Islam Terrorism and Extremism

Islam’s Response to the Destruction of Cultural Heritage

 Ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra - Syria. © Shutterstock | seb001

Ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra – Syria. © Shutterstock | seb001

Over the past few months, ISIS, ISIL, IS or whatever popular acronym attributed to this organisation, has initiated a siege on an entirely new front. This specific attack has caused no deaths and no casualties, no refugees have emerged not even a single drop of blood has been shed. There have however, been beheadings, usage of weaponry and heavy machinery, large-scale destruction and lasting damage to civilisations. It is cultural heritage that has become the latest target of the ISIS war machine. Artefacts, statues (some of which have been beheaded), temples, palaces and cities from ancient empires, have fallen under threat to this campaign to ‘cleanse’ lands of idolatrous worship and false deities. The outcry over this particular channel of destruction appears somewhat strange in its context. We know that an entire population is suffering; large swathes of people are brutally being murdered, and the degradation of civil society in Iraq and Syria has led to a mass migration of millions, the like of which the world has not witnessed since World War II. Yet, as I check the news this morning, the websites of the BBC, Al Jazeera, Sky News and various other prominent outlets present the dismantling of a millennia old palace at Palmyra as their lead story.

Can, what are essentially bits of old stone, really take precedence over human life? Why are we so concerned with monuments of the past, when suffering of an unimaginable scale transpires right now? As an archaeologist, the relevance of such questions is heightened in times of war. Having worked across the Middle East on archaeological sites and been part of the thorough and meticulous process of recording and documenting our ancient past, to see and hear about such symbolic monuments of humanity’s history perish in an instant, is devastating. Nimrud and Palmyra represent two such sites which have lately been thrust into the media spotlight. Perhaps both were not publicly known, but ask any archaeologist and he will immediately surrender in awe at the architectural magnificence of both these sites, and similarly surrender in shock at the outcome they have faced. So where does this leave us? The simple answer to the above question is ‘no’; no monument or artefact can be substituted for human life. However, the longer answer merits discussion because the very legacy of civilisations and cultures of the past are at risk; civilisations and cultures which shape our world today.

Palmyra Ruins - Syria © Shutterstock | Adwo
Palmyra Ruins – Syria © Shutterstock | Adwo

To enter into a long discussion on the importance of preserving our ancient past on a philosophical and ethical level would not assist anyone’s cause. It is now necessary to look into effective means of stopping ISIS on a practical level, other than simply dropping bombs, entering a short-term military conflict and repeating the vicious cycle again. Two key elements require immediate attention in order to frame this discussion, both of which are integral when attempting to grasp the key concerns surrounding the current fixation with ISIS and how to prevent it. The first issue is one which has been all but neglected. It concerns the very root cause of this supposed campaign, yet surprisingly few are willing to address it and almost deliberately bypass it. ISIS proclaims that what they are undertaking is a truly Islamic campaign; a campaign which adheres to the closest, most orthodox version of Islam that an individual can subscribe to. Hence, it becomes necessary to assess what Islam’s attitude towards ancient monuments and archaeology truly is; to unequivocally relegate ISIS’s activities to nothing but gratuitous barbarity, diametrically removed from any interpretation of Islamic scripture. The second issue displays the undeniable hypocrisy of ISIS, but equally provides an embarrassing indictment to Western incentives over such conflicts. Second only to oil, the sale of archaeological artefacts represents a huge stream of income for ISIS, estimated at around $200 million annually.[1] ISIS masquerades itself as a destroyer of polytheistic religious symbolism on the surface, but equally profits from the sale of such religious iconography to fuel its campaign. Perhaps the most surprising revelation is where these illegally sold artefacts are ending up, or rather who is responsible for creating this highly profitable black market for ISIS. The answer is certain groups in Europe and the USA. As will be detailed, elite circlesoperate within the very nations which appear most appalled by ISIS’s activities, which also happens to be the same body of nations which are attempting to lead the literal fight against ISIS.[2] This article will attempt to assess the above and present some of the arguments put forward to counter ISIS, and will consider how we may intervene before the fragments of stone which stand as a testimony to human ingenuity, culture, development and creativity, are lost forever.

Iconoclasm: Justified in Islam?

The perpetual need to speak out against ISIS as un-Islamic is becoming tedious and frustrating. It should, by now, It should, by now, be universally accepted that while the followers of ISIS claim to be Muslims, their actions are in stark contrast to any teaching of Islam.The easiest argument to prove this is the fact that ISIS has murdered far more Muslims than any other religious group.[3]
Yet, every expression of their actions seems to necessitate Muslims to speak out, including their iconoclastic pursuits. Iconoclasm is literally the action of destroying iconography, which ISIS believes falls under its remit and within the teachings of Islam. So let us look at the evidence, both past and present, and more pertinently within the most important scripture of Islam, the Holy Qur’an, to see whether their claims are substantiated.

