Robert Fisk — The Independent Dec 22, 2013
Eccentricity marks the path to heaven or hell. Take the Takfiri rebels trying to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. They have chopped off the heads of their enemies, eaten a few human entrails, massacred Christians and Alawites – the Damascus government, of course, has done its share of civilian bloodletting and war crimes – and even gone to war on the Kurds. But of all the activities of the al-Qa’ida/al-Nusra/Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria insurgents in Syria, surely the weirdest has been an iconoclasm worthy of both Henry VIII and the Taliban: the destruction of shrines, tombs and the statues of poets and caliphs.
Take, for example, Abu Tammam Habib ibn Aws who was born near Damascus AD804. He was assistant to a weaver and the son of Christian parents – an obvious provocation to the Nusra lads 1,213 years later – but travelled to Egypt to study poetry. He went to Armenia and Iran, and produced an anthology of other poets’ work known as the Hamasah, an anthology of bravery, courage in defeat and revenge.
A work, you might think, that could appeal to the Salafists anxious to rid Syria of its infidel president. But no. In his native town of Jasim in the countryside of Deraa this year, the Islamists destroyed his statue. They simply blew it up with explosives. Was it because he had Christian parents? Unlikely, surely, since some of the current followers of al-Nusra are Muslim converts. Or was it because Abu Tammam brazenly compared the composition of poetry to the sex act? May he be turned to dust!
So let’s move on to Abu al-Ala Ahmad ibn Abd Allah al-Ma’arri, who was born almost 170 years after Abu Tammam near Aleppo, the ancient city currently split between rebel and government fighters.
Like Milton, al-Ma’arri was almost blind, but produced a popular collection of poetry called The Tinder Spark and later, in Baghdad – where he was adored by writers but lived in almost hermit-like isolation on a vegetarian diet – wrote Unnecessary Necessity, which complained about the rhyming scheme of poetry. More dodgy, however, al-Ma’arri also described a Dante-like visit to heathen poets in paradise. And a later work was described as a parody of the Koran. He believed, so we are told, in “social justice” – whatever that was in the 9th century – but thought a world without children would spare future generations the pain of life.
Well, you can understand why the al-Nusra boys scratched their heads when they saw al-Ma’arri’s turbaned statue. For the poor chap is also credited with telling his readers: “Do not suppose the statements of the prophets to be true… The sacred books are only such a set of idle tales as any age could have…” So off with his head! The al-Nusra guys decapitated the statue in al-Ma’arri’s home town of Maarat al-Numan.
Then we come to Harun ar-Rashid himself, the fifth Abbasid caliph of One Thousand and One Nights fame, who ruled Islam’s greatest empire, putting down revolts – Assad-style – in Syria, Egypt and Yemen, even bringing Tunisia under his rule. He became an immensely wealthy man whose wife insisted that only gold and silver would hold food on the family table. The palace was packed with singing girls, concubines and servant girls. But… word had it that he maintained a homosexual relationship with Jafar, one of his principal administrators, who was later executed. Luxury, concubines, vice. No chance, then, for Harun’s statue in the city of Rakaa – the only town in Syria currently under total Islamist control. His image, in the city’s Ar-Rashid Park, no less, was destroyed.
Need one go on? The shrine of the Prophet’s companion Hujr ibn Adi has been destroyed in Rif Damascus (the countryside around the capital) and a shrine to a Sufi sheikh in Busaira has been blown up. The Islamists have even announced the cutting down of a 150-year-old tree in the town of Atmeh – next to another shrine which the Salafists had taken over. “Thank God Almighty, the tree… has been removed, after people were worshipping it instead of God,” an Islamist informed a French news agency.
But what’s new? Didn’t the Taliban destroy the Buddhas of Bamiyan, just as the Saudis have reduced every old building in Mecca to rubble and the Islamists hundreds of shrines in Pakistan? Not to mention the destruction in Timbuktu. Think Henry VIII. Think Oliver Cromwell – who would surely have understood the cruelty of the Syrian war. And beware graven images. Pity about the tree.