The Erasure of History: ISIL’s Mission to Destroy Non-Islamic Religious Artifacts and Buildings

Janna Adelstein – 

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Destruction of the Temple of Baalshamin by ISIL in Palmyra, Syria (2015)

With headlines in the news of ISIL destroying non-Muslim religious buildings and monuments, one has to wonder why they would undertake such a task. In order to understand ISIL’s motivations for destroying many churches in Mosul, Iraq, such as the Al-Tahera Church, the St Markourkas Church, the Monastery of St. Elian, among others, we must investigate the history of Islamic interaction with Churches and other non-Muslim religious buildings, the text of Qur’an, and modern influences on ISIL such as the Taliban.

When understanding the destruction of non-Islamic temples and art by ISIL, we must explore the history of how Muslim rulers interacted with arts of other religions. One of the most important cases of a Muslim ruler interacting with a non-Muslim Temple is between Sultan Mehmed II and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey (then Constantinople, Anatolia). While the case of Hagia Sophia is very compelling, it is not unique, and therefore serves as a good historical example. Mehmed II conquered Istanbul in 1453, and reportedly the first official place Mehmed visited after the conquest was the Hagia Sophia, which he converted into a mosque. Although icons of saints and other holy figures were removed immediately after the conversion, paintings of Jesus and Mary were not plastered over for a few hundred years.[1] Mehmed II did not only chose not to destroy the Hagia Sophia, he decided to convert it to a Mosque in respect for its beauty and its history. Although the Hagia Sophia had belonged to a different faith, Mehmed II recognized its value, showing that ISIL’s mission to destroy the buildings of other religions is not precedented in Middle Eastern or Islamic history.

Mehmed II also chose to keep the name of the Mosque and he kept the name of the city Constantinople officially because Mehmet and the other leaders recognized that Constantine (and Justinian, who they regarded highly for building the Hagia Sophia) were alive before the advent of Islam and so they had no opportunity to convert.[2] This allowed Mehmet II to respect the creations of Justinian and Constantine, since he believed that they were to Islam what Moses was to Judaism or Christianity. Therefore, Mehmet probably saw no point in destroying a building or renaming a city when the leaders were inspirational and great Emperors and they had never done anything to harm Islam- in fact, he believed that if given the chance, they might convert. Therefore, historically great Muslim rulers (such as Mehmed II) have chosen not to destroy Christian churches made before Islam, since Islam did not exist and therefore no mosques to celebrate the religion could have been built.

Afghan Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakel

Many years later, the Taliban was one of the most prominent Islamic groups to make headlines for destroying artifacts of worship of non-Islamic religions, specifically Buddhist statues. The Taliban’s actions serve as an earlier example and influence for ISIL. In February and March of 2001, the Taliban destroyed 1,700 year old statues of the Buddha in Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan.[3] These statues were made at least 300 years before the creation of Islam, and therefore their patrons would not have known of the Islamic faith and could not convert or create statues for Islam. However, Buddhism does not worship any gods, including the god worshipped by practitioners of the Abrahamic faiths. Because the people who created these Buddhist statues in the Hindu Kush mountains did not believe in god as Muslims do, then the Taliban may have had justification for destroying these statues. Foreign Afghan Minister Wakil Ahmafd Mutawakel condoned the destruction of the statues, saying, “We are destroying the Buddha statues in accordance with Islamic law, and it is purely a religious issue.”[4] So, according to the Taliban and its associates, it was okay to destroy icons of the Buddha. However, their destruction of religious sites was not just limited to those of non-Abrahamic religions.

The Taliban did not just limit its destruction to religions which do not believe in their God, going against the previous historical precedent of not destroying Christian buildings set by Mehmed II. On September 22nd, 2013, two suicide bombers killed 127 people and injured another 250 after the Sunday service at the All Saints Church in Peshawar, Pakistan.[5] The Taliban’s bombing of the All Saint’s church was justified in Sharia law because the All Saints Church was opened on St. John’s Day, December 27th, 1883,[6] over a millennia after the advent of Islam. The people in the Church at the time of the attack were also most likely aware of Islam (seeing as that they were in a predominantly Muslim country), and therefore, in the eyes of the Taliban, had the opportunity to convert to Islam. However, this attack also defies the words of the Qur’an, that the people of the Abrahamic faiths worship the same God, even if the Taliban found justification in for the attack in some articles of Sharia law. So, since the Church goers knew and intentionally avoided Islam, as well as the original creators of the Church, the Taliban could use that knowledge to say that the victims were knowingly ignoring the way of Islam, which differentiates the case of the Taliban from that of Mehmed since the patrons of the Hagia Sophia could not have been Muslim, and were not avoiding the embrace of the Qur’an.

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Before and After Shots of St. Elijah’s Monastery (2011, 2014)

Examining the acts of the Taliban takes us to modern crises- ISIL’s relentless and purposeful destruction of non-Muslim religious artifacts and buildings. In August and September of 2014, ISIL destroyed the oldest monastery in Iraq, Dair Mar Elia or Saint Elijah’s monastery in Nineveh Governorate, Iraq.[7] However, ISIL made no public statement about the attack and the destruction of St. Elijah’s was on confirmed by Satellite on January 20th, 2016.[8] Because ISIL left no statement, and left people to find out about the destruction of the monastery on their own, we cannot know the exact wording or scripture sited in defense of their actions. However, the case of St. Elijah’s is very different from that of the All Saints Day church destroyed by the Taliban. Firstly, like the Hagia Sophia, St. Elijah’s was established before the advent of Islam in the year 595. Therefore, the monk Mar Elia who founded the monastery could not have converted to Islam, because it didn’t exist, just like Justinian in the case of Hagia Sophia.

