Released March 12, 2001
Professor Azizah Y. al-Hibri
T. C. Williams School of Law, University of Richmond
Phone: (919)549-0661; Fax: (919) 549-9001 Press Contact: Azizah Y. al-Hibri

Afghani Demolition of Ancient Religious Symbols

by Professor Azizah Y. al-Hibri

I have been asked by concerned American and Canadian Muslim organizations to comment on a recent statement made by the Taliban, the ruling party in Afghanistan, which was reported in the Washington Post on March 2, 2001. According to the Washington Post, the Taliban announced the beginning of a campaign to destroy all statutes in Afghanistan, including the historical statues of Bamiyan, in the name of Islam.

In responding to these Muslim organizations, I rely primarily on the Qur'an, and sunnah. I also rely on traditional sources of Islamic jurisprudence as well as Islamic history. Additionally, in matters of jurisprudence I rely heavily on a fatwa issued earlier by Dr. Taha Jaber al-Alwani on a related topic. In matters of Islamic history and world religions, I rely on statements made by Professor Seyyed Hussein Nasr on this and other occasions.

Introduction: There is no doubt that something is very wrong with the Taliban position on this and other matters. Chief among these other matters is the Taliban's oppressive limitations on Muslim women's rights, which have been addressed elsewhere. While there is no central interpretive authority in Islam, an acceptable interpretation must satisfy a minimum number of requirements. For example, the interpretation must be based on the Qur'an and sunnah (the reported words and example of the Prophet). It must be based on knowledge and motivated by piety. It must also serve (rather than harm) maslaha (public interest) of Muslims in particular and humanity in general.

Assuming arguendo that the Taliban's interpretation of Islam satisfies these minimal requirements, the Taliban are still not entitled to force their views on other Muslims, within and outside Afghanistan, and on the rest of the world. For, the very Islamic jurisprudence which protects their right to freedom of thought, also protects the freedom of thought of other Muslims and non-Muslims as well. It is for this reason that when the Abbasid Khalifah (Caliph) Abu Ja'far al-Mansour approached Imam Malik with the idea of adopting the Maliki math.hab (school of thought) as the official math.hab of the land, the Imam rejected the idea repeatedly. Realizing that he is only a human being who is capable of error, he refused to impose his views on a whole people.

The Taliban seem to have no such concerns. This is consistent with their rejection of other basic Islamic principles, such as shura (consultation with other Muslims), and bay'ah (a system of elective non-authoritarian governance). It is also consistent with their rejection of the Islamic injunction that the pursuit of education is the duty of every Muslim, male and female. Finally, it is consistent with their rejection of the overarching Islamic model of harmonious gender, racial, religious and general human relations.

For centuries, Islam has preserved and even maintained all prior cultural expressions, including the Egyptian Sphinx, the Persian Persepolis, ancient houses of worship belonging to other religions, and the pictures, images, artifacts and possessions they housed. In fact, had it not been for Islamic protection, these structures and artifacts may not have survived. Khalifah >Umar provides an excellent example. Upon entering Jerusalem, he prohibited the destruction of any Christian images or places of worship.

Muslim jurists also prohibited the destruction of places of worship and religious artifacts belonging to non-Muslims. The medieval Ibn al-Qayyim noted that the Qur'an itself prohibits such destruction (Qur'an 22:40). The verse states that had it not been for God counterpoising (daf') one people by another, monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques (that is, places where the name of God is remembered frequently) would have been surely destroyed. The medieval writer al-Zajjaj commented that had God not counterpoised one people by another, there would have been destroyed synagogues in the time of Moses, destroyed churches and monasteries in the time of Jesus, and destroyed mosques in the time of Muhammad (SAAS). Shayban reported that protection of such places extends to people other than those who believe in an Abrahamic religion. Al-Ashaj reported that the protection extends even to those who are kafir (do not believe in God). Al-Hassan added that God counterpoised Muslims to stave off those who want to destroy non-Muslim places of worship.

The wisdom of this Qur'anic verse and related ancient discussion among Muslim jurists becomes clear in modern times through incidents such as the destruction of the Barbri mosque in India, and the Abrahamic shrine in Hebron, and through violence at al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. These incidents illustrate the fact that if followers of various religions start destroying each other's sacred places, then not a single sacred place will remain standing. The Qur'an pointed this fact out very clearly, which is why jurists prohibited destruction of religious places and artifacts. For this reason, although the rebuilding of the Abrahamic shrine in Hebron may have been a wise political act, more importantly, it was the religious duty of the Muslims in charge of protecting it.

