A prophet’s grave is often a myth.
Abraham, the Ur-prophet of all three monotheistic faiths, is said to be interred in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, in the West Bank, along with his sons Isaac and Jacob, and the wives of all three. The Hebrew Bible says that Moses died and was buried on Mount Nebo, in Jordan, forbidden by God to enter the Promised Land. Jesus, according to the New Testament, was interred in Jerusalem, in a cave near the site of the crucifixion. But there is no physical evidence for any of these burials, only the stories in the Holy Books.
The case of Islam’s Prophet Mohammed (570-632 AD) is different. There are detailed histories of his life, and Mohammed’s tomb in Medina (along with those of his family and early companions) has stood continuously since his death. The monumental al-Masjid al-Nabawi mosque was constructed around the tomb, which sits on the site of Mohammed’s home. Muslims around the world revere the place, and each year hundreds of thousands visit it as a side trip on the hajj pilgrimage to the black granite Ka’aba building in Mecca. The two cities, Mecca and Medina, are in Saudi Arabia. Thus the Saudis are custodians of Islam’s two holiest sites, and Saudi Arabia is the geographical center of Islam.
Now consider this astonishing but hardly-reported fact: Last year a 61-page proposal began circulating in Saudi elite circles about dismantling Mohammed’s tomb and reburying the remains in an anonymous grave in a nearby cemetery. How could the Saudis even consider doing this? And what does this have to do with Islamic State’s recent suicide bombings on Saudi territory?
The issue is written into the long history of Islam. The Saudi debate and the ISIS bombings are the most recent twist in an age-old conflict between Sunni and Shiite interpretations of the faith. Less well understood is the fact that it’s also part of Islamic State’s long-game strategy to delegitimize the Saudi regime as Islam’s religious and geopolitical focal point, to create social chaos that ISIS could manipulate, and ultimately to overthrow the Saudi government and take its place.
The Islamic State’s cause is a campaign against idolatry. Strict Sunni belief holds that because Allah is the One True God, unique and supreme, worship of any other god or human being – even of Mohammed himself – is idolatry (shirk). To revere Mohammed as Christians revere Jesus is a mortal sin, worthy of death. Mohammed himself said, “O people, if anyone worships Mohammed, Mohammed is dead. If anyone worships God, God is alive, immortal.” In an act Muslims consider foundational, Mohammed went to the Ka’aba and smashed the effigies of various gods outside and paintings of pagan deities on the walls inside. Shite belief, by contrast, builds mosques dedicated to particular saints and reveres Mohammed’s tomb and those of his family near, with a particular affinity for that of the prophet’s daughter Fatima.
The Islamic State’s bombings of Shiite mosques – and all the other violence ISIS has visited on Shia across the Middle East – is comprehensible within the frame of Islam’s core internal conflict. The commercial and logistical extravaganza of allowing the hajj pilgrimage and worship at Mohammed’s tomb creates a religious risk for the Saudis in that it legitimizes extremist Sunni jihad to oust them. If Mohammed’s remains were buried in an anonymous grave, pilgrims couldn’t worship there because they couldn’t find the right grave. The Saudis could not be accused of idolatry.
Western media reporting of destruction of religious artifacts emphasizes the Islamic State’s need for money to finance its operations. Thousands of stolen statues and other relics have been sold on the international collectors’ black market. But others have been destroyed, pulverized with sledge hammers. The Islamic State’s smashing of idols, in their view, follows the example set by Mohammed at the Ka’aba. Destruction of icons and Shiite mosques dedicated to religious saints (such as the mosque dedicated to Prophet Yunus, the Christian Jonah) is considered a sacred duty that has nothing to do with a nihilistic passion to destroy World Heritage sites. ISIS believes Islam’s purification is advanced by smashing the holy sites of others – not only Shiites, but Christians, Druze, Yazidis, and more.
ISIS does hold a different attitude toward historical sites. When it seized the ancient city of Palmyra last May, it was feared the militants would destroy the ruins of the ancient city, as well as its religious artifacts. However, as reported in the New Yorker, an ISIS commander told a Syrian radio station that, “Concerning the historical city, we will preserve it. What we will do is pulverize the statues the miscreants used to pray to.”
But destroying shrines is not an invention of ISIS, or even of Islam. God instructed the Israelites entering the Promised Land to “destroy all graven images and the high places” of the Canaanite indigenous population. The Protestant Reformation railed against the lavish adornment of Catholic cathedrals and churches. In politics it was the same: the French Revolutionary Jacobins stripped the power of the Catholic Church and seized its property. They finished the job with a symbolic war -cutting the heads off the saints adorning cathedral entrances, some of which can still be seen.
Nothing new here
Today’s proposal to dismantle Mohammed’s tomb is not the first. It has been considered several times throughout history. In the early 1800s, for example, a Saudi army conquered Medina and discussed dismantling the tomb, a plan that was greeted by outrage throughout the mainstream Muslim world. The tomb of Mohammed’s first wife, Khadijah, actually was demolished, along with those of direct relations of Mohammed. In this regard, as in others, ISIS fits well within Islam’s history of internal conflict – even as the immense majority of Muslims are indifferent or outraged.
The irony in this competitive fundamentalism is that the Saudis and the Islamic State are reading from the same book: that of Wahhabism, an 18th century Muslim thinker’s ideology whose goal was to purify Islam by returning to the supposed golden age of the early decades after Mohammed’s death. The Islamic State’s leadership considers even the Wahhabist Saudis to be insufficiently purist, an accusation the Saudis must take seriously. From the staging of political history, it’s an old story: extremists outflanked by even more extremist groups. This is what ISIS did to al-Qaeda, and what it ultimately intends to do to the Saudis. As for the fate of Islamic State: revolutions ultimately devour their children.