The beautiful, historic shrines that Islamists try to destroy


Iraqis inspect the wreckage of the grave of the Nebi Yunus, or prophet Jonah, in Mosul, northern Iraq, on July, 24, 2014. (EPA/STR)

News emerged this week that among their various outrages, Islamic State militants had destroyed the Tomb of Jonah in the city of Mosul, a biblical site holy to Christians and Muslims alike, which the jihadists "turned to dust," according to an Iraqi official. The militants espouse a radical, puritanical strain of Sunni Islam whereby all shrines or holy sites that honor beings lesser than their God are considered apostate.

The Taliban in Afghanistan set the tone when they pulverized the ancient, towering statues of the Buddha in Bamiyan in 2001. "Muslims should be proud of smashing idols," the militants' leader, Mohammad Omar, said at the time. "It has given praise to God that we have destroyed them."

In recent years, fundamentalist Islamists with similar Salafist stripes to the Islamic State have attacked tombs and defiled shrines from South Asia to Africa. Here's a sampling of their destruction.

Libya

Zlitan residents protest against the destruction of tombs in front of the shrine of 15th-century Sufi scholar Abdel Salam al-Asmar in Zlitan city, about 160 km (90 miles) west of Tripoli in early March 2012. (Reuters)
Zlitan residents protest against the destruction of tombs in front of the shrine of 15th-century Sufi scholar Abdel Salam al-Asmar in Zlitan city, about 90 miles west of Tripoli in early March 2012. (Reuters)

After the fall of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, a security vacuum opened up, allowing a hodgepodge of Islamist factions to come to the fore, some of which are grabbing headlines to this day. Some militias set about consolidating power and building fiefdoms. Others went about desecrating grave sites of saints.

In March 2012, militants bulldozed a series of tombs by the shrine of 15th century Sufi scholar Abdel Salam al-Asmar in the city of Zlitan. In August, armed Salafists -- who may have had connections to the revolutionary forces that brought down Gaddafi -- destroyed the historic Sha'ab mosque in center of the capital, Tripoli, in broad daylight. Reports indicated some of the assailants were complaining about worshipers practicing "black magic" by the tombs that were destroyed, which kept the remains of some famous Libyan Sufi scholars as well as a national hero who fought against Spanish colonial incursions.

The slew of attacks compelled the country's interior minister to resign.

Pakistan

A devotee wears a big turban made from colorful sheets of cloth as he sits outside the shrine of Muslim Sufi Saint Data Ganj Bakhsh on his death anniversary in Lahore January 2, 2013. (REUTERS/Mohsin Raza)
A devotee wears a big turban made from colorful sheets of cloth as he sits outside the shrine of Muslim Sufi Saint Data Ganj Bakhsh on his death anniversary in Lahore, Pakistan, on  Jan. 2, 2013. (REUTERS/Mohsin Raza)

While attention may fall on the Pakistani Taliban's struggle against Islamabad and its ties to militancy across the border in Afghanistan, Sunni militants have long targeted religious minorities, particularly Shiites, as well as the country's many tombs of Sufi saints. Islam in the Indian subcontinent spread through Sufism, a syncretic form of the faith steeped in mysticism that picks up local traditions and beliefs that may have predated the arrival of Islam. It is reviled by the more orthodox jihadists as a superstitious, corrupted creed.

Sufi sites have fallen under attack. In 2010, extremists bombed the shrine of the 11th century mystic Hazrat Data Ganj Baksh in the city of Lahore, killing 42 people. A year later, Taliban suicide bombers targeted a packed Sufi gathering at the Sakhi Sarwar shrine in Punjab, the state where Lahore is the capital. More than 40 people died and hundreds were injured.

Tunisia

After the tumultuous events of the Arab Spring saw an uprising chase out Tunisia's long-ruling autocrat, the country embarked on a tricky, turbulent process of democratization. In early 2013, Salafists attacked or set ablaze some 40 Sufi sites -- there's a long tradition of venerating saints in North Africa. Those incidents triggered an anti-Islamist backlash in Tunisia.

Mali

A traditional mud-tomb in Timbuktu, whose many shrines are protected by UNESCO. (Adama Diarra/Reuters)
A traditional mud-tomb in Timbuktu, whose many shrines are protected by UNESCO. (Adama Diarra/Reuters)

In July 2012, militants belonging to a group with ties to al-Qaeda seized large swathes of northern Mali, including the historic city of Timbuktu, which was once the crossroads of vast trade routes crisscrossing the Sahara. The city was famed for its medieval libraries and its many shrines--half of which, according to UNESCO, were knocked down or destroyed by the militants. The city's iconic mud-brick architecture had earned it international heritage status, but not the affection of the zealous militants, who used pick-axes and shovels to pulverize the tomb of the Sufi scholar Sidi Mahmoud, who died in A.D. 955. The courage and guile of some city residents saved even more manuscripts and relics from destruction.

Egypt

Egyptians look at the Prince Tadros church which was set to fire overnight in Minya, about 245 kilometers south of Cairo, Egypt, 15 August 2013. (EPA/GIRO MAIS)
Egyptians look at the Prince Tadros church that was set to fire overnight in Minya, about 152 miles south of Cairo, on Aug. 15, 2013. (EPA/GIRO MAIS)

After Egypt's military removed the country's Islamist President Mohamed Morsi from power in July 2013 and embarked on a ruthless crackdown on his supporters, the tensions exploded into religious violence. Over a period in August of that year, a whole string of Christian Coptic churches were fire-bombed, attacked and vandalized, in some cases by radical Islamists.

In April 2011, Salafists armed with crowbars and sledgehammers attempted to bring down a Sufi shrine in the city of Qalyoub, but were confronted and thwarted by local residents. In 2012, a radical cleric called for the destruction of the famous Sphinx and the Pyramids, but no one attempted to heed his call. Egypt's Pharaonic antiquities are huge draws for its tourist industry.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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