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Saudi Arabia, in which Wahhabism is the state form of Islam, has a long history of vandalizing and demolishing historical monuments. Wahhabi doctrine holds that raising gravestones or tombs or maintaining graveyards constitutes idolatry, known in Arabic as shirk, a grievous sin. So does preserving buildings--including religious structures such as mosques. To Wahhabis, a beloved building, the tomb of a saintly figure, or a gravestone is an idol. In Wahhabism, prayers to the Prophet are forbidden--above all because Wahhabis see in them a parallel with Christian worship of Jesus.
Thus, the Saudis followed their conquest of Mecca and Medina in the mid-1920s with an orgy of destruction. They leveled the "Jannat al-Baqi" or "Heavenly Orchard" at Medina that included graves of the Prophet Muhammad's son Ibrahim, as well as numerous of the Prophet's relatives and original companions. They also looted the Prophet's Shrine in Medina and demolished the cemetery in Mecca that included the graves of Muhammad's mother and grandfather. They completely destroyed mausoleums, mosques, and other honored sites, including Muhammad's own house. It was even said that they wished to uproot the grave of Muhammad himself and tear down the Kaaba, the stone temple at the center of Mecca. They were prevented from this last act by pressure from Muslims in India.
Wahhabi vandalism continues today, and its appearance is typically the first sign of aggressive Saudi penetration of Muslim lands. Saudi agents uprooted graveyards in Kosovo even before the war began there in the late 1990s, and Wahhabi missionaries have sought to demolish Sufi tombs in Kurdistan. Late in 2002, the Saudi government tore down the historic Ottoman fortress of Ajyad in Mecca, causing outrage in many Muslim countries.
And now the Saudi authorities are at it again, according to reports from enraged Saudi subjects, who as in earlier instances have requested anonymity. The city planning authorities in Medina, known for their Wahhabi extremism, have ordered the leveling of five of seven mosques built in the city by Muhammad's daughter and four of his companions. These structures are the Mosque of Sayyida Fatima bint Rasulillah, Salman al-Farsi Mosque, Abu Bakr Mosque, Umar ibn al-Khattab Mosque, and Mosque of Ali ibn Abi Talib. The latter three were constructed by figures among the four "righteous caliphs" who immediately succeeded Muhammad in the leadership of Islam. The structures in question are unique cultural assets whose historic value is literally incalculable, to say nothing of their religious symbolism.
Wahhabi desecration of Islamic sacred relics clash notably with the claims of bin Laden and other ultra-Wahhabis, who argue that the Hijaz, the territory including Mecca and Medina, is "holy Muslim territory" on which no non-Muslim should set foot. Indeed, al Qaeda propaganda would have the West believe that all of Saudi Arabia belongs to this category. That would presumably include Riyadh, where Saks Fifth Avenue and The Body Shop maintain branches.
The truth is quite different. Hajj pilgrimages to Mecca are a prerogative of Muslims alone, and Muhammad did say that there should not be two religions in Arabia. The caliph Umar ordered the expulsion of Jews and Christians from Arabia. Wahhabis interpret these edicts to forbid adherents of other faiths from practicing their religion within the borders of the Saudi kingdom. But traditional Muslims interpret Muhammad's opinion to mean that monotheism and paganism could not coexist in the country, and Umar's order was never completely carried out.
Indeed, until the Wahhabi takeover in the 1920s, local Christians maintained a church in Jeddah. Thousands of Jews lived in Yemen until the 1950s. The closure of Mecca and Medina to non-Muslims is subject to debate in the Islamic world with regard to its history as well as its appropriateness. At present, Christian churches and Hindu temples function openly in Oman, a country with a more conservative Islamic tradition than Saudi Arabia. Kuwait, the Emirates, and Bahrain also permit open Christian worship--the latter island even boasts a synagogue as well as a Hindu temple.
All of which illustrates that Saudi Islam, or Wahhabism, is not about faith, but about power. And nothing better illustrates the power of the state, in the mind of the Saudi rulers, than the desecration of holy places--including Islamic sites dating from the time of the Prophet Muhammad himself.