Pagan Architecture and Art in Islamic Law

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In an article for Tony Blair Faith Foundation, a Muslim author attempts prove that the damage to cultural arts and monuments by ISIS is not according to Islam.

The justification for these acts is often linked to the time of the Prophet Mohammad in which, according to hadith literature, he destroyed idols and images depicting pagan deities in the Kaba after the conquest of Mecca. However, according to early Islamic historians, images of Jesus, Mary, and Abraham inside the Kaba were kept on the orders of the prophet himself.

There is scant regard for the example of the early Muslims.

Furthermore, when the companions of the prophet and earlier generations of Muslims conquered lands containing historic sites like Petra, Nimrud, the Pyramids of Giza, the Bamiyan Buddhas and Palmyra, they did not feel compelled to destroy the historical monuments.

Muhammad's Example

Khalid ibn al-Walid was sent by Muhammad to destroy the idol of Al Uzza, the major Arab goddes. He broke it successfully.[1]

The Sealed Nectar book goes ahead with similar acts of idol-breaking by early Muslims. Quote:

Later, in the same month, ‘Amr bin Al-‘As was sent on an errand to destroy another idol, venerated by Hudhail, called Suwa‘. It used to stand at a distance of three kilometres from Makkah. On a question posed by the door-keeper, ‘Amr said he had been ordered by the Prophet [pbuh] to knock down the idol. The man warned ‘Amr that he would not be able to do it. ‘Amr was surprised to see someone still in the wrong, approached the idol and destroyed it, then he broke the casket beside it but found nothing. The man immediately embraced Islam.

Sa‘d bin Zaid Al-Ashhali was also sent in the same month and on the same mission to Al-Mashallal to destroy an idol, Manat, venerated by both Al-Aws and Al-Khazraj tribes. Here also a black woman, naked with messy hair appeared wailing and beating on her chest. Sa‘d immediately killed her, destroyed the idol and broke the casket and returned at the conclusion of his errand.

Khalid bin Al-Waleed at the head of 350 horsemen of Helpers, Emigrants and Bani Saleem was despatched once again in the same year 8 A.H. to the habitation of Bani Khuzaimah bedouins to invite them to the fold of Islam. He was instructed to carry out his mission with peace and goodwill. There, the people were not articulate enough to communicate their intentions, so Khalid ordered his men to kill them and take the others as captives. He even had in mind to kill the captives but some of the Companions were opposed to his plan. News of bloodshed reached the Prophet [pbuh]. He was deeply grieved and raised his hands towards the heaven, uttering these words: "O Allâh! I am innocent of what Khalid has done," twice. [Sahih Al-Bukhari 1/450, 2/622] He immediately sent ‘Ali to make every possible reparation to the tribes who had been wronged. After a careful inquiry, ‘Ali paid the blood-money to all those who suffered loss. The remaining portion was also distributed amongst the members of the tribe in order to alleviate their suffering. Khalid, due to his irrational behaviour, had a row with ‘Abdur Rahman bin ‘Awf. Hearing this, the Prophet [pbuh] got angry, and ordered Khalid to stop that altercation adding that his Companions (meaning ‘Abdur Rahman bin ‘Awf) were too high in rank to be involved in such arguments.

That is the story of the conquest of Makkah and the decisive battle that exterminated paganism once and for all.

When the Persian capital of Ctesiphon in province of Khvarvaran (today Iraq) fell to the Muslims in 637 under the military command of Sa'ad ibn Abi Waqqas during the caliphate of Umar, the palaces and their archives were burned. The Tarikh al-Tabari describes that Waqqas wrote to Caliph Umar asking what should be done with the books at Ctesiphon. Umar wrote back: "If the books contradict the Qur'an, they are blasphemous. On the other hand, if they are in agreement, they are not needed, as for us Qur'an is sufficient."[2] Thus, the huge library was destroyed and the books, the product of the generations of Persian scientists and scholars were thrown into fire or the river Euphrates.

Persecution of Zoroastrians increased significantly under the Abbasids. Their temples and sacred fire shrines were destroyed.

al-Baldahuri writes, under the reign of Caliph al-Mansur, Hisham bin 'Amr al-Taghlibi after conquering Kandahar, destroyed its idol temple and built a mosque in its place.[3]

Argument about the surviving monuments

The above author justifies his argument by saying that the sahabah, Caliphs and their commanders did not feel compelled to destroy some famous monuments and artworks of non-Muslims. This is an ad hoc hypothesis and it does not mean they are not guilty of the destruction of many other monuments.


  2. Zeidan, Georgie, The History of the Islamic Civilization, III, pp.42-51
  3. Yohanan Friedmann (1972). "A note on early Muslim attitudes to idolatry". Israel Oriental Studies 2. Faculty of Humanities, Tel Aviv University.