As Almighty Allah (swt) states in the glorious Qur’an, “Whoever honors the symbols set up by Allah [shall know that], verily, these [symbols derive their value] from the God-consciousness in the hearts of the [committed Muslims]” (22:32). So, what does “to honor” mean? What does “to magnify” mean? What does it mean to respect and venerate the signs of Allah, the symbols of Allah, the waymarks of Allah, and the offerings consecrated to Allah? I can tell you what it does not mean. It does not mean bulldozing, demolishing, desecrating, and defiling them. It is an exercise in futility to attempt to explain and debunk the reasons used by certain so-called jurists and Islamists to justify their atrocious actions. Intelligence and stupidity do not speak the same language. Civilization and barbarity share no common ground. The deaf will not hear. The dumb will not understand. And the blind will not see.
The glorious Qur’an is a living and breathing book filled with wisdom — past, present, and future. It is the tree of life of a vibrant, living, spiritual tradition. It speaks to us, engages with us, and challenges us. The Qur’an is not meant to be a decorative ornament. It was not revealed to live on a shelf. Rather, it was revealed to live in our hearts and minds. The Qur’an is active, not passive. The Qur’an is totally interactive. Multilayered and multifaceted, it speaks to each soul individually and to each community collectively. Each of its words is a passage to another world. It is a universe that unveils itself through exegesis.
“Have they not traveled through the land and seen how their predecessors met their end? They were mightier than them: they cultivated the earth more and built more upon it” (30:9), asks and affirms the Qur’an. These are not words of condemnation for historical and archeological sites; they are words that call for contemplation and from which we can draw important lessons. The glorious Qur’an evidences a remarkable knowledge of ancient civilizations and devotes many passages to people who have perished (3:137; 6:11; 12:109; 16:36; 22:46; 27:69; 30:9, 42; 35:44; 40:21, 82; 47:10), “Have you considered how your Lord dealt with [the people] of ʿ‘Ad of Iram [the city] of lofty pillars, whose like has never been made in any land, and the Thamud, who hewed into the rocks in the valley, and the mighty and powerful Pharaoh? All of them committed excesses in their lands, and spread corruption there: your Lord let a scourge of punishment loose on them” (89:6–14).
Almighty Allah (swt) spoke of sites that existed and that had survived for centuries, if not thousands of years. Had He wanted them wiped off the face of the earth, He could have done so. He left them there as signs. The Messenger of Allah (pbuh), who was well-traveled, as were many of the Arab Bedouins and traders, had visited many ancient sites. Had he opposed their existence, he would have commanded Muslims to destroy them. He did not. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), respected property, private property, communal property, public property, and the collective property and heritage of humanity.
Allow me to give you but a single example for the sake of illustration. When the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) liberated the Ka‘bah, he came across an image of Jesus, and his holy mother Mary (a), painted in the inner chamber of the sacred sanctuary. He covered the image with his sacred hand and commanded his followers to protect it. The Messenger of Allah did not encourage the visual representation of holy personalities and prophets, since this could lead to the exaggeration of their status and, in the case of Jesus, culminated in his deification. Nonetheless, he respected the signs of Allah (swt) that he saw.
We Muslims, or better yet, we human beings who happen to be Muslims, are morally and ethically required to preserve our heritage. Cells pass down information. DNA is transmitted. Likewise, knowledge and wisdom are passed down; orally, in written form, by means of all of the arts, and by mode of architecture. Tragically, our history is being destroyed every day. Salafi-Wahhabi iconoclasts are committing religious, cultural, historical, and scientific suicide. They destroy sites that are judged important to the collective interests of humanity. As the International Criminal Court in The Hague has established by adopting the Rome Statute in 1998, the destruction of historical buildings is a war crime. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, established in 1993, also considers the destruction of religious buildings as an act of cultural genocide. In the eyes of Allah (swt), in the eyes of Islam, and the eyes of world, the destroyers of sacred world heritage sites are nothing more than criminals of war.