From the Papal monasteries to Timbuktu, absolutism lives on

For the Salafists, a Muslim shrine is a rival to God as surely as Henry VIII saw the monasteries as a Papal rival

Share
Related Topics

“Then I crushed it and ground it to powder as fine as dust…” – exactly, I imagine, what the Islamic zealots were thinking as they trashed ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu last week.

Or indeed what the Taliban’s munitions men had in mind when they blasted the Buddhas of Bamian to bits in 2001. Only the quotation comes not from the Koran or the Hadith of the Prophet Mohamed, but from the Holy Bible, Deuteronomy 9:21. I’m afraid to say that in the religions of Abraham, idolatry is a statue-smasher, a stained glass window- breaker, a shrine-destroyer, a book-burner.

True, the Saudis have already bulldozed graves of the early Islamic era. But didn’t Oliver Cromwell’s troops pull out the bones of the knights of Kilkenny and hurl them into mass graves, all the while hacking off their carved stone heads from their tombs? All golden calves must be immolated. And if cosmopolitan art and culture are symbolic of a hated multi-ethnic world, then surely this explains why I discovered on the floor of the burned-out Sarajevo library only the card-index files of books in the failed pre-war European ‘language’ of Esperanto.

Odd how Mohammed Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who became the 18th Century philosophical high priest of the future Saudi kingdom and the Sunni world’s principle enemy of graven images, was so unpopular. The Iraqis of Basra allegedly chucked him out of town - even his own brother condemned him - but the beliefs he bequeathed to the house of Saud have survived. Fight corruption but never kill the king, which means that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and his family are safe, at least until he dies of old age. Quite a sword to live under.

Yet Wahhabism remains the Salafist creed, a Sahara Puritanism that Cromwell’s army could only dream of. Read the first chapter of Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom and you’ll find the most compelling explanation of this harsh, self-destructive absolutism. Infinitely sad, totally uncompromising, a belief sucked from the colourless sands and the sword-like heat of the desert. God cannot tolerate any partner, any rival, and thus the Arabic ‘shrk’ – the act of ‘sharing’ – has come to represent iconoclasm which, at its most extreme, means that no bust, no written page, no decorated grave may distract us from the worship/fear/abstraction and anger of God. Teach this to the illiterate, the poor, the lost souls of war - and they will tear down the gates of the Sufi saints, and view the libraries of Timbuktu as idolatrous as the torn mobile phone posters and scratched safe-sex advertisements which my colleague Daniel Howden witnessed in the city last week.

The Islamists of northern Mali, many of whom are indeed Malians - with an added cocktail of al-Qa’ida desperadoes to quicken the fury of the West - smash their own cultural history with the same abandon as the Islamists of Nigeria burn churches. For the Salafists, a Muslim shrine signifies a rival to God, as surely as Henry VIII saw the monasteries as a Papal rival of his own supreme leadership of the church in England. The Taliban regarded the representation of any human form as corrupt; so, too, the English Puritans regarded the wondrous stained-glass windows of the Middle Ages.

The Saudis have shown contempt for the Shia as well as Sunni shrines of the Kingdom. They even helped destroy a few in Bahrain after the Shias on the island staged their forlorn 2011 revolt. We shall not contemplate the pulverised Shia basilicas of Iraq. Nor can the one God who rules over both Christians and Muslims protect their heavenly creations or their places of worship. Croatian Catholics shelled the Ottoman – and thus Muslim – bridge of Mostar into the Neretva river. And that same Balkan slaughterhouse consumed the 18 century mosques of Banja Luka – blown up by Serb Orthodox militiamen – and the old Muslim graves of the Drina Valley, as surely as the Muslim Azerbaijanis have smashed the decorated Armenian Christian graves along their common border. The churches of northern Cyprus have been destroyed under the eyes of the UN; so have the Orthodox houses of religion in Kosovo. The 14 century monastery of St Kosma was reduced to rubble by the Muslim Kosovars.

The destruction of the monastic libraries in the British Isles and the dissolution of the mother houses – how perfect were their ruins for Turner and his fellow artists – remain a disfiguring scar on our history. No, this does not excuse the Salafist pillage, any more than it does the peasant ignorance of the Taliban - who would literally hang television sets from gallows in Afghanistan while approving the smashing of their own nation’s artefacts.

But that is the point. The Taliban recognised their ‘nation’ only as a mini-caliphate, a Saudi-funded experiment in Salafi state-building, in which humiliation of the West – of our armies and of our predilection for ‘heritage’ at the expense of human suffering – becomes proof-positive of Islam’s superiority. How many Muslim institutions – a dangerous question, this – have condemned the Timbucktu book-burning or the Sufi shrine-bulldozing? For what is parchment in comparison to the majesty of God – especially when a god belongs only to the most self-regarding, the most irredeemable and most isolated of believers, grinding his rivals to powder as fine as dust?

Robert Fisk on Algeria

Buy the new Independent eBook - £1.99 Two decades of reportage on a tragic conflict the West can no longer afford to ignore - by one of the world’s great foreign correspondents

kobo iBooks Amazon Kindle

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £45,000

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a solutions / s...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Kennedy campaign for the Lib Dems earlier this year in Bearsden  

Charles Kennedy: A brilliant man whose talents were badly needed

Baroness Williams
Nick Clegg (R) Liberal Democrat Leader and former leader Charles Kennedy MP, joined the general election campaign trail on April 8, 2010  

Charles Kennedy: The only mainstream political leader who spoke sense

Tim Farron
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific