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Video has recently surfaced of Muslims in Libya desecrating Australian war graves, just weeks after reports that Muslims there, in a rage over Qur’ans accidentally burned in Afghanistan, had also desecrated British graves. Such behavior may seem puzzling to those who believe the statements of Islamic supremacists in the West about how Islam tolerates and respects non-believers and non-Muslim religions; in fact, however, such behavior is fully in accord with standard Islamic theology regarding the nature of non-believing society, and the value of its cultural artifacts.
The general Islamic term for the period of history before the advent of Islam, as well as the pre-Islamic period of any nation’s history, is jahiliyya, or the period of ignorance and barbarism. Consequently, any art, literature, or architecture that any non-Islamic culture produces has no value whatsoever: it is all simply a manifestation of that ignorance and barbarism. The celebrated writer V. S. Naipaul encountered this attitude in his travels through the Islamic world. For Muslims, he observed, “The time before Islam is a time of blackness: that is part of Muslim theology. History has to serve theology.”
Naipaul explained how some Pakistani Muslims, far from valuing the nation’s renowned archaeological site at Mohenjo Daro, see it as a teaching opportunity for Islam:
A featured letter in Dawn offered its own ideas for the site. Verses from the Koran, the writer said, should be engraved and set up in Mohenjo-Daro in “appropriate places”: “Say (unto them, O Mohammed): Travel in the land and see the nature of the sequel for the guilty…Say (O Mohammed, to the disbelievers): Travel in the land and see the nature of the consequence for those who were before you. Most of them were idolaters.”
In other words, Mohenjo Daro has no value for what it reveals about an ancient civilization. Its value is solely in its present condition as a ruin, a sign for the unbelievers of Allah’s wrath. Likewise in Iran. Naipaul notes: “In 637 A.D., just five years after the death of the Prophet, the Arabs began to overrun Persia, and all Persia’s great past, the past before Islam, was declared a time of blackness.”
We have also seen the fruit of this assumption in our own times in Cyprus, where Muslims attempted to use the fourth century monastery of San Makar as a hotel, and in Libya, where Qaddafi turned Tripoli’s Catholic cathedral into a mosque. And the most notorious recent example, of course, was the Taliban’s dynamiting of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001.
The non-Muslim graves in Libya are not, of course, central elements of any country’s cultural patrimony. But the Muslims who felt free to desecrate them were working from the same attitude of contempt for unbelievers and their works. “Muhammad is the Messenger of God,” says the Qur’an, “and those who are with him are hard against the unbelievers, merciful one to another” (48:29). While Muslims are “the best nation ever brought forth to men” (3:110), the “unbelievers of the People of the Book” (that is, Jews and Christians who have refused to become Muslim) “and the idolaters” are the “worst of creatures” (98:6).
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