Saudi Arabia’s war of steel and concrete on Islam

“Art Rocks in Saudi Arabia”! trumpeted the glossy cover of an issue of Saudi Aramco World, a journal on culture and society in the Kingdom. The accompanying article by Peter Harrigan looked at pre-historic rocks scrawled with drawings of camels and other animals, querying why the international community has ignored study of ancient rock in the Najd. However, Harrigan eagerly forecasts that this unfortunate oversight will soon be addressed. After all, old rock is a resource on par with the black gold that Aramco excavates from beneath the desert.

The laborious preservation of “art rock” in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia contrasts with on-going demolitions of the monumental structures and sacred sites mapping the Hijaz’s Islamic geography. Since the House of Saud’s takeover of Arabia, following its foundational alliances with British imperialists and Wahhabi ideologues, it is an open secret that the princes-cum-businessmen are waging a war of steel and concrete against great sign posts of Islamic history that even neo-Qurayshi dictators like Yazid ibn Mu’awiyah had dared not disturb.

A list is in order here –” a mere slice of the nearly 300 Islamic structures that have been dynamited, bulldozed, and paved down in the past 80 years. It is a remarkable testament to Muslims’ gifts of preservation that the homes and other intimate structures of the early Makkan period of Islam have stood secure through the long centuries of dynastic change and political uncertainty. These landmarks of the close associations and fraternal bonds through which a fledging Islam gained a social presence have now disappeared in the region’s necro-commercialization. Abu Bakr As-Siddiq’s house is now the Makkah Hilton Hotel. The Prophet’s (pbuh) mother, Aminah bint Wahb’s grave was paved down and burnt with gasoline. His first wife Khadijah’s house, where the Prophet’s (pbuh) children were born, is now a public lavatory.

The garbage of history is a term used for painfully reconstructing the past through the remnants and remains –” but this sheds a neon-colored light on how history itself can be rendered as garbage.

Archaeologists now estimate that less than 20 structures dating from the Prophet’s (pbuh) time are left in the Hijaz. Yes, that means 90% of Islamic sites have now disappeared, a memory of a memory. Even as outrage sparked in the Muslim countries, from Palestine to Pakistan to Turkey, the Wahhabization of the Hijaz’s social landscape has mobilized local zealots in overseeing the demolitions. The alchemy of their logic turns demolitions of Islamic spaces into a sign of piety. Far better to transform these venerated sites into public bathrooms than to allow the shadow of a possibility that non-Wahhabi visitors would lapse into idolatry before them.

Besides the structures materializing memories of the Prophet (pbuh) and his Companions, the very geography of the Sirah has been wiped away. The routes followed by the Muslims to the battlegrounds of Badr and Uhud have been cleared. Hamzah ibn ‘Abd al-Muttalib’s grave is gone. The famous seven masjids of Salman al-Farsi, Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, Fatimah, ‘Ali, Bilal and al-Fath (built on the rock where the Prophet (pbuh) stood during the Battle of the Trench, praying for victory) have been razed and replaced by ATM machines. Dar-al-Arqam, the first meeting place of the Muslims and indeed, the first Islamic school where the Prophet (pbuh) tutored the early Muslims, now hosts the escalators of a high-rise. The king’s palace stands on the bones of the Abu-Qubays Masjid.

Graveyards are known to be a magnet for Wahhabi ire. The 1806 razing of the Baqi’ Cemetery in Madinah is a famous chronicle: the domes and markers of the great Islamic personalities interred there were flattened out into an anonymous field. Other graveyards met the same fate, with no aftertaste of infamy. The graveyard of Maqbarah al-Muala (in Makkah), where Khadijah is buried, has likewise been razed. All this is part of King Abdullah ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz’s quest to “re-envision” the holy cities. Toward this end, he has hired diva architects like Norman Foster, Lord Foster of Thames Bank and Zaha Hadid to blast the area into accommodating another million pilgrims who can afford the deluxe Hajj packages now going for $8,000 and above. “We are witnessing now the last few moments of the history of Makkah,” said Sami Angawi, an expert on Islamic architecture

Local residents of these spaces are not entirely immune to the costs of this demolition derby. Makkans rescued the house where the Prophet (pbuh) was born, pressing to transform it into a library rather than permit its disappearance under a shopping mall. However, post-9/11 oil bonanza and the ensuing development boom have placed these remaining sites under a timer. Profits flowing in from the skyscraper hotels and other commercial venues proved too seductive for the Saudi capitalists –” the area around the Haramayn is prime real estate, and why say no to the clown when McDonalds comes knocking? The house where the Prophet (pbuh) was born is now slated to become a parking lot. Presumably the princes’ Mercedes were too inconvenienced by the city’s existing parking facilities.

This conflagration of the visible traces of the men and women who translated the Qur’anic word into social and political reality, has even aghast some Saudi citizens. Irfan al-Allawi channeled his outrage into the Islamic Heritage Foundation, an online website meticulously documenting each site destroyed by the Saudis and the corporate monstrosity erected over it. After provoking Saudi criticism in even US and UK newspapers, the website was yanked by the Saudi government, and Allawi has been placed under house arrest. Clearly, even memories are too dangerous a political capital to be left untampered with –” whether present in stone or in digital pixels on the information highway.

