions.

Joseph Croitoru

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

© Qantara.de 2014

Editor: Charlotte Collins/Qantara.de

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