Desecration of spiritual Sufi shrines by Islamist ultra-fundamentalist ‘Salafists,’ i.e. Wahhabi adherents, has led to a political crisis in Libya.
On Sunday, 26 August, Libyan interior minister Fawzi Abdelali resigned from his position after the government failed to halt an orgy of anti-Sufi vandalism.
That night, residents of the suburb of Janzour, near Libya’s capital, Tripoli, mobilized armed militia committees to protect Sufi shrines, according to The Miami Herald. On Tuesday, 28 August, Abdelali withdrew his notice of departure from his government post, as described by The New York Times.
Devastation of Islamic sacred sites is based on the Wahhabi sect’s preaching that ‘pure Islam’ is focussed only on God and cannot include praise of, or blessings to, the Prophet Muhammad, his close associates, and his saintly successors through Muslim history. It is difficult to understand, and counter-intuitive to today’s non-Muslims.
Wahhabi destruction of gravesites and mosques is therefore motivated by the perverse belief that in honouring the saintly individuals buried in the graves and commemorated in the mosques, and delivering blessings to their souls, the Muslims are committing the sin of polytheism, i.e. putting people or objects of worship or veneration alongside Allah, as Christians do with Jesus, and, according to Muslim belief, with Mary, icons and statues.
But permission to visit and bless the graves of prophetic and spiritual figures was a well-established practise of the Muslim majority until the advent of Wahhabism 250 years ago, and visiting tombs and graves is widespread and popular among traditional Muslims in most of the world today.
Muslims of the past receiving such praise include Prophet Muhammad (in his shrine in Medina), the Prophet’s family, the Companions of the Prophet, and the first generation of Successors after them, as well as later Sufis and other distinguished figures.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) condemned the damage to Islamic heritage in Libya.
On Friday, 24 August, in Zliten on the Mediterranean coast east of Tripoli, the front of the Sidi Abdul-Salam Al-Asmar Al-Fituri shrine, dedicated to a fifteenth-century CE Sufi, was struck by Wahhabi-fired mortar shells. So were the mosque and library of the nearby University of Al-Asmari, an Islamic school. In trying unsuccessfully to remove the body of Sidi Al-Asmar from his tomb, the Wahhabis dug a hole 16 feet deep. Thousands of volumes in the university library were reduced to ashes.
The independent Libya Herald reported that the Friday attack on the Sidi Al-Asmar complex came after a week of fighting in Zliten that left up to three people dead and eight wounded. The Wahhabi raid on the Sidi Al-Asmar shrine and the Al-Asmari University was apparently unrelated to the earlier combat.
The next day, Saturday, 25 August, saw Wahhabi destruction of one of the outstanding Sufi structures in Libya, the Abdallah Al-Shaab mausoleum in Tripoli, as reported by the US military news portal. The Al-Shaab sanctuary was levelled using two bulldozers. Also on Saturday, Wahhabis demolished the shrines of Sidi Al-Masry and Sidi Selim in Tripoli and of Sheikh Ahmed Al-Zarruq in Misrata.
Wahhabi aggression against the Al-Shaab shrine in Tripoli has been blamed on members of the Libyan state security apparatus who allegedly blocked the road to prevent local residents from defending the site. The Libyan government has denied the charge, but in a devious manner. An unnamed Libyan state official told the Al-Jazeera television channel that the authorities ‘closed the road to preserve security only so that no problems or clashes may take place. The Supreme Security Committee has nothing to do with the destruction of graves.’ But the road closure enabled the outrage against the Al-Shaab shrine.
On 25 August, the Grand Mufti of Libya, Sheikh Al-Sadek Al-Gheriani, who had sought to mediate between traditionalists and Wahhabis, issued a fatwa condemning the desecration of graves. He wrote, ‘What some armed people do in digging up graves by force and removing their remains is not permissible… because this involves violation of the sanctity of the dead and of their relatives who are still alive… This prohibition about digging up graves includes non-Muslims’ graves as well.’ Al-Gheriani pointed out, ‘There were non-Muslims’ graves in Medina and other Muslim cities that were conquered, but neither the Prophet nor any of his Companions issued orders for their removal.’
Al-Gheriani affirmed the classical position of the Muslim scholars for more than a thousand years before the appearance of Wahhabism in the 18th century – that is, the graves of the early Muslims and their noble successors, mosques built to celebrate eminent Muslims, and cemeteries in general are a part of Islamic heritage that should be preserved and visited.
The Libyan Grand Mufti failed to note that Wahhabis in Libya are encouraged by those in Saudi Arabia that devastated the cemeteries sheltering the remains of Prophet Muhammad’s family and companions, along with numerous significant later Muslims, when the House of Saud took over the holy cities in 1924-25. The Wahhabi vision of eradicating Arabia’s Islamic heritage resulted in covering the grave of Prophet Muhammad’s mother, Amina bint Wahb with petrol and setting it afire which is constantly repeated by the Saudi Wahhabis.
The Muslim lands, as well as other countries, are undergoing a wave of violence against the sacred sites of all believers. Before it is too late, moderate leaders of all religions, as well as secular cultural historians and preservation experts must unite to protect the legacy of all faiths. Ravaging of the Bamiyan Buddhas by Al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001; the wave of homicidal bombings at Sufi shrines in Iraq, Pakistan and India in recent years; despoliation of Shia Muslim meeting houses and mosques in Bahrain; Wahhabi calls for removal of Christian churches from Muslim countries; Egyptian radical threats against the Pyramids and Sphinx – all are aspects of a frenzy for obliteration of the past that has seized the minds of Muslim and other extremists.
This mania is, put simply, no less anti-human than open terrorism and its incitement.
Why does Saudi Islam destroy history?
The Wahhabi destruction of grave sites and mosques is motivated by the perverse belief that in honouring the saintly individuals buried in the graves and commemorated in the mosques, including the Prophet (in his shrine in Medina), the Prophet's family, the Companions of the Prophet, and the first generation of Successors after them, as well as later Sufis, Muslims are committing the profound sin of ‘shirk’. Shirk is an Islamic concept that outlaws associating people or objects of worship with Allah. Christians are regarded as the prime offenders, with their worship of Jesus as the Son of God.
Christians argue that human beings have an in-built desire to worship. They believe that Jesus is the incarnation of the Father God, and uniquely satisfies the inherent need to worship because, say Christians, they are made that way. All other worship is unsafe, whether of Mary, icons or saints, and is simply misplaced and diminishes or distorts.
But Muslims who visit graves and mosques to do not ‘worship’ the people buried there. They honour the Prophet and his Companions and Successors and saintly people for who they were, and pray for their intercession. They do not consider them divine.
The classical position of Muslim scholars, which was the principle for 1250 years before the appearance of Wahhabism in the 18th century, is that graves of early Muslims and their saintly successors, mosques built to celebrate saintly Muslims, and cemeteries in general are a part of Islamic heritage that should be preserved and visited.
This is the dominant position among traditional Muslims all over the world today.
Wahhabi destruction of the sacred sites associated with the Prophet is carried out to prevent people from asking intercession of the Prophet, his Companions, Successors, family, and the most prominent Sufis, since Wahhabis consider equating human beings with divine personages as equivalent to the Christian attitude toward Jesus. The Wahhabis do not want any prayers associated with Prophet Muhammad. It is of course a perverse attitude unknown in any other major religion, but the Wahhabis preached that ‘pure Islam’ is focussed only on God and cannot include even praise of the Prophet and his close associates. It is difficult to understand and counter-intuitive to the outlook of Westerners. That is the point.
Wahhabis also prohibit celebration of the Prophet's birthday and similar observances.