Destruction of early Islamic heritage sites in Saudi Arabia

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Jannatul Baqi graveyard in Medina, Saudi Arabia

The destruction of heritage sites associated with early Islam is an ongoing phenomenon that has occurred mainly in the Hejaz region of western Saudi Arabia, particularly around the two holiest cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina.[1] The demolition has focused on mosques, burial sites, homes and historical locations associated with the Islamic prophet Muhammad, his companions, and many of the founding personalities of early Islamic history by the Saudi government.[1][2] In Saudi Arabia, many of the demolitions have officially been part of the continued expansion of the Masjid al-Haram at Mecca and the Prophet's Mosque in Medina and their auxiliary service facilities in order to accommodate the ever-increasing number of Muslims performing the pilgrimage (hajj).[3]


Much of the Arabian Peninsula was politically unified by 1932 in the third and current Saudi state, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The military campaign led by King Abdulaziz ibn Saud and his Bedouin army of tribesmen conquered the Hejaz and ousted the ruling Hashemite clan. The new Najdi rulers, nomadic Arabs largely found themselves at the reins of a highly sophisticated society. A cohesive political structure based on the Majlis al-Shura (consultative council) system had been in place for centuries. A central administrative body managed an annual budget which allocated expenditure on secondary schools, military and police forces.[4] Similarly, the religious fabric of the Najd and the Hejaz were vastly different. Traditional Hejazi cultural customs and rituals were almost entirely religious in nature. Celebrations honouring Muhammad, his family and companions, reverence of deceased saints, visitation of shrines, tombs and holy sites connected with any of these were among the customs indigenous to Hejazi Islam.[5] As administrative authority of the Hejaz passed into the hands of Najdi Wahabi Muslims from the interior, the Wahabi Ulama viewed local religious practices as unfounded superstition superseding codified religious sanction that was considered a total corruption of religion and the spreading of heresy.[6] What followed was a removal of the physical infrastructure, tombs, mausoleums, mosques and sites associated with the family and companions of Muhammad.[7]

19th century[edit]

In 1801 and 1802, the Saudis under Abdul Aziz ibn Muhammad ibn Saud attacked and captured the Shia holy cities of Karbala and Najaf in today's Iraq, massacred parts of the Shia Muslim population and destroyed the tomb of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad and son of Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law. In 1803 and 1804, the Saudis captured Mecca and Medina and destroyed historical monuments and various holy Muslim sites and shrines, such as the shrine built over the tomb of Fatimah, the daughter of Muhammad, and even intended to destroy the grave of Muhammad himself as idolatrous, causing outrage throughout the Muslim world.[8][9][10] In Mecca, the tombs of direct relations of Muhammad located at Jannatul Mualla cemetery, including that of his first wife Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, were demolished.[11] The initial dismantling of the sites began in 1806 when the Wahhabi army of the First Saudi State occupied Medina and systematically levelled many of the structures at the vast Jannat al-Baqi cemetery[12] adjacent to the Prophet's Mosque (Al-Masjid al-Nabawi) housing the remains of many of the members of Muhammad's family, close companions and central figures of early Islam. The Ottoman Turks, practitioners themselves of more tolerant and at times mystical strains of Islam, had erected elaborate mausoleums over the graves of Al-Baqi. These were levelled in their entirety. Mosques across the city were also targeted and an attempt was made to demolish Muhammad's tomb.[13] Widespread vocal criticism of this last action by Muslim communities as far away as India, eventually led to abandoning any attempt on this site. Political claims made against Turkish control of the region initiated the Ottoman–Saudi war (1811–1818) in which the Saudi defeat forced Wahhabi tribesmen to retreat from the Hejaz back into the interior. Turkish forces reasserted control of the region and subsequently began extensive rebuilding of sacred sites between 1848 and 1860, many of them done employing the finest examples of Ottoman design and craftsmanship.[14]

20th century[edit]

The Al-Baqi cemetery before the 1926 demolition
The former mausoleum of Fatimah, Abbas, Hasan ibn Ali, Ali as-Sajjad, Muhammad al-Baqir and Ja'far as-Sadiq
The Cemetery after the 1926 demolition. The Prophet's Mosque in far background, view towards west.
Panorama showing the cemetery, with the Qiblah being behind the photographer, view towards north.
Imam Zain al-Abidin desecrated grave at Al-Baqi' in Saudi Arabia