There are other sites that are threatened, sites tied to the very presence of the Prophet (pbuh). Wahhabi authorities are planning to destroy Jabal al-Nur, where the Cave of Hira’ is located. Visiting the mountain, one can find a signpost blazened with a fatwa, “The Prophet Mohamed (pbuh) did not permit us to climb on to this hill, not to pray here, not to touch stones, and tie knots on trees…”

In short, keep away –” don’t get too close to site of the first Qur’anic revelation, the place that first witnessed the communication between Allah (swt) and the Prophet (pbuh) that was to alter the geography of the world. If there is a location that rivals this in early Islamic history, it would be the Prophet’s (pbuh) grave itself. And yes, that too is slated for destruction.

Construction underway has already partitioned the graves of the Prophet (pbuh), Abu Bakr, and ‘Umar from the rest of the Masjid in preparation for razing them into rubble. A pamphlet published in 2007 by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and endorsed by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, reads, “The green dome shall be demolished and the three graves flattened in the Prophet’s Mosque.” The removal of the iconic Green Dome from over the graves is a preliminary step to this plan that has already been checked off the to-do list. Even the body of the Prophet (pbuh), the medium of Allah’s (swt) mercy to the worlds, is to disappear under the rubble and dust of Saudi-Wahhabi demolition.

The question of why is always a hazardous one when discussing the House of Saud and their Wahhabi henchmen. But any work of destruction is only a precursor to some project of reconstruction. What are the signs and traces of prophetic history to be replaced with? And while the Wahhabi cadres are hamstrung by the ideology wrapped around their minds like metal bands, the Saudi royal family’s priorities are a bit different. If Islamic history is being systematically dynamited from the surface of the earth, then it is a precursor to the construction of a new history that fully justifies Saudi sovereignty.

At a 1989 New York conference on “cultural preservation” in Saudi Arabia, Saudi diplomats, ambassadors and businessmen met with hired archaeologists and preservationists to trumpet their success in cementing the institutional memory of the House of Saud. The model being followed is Colonial Williamsburg, that charming Virginia town restored to produce a sanitized memory of US colonial times. (Tourists enjoy hooped dresses, handicrafts, and colonial music, without unpleasant reminders of black slavery and Indian genocide). “You in the United States have preserved places uniquely associated with the founding of your nation,” said Saad Nazer, Saudi Arabia’s New York consul-general, “we too have now preserved the sites at Riyadh and Dar’iyyah where Saudis can learn how King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz formed our modern kingdom.æ

In a word –” Saudi restoration projects en process are not in Makkah or Madinah, but in Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dar’iyyah, locations that had been crude desert outposts before the House of Saud’s fortunes struck gold. And unlike past dynasties like the Ottomans, who had integrated their cultural, religious, and political structures into the layout of the two holy cities, the Saudis laid out an alternate geography from day one. A secular geography that preys on the prophetic one, gorging on it to render the love and faith of billions into cash. Dollars only, please.

So, if the Prophet’s (pbuh) geography is too visible a reminder that the House of Saud is an upstart tribal pretender that views Islam’s sedimentation throughout the Hijaz with distaste, then which past is the valid one? Nation-states are a modern invention, dating a mere 400 years on the European heartland. However, each new-born nation state must manufacture its existence back in time, colonizing history as it were. The Saudis, who market themselves as custodians of the Haramayn to justify their fabulous Hajj profits, only want to remember the pre-Islamic annals of beduin tribes and the founding of their political dynasty.

As graves, masjids and mountains fall around Makkah and Madinah, elaborate new structures take form in Riyadh and Jeddah. The National Museum at Riyadh has built an elaborate pre-Islamic wing, featuring multi-media installations intermingling with pre-historic “art rock” helicoptered in from the Najd sands. Various plush museum complexes such as Darat al-Malik ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, dedicated to the founding patriarch, have literally risen from the dunes. In assigning the multi-million dollar contrasts for these memory projects, Riyadh Development Authority opened the competition to celebrity architects from around the world. The goal was to erect “cultural focus for the whole nation” and create “a sense of continuity and dignity for all Saudis”. Apparently, the Saudis didn’t fear that their citizens would fall into idolatrous devotion before the gleaming, high-tech relics commemorating ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Aal Saud and the pre-historic ancestors.

The death of sacred structures is not just the perishing of stone and mortar –” it is the destruction of those compasses with which we orient ourselves in landscapes of history and memory. It is the erasure of traces of the personalities that traded blood and treasure so that Islam could survive. It is the fading of the material inscriptions nourishing our memory and indeed, the very consciousness of ourselves as Muslims. What elegy shall we sing to the crumbling bones of the Companions? What words are appropriate to the vanishing presence of our Prophet (pbuh)?