Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Pre-Islamic religious artifacts in Saudi Arabia

PRE-ISLAMIC ARTIFACTS seem to be causing disquiet in Saudi Arabia. In an essay in the Huffington Post (brought to my attention by Joseph Lauer), Sabria Jawhar discusses the problem. Excerpt:
But offering Madain Saleh as a tourism stop is not a problem. It was first inhabited by the people of Thamud who are mentioned prominently in the Qur'an. But what of the non-Muslim sites? Like most Saudis, I know little of pre-Islamic sites, although occasionally amateur archeologists come across such places. Frankly, it's gross negligence to destroy or hide these discoveries. The government in recent years has taken positive steps to recover and catalog artifacts, but there's a disagreement with what to do with them once they are found.

It's right that churches are not permitted in the Land of the Two Holy Mosques. But what's less certain is whether crucifixes, if found, should be destroyed or hidden. More precisely is the issue of whether Christian or Jewish artifacts can be displayed in the proper context in a Saudi museum as an acknowledgment of a people who called pre-Islamic Arabia their home.

My guess is that most Saudis will say no. Many Saudis believe there is no place in the Kingdom for such relics.

The Associated Press the other day reported that Sheikh Mohammed Al Nujaimi said non-Muslim artifacts "should be left in the ground." He said that Muslims would not tolerate the display of non-Muslim religious symbols. "How can crosses be displayed when Islam doesn't recognize that Christ was crucified?" he said. "If we display them, it's as if we recognize the crucifixion."

Most Saudis probably agree, although the argument can be made that displaying an ancient cross doesn't necessarily recognize that Christ was crucified but only acknowledges a previous non-Muslim civilization.
There is much to comment on here, but I will focus on one point. Let me get this straight: if ancient Christian or Jewish religious artifacts are excavated in Saudi Arabia, it is not certain whether they should be destroyed? The most sympathetic way that I can read this is that Ms. Jawhar is personally opposed to their destruction (she doesn't quite come out and say this), but finds it in any case to be an open question in Saudi society. The idea that religious artifacts should be destroyed because they belonged to another faith moves from the provincial into the barbaric. Indeed, Saudis even destroy their own ancient religious sites (see here and here), which is just as bad but even more unfathomable.

UPDATE (10 November): Duane Smith comments at Abnormal Interests.