It is also worth noting that the land now called Afghanistan was part of the Persian Empire which was conquered by Arab armies fourteen centuries ago. Since then, many of the most pious and illustrious Muslim rulers have reigned over it, and yet none sought to destroy the statutes of Bamiyan. This is precisely why these statues have survived till this day. To destroy them now in the name of Islam is to consider oneself to be a better Muslim than all of one's predecessors. That is truly hubris and is contrary to the fundamental Islamic principles of humility, tolerance, freedom of thought, consultative democracy, and preservation of public maslaha.

Because the Taliban claimed reliance on Islam in reaching their decision, it is important that we assess their religious claim. The following discussion is, of necessity, technical and yet too brief from a scholarly point of view. Fortunately, a more detailed assessment can be obtained for those interested in the finer points of this jurisprudential discussion.

The Qur'an and Sunnah: Unlike the Bible, the Qur'an does not contain a single text that prohibits the making or possessing of Apictures or Aimages. On the other hand, the Qur'an does describe God's exceptional grant of power to King Solomon which allowed him to order the Jinn (a form of invisible being) to make Aarches, statues, basins as large as reservoirs, and cauldrons fixed (in their places). (Qur'an 34:13). Furthermore, in interpreting this Qur'anic passage, medieval scholars, such as Ibn Kathir, stated that King Solomon's throne was decorated with pictures as well as statues of birds and lions. In fact, interpreters of these and other texts derived from them rules regarding the making and possessing of images. None of them derived a definitive prohibition.

There is, however, an ancient disagreement among Muslim jurists on the proper use and interpretation of prophetic ahadith (reported statements of the Prophet). Some take a literalist approach, others prefer to base their interpretation on the >illah (ratio or rationale) of the hadith (singular of ahadith). The second group relies on a version of the hadith reported by Muslim (a major reporter of valid ahadith) which indicates that harsh judgment is imposed on Athose who try to emulate the creation of God. This phrase then defined for them the legal standard for the prohibition. Both groups, however, agree on the prohibition against divine images. It is worth noting at this point that Buddhists statues are not regarded by Buddhists as embodying the image of an objective divinity. For this reason, these statues are not idols; rather, they are objects of contemplation and reflection.

The non-literalist approach represents the majority view. It argues that the strong prophetic prohibition against images was necessary in a society that had just emerged from idol worship, and in which individuals through sheer hubris may have tried to challenge God's supremacy as the Sole Creator by emulating his creation. For the jurists adopting this approach, the prohibition applied only where the ratio or rationale for it existed.

Other Evidence: There is additional evidence to support the majority view. A'ishah, the wife of the Prophet had dolls in her house and the Prophet never complained about them or asked her to destroy them. We know that one of them was a winged horse because it aroused his interest. >A'ishah mentioned to the Prophet that King Solomon had a winged horse too (albeit a real one). The modern Egyptian jurist, Sheikh Rashid Ridha, commented on this hadith noting that some of the interpreters who take a strict view in the matter of images Adistorted the words of the hadith about >A'ishah and her dolls.

Another hadith states that the Prophet removed a cloth which contained a picture from the wall of his house. But that story quotes the Prophet as reiterating the same legal standard mentioned above, which was used by jurists of the majority view to circumscribe the scope of the prohibition. Furthermore, according to the hadith, the cloth was then used to make two cushions instead. It was not destroyed or removed from the Prophet's house. This fact underscores the limitations of the prohibition; after all, this incident took place in a community which had just emerged from idol worship. Other jurists have also viewed this incident as an example of the Prophet's modesty and aversion to symbols of luxury.

Contrary Evidence: According to a debate forum on the British Broadcasting Service website, the Taliban may have relied on two incidents in support of their decision: the case of Abraham destroying statues in his tribe's temple, and the case of the Prophet Muhammad (SAAS) destroying statues in the Ka'bah.

According to the Qur'an, Abraham was the first monotheist in history. As a youth, he discovered God on his own and tried to preach about him to his tribe. (Qur'an 6:74-9) But his tribe was hostile to his unprecedented ideas, and his father (who carved statues) sent Abraham to market to sell them. The youth felt quite oppressed and decided to resist while at the same time attempt to convince his tribe. So he broke all the statues except the largest. When asked about the destruction, he answered that the biggest of the statues committed the deed. (Qur'an 21:56-66) Since the members of the tribe did not believe his outrageous claim, they had to admit at the same time that they were worshiping a powerless entity.

Given the specific circumstances of this story, it is not clear how it applies to the Taliban. For one, they are not being persecuted by their own people because of their faith. Furthermore, the whole country is Muslim, and no one has ever worshiped these artifacts, not even those who made them. For this reason, the story of Moses and the golden calf would also not help in this context, because the Afghans have not turned away from their faith (Qur'an 7:148-55). Furthermore, the monotheistic Abrahamic message has already been widely disseminated throughout the world. This fact gives rise to a new stage in world religious history which is best described by the Qur'an in the opening sentence of verse 2:256 which states: AThere is no compulsion in religion. Throughout history, Muslim jurists have made this verse the centerpiece of their interfaith policies of tolerance, respect and civility. The current decision annuls this long glorious history, replacing it with a literalist understanding of the Abrahamic incident that does not even attempt to make it consistent with important Qur'anic verses.