On 21 April 1925 the mausoleums and domes at Al-Baqi in Medina were once again levelled[14] and so were indicators of the exact location of the resting places of Muhammad's family members and descendants, as it remains to the present day. Portions of the famed Qasida al-Burda, the 13th century ode written in praise of Muhammad by Imam al-Busiri, inscribed over Muhammad's tomb, were painted over. Among specific sites targeted at this time were the graves of the Martyrs of the Battle of Uhud, including the grave of the renowned Hamza ibn 'Abd al-Muttalib, uncle of Muhammad and one of his most beloved supporters, the Mosque of Fatimah Al Zahraa', daughter of Mohammad, the Mosque of the Two Lighthouses (Manaratayn) as well as the Qubbat Al-Thanaya,[14] the cupola built as the burial place of Mohammad's incisor tooth, which was broken from a blow received during the Battle of Uhud. In Medina, the Mashrubat Umm Ibrahim, the home of Mohammad's Egyptian wife Mariah and birthplace of their son Ibrahim, as well as the adjacent burial site of Hamida al-Barbariyya, mother of Musa al-Kadhim, were destroyed during this time.[14] The site was paved over and is today part of the massive marble esplanade beside the Mosque. The government-appointed permanent scholarly committee of Saudi Arabia has ordered the demolition of such structures in a series of Islamic rulings noting excessive veneration leading to shirk (idolatry).[15]

21st century[edit]

The twenty-first century has seen an increase in the demolition of sites in Mecca and Medina by Saudi authorities, alongside expansion of luxury development.

As the annual hajj continues to draw larger crowds year after year, the Saudi authorities deemed it necessary to raze large tracts of formerly residential areas around the two important mosques to make way for pilgrimage-related infrastructure. In 2010, it was forecast that developers were going to spend an estimated $13 billion on the largest expansion project in the city's history.[16]

While there is widespread agreement for the need of facilities that can accommodate greater numbers of pilgrims, the development of upscale hotels and condominium towers, restaurants, shopping centres and spas[17] has caused some to criticize the over-commercialization of a site which many consider to be a divinely ordained sanctuary for Muslims.

The rapid influx of capital investment in Mecca and Medina leads many to believe that money and economic growth are the ultimate reason for Saudi authorities. Critics argue that this monetary focus works with Wahhabi state policy that imposes a massive cultural and social deletion within the Holy Cities,[18] erasing any elements that encourage practices counter to the Wahhabi creed.

According to The Independent, the House of Mawalid where Muhammad is said to have been born is about to be replaced by a huge royal palace, as a part of a multibillion-pound construction project in Mecca which has resulted in the destruction of hundreds of historic monuments.[19]

The Saudis are turning Diriyah, the demolished capital of the First Saudi State, into a major tourist attraction.[20][21]

Destroyed sites[edit]

Below is a complete list of destroyed sites:


Cemeteries and tombs[edit]

Historical religious sites[edit]