St. Elijah’s had been closed in 1743 by the Persian and Muslim leader Tahmaz Nadir Shah when the monks of the monastery would not convert to Islam.[9] Therefore, when ISIL destroyed the monastery on 2014, it was not even being used as a place of worship. In the case of the All Saints Mosque, the members of the Taliban targeted people who still worshipped another religion while knowing of Islam- and yet ISIL destroyed the St. Elijah mosque because it used to be used for Christian religious purposes, even though it had not been used as such for hundreds of years by the time they destroyed it. Unlike Mehmed II, ISIL did not recognize that Mar Elia and the other monks who founded St Elijah might have been to Islam like what Moses is to Judaism and Christianity (in that Moses was a great predecessor who is still important in the religions even though he lived before either religion existed and therefore he was not a Jew), the way that Mehmed recognized Justinian and Constantine as being the Moses of Islam. ISIL’s actions therefore have little grounding in the actions of both the Taliban (since they destroyed a Church with practicing Christians) or Mehmed II (since ISIL failed to acknowledge that the founder of the monastery could not have converted to Islam).

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Territorial gains and losses of the Islamic State (2012)

Despite the actions against Christianity that ISIL and the Taliban have e undertook, the Qur’an itself is quite tolerant towards the other Abrahamic religions. In Book 2, verse 64 of the Qur’an, it says, “[Muslims] and those who were Jews or Christians. will have their reward with their Lord, and no fear will there be concerning them, nor will they grieve.” [10] Here, the Qur’an clearly states the god will not punish the Jews or Christians, and there is an implication that if God will not punish people of the other Abrahamic faiths, then why would other Muslims do what god will not? While the destruction of objects and religious spaces is very different from the targeting ad murder of people of Abrahamic and other faiths (which ISIL does frequently, as well as the Taliban relevant here for the case of the ALL Saint’s Church), the destruction of religious spaces is a clearly an unequal treatment of the people who practice other Abrahamic religions, and therefore goes against what is written in the Qur’an.

The new and brutal destruction of non-Muslim (particularly Christian) sites by ISIL is not only morally wrong, it also has little precedent in history or in the Qur’an. Mehmed II’s example of retaining the Hagia Sophia as converting it to a mosque, while powerful, is not unique – The St. Nicholas Cathedral in Cyprus is now the Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque, the Church of St. John the Baptist in Beirut, Lebanon is now the Al Omari Mosque, the St. Phillips Cathedral of Algiers, Algeria is now the Ketchaoua Mosque, and there are many other Churches that have been converted to Mosques. The Taliban- later followed by ISIL’s- determination to destroy churches and other non-Muslim holy sites is a complete departure from the history of Islam and is also not supported by the Qur’an. Therefore, ISIL’s ongoing actions are not in line with the Muslim faith, and rather serve as an expression of their power and hate for all people who do not agree with their ideas. ISIL should not, and cannot rightfully call themselves the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.”


Works Cited

[1] Necipoglu, Gülru. “The Life of an Imperial Monument: Hagia Sophia after Byzantium.” Hagia Sophia from the Age of Justinian to the Present. By Robert Mark and A. Ş. Çakmak. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. pag. 196-7. Print.

[2] Erik Inglis “Hagia Sophia and the Ottoman Empire” Synagogues, Churches, and Mosques. 2 May. 2016.

[3] Rashid, Ahmed. “After 1,700 Years, Buddhas Fall to Taliban Dynamite. “The Telegraph. N.p., 12 Mar. 2001. Web.

[4]  Hankes, Beth. “Politics of Religion? The Bamiyan Buddha Tragedy of 2001.” Mount Holyoke College, n.d. Web.

[5] Craig, Tim, and Haq Nawaz Khan. “Dozens Killed as Suicide Bombers Attack Christian Worshipers in Pakistan.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 22 Sept. 2013. Web.

[6] Hughes, Thomas Patrick. “All Saints’ Memorial Church, in the City of Peshawar, Afghanistan, by Thomas Patrick Hughes (1885).”Anglican History. N.p., 26 Mar. 1885. Web.

[7] “Isis has destroyed Iraq’s oldest Christian monastery.” The Guardian, 20 Jan. 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/20/isis-has-destroyed-iraqs-oldest-christian-monastery-satellite-images-confirm

[8] “Iraq’s Oldest Christian Monastery Destroyed by Islamic State.” BBC News. BBC, 20 Jan. 2016. Web.

[9]  Mendoza, Martha, Maya Alleruzzo, and Bram Janssen. “ISIL Destroys Religious Sites.” US News & World Report. N.p., 20 Jan. 2016. Web.

[10] Khan, Vahiduddin and Faridah Khanam. “Book Two.” The Quran. New Delhi: Goodword, 2009. N. pag. Print.

The Erasure of History: ISIL’s Mission to Destroy Non-Islamic Religious Artifacts and Buildings
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