Anthropological Irony

Cultural Relativism and the Destruction of Cultural Artifacts by the Islamic State

Nimrud Assyria, Lamassus Guarding Palace Entrance, Before Destruction. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Cultural relativism is a theoretical perspective in which the beliefs and activities of the person or group being studied are understood and appreciated within the context of that person or group’s local culture.  The cultural relativistic perspective, as an intellectual tool, can inform an understanding of and a response to the destruction of cultural artifacts by the supporters of the Islamic State.

The Islamic State, as an organization, was established in 2014.  The origins of its theological underpinnings, however, can be found in the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd-al Wahhab, a Muslim scholar who lived in the tribal areas of the eastern Arabian Peninsula in the 18th century.  Ibn Abd-al Wahhab and his followers rejected traditional Islamic scholarship and practices and instead adopted what they believed was a purer and more correct understanding of the tenants of Islam centered on protection and promotion of the concept of strict monotheism.  Supporters of the Islamic State have adopted Ibn Abd-al Wahhab’s literal and puritanical interpretation of the Qur’an, especially insofar as it pertains to shahadah, the first and most important of the Five Pillars of Islam, namely, that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah.

Two complimentary principles flow from shahadah, tawid and shirk.  Tawhid is the recognition of “the oneness of Allah.”  It declares absolute monotheism. Islamic reformers and activists use tawhid as a unifying code of society and the basis of religious knowledge, history, ethics and economic, social and world order. Shirk is the sin of worshiping anyone or anything other than Allah. Muhammad described two particularly grievous forms of shirk, associating anyone with Allah as Allah’s partner and associating Allah’s attributes to anyone other than Allah. The seriousness of the sin of worshiping false idols is made clear in the Qur’an, “Allah forgives not that partners should be set up with Him, but He forgives anything else, to whom He pleases, to set up partners with Allah is to devise a sin most heinous indeed.” [Qur’an 4:48].

The leaders of the Islamic State have interpreted the doctrine of shahadah generally, and the doctrine of shirk in particular, as directives from Allah himself to locate and destroy false idols of every kind, regardless of cost.  This interpretation, which as indicated has its origins in the monotheistic teachings of ibn Abd-al Wahhab, is being implemented by means of sweeping anti-idolatry campaigns, especially in Iraq and Syria, that have resulted in the destruction of vast numbers of irreplaceable cultural artifacts, monuments, and sites in Mosul, Nimrud, Hatra, Palmyra, Aleppo, and Tell Ajaja.  The targeted artifacts and sites not only have religious significance to Christians, Jews, and even many Muslims, but also include artifacts, monuments, and sites that are essentially secular in nature.

The interpretation of the Qur’an that emphasizes monotheism above all else and that strictly and narrowly construes the complimentary principles of tawhid and shirk, must invariably lead believers to the conclusion that false idols are to be actively sought out and destroyed without regard to their importance to anyone else. Why?

The words of the Qur’an are infallible. The directives of the Qur’an are absolute.  There is no legitimate excuse to think or act in a way that deviates from the words and directives of the Qur’an. False idols, regardless of their form, are an affront to Allah because they contradict the principle that he is the one and only god. Muslims therefore have an obligation not only to worship Allah but also to destroy all other idols as they are by definition false.

The perspective adopted by supporters of the Islamic State does not permit them to tolerate, much less appreciate, diverse beliefs and values. Furthermore, the strict and literal construction of words found within the Qur’an means that there is no room for flexibility or nuance. Ironically, studying the Islamic State from a culturally relativistic perspective highlights the fact that a key feature of the Islamic State worldview is its inherent inability to apply a culturally relativistic perspective to its understanding of other people and the artifacts, monuments, and sites that have cultural importance to those other people.

The perspective and actions of the Islamic State’s supporters will not change unless their interpretation of Islam changes, and there does not appear to be any evidence to suggest that such a change is going to occur. Affirmative action is therefore going to be required if artifacts, monuments, and sites having universal value are to be preserved. Moreover, the obligation to take affirmative action is a global responsibility because the Islamic State’s anti-idolatry campaign puts at risk our collective heritage as humans.

Whitney Carter will receive her BA in Cultural Anthropology and Criminal Justice from Boston U in May 2016.  As an undergraduate, she completed a directed study entitled “The Destruction of Cultural Artifacts by the Islamic State” and an archeological internship in Menorca, Spain that focused on excavation and the protection of cultural resources.  Upon graduation, Whitney’s objective is to obtain employment in the field of cultural heritage management.  She can be contacted at w.carter@sbcglobal.net or through LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/pub/whitney-carter/a6/78a/189.

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