Ondrej Beranek and Pavel Tupek, The Temptation of Graves in Salafi Islam: Iconoclasm, Destruction and Idolatry (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Ondrej Beranek (OB): It was a combination of several factors. Besides a pure curiosity about a phenomenon difficult to grasp from the outside, as it were, I have an interest in the evolution and broader impact of Salafi Islam. Also, Pavel and myself both had an opportunity to study in Saudi Arabia, which engendered an abiding interest in Saudi history and religiosity. Furthermore, one needs to consider the destructive behavior of various actors in the Islamic world in recent years and decades as well as the cynicism with which certain groups use such incidents for their propaganda and to promote a plethora of other aims: to cause sectarian strife, to terrorize the local population, or simply to allure sympathizers and patrons and humiliate local communities. This is often carried out while destroying various forms of cultural and religious heritage. So in writing this book, I wanted to provide a broader context for understanding the etiology of this historical situation.
Pavel Tupek (PT): For me, there were also multiple reasons for writing this book. First, I have been researching different aspects of Salafism for many years now, especially theological issues (but not exclusively). My research overlaps with Ondrej’s work on certain topics, particularly as it pertains to the visitation of graves and their destruction. Considering that Ondrej and I were both pursuing these areas long before the virulent attacks on funeral architecture in the Middle East and the rise of ISIS (Islamic State, Daesh), it was natural that we would write this book considering that these issues have risen to prominence. Publishing with Edinburgh University Press, which has a strong tradition in Middle East and Islamic studies, was also a great motivation.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
OB: The study is based on long-term research and uses vast data from primary sources. Also, despite the current relevance of the topic, it was quite apparent that current scholarship on the issue was lacking in both detail and complexity. In general, the book contextualizes the current destruction of graves and the ideology and motivation behind it in various parts of the Islamic world. It also traces the roots of Salafi iconoclasm and its historical shifts.
PT: I would add that the veneration of graves has been considered by some Muslims (whether traditionalists or Salafis) as the cause of polytheism (shirk). In order to defend monotheism, one must—according to this line of thought—prevent fellow Muslims from being tempted by the idea to venerate graves. Temptation stands for the Arabic fitna, and it explains why some graves are being destroyed even if they are not venerated. Hence, the book focuses on traditionalist (Salafi) attitudes toward funeral architecture. It explores the diversity of views across time and space, and it demonstrates how the issue has been simplified, which, in this case, is the praxis of iconoclasm. The core of the book addresses the most influential ideologues such as Ibn Taymiyya, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, Ibn al-Amir al-Sanʿani, Muhammad al-Shawkani, and Nasir al-Din al-Albani. From an academic point of view, the book also provides the reader with a new perspective on Salafism as such.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
OB: In my previous work, I focused on various themes—from the political and social history of Saudi Arabia after the end of the Cold War and the internal mechanisms of the official Saudi religious establishment to medieval Islamic thought. So, in a way, this book is a culmination of all these interests. In fact, we first tackled the topic of Salafism and its stance towards religious monuments some ten years ago, in an article published while I was a postdoctoral researcher at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University. Since then, we have been developing our view on the topic and have continued sifting through some extremely rich material, mostly concerning medieval Islam and the emergence of modernity. Then, of course, ISIS happened, and its destructive activities gave our research new meaning and purpose.
PT: The book both connects and departs from my earlier research. My previous monograph (in Czech) addressed Salafi theology in general, not focusing on the issue of graves in particular.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
OB and PT: Frankly, anyone who is interested in the Middle East or the Islamic world, whether they are scholars or students of related fields (e.g., Islamic Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, Religious Studies, among others) or the general public.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
OB: My current work is largely connected to the general topic of the book, as I am part of a project called Monuments of Mosul in Danger, which was launched in response to a serious threat to the Mosul architectural sites from ISIS, who seized the town in June 2014. Since then, dozens of historical monuments of diverse types, such as mosques, madrasas, mausoleums, graveyards, churches and monasteries, have been subjected to deliberate vandalism and destruction. So within this project, we have been monitoring destructive activities in Mosul (mostly by means of satellite imagery), while carrying out architectural and historical analysis of the destroyed monuments and creating 3D virtual models. If any of your readers are interested, they can find out more information at www.monumentsofmosul.com.
