Does Islam permit destruction of all statues?

As the Islamic State (IS) organization destroyed ancient statues aged thousands of years at the Mosul museum in Iraq last month, almost at the same time some Muslims demanded that the Jayandaru statues in the Sidoarjo town square in East Java should be torn down too. Their reasons were similar: They regarded the statues as idols being worshipped and idolatry is considered part of polytheism or shirk, the biggest and most unforgivable sin in Islam. Sadly, the demands in Sidoarjo were primarily supported by GP Ansor, the youth wing of the supposedly “moderate” Nahdlatul Ulama (NU).

NU is often associated with being against “purification” (a literal interpretation of Islam) and it usually would be in the forefront of safeguarding “holy graves” against the threat of destruction, particularly the graves where those considered Muslim saints are buried. The NU highly condemns IS, including its blasting of holy shrines like the tomb of the Prophet Jonah (Yunus) in Iraq, and the actions of al-Nusra, such as its destruction of the grave of the leading imam an-Nawawi in Syria.

In fact, the embryo of NU in the early 20th century was a movement protesting the destruction of tombs of respected Muslim figures and sites that had historic importance for Muslims in Saudi Arabia (named Hijaz at that time). The destruction was carried out under the convictions of Wahhabism that regarded those shrines as sources of shirk.

What we are now dealing with is here, however, are statues, which is different from the contentious status of holy tombs. Many Muslims still visit graves of the holy figures; there is no clear prohibition of such a practice in primary Islamic sources of teachings. Yet there are several explicit prohibitions based on hadiths or prophetic traditions (which are secondary sources) of making full-figured statues or images of living creatures, either human or animal.

IS justifies its actions with those hadiths, relying also on the narrated story that the Prophet Muhammad commanded the destruction of statues (or, to be precise, idols) surrounding the Ka’ba in the eighth year following his conquest of Mecca.

The same justification was employed also by Afghanistan’s Taliban when in 2001 they blew up the two giant statues of Buddha in Bamiyan made in the 6th century — without knowing that there is no concept of a personal God in Buddhism, which is a non-theistic religion, and the statues of Shakyamuni Buddha are not subject to worship in the sense understood by monotheists.

That is it. Without denying the possibility of the political or economic factors in the aforementioned cases, the question here is whether Islam promotes iconoclasm or the destruction of idols. Iconoclasm is not unique to Islam (or, to be exact, Muslims); Judaism and Christianity also share history or scriptural teachings of iconoclasm. The story of the golden statue of a calf in the time of Moses is shared by the three religions. Iconoclasm was commanded by Hezekiah, the king of Judah (Two Kings 18:4) and King Josiah (Two Kings 23:1-20).

It appears also in the rabbinical Midrash, the story of Abraham as the iconoclast destroying idols made by his father. In Christianity, disputes over iconoclasm occurred in the Byzantine and Protestant Reformation era.

That is what is narrated in the scripture or “history”. As for Islam, while the Prophet Abraham is reported in the Koran to be destroying idols (asnam) of his people (Koran 21:52-67), the holy book says of King Solomon, considered a prophet by Muslims, that “they [the jinns] made for him [i.e. Solomon] what he willed: synagogues and statues [tamathil], basins like wells and boilers built into the ground.”

The Koranic terminology appears to differentiate between a mere statue (timthal) and an idol or statue being worshipped (sanam).

Muslim scholars all agree that it is prohibited for Muslims to worship statues because it makes them idolatrous. But that distinction between timthal and sanam matters very much when it comes to the contentious status of statues that are not worshipped.

Some Muslim scholars, such as the leading reformer Muhammad Abdul, Jadul-Haq (a former Grandsheikh of al-Azhar), and Muhammad Imarah (a renowned Muslim thinker), argued that it is allowed to have statues as long as they are not worshipped.

And in the fundamentals of Islamic jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh), “rulings are based on their raison d’etre [‘illah al-hukm]; when the raison d’etre disappears, the rulings do not prevail.”

That argument is supported by historical evidence of the early Muslim generations. The companions of the Prophet (such as Amr ibn al-Ash in Egypt and Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas in Iraq) led conquests in many places, but did not destroy the ancient statues they found, because those statues were no longer worshipped.

Sphinxes still exist in Egypt. Those Mesopotamian statues had been there for centuries before being demolished by IS. The Bamiyan Buddha statues were there before being attacked by the Taliban.

In fact, when the Taliban were under Mullah Mohammed Omar, he once issued a decree in favor of the preservation of the Bamiyan statues by arguing that, besides the fact that a Buddhist population no longer existed in Afghanistan, the statues could be a potential major source of tourism income for Afghanistan.

Statues in the Borobudur Buddhist temple are also still there, although nine stupas were damaged during the 1985 Borobudur bombing. In general, most Muslims, either as a minority like in India or as a majority like in Indonesia, have no problem with statues, unlike those who prefer a literal interpretation of the Prophet’s sayings, or hadiths. Scripturalism is the very problem of IS-like Muslims; it denies the imperative that scripture must be contextualized with surrounding circumstances and contrasted with historical evidence.

Furthermore, in the heart of the holiest site for Muslims — the Ka’ba — there is a black stone (al-hajar al-aswad), that was venerated in the pre-Islamic pagan era and is kissed by Muslims while doing pilgrimage. That stone is considered sacred by many Muslims; some of them touch it to get sort of blessing or expiation of sins. And in regard to this practice, the second caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab has frequently been quoted as saying, “I know that you are a stone and can neither harm nor benefit anyone. Had I not seen the Messenger kissing you, I would not have kissed you.” That is, it is not statues, images, or stones that matter; it is Muslim minds that do.

For some nahdliyin (NU members), then, can we regard those statues in Sidoarjo as merely statues or stones that are not worshipped?

~ published in the Jakarta Post, 02/04/2015

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