Syrian rebels have taken iconoclasm to new depths, with shrines, statues and even a tree destroyed – but to what end?

Compared writing poetry to the sex act? May he be turned to dust!

Share
Related Topics

Eccentricity marks the path to heaven or hell. Take the Takfiri rebels trying to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. They have chopped off the heads of their enemies, eaten a few human entrails, massacred Christians and Alawites – the Damascus government, of course, has done its share of civilian bloodletting and war crimes – and even gone to war on the Kurds. But of all the activities of the al-Qa’ida/al-Nusra/Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria insurgents in Syria, surely the weirdest has been an iconoclasm worthy of both Henry VIII and the Taliban: the destruction of shrines, tombs and the statues of poets and caliphs.

Take, for example, Abu Tammam Habib ibn Aws who was born near Damascus AD804. He was assistant to a weaver and the son of Christian parents – an obvious provocation to the Nusra lads 2,213 years later – but travelled to Egypt to study poetry. He went to Armenia and Iran, and produced an anthology of other poets’ work known as the Hamasah, an anthology of bravery, courage in defeat and revenge.

A work, you might think, that could appeal to the Salafists anxious to rid Syria of its infidel president. But no. In his native town of Jasim in the countryside of Deraa this year, the Islamists destroyed his statue. They simply blew it up with explosives. Was it because he had Christian parents? Unlikely, surely, since some of the current followers of al-Nusra are Muslim converts. Or was it because Abu Tammam brazenly compared the composition of poetry to the sex act? May he be turned to dust!

So let’s move on to Abu al-Ala Ahmad ibn Abd Allah al-Ma’arri, who was born almost 170 years after Abu Tammam near Aleppo, the ancient city currently split between rebel and government fighters.

Like Milton, al-Ma’arri was almost blind, but produced a popular collection of poetry called The Tinder Spark and later, in Baghdad – where he was adored by writers but lived in almost hermit-like isolation on a vegetarian diet – wrote Unnecessary Necessity, which complained about the rhyming scheme of poetry. More dodgy, however, al-Ma’arri also described a Dante-like visit to heathen poets in paradise. And a later work was described as a parody of the Koran. He believed, so we are told, in “social justice” – whatever that was in the 9th century – but thought a world without children would spare future generations the pain of life.

Well, you can understand why the al-Nusra boys scratched their heads when they saw al-Ma’arri’s turbaned statue. For the poor chap is also credited with telling his readers: “Do not suppose the statements of the prophets to be true… The sacred books are only such a set of idle tales as any age could have…” So off with his head! The al-Nusra guys decapitated the statue in al-Ma’arri’s home town of Maarat al-Numan.

Then we come to Harun ar-Rashid himself, the fifth Abbasid caliph of One Thousand and One Nights fame, who ruled Islam’s greatest empire, putting down revolts – Assad-style – in Syria, Egypt and Yemen, even bringing Tunisia under his rule. He became an immensely wealthy man whose wife insisted that only gold and silver would hold food on the family table. The palace was packed with singing girls, concubines and servant girls. But… word had it that he maintained a homosexual relationship with Jafar, one of his principal administrators, who was later executed. Luxury, concubines, vice. No chance, then, for Harun’s statue in the city of Rakaa – the only town in Syria currently under total Islamist control. His image, in the city’s Ar-Rashid Park, no less, was destroyed.

Need one go on? The shrine of the Prophet’s companion Hujr ibn Adi has been destroyed in Rif Damascus (the countryside around the capital) and a shrine to a Sufi sheikh in Busaira has been blown up. The Islamists have even announced the cutting down of a 150-year-old tree in the town of Atmeh – next to another shrine which the Salafists had taken over. “Thank God Almighty, the tree… has been removed, after people were worshipping it instead of God,” an Islamist informed a French news agency.

But what’s new? Didn’t the Taliban destroy the Buddhas of Bamiyan, just as the Saudis have reduced every old building in Mecca to rubble and the Islamists hundreds of shrines in Pakistan? Not to mention the destruction in Timbuktu. Think Henry VIII. Think Oliver Cromwell – who would surely have understood the cruelty of the Syrian war. And beware graven images. Pity about the tree.

More from Robert Fisk this week here: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/do-you-get-phonecalls-from-nowhere-9021026.html

React Now

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

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

John Rentoul
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...