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'Taliban misunderstood Islamic sayings on heritage'
Maneesh Pandey

NEW DELHI (March 5, 2001): History repeats itself. The tradition of but shikani (idol or statue breaking) started by Arab marauders, in their quest to rule the Indian subcontinent, is well documented. This was done on the plea that idol or religious object worshipping was un-Islamic. What followed was cultural mayhem - destruction of famous temples and loot of their wealth.

After almost 1,000 years this intolerance has resurfaced. Only the actors have changed. It was the Ghaznis, Ghoris or Khaljis yesterday; today it is the Taliban militia in Afghanistan.

They have justified the destruction of all statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan by claiming that the `heritage under fire is un-Islamic'. But experts in Islamic studies cast doubt on the Taliban's understanding of Islamic sayings on heritage. Montgomerry Watt's Muhammed at Mecca and Robinson's Muhammed which talk about Islamic ideology in detail show that Islam was, in fact, very conscious of heritage.

There is a clear demarcation between living and dead monuments. Islam is only against places where worshipping continues and not against a deserted monument. This was what even Mahmud of Ghazni believed and this tolerance continued till Aurangzeb, points out Satish Chandra, a historian and an expert on the Islamic period.

He says: ``Their justification that it's un-Islamic and against the Sh'ariat is itself contradictory and wrong. Even Ghazni ruled that the old or dead monuments were not to be destroyed, except in war if they were becoming an obstacle.''

A clearer picture emerges from the Benaras farman of Aurangzeb (now at the National Library, Kolkata). At the outset of his reign, Aurangzeb reiterated the Sh'ariat position on temples, synagogues, churches, etc, that ``long standing temples should not be demolished. But no new temples (are) to be built.'' It further says: ``Old places of worship could even be repaired since buildings cannot last forever.'' This position of Aurangzeb, known to be a strict Islamist himself, is clearly spelt out in a number of farmans issued to the Brahmins of Benaras and Vrindavan, said Chandra.

He added: ``Mughal period references don't highlight any such destruction of dead monuments. Even Aurangzeb ordered firing of cannon shots at the Bamiyan Buddhas, but he didn't destroy them.''

Other references too highlight the same philosophy. ``Sikander Lodhi (15th century) tried to destroy some old monuments at Kurukshetra. The Afghan ruler was persuaded not to do so by the Ulemas, saying they had been there for long. And he accepted the Ulemas' ruling,'' said Chandra.

The destruction has clearly embarrassed the Islamic world. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the highest platform of the Muslim world, urged the Taliban on Saturday to abandon its decision to destroy the country's pre-Islamic statues.

The common reaction was ``ravaged cities can be rebuilt, not heritage.'' OIC stated: ``Historical relics, regardless of where they are located, are part of the cultural heritage of the whole of humanity, and they must be preserved.''


Updated: 5-3-2001

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