SHAFAQNA – Now that ISIS has gained control of Palmyra — and, some fear, could destroy many of the priceless artifacts in the ancient Syrian city — an important Muslim voice has been raised, calling on the world to protect and defend these treasures.
Al Azhar, one of the oldest universities in the world and a center of Sunni Muslim learning, has declared that “protecting archaeological sites from destruction and plundering is the battle of all humanity.” The Cairo-based institution has called on the world community to prevent ISIS from “destroying the cultural and archaeological landmarks of the city.” As one of the most authoritative voices in Sunni Islam, Al Azhar stated that the destruction of world heritages sites and artifacts is haram — that is, forbidden by Sharia law.
Al Azhar has reason to be concerned for Palmyra.
In March 2001 the Taliban shelled and destroyed the giant statues of Buddha that had been erected in the Bamiyan Valley, Afghanistan. Scholars estimate that the statues were built between 507 and 554, before the birth of Muhammad and the arrival of Islam. It was the most widely publicized destruction of antiquities in recent times.
Unfortunately the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was not an isolated example of barbarism in the name of religion. Since 2001 — and with increasing frequency recently — religious extremists have been attacking artistic and ancient artifacts in the name of religion. The most notorious of these desecrators of what the U.N. calls objects of World Heritage has been the self-proclaimed Islamic State, known in the Middle East by its acronym Daesh.
The present rampage of wanton destruction of the art and history of the Middle East is unparalleled in magnitude since the Mongol invasions under Hulagu Khan in the 13th century. The Mongols destroyed Baghdad in 1258 and brought the Golden Age of the Abbasid Caliphate to an end. Ironically ISIS, which claims to have reestablished the caliphate, is behaving in the same way as those who brought the caliphate in that part of the world to an end.
With the fall of Mosul in July 2014 ISIS members sacked the Mosul Museum which had been home to many artifacts dating from the Old through the New Assyrian periods (2015-612 B.C.). While some of the plundered artifacts were sold on the black market, many of the irreplaceable objects were simply and wantonly destroyed.
The world can only hope that the voices of concern raised by Al Azhar will be heard — and heeded.