An Achilles Heel for Saudi Wahhabis?

by Mark Woodward*

On September first the British on-line paper The Independent reported on alleged plans by the Saudi Arabian government to demolish the Prophet Muhammad’s tomb and move his body to an unmarked grave. The Prophet’s tomb is located in the mosque he built in Madinah in the seventh century and is the second most important Muslim holy site. Millions of pilgrims visit every year.   The Independent’s story was based on a 61 page document prepared by Saudi cleric Ali bin Abdulaziz al-Shabal, a faculty member at Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh and an advisor to the committee charged with planning the expansion of the mosque.

The British paper suggested that the destruction of the Prophet’s tomb might lead to increased Sunni-Shia sectarianism. Even the suggestion that the Saudis might demolish the tomb has led to increased sectarianism — not between Sunnis and Shia but between the huge majority of Sunni and Shia Muslims, who view it as a sacrilege, and Saudi Wahhabis.

The story quickly went viral on the Internet and sparked a firestorm of protest in print, in online publications and social media. The Saudi government promptly tried to douse the flames by stating that The Independent had fabricated the story. Ahmed Al-Mansouri, a spokesman the Saudi Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques, stated: “This is the personal opinion of a researcher, who had expressed his views in a study, and it does not reflect the views of the presidency or the Kingdom.”

Muslims though out the world doubt the sincerity of this denial because Saudis and other Wahhabis and Salafis have a long history of demolishing holy places, especially tombs. When they first conquered Mecca and Medina in 1806, razing tombs and shrines was high on their agenda. Most of these were restored when the Ottomans reclaimed the holy cities in 1813. The Saudis destroyed many of them again when they seized power in 1925. On both occasions, Wahhabi clerics advised destroying the Prophet’s tomb. The royal family refused because of concern about the reaction from more powerful Muslim states. Over the last two decades the Saudi government has destroyed hundreds of holy and historical sites to make way for the expansion of the Great Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and to build luxury hotels and upscale shopping malls. This has drawn sharp criticism from Muslims across the globe.

Destroying tombs is a part of the global Wahhabi-Salafi agenda to “purify” Islam. There have been cases in North and West Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and in the Middle East. Most recently ISISL fighters destroyed the tomb of the Prophet Yunus (the Biblical Jonah) in Mosul, Iraq last July.

Wahhabi-Salafi iconoclasm is motivated by the religious teaching that the veneration of graves and seeking the intercession of prophets and saints is shirk (polytheism), an unpardonable sin leading to eternal damnation. Their thinking is that by destroying tombs they can prevent Muslims from falling into sin and save them from hell fire. Less extreme Salafis rely of teaching and preaching to convince their followers to ignore tombs and other shrines. In this respect Salafis are similar to 16th century European Protestant iconoclasts who are well known for destroying Roman Catholic shrines and prohibiting their congregations from engaging in saint veneration.

Wahhabis and other Salafis are a small minority of the world’s Muslim population. Most Muslims, Sunni and Shia alike, think that the veneration of prophets, saints and their tombs is an essential element of Muslim piety and a source of blessing. A survey conducted by the Center of the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University in eight countries outside the Middle East (France, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and the United Kingdom) showed that only 9.6% of respondents accepted the Wahhabi position that it is essential not to visit graves. Wahhabism also teaches that venerating the Prophet Muhammad and celebrating his birthday is forbidden. 82.3% of respondents stated that it is obligatory or desirable. In Indonesia the figures were 2.1% and 96.9% respectively. For most Muslims the thought of destroying the Prophet Muhammad’s tomb is so abhorrent it is almost unimaginable.

Given these findings and the Wahhabi history of shrine desecration, it is not surprising that Indonesian Muslims of a wide range of religious orientations, including all but the most extreme Salafis, doubted Saudi denials and were quick to express their concerns. Protests came for all segements of the Indonesian Muslim community, in print, online and in sermons throughout the country.

The Indonesian Ministry of Religi

On September 4th Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin met with Saudi ambassador Mustafa Ibrahim Al-Mubarak seeking clarification about the alleged plan to destroy the Prophet’s tomb and to inform him that Indonesian Muslims vigorously oppose it. Al-Mubarak assured him that the reports were false and that the Saudi government is committed to keeping the Prophet’s remains in their current location. Statements by the leaders of Indonesia’s major Muslim organizations echoed these official concerns.

Indonesian Traditionalists

Nhadlatul Ulama (NU), which is Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization, issued the strongest condemnation. NU represents the country’s Muslim traditionalist for whom the veneration of tombs and devotion to the Prophet Muhammad are essential elements of religious life. NU was founded in 1926 partly in response to the Saudi destruction of tombs and other holy places in Mecca and Medina and rumors that they intended to destroy the Prophet’s tomb. Slamet Effendi Yusuf, the chairman of NU’s executive council, described the plan as “stupidity” and “ignorance” and stated that NU would be in the vanguard of opposition to it. Former chairmen Hasyim Muzadi and Said Agil Siraj used even stronger language. Both stated that Saudi Arabia will be “destroyed” if the plan is carried out and called on the Indonesian government and all of the country’s Muslim organizations to oppose it with “harsh” measures. In private conversations and on Facebook traditional Indonesian Muslims used even stronger language, describing Wahhabis as heretics and unbelievers for even contemplating desecrating the Prophet’s tomb and calling for jihad against the Wahhabi state should it put the plan into action.

