Destroying Islam's Holiest Shrine for Al-Assad?
by Irfan Al-Alawi
In mid-August, the Muslim world was shocked when Fayez Shukr Sraha, regional head of the Ba'ath Party in Lebanon, declared in an interview with the Lebanese OTV television channel that he would be willing to "destroy the Ka'bah for the sake of Bashar Al-Assad."
The Ka'bah, a black stone cube at the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, is Islam's holiest shrine. It is that location, called the qibla, to which all Muslims turn when they pray. In addition, millions of pilgrims in the Islamic hajj pilgrimage, which takes place during four days in Dhu'l Hijjah, the concluding month of the Islamic lunar year, walk around the Ka'bah as a central event of the experience.
Participants in the regular hajj are supplemented by millions of Muslims who participate in umrah, a briefer religious excursion that may be undertaken at any time of year, but in which circumambulation of the Ka'bah remains a required practice.
The Lebanese Ba'athist, Shukr, as he is generally known, is notorious for his provocative demeanor. In 2011, defending Al-Assad, he engaged in a physical fracas on another Lebanese station, MTV – different, obviously, from the Western pop-music network – with a former member of the Lebanese parliament, Mustafa Alloush, who represented the non-sectarian Future Movement.
The year before, Shukr tried to incite Lebanese Muslims against Christian leaders. And he sought to obstruct the work of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is investigating the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. The Tribunal has also been denounced by Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah terrorists – four of whose members have been indicted in the murder of Hariri. Hezbollah forces have been fighting alongside Al-Assad's troops in Syria.
In the recent OTV interview, Shukr proclaimed that the Ka'bah is a mere pile of rocks and that its value is inferior to that of a human – in this case, presumably, Bashar Al-Assad – but without acknowledging that in Syria, some 100,000 people have been killed because of Al-Assad's tyranny.
Following the Iranian propaganda line – according to which the combat in Syria is controlled through Saudi Arabia by the U.S. and Israel – Shukr further warned that Syria and its supporters would destroy the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and the Saudi commercial metropolis, Jedda.
Historic preservation of the Ka'bah and the Grand Mosque in Mecca is already a major issue in the Muslim countries; the Saudi Arabian monarchy has altered the architecture of the Mosque and redesigned the district around it.
A gigantic clock tower now overshadows the Grand Mosque, in comparison with which the Ka'bah is reduced to a tiny object. In addition, the Grand Mosque is now surrounded by skyscraper hotels and malls. Before the takeover of Mecca by Wahhabis in 1924, down through centuries of Ottoman rule over the holy city, the walls of the Grand Mosque were no higher than the Ka'bah. But in the years since, the Saudis have expanded the Grand Mosque ambitiously and heedlessly, and destroyed important elements of the Islamic architectural and cultural heritage in its structure and surroundings.
Mecca is being commercialised, in a perverse form of modernisation through which the Saudi kingdom seems to want to prove its progress by emulating the least prudent and most vulgar excesses of Western entertainment and commercial design. They treat Mecca as if it were comparable to Las Vegas or the London City Financial Centre, rather than a focus of faith.
During the 1930s, Wahhabi hardliners were rumoured to desire the demolition of the Ka'bah and Grand Mosque. In their bizarre, ideologized version of Islam, which despises tradition, preservation of the Ka'bah and the Grand Mosque had transformed them into "idols," thereby meriting their destruction. They were prevented from so extreme an action mainly by the outcry of Indian Muslims. They did, however, uproot the grave markers, and level the shrines in the two cemeteries of Jannat ul-Baqi in Medina and Jannat al-Mualla in Mecca, based on the consistent Wahhabi condemnation of grave-markers, tombs, and shrines also as "idols."
The Wahhabis further succeeded in "renovating" such buildings as the house in which Muhammad was believed to have been born, which was turned into a cattle market and then covered by a library, as well as many similar buildings associated with Muhammad's family and companions, and a group of historic mosques dated back to Muhammad's lifetime.
In some Muslim lands, Wahhabi vandalism of cultural monuments has become common. The world was shocked by the Wahhabi invasion of Timbuktu last year, in which the ancient mosques, shrines, and libraries of one of Africa's most distinguished cities were demolished, and many of their precious manuscripts destroyed. The Wahhabi outbreak in Mali was preceded by bombings and arson against Muslim sanctuaries and memorials in Pakistan, other South Asian countries, Egypt and Libya, and even in the European country of Macedonia.
Shukr's outrageous bluster against the Ka'bah expresses more than the intense zealotry of Al-Assad's supporters, and the growing probability that the Syrian civil war will renew the conflict that tormented Lebanon from 1975 to 1990. Western media describe the Syrian Ba'athist dictator and his hardcore defenders, members of the "Alawite" or "Nusayri" sect, as an offshoot of Shia Islam; the Shia clerical regime in Tehran backs Al-Assad. Yet Shias, no less than Sunnis, are concerned with protecting Mecca and the Ka'bah, and for years Shias have been among the most strident protestors against Wahhabi vandalism of the Islamic legacy in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
Given the large body of Shia rhetoric against Saudi-Wahhabi cultural vandalism, the hypocrisy of the "Alawites'" rhetoric, warning that they may wreck the Ka'bah, should be obvious. Until the 20th century, however, the "Alawites" were not even considered Muslims. Their beliefs were regarded as originating in pre-Islamic cults; they included the doctrine that the universe, humanity, and Muhammad were created by Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib – the cousin and son-in-law, and fourth caliph (successor to Muhammad as leader of the global Muslim community) – who was assassinated in 661 CE.
The "Alawites" now ruling Syria, drowning it in blood, and seeking apparently to spread their war throughout the Middle East, were argued to be Muslims in the interest of Arab unity in the 1930s, but were officially accepted by Shias (but not by Sunni authorities in any country) only in the 1970s, during the Lebanese war.
In bloodshed and ruination, the "Alawites" presently seem to be exceeding the Saudi-inspired Wahhabis and other fundamentalists claiming the mantle of Sunnism. The Al-Assad regime has already devastated the city of Aleppo, including its Umayyad mosque, where the minaret was leveled. Aleppo's Umayyad mosque housed a shrine to Zechariah, honored as a prophet by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and believed by the latter two communities to have been the father of John the Baptist.
The Al-Assad regime has also seriously damaged a synagogue that is more than 2,000 years old and was built to honor the prophet Elijah – like Zechariah, praised by Jews, Christians, and Muslims – in Damascus.
Although we do not yet know who might replace the Al-Assad dictatorship if it is overthrown, the threat of Al-Assad's Lebanese subordinate, Fayez Shukr, should not be ignored or viewed as trivial. It expresses the grave danger the Syrian regime continues to pose to the region, if not the world.