Palmyra Ruins - Syria © Shutterstock | Adwo
Palmyra Ruins – Syria © Shutterstock | Adwo

The evidence is compelling and can be summarised as follows: the protection of property and particularly places of worship of any faith is not only encouraged but considered a religious obligation in Islam. The following are some examples from within the Holy Qur’an, the book which Muslims believe takes precedence over all other teachings:

And if Allah did not repel some men by means of others, there would surely have been pulled down cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft commemorated…”[4]

Here, the preservation of holy and revered buildings of worship is clearly outlined. The above specifically refers to followers of Christianity and Judaism; both faiths are highly respected in Islam. But what of the non-monotheistic and polytheistic religions, and their status within the Holy Qur’an? The following verse provides an insight:

And if anyone of the idolaters ask protection of thee, grant him protection so that he may hear the word of Allah: then convey him to his place of security…[5]

Not only are peaceful negotiations encouraged between believers of polytheistic doctrine, but their protection is also mandatory. It becomes a duty incumbent upon a believer to ensure the protection of those who seek it. Nowhere is it permitted for inanimate objects and sanctuaries of different faiths to be actively sought out and demolished.

Let us turn to the second most important source of Islamic teachings after the Holy Qur’an; that of the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa and his collection of sayings referred to as Hadith. The Prophetsa categorically outlines the strict rules of warfare and mentions the criteria which must be adhered to when undertaking military conflict:

You will meet those who remember Almighty Allah in their houses of worship. Have no dispute with them, and give no trouble to them. In the enemy country, do not kill any women or children, or the blind, or the old. Do not pull down any tree; nor pull down any building.[6]

No bishop will be expelled from his bishopric, no monk from his monastery, no priest from his place of worship, and no pilgrim will be detained in his pilgrimage. None of their churches and other places of worship will be desolated or destroyed or demolished. No material of their churches will be used to build mosques or houses for the Muslims; any Muslim doing so will be regarded as recalcitrant to Allah and His Prophet.”

The teachings of Islam in regard to cultural heritage and monuments are explicitly clarified here. Not only are women, children, the elderly and the disabled exempt from any harm in the context of war, but even trees, property and of course places of worship, are off bounds. Where then does ISIS seek its justification? The example commonly cited is that of a very particular context and period of time. It is the example in which the early followers of Islam were under intense persecution and suffering. They endured immeasurable cruelty for simply following their beliefs. Even moving away from the persecution and migrating to another city proved unsuccessful, as armies were raised and sent to pursue the resettled Muslims, who refused to retaliate and instead sought to find solace in prayer and spirituality.[7]

Only when the persecution had reached such a severe extent that the very religion faced an existential threat, was the approval for defence ordained by God, and only to the point of alleviating persecution. These Muslims, who managed to defeat their oppressors, returned to their hometown of Makkah, where the symbols and icons of that oppressive regime were destroyed as part of the strategy to allow for a peaceful coexistence. We find parallels throughout history, even in a modern context, where the symbols of an oppressive regime are often dismantled to enable peaceful continuity. Hence, the symbols of Nazi Germany were systematically removed following World War II, or that of apartheid from South Africa. Recently, the confederate flag was removed from several southern states in America for this very purpose, so that an undeniable icon of slavery was no longer flown high and considered an item of pride. Within that context, there can be little grounds for the argument that Muslims were not justified in doing so.

Perhaps the best possible example is looking at the history of the Middle East under Islamic rule. Looking at why, for example, centuries of Islamic rule has preserved and maintained the hotbed of ancient archaeological sites within the broad expanse that is the Middle East. Why were the Pyramids of Giza, the Ziggurats of Mesopotamia, the temples of Luxor and the plethora of similar sanctuaries which revere other forms of worship, not actively destroyed? Instead they flourished and were studied for furthering our understanding of mathematics, astronomy, architecture and art. Had there been any justification within Islam to destroy such monuments, or rather had it been a religious obligation, this entire debate would be redundant, as there would be no ancient heritage for us to now mourn over. ISIS, despite its false name as an ‘Islamic State’, should undeniably be categorised as a purely political, profit-making organisation, one far removed from any Islamic teaching.