Historical military structures[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Wahhābī (Islamic movement)". Encyclopædia Britannica. Edinburgh: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. 9 June 2020. Archived from the original on 26 June 2020. Retrieved 8 September 2020. Because Wahhābism prohibits the veneration of shrines, tombs, and sacred objects, many sites associated with the early history of Islam, such as the homes and graves of companions of Muhammad, were demolished under Saudi rule. Preservationists have estimated that as many as 95 percent of the historic sites around Mecca and Medina have been razed.
  2. ^ "Medina: Saudis take a bulldozer to Islam's history". The Independent. 26 October 2012. Archived from the original on 6 September 2017. Retrieved 14 November 2014.
  3. ^ "'Cultural genocide of Islamic heritage' in Saudi Arabia riles Sunni Sufis". The Times of India. 11 April 2013. Archived from the original on 11 April 2013.
  4. ^ Yamani, Mai (2009). "Devotion". Cradle of Islam. London: I.B. TAURIS. p. 2. ISBN 978-1-84511-824-2.
  5. ^ Yamani, Mai (2009). "Devotion". Cradle of Islam. London: I.B. TAURIS. p. 4. ISBN 978-1-84511-824-2.
  6. ^ Rentz, George S. (2004). "Devotion". The Birth of the Islamic Reform Movement in Saudi Arabia. London: Arabian Publishing Ltd. p. 139. ISBN 0-9544792-2-X.
  7. ^ Angawi, Dr.Sami (February 19, 2002). "A NewsHour with Jim Lehrer Transcript". PBS NewsHour Online Transcript. Archived from the original on October 24, 2010. Retrieved October 29, 2010.
  8. ^ Ahmed, Irfan (July 2006). "The Destruction of Holy Sites in Mecca and Medina" Archived 2016-01-26 at the Wayback Machine. Spirit themag. Issue 1.
  9. ^ Nibras Kazimi, A Paladin Gears Up for War Archived 2008-03-04 at the Wayback Machine, The New York Sun, November 1, 2007
  10. ^ John R Bradley, Saudi's Shi'ites walk tightrope, Asia Times, March 17, 2005
  11. ^ "The American Muslim (TAM)". Archived from the original on 16 March 2017. Retrieved 14 November 2014.
  12. ^ "The Saud Family and Wahhabi Islam". Archived from the original on 16 March 2017. Retrieved 14 November 2014.
  13. ^ Anthony H. Cordesman (2003). Saudi Arabia enters the 21st century. Praeger (April 21, 2003). ISBN 978-0-275-98091-7. Archived from the original on January 18, 2023. Retrieved August 12, 2015. The tension between Saudi Shi'ite and Wahhabi is especially intense because Saudi "Wahhabis" actively reject all veneration of man, even the prophet. At one point, they attempted to destroy Muhammad's tomb in Medina. In contrast, the Saudi Shi'ites are "Twelvers", a branch of Islam that venerates the Prophet's son-in-law Ali, and believes that the leadership of Islam must pass through Ali's line. They venerate each of the past imams, and make pilgrimages to their tombs.
  14. ^ a b c d e f Irfan Ahmed, The Destruction of Holy Sites in Mecca and Medina, page 1 Archived 2011-07-13 at the Wayback Machine, Islamica Magazine, Issue 71. Accessed online October 29, 2010.
  15. ^ "Fatwas of the Permanent Committee". Official KSA Rulings. Archived from the original on 13 December 2014. Retrieved 27 March 2014.
  16. ^ Abou-Ragheb, Laith (July 12, 2005). "Dr.Sami Angawi on Wahhabi Desecration of Makkah". Center for Islamic Pluralism. Archived from the original on July 22, 2016. Retrieved November 28, 2010.
  17. ^ "Makkah Hotels: Makkah Hotel at Fairmont". Archived from the original on 5 February 2017. Retrieved 8 December 2014.
  18. ^ Laessing, Ulf (November 18, 2010). "Mecca goes Upmarket". Reuters. Archived from the original on November 21, 2010. Retrieved December 1, 2010.
  19. ^ "Mecca under threat: Outrage at plan to destroy the 'birthplace' of the Prophet Mohamed and replace it with a new palace and luxury malls". The Independent. Archived from the original on 13 November 2014. Retrieved 14 November 2014.
  20. ^ Hubbard, Ben (31 May 2015). "Saudis Turn Birthplace of Wahhabism Ideology Into Tourist Spot". The New York Times.
  21. ^ Estimo Jr, Rodolfo (5 January 2017). "Diriyah on course to become world-class tourist spot". Arab News. Retrieved 21 July 2017.
  22. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l History of the Cemetery of Jannat al-Baqi Archived 2013-10-17 at the Wayback Machine, History of the Shrines, (Ahlul Bayt Digital Islamic Library Project). Accessed online 16 December 2008.
  23. ^ a b Salah Nasrawi,"Mecca's ancient heritage is under attack – Developments for pilgrims and the strict beliefs of Saudi clerics are encroaching on or eliminating Islam's holy sites in the kingdom" Archived 2016-12-24 at the Wayback Machine, Los Angeles Times, September 16, 2007. Accessed online 16 December 2008.
  24. ^ Power, Carla (November 14, 2014). "Saudi Arabia Bulldozes Over Its Heritage" Archived 2014-11-14 at the Wayback Machine. Time.
  25. ^ "Why is Saudi Arabia destroying the cultural heritage of Mecca and Medina?". The Art Newspaper. 19 November 2015. Archived from the original on 23 January 2022. Retrieved 4 February 2022.
  26. ^ "Historic Makkah fortress demolished". Arab News. 2002-01-09. Archived from the original on 2021-01-19. Retrieved 2021-11-07.

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