The violent extremist traditionalist Front for the Defense of Islam (FPI) also opposed the plan. Spokesman Muchsin Alatas criticized the Saudis for destroying other religious and historical sites in the holy cities. He described the claim that tomb veneration is shirk as being “only a Wahhabi perspective” and called on the Saudis to be tolerant of other views. While FPI and NU share a common religious orientation, they differ strongly on other issues. NU promotes religious tolerance and civic pluralism. FPI promotes violence against Shia, Ahmadiyah and other Muslim minorities. Millions of NU followers consider former NU chairman in Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid to have been a saint. Alatas has described him as “a saint of Satan.”

Indonesia Salafis

Indonesian Salafi organizations including Muhammadiyah and Persatuan Islam were also critical of the Saudi plan even though both strongly oppose tomb veneration. However, unlike NU, their statements were carefully worded and avoided criticizing the Saudi authorities on religious grounds. Muhammadiyah Deputy Secretary General Abul Mukti stated that the Prophet’s grave is a holy site and that according to international law it should not be moved. He called on Muslims to pay special attention to the Saudi plan especially because they have shown a lack of concern for the historical places of Islam. Persatuan Islam (PERSIS) and Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia (DDII), which have close ties with the Saudi religious establishment, were more restrained. PERSIS General Secretary Maman Abdurrahman stated that because the Prophet Muhammad had clearly chosen his burial site, his grave should not be moved. He also called for calm discussion and negotiation with the Saudi authorities. These statements indicate that the two organizations view the plan to be politically unwise even if it is theologically justifiable. This is in keeping with their cautious, gradualist approach to “purifying” Islam.

DDII and other Salafi organizations and websites with ties to Saudi Arabia also described the story as a hoax perpetrated by some combination the western media, “liberal” and Shia Muslims and Jews. Lembaga Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia and the Salafi oriented Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (Prosperous Justice Party) stated that moving the Prophet Muhammad’s remains was a matter for the ulama to decide and called on the Saudi authorities to respect the aspirations of the Muslim community. DDII spokesman Muhammad Zubaidi issued the strongest denial. He claimed that the story was a rumor spread by enemies of Islam including the Shia to create anxiety in the Muslim community and to encourage hatred of Saudi Arabia.

Traditionalists responded to these accusations by a quoting fatwa (legal opinion) by the prominent Saudi cleric Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani (1914-1999) who wrote that: “It is obligatory to destroy the Prophet’s tomb and remove it from the mosque because the presence of a grave in the Prophet’s Mosque is bid’ah (prohibited innovation).”

Muslims Elsewhere

Indonesians were not alone in expressing outrage about the suggestion the Saudi government might move the Prophet Muhammad’s grave. The India based Correct Islamic Faith Foundation, which is linked to more than 300 Sunni traditionalist organizations world wide, called on the global Muslim community to unite to safeguard the Prophet’s tomb. It used virulent hate speech to denounce the destruction of the graves of the Prophet’s family and companions.

The most brutal, beastly and inhuman treachery in the history of mankind is the desecration and destruction of the pious graves of the family members of Prophet Mohammad…

Salafis who destroyed the memorials, their scholars whose writings and preaching instigated this destruction … and others who support this humiliation, have indeed reserved their permanent places in hell fire. Can there be a second opinion in this regard?

Shia Muslims share these views and routinely refer to the destruction of tombs as Wahhabi terrorism. Shia sectarian discourse often references the Wahhabi attack on Karbala in 1802. Wahhabi and French sources state that at least 5,000 people including women, children and the elderly were killed and that Imam Hussein’s tomb was severely damaged. Imam Hussein was the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson and is among the most revered figures in Shia Islam. Shia clerics often link this event with terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda and ISIS. In online discourse Shias some Sunnis often refer to Wahhabis as pigs, dogs and sub-humans.

Iconoclasm as a Wahhabi Achilles Heel?

Jalaluddin Rakhmat, the leader of the Indonesian Shia organization Ikatan Jemaah Ahlul Bait Indonesia-Syiah, encouraged Indonesian Shia to unite with NU and other Muslim traditionalists in opposition to Wahhabis. He noted that Iran’s leaders also love the Prophet and are deeply disturbed by Wahhabi plans to destroy his tomb.

The Saudi monarchy bases its Islamic legitimacy on the claim that the kingdom is the guardian of the Two Holy Mosques, Masjid al-Haram which surrounds the Ka’ba in Mecca and Masjid al-Nabi which surrounds the Prophet Muhammad’s tomb in Madinah. Other Muslims have long been suspicious of the Saudi’s interest in safeguarding the Prophet’s Mosque because of their view that veneration of his tomb is idolatry. Saudi pragmatists have thwarted the desires of their religious authorities to demolish it for more than two centuries.

Opposition to the veneration of tombs is a fundamental aspect of Wahhabi Islam. Plans to rid the Prophet’s mosque of idolatry are a recurrent theme in Wahhabi discourse. NU’s dream that this might lead to the destruction of the Saudi Sate is unlikely to materialize. However, it clearly fosters contempt and even hatred for the Saudi monarchy, and presents a significant strategic communication problem for the Kingdom. It also increases sympathy for Iran, whose desire to safeguard the Prophet’s tomb and other holy places is unquestionable. Iranian diplomats and scholars visiting Indonesia routinely condemn the Saudis for desecrating tombs and other holy places and point to the fact that Sunnis and Shia share a common concern with bringing what they describe as a “barbaric” practice to a halt.

*Mark Woodward is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and is also affiliated with the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University. He is currently Visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at Gadjah Mada University and Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University in Indonesia.