From ‘Caliph’ to Caliph

British museum. Hunting relief from Palace of Assurbanipal in Nineveh, Assyria © Shutterstock | IR Stone
British museum. Hunting relief from Palace of Assurbanipal in Nineveh, Assyria
© Shutterstock | IR Stone

It is also necessary to assess the response of the Muslim Community to this recent cultural destruction. The calls against ISIS and the measures needed to prevent their spread; have been constantly reiterated by the foremost figurehead in Islam today. There are currently two individuals claiming to be leaders of the Muslim World, yet their behaviour and words are so diametrically opposed, they represent such polar opposites, that any sane, truthful individual would have no hesitancy in seeing which of the two holds legitimacy to the claim. Unlike the so-called ‘Khalifah’ of ISIS – a man who prides himself on spreading destruction at a relentless pace and scale – Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih Vaba, Fifth Successor to the Promised Messiahas and Head of the Worldwide Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, has taken it upon himself to spread the true, spiritual and loving message of Islam on a worldwide scale, in a peaceful manner. Hence, when the so-called ‘Khalifah’ of ISIS says:

Islam was never a religion of peace. Islam is the religion of fighting.[8]

Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmadaba, the true Khalifah says:

Islam’s message of peace is universal, which is why our motto is Love for All, Hatred for None.[9]

Similarly whilst the so-called ‘Khalifah’ of ISIS proclaims:

We are calling on you either to join or carry weapons [to fight] wherever you are.[10]

Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmadaba, has said:

If any Church or other place of worship stands in need of protection, they will find us standing shoulder to shoulder with them.[11]

The above statement answers the question of Islam’s perspective on cultural heritage in a modern context most definitively. The Islamic injunctions listed previously, both from the Holy Qur’an and the teachings of the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa, only align with one of these individuals. Hence, the discussion of iconoclasm and Islam’s true teachings regarding it should be left with no ambiguity whatsoever. The only ambiguity within the mind of a Muslim, objectively speaking, should be to address the following question: To what extent can I help prevent the systematic destruction of cultural heritage? One of the potential answers is discussed below.

Profitable Archaeology

Having clarified Islam’s stance on cultural heritage, what of the cultural heritage industry itself? The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization or UNESCO estimates that the illegal trafficking of artefacts is second only to that of drugs, at a global worth of over $6 billion.[12] There should be no illusion that this is not a highly profitable business, and one which ISIS has been quick to identify and benefit from. ISIS, which has grown at an exponential rate, is dependent on avenues of funding to support and sustain its efforts across Iraq and the Levant. However, to receive funding it must rely on suitable buyers. A black market has been created for the sale of materials, which ISIS has the ability to tap into on a regular basis. This scenario is by no means unique to this current conflict. Amidst the Iraq war in 2003, an estimated 15,000 works of art were looted from the Iraq Museum and channelled into Europe and the US.[13] Similar estimations are made of artefacts from Afghanistan during the succession of wars which have ravished the country for several decades. The difference here is the scale and systemic manner in which this material is being pushed into Europe, in a conveyor-belt like fashion. Some 12,000 key archaeological sites are currently under the territorial control of ISIS, which has generated a profit of around $200 million dollars a year.[14]

How does this process work? Much like the movement of illegal narcotics and precious minerals, the business requires the presence of key middle-men or traffickers. During times of war, the ability to move unrestrictedly becomes decidedly easier and more manageable, especially across borders. Traffickers function alongside the movement of refugees, currently numbering in the millions. It is difficult enough for the authorities to monitor the movement of vast populations, let alone search each one for precious archaeological goods. Smugglers have focused on moving small and portable yet highly profitable items, which can fit within a pocket.[15] Items such as small figurines, amulets, bracelets and beads, rings, jewellery, etc., are favourites. Turkey and Lebanon are the key travel routes for such items out of Syria, after which their entry into Europe is not particularly difficult. Once in Europe, reputable art galleries and auction houses serve as respectable outlets which already deal in the sale of precious ancient materials.

As mentioned previously, none of this activity is particularly unique; it has simply channelled itself underground. The trade of antiquities or the procurement of rare and precious items of historical provenance has existed for millennia. Whereas in the recent past this was carried out openly under colonial rule, it required the establishment of countries following independence and the subsequent rise of nationalism in the 20th century for this activity to be driven underground.[16] Nations sought to build their own identities, and identifying with civilisations of the past formed an integral part of this association with nationhood. A direct result of this movement was the fierce protection of cultural heritage, formed in reaction to the free movement of ancient materials which had previously existed. Perhaps the most poignant example is Egypt, a nation which had witnessed the mass deportation of significant artefacts under British and French rule. It has now declared the export of all archaeological material to be a criminal offence stating, “All antiquities are strictly regulated and considered to be the property of the State.[17,18] Even today, procuring permission to move such items abroad even for study purposes is extremely difficult and subject to the Egyptian ministry of antiquities.