PT: Currently, I am very busy with administrative work and teaching, but I hope to return to serious research soon. Some avenues I am pursuing include the Salafi reinterpretation of the Ashʿari dogma of al-ʿAqida al-tahawiyya in the sense of takfir as well as the history of Salafism in the Czech Republic, to name only two.
Excerpt from the Book:
Over the course of Islamic history, there have been many unsuccessful attempts by various religious authorities and scholars to eradicate all traces of a possible cult of the dead from Islamic rites. The main goal of these attempts to change funerary practices was to prevent the temptation presented by graves (fitnat al-qubūr), because it was seen as possibly leading to polytheism, as well as to clearly differentiate Islamic rituals from those of other religions, most notably Christianity and Judaism. It is important to note that such attempts – if we are to believe in the authenticity of the Sunni tradition – were already being made in the early days of Islam. Muhammad himself feared that Muslims might imitate Christians and Jews in venerating the dead. As a result of traditionalist opposition to any religious practices that were not distinctly established by Muhammad, a wide gap soon arose between the traditionalists’ high ideals of ‘pure’ morality and faith unaffected by other religious traditions, on the one hand, and everyday popular practices, on the other.
The majority of ulama tried to adjust to the widespread popularity of grave visiting and condoned it, but a vocal minority of scholars has always claimed that such practices constitute an unlawful religious innovation (bidʿa), contradicting the principles of Sunna, the true Muslim path one must follow. What is more, these practices could also constitute shirk, threatening the pivotal pillar of Islamic identity as the only true monotheistic religion. These ulama came to the conclusion that some behaviours related to funerals resembled non-Muslim practice far too closely, and that a distinct funerary style could help to distinguish the identity of their religious community, while deepening the existing (and, they believed, desirable) boundaries between men and women. Nevertheless, despite these efforts, to this day many Muslims still flock on a regular basis to saints’ graves, asking for blessings or intercession and making vows and sacrifices. The cult of saints is a widespread phenomenon throughout the Islamic world, despite many regulations, and the practice of visiting graves has developed over time into a firmly established form of pilgrimage.
Historically, the most critical voices opposing the construction of funerary architecture and unregulated practice of visiting (ziyāra) the graves came from traditionalists, who emphasised the importance of emulating the practices and beliefs of the early Muslim community (salaf), and re-evaluated the role of taqlīd and ijtihād. These critical voices were especially common among Hanbalis, who adhered the most to hadith, both in law and theology. The most influential critic of funerary architecture and necrolatry was Ibn Taymiyya, although he thought of himself as a rather moderate critic of these practices, because he did not forbid ziyāra as such. Ibn Taymiyya was mainly concerned by the possibility that the monotheistic religions might converge if such veneration of graves or visits to them too closely imitated the habits of the other religions.
After Ibn Taymiyya’s death, Sunni criticism of necrolatry and heretical ziyāra practices further evolved with Muslim reformers who tried to re-evaluate the madhhab system and the role of hadith and ijtihād, mainly following Ibn Taymiyya’s example. Among the most influential of these scholars who shaped later Salafism was the Yemeni scholar Muhammad al-Shawkani. Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab also left a strong imprint in the shaping of later iconoclasm and anti-Shiʿi hatred. In his attack on ziyāra practices, Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab incorporated many of Ibn Taymiyya’s characteristic ideas, and set an example for future Wahhabi grave destruction. The zeal with which his followers attacked ziyāra seems to have far exceeded Ibn Taymiyya’s original criticism, and expressed a far more simplistic view of the issues involved.
Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab’s followers in the three Saudi states monopolised the interpretation of history, suppressing any ideas or writings that deviated from their own views. On a more ambitious level, Wahhabi ulama, who perceived themselves as being part of the broader Salafi trend, strived to shape collective memory and construct an all-embracing and Islamised ideology. By destroying the graves of legendary ancestors and saints or monuments attesting to local religious, cultural and popular history in general, the Salafis attempted to establish their own authority through a monopolised network of new institutionalised mosques and Islamic institutes. Their doctrinal views, firmly rooted in the textual traditions of Prophetic Sunna and the way of the salaf, collided with the non-dogmatic rituals and beliefs of popular localised versions of Islam, including the veneration of ancestors. This tendency can also be observed in other parts of the Islamic world under the growing Salafi influence.