The ISIS (or IS or ISIL) has had a busy couple of weeks, applying themselves assiduously to the destruction of the historical legacy of the Mosul museum and library and the Assyrian city of Nimrud. Being modern-day terrorists, they have filmed and posted these acts of destruction, as they have been doing with their acts of horror against mankind. The Islamic State has claimed that they are acting in obedience to the Prophet Muhammad’s injunction to destroy idols, so it’s interesting that the Al-Azhar Institute in Cairo, a bastion of Sunni jurisprudence, released a fatwa on Friday forbidding the destruction of ancient sites and artefacts in reaction to this very claim. Al-Azhar called the ISIS’ actions a crime against humanity, given the global cultural value attached to these items.
But isn’t that exactly the point? The ISIS has not been going hammer and tongs at the magnificent seventh century BC lamassu (the Assyrian guardian spirits of winged bulls with human heads) because they’re idols, but because they are considered works of global cultural (not religious) value. This is not an act born of religious belief, it is a display of power accompanying the desire to overwrite existing history with their own, and it’s important not to mix up the two. Such destruction has a long line of precedents, stemming from a range of motivations of which the thirst for domination nonetheless retains centre stage. Rewind to the Taliban blowing up the giant Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001. Rewind to karsevaks pulling apart the Babri Masjid in 1992. Rewind a bit further to Mahmud of Ghazni’s infamous destruction of Somnath. Were these acts of religion or power?
Iconoclasm is not as straightforward as it seems at first glance. Take the case of Somnath for example, as it lies at the centre of a carefully created narrative of Muslim aggression and Hindu resistance and resurgence in India. It’s no accident that Somnath was the site where the BJP, VHP and associated organisations flagged off their “rath yatra” in 1990, casting themselves as the saviours of the Hindu culture and sovereignty. We are taught that Mahmud of Ghazni’s attack on Somnath in 1026 as an attack of Islam against Hinduism – an interpretation that colonial historians with their two-nation theory, as well as Hindu nationalist historians have perpetuated.
There is no doubt Mahmud destroyed this temple, among others, and that idols were defaced and destroyed. But was this primarily in his own interest or Islam’s? And what did he do with the plundered wealth he carried back? He transformed his capital at Ghazni into a centre of the arts and learning, because that was his real audience – his position in the larger Islamic world, not in India. He had no real interest in conquering India, nor in converting its inhabitants.
However, some Muslim chroniclers of his times, such as Abu Said Gardizi, claimed that Somnath was the Mecca of Hinduism, its nerve centre, and that all Hindu rulers from shore to shore paid homage to it, making the temple a potent political symbol as well. Its destruction was therefore equated to the conquest of India, for which the Caliph in Baghdad conferred the title of “refuge of the state and of Islam” upon Mahmud. It is important to note, however, that Indian sources conferred no such preeminent status to Somnath.
Were Muslims the only iconoclasts of medieval India? Certainly not. For medieval rulers, plunder was morally sanctioned and one of the primary objectives of war. The Dharmashastra of Manu clearly lays out the method by which loot should be distributed among victors. The appropriation of significant objects from a defeated king’s court were natural targets, and icons figured prominently in those significant objects (along with temporal royal insignia like seals and thrones). Temples were closely tied to the political order, and sanctified a ruler’s divine right to rule. Co-opting, removing or destroying them were statements of conquest. Take for example a famous 11th century sculpture of a Chalukyadvarapala (door guardian), which was carried to Thanjavur by its Chola captor and inscribed – “This is the door guardian brought by lord Vijayarajrendradeva after burning Kalyanapuram” and displayed as a war trophy. The Chalukya king had not been able to protect the doors of his kingdom after all, and repositioning and inscribing of this sculpture advertised his subjugation and the authority of the Cholas. And what is destruction if not another form of appropriation.
Think of Tipu’s Tiger, housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Made in India, this ingenious organis in the shape of a Tiger (Tipu Sultan was the Tiger of Mysore) crouched over a British soldier. When the handle is cranked, the tiger mauls the soldier, roaring. So why did the British transport it all the way to England? Because they defeated Tipu Sultan and had the last laugh. The organ became a symbol of Tipu’s hubris and the EIC’s supremacy.
The ISIS’ tragic destruction of cultural heritage has little to do with Islam and much to do with rewriting history. Erasing artefacts that have stood for centuries, untouched by other conquerors, is a sign of their supremacy over all those who came before and articulates the (vain) hope that they will outlast time. Think of Ozymandias, propped up limbless in an ancient desert land. Such hubris.
Why is it important not to confuse piety with power? Because then the revenge/payback scenarios tend to get entirely illogical and out of hand, ripe for manipulation. Like in the case of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi issue. Was this really a battle between Islam and Hinduism, playing itself out over the centuries? Or was it a convenient historical narrative to pave the BJP’s path to the Lok Sabha? Perhaps the best response to the ISIS’ depredations is a satirical post I came across - “The Islamic State wins prestigious Turner Prize for modern art, for its conceptual art piece ‘Smashing Mosul Museum to Pieces: Death to the Infidels’.”