The second incident which may have been relied upon by the Taliban is that of the Prophet Muhammad (SAAS) destroying the statues in Ka'bah. The Ka'bah is the first house of worship ever built for God. It was built by Abraham and his son Isma'il, but was transformed much later in history into a house for the worship of idols. When the Islamic message was revealed to the Prophet, he preached it peacefully in Makkah. As with his prophetic predecessors, he was rejected by his own and other tribes who ultimately forced him to leave. They also persecuted those who followed him. Until then, the Prophet lived in Makkah for years, side by side with those who rejected him and worshiped idols. He only fought against them when their persecution of Muslims became intolerable, and a verse was revealed stating that Athose against whom war is made, permission is given to fight because they have been wronged. (Qur'an 22:39) This stage culminated with the Prophet entering Makkah and returning K'abah to it monotheistic origins.

Again, given the specific circumstances of this second story, it is not clear how it applies to the Taliban. They are not being persecuted by the people who built these religious artifacts, nor have they been thrown out of their homes by them. In other words, they have not been wronged by these people. In the absence of thulm (a wrong or oppression), the Qur'anic permission does not apply to them. Furthermore, the nature of the statues themselves is completely different. Makkans worshiped their statues, Buddhists never did. Finally, a less thoughtful interpretation of this Qur'anic verse would render it inconsistent with the one prohibiting compulsion in religion. Yet, as all Muslim jurists know, the Qur'an is thoroughly consistent and its verses explain each other.

For the above reasons, I conclude that the two incidents do not support the Taliban's conclusions nor justify their actions.

Political and Moral Dimensions: Muslim rulers across the centuries have overwhelmingly adopted the majority view on the prohibition of (non-divine) images. For example, figures and images are found not only in Persian and Turkish art, but in Mogul art as well. Miniature art offers a valuable example of this trend. The authoritative and powerful jurists in the Ottoman, Persian and Indian worlds were all aware of the various views on this matter, and appear to have chosen the majority view.

Nevertheless, under Islamic law, the Taliban are guaranteed their right to freedom of thought and interpretation, even if such interpretation appears to the rest of us as strict or erroneous. We do not begrudge them that right, even if it is held by a minority of one. But by the same token, they are prohibited under Islamic law from imposing their views on others. If the Taliban disagree with this analysis and believe, like some Christians and Jews do, that it is prohibited to make graven images (Bible, Exodus 20:4 ), then let them remove such artifacts from their homes. Let them try to convince other Muslims and the world at large of their views through the process of shura (consultative democracy) and the use of kalimat assawa' (a word of equity). But to resort to sheer force and destruction of artifacts of which they are the temporary custodians, while ignoring all others, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, can be nothing short of an exercise in ghayy (political oppression and coerciveness) as opposed to rushd (political maturity and righteousness).

Recently, a Taliban spokesman introduced an alternative justification for his government's decision. He stated that the decision to destroy the statues was a political one, made out of anger at and frustration with international policies. International agencies were spending money to repair the statues, while ignoring the human catastrophe befalling Afghani children ravaged by sanctions and malnutrition. As a result, the statues became a symbol of an oppressive West, and hence the object of hostility and destruction. This justification is based on faulty reasoning. First, the actions taken to spite the West are misdirected. They harm primarily Buddhists who have lived in peace with Muslims for hundreds of years. Second, the governmental decision does not represent a rashid (politically mature and righteous) response or a thoughtful and effective solution to a human tragedy.

Finally, despite the faulty reasoning and the wanton destruction by the Taliban, as responsible moral agents we must not dismiss one important fact. Children are dying in Afghanistan because of Western sanctions. These sanctions have harmed innocent people and made them pawns in a global political struggle which is not of their own choosing. American people of faith and secular humanists need to ponder this fact, and recognize that existing sanctions are based on faulty logic as well. They harm helpless people who are often themselves oppressed and victimized by their own governments. American people of faith and secular humanists need to initiate a dialogue in the public square to develop ethical and humanistic ways for protecting our legitimate political and economic global interests without harming the burdened population of the Third World. Otherwise, we will be guilty of ghayy.

This is my opinion, wallahu alam (God knows best). A.Y.H.

[For another point of view read Roving Afghanistan Ambassador Sayyid Rahmatullah Hashemi's Speech at The University of Southern California on March 10, 2001.] back button