Hence, we find ourselves at a conundrum. It appears that the archaeology black market remains overlooked, and the demand created within wealthy elites of Western nations will continue to be served without much restriction. Europe is currently occupied in a battle with mass migration, a battle with ISIS itself and various political matters of higher priority. Yet simultaneously, we continue to plaster the destruction of cultural heritage on front page news, confused as to what possibilities present themselves to restrict further destruction. As mentioned above, the only avenue to tackle this increasingly challenging scenario is to challenge the demand which fuels it. To no longer turn a blind eye to the elite circles which desire such artefacts for personal adornment, without considering the real cost of their actions. To buy an ancient statue, for example, from a high-end auction house in London appears so far removed from the conflict in Syria that it is almost acceptable. Yet only when the chain of events is explicitly highlighted and prevented, can this significant stream of funding for the organisation that is ISIS be terminated. If there is no demand, ISIS’s heady obsession with plundering archaeological sites would immediately wane and more significantly diminish, under financial strain. It falls upon the nations which claim a desire to prevent the spread of ISIS to do so and end the financial means which helps it operate and grow.

Time to Act

It is strange to think that what we are debating are essentially bits of stone, wood and ultimately inanimate in nature. But why they are so important is precisely because these are not just mere objects. Cultural heritage transcends time, providing pieces of the jigsaw which tell our story, the story of humanity and how we came to where we are today. Remove one piece and it becomes fragmented, inaccurate, and eventually forgotten. Without the physical attestations of our past, cultures can become nothing but myths and legends. Civilisations which prospered and contributed towards our advancement are instead subjugated to oral traditions, something which has partially been witnessed in Native American and Aboriginal populations following colonial rule. This is precisely why we feel such aggravation when witnessing the destruction of monuments of the past. This is the reason why the need to confront the mechanism of this destruction is increasingly important and in a manner which genuinely targets its existence. Hence, when news of not just young individuals, but entire families attempting to join ISIS from various countries emerges, it becomes necessary to challenge their false ideologies and argue that Islam never endorsed the destruction of cultural history, which is being annihilated in its name. At the same time, when we have the means necessary to prevent funding to ISIS through the sale of archaeological remains, it must be done swiftly so that not only bits of stone, but human lives can be saved.

About the Author: Rizwan Safir is an archaeologist who specialises in the archaeology of the Middle East, and currently works for the British Museum as a project curator in the Middle East Department. He is the Deputy Section Editor of the Ancient Religions & Archaeology Section at The Review of Religions.



  1. Graciela Gestoso Singer, “ISIS’s War on Cultural Heritage and Memory,” UK Blue Shield, accessed September 24, 2015,
  2. Alexander A. Bauer, “Editorial: The Destruction of Heritage in Syria and Iraq and Its Implications,” International Journal of Cultural Property 22, no. 1 (February 2015): 1–6, doi:10.1017/S0940739115000090.
  3. “Report on the Protection of Civilians in the Armed Conflict in Iraq: 11 December 2014 – 30 April 2015, “ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, accessed September 24, 2015,
  4. Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Hajj, Verse 41.
  5. Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Taubah, Verse 6.
  6. (Quoted in Halbiyyah, Vol.3).
  7. Hazrat Mirza Bashir-Ud-Din Mahmud Ahmadra, Life of Muhammadsa (Tilford: Islam International Publications Ltd, 2014).
  8. Video released 14 May 2015.
  9. Press Conference at European Parliament, Belgium, 4 December 2012.
  10. Video released 14 May 2015.
  11. Message to Pope Benedict XVI, 6 December 2011.
  12. “BBC News – Islamic State releases ‘al-Baghdadi message’,” BBC, accessed September 24, 2015,
  13. Chanchal Kumar, “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) a Global Threat: International Strategy to Counter the Threat,” Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities 1, no. 4 (2015): 345-353.
  14. “BBC World Service – Assignment , ISIS: Looting for Terror,” accessed September 24, 2015,
  15. “Neil Brodie, “Auction houses and the antiquities trade, “ in 3rd International Conference of Experts on the Return of Cultural Property, ed. S. Choulia-Kapeloni (Athens: Archaeological Receipts Fund, 2014), 71-82,
  16. Chris Gosden, Archaeology and Colonialism: Cultural Contact from 5000BC to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
  17. “Egyptian Law on the Protection of Antiquities,” accessed September 24, 2015,
  18. “Ministry of Culture: Supreme Council of Antiquities, Law No. 117 of 1983, as Amended by Law No. 3 of 2010 Promulgating the Antiquities’ Protection Law,” accessed September 24, 2015,