By Hasib Noor
Yet another article about the destruction of the Prophet's grave is published and I catch the story early as it's released.
Wincing at the title of the article in the Independent, the UK national daily newspaper”…Muslim division… proposal… Mohamed's tomb,” I think to myself as I'm reading, “oh no, not again.”
Social media is absolutely livid. I'm getting tags, messages, and posts directed at me as everyone is inquiring about what is going on.
Why me? Living and studying in the City of the Prophet Muhammad is a mix of having a guilty conscience wrapped in a blessing.
We constantly question ourselves.
We constantly say it's not something we ever deserved.
But it's a blessing we have to constantly be thankful for and live up to the legacy of this city.
There is a tradition that's been passed down among the students to remind us of living up to that legacy, something age old. It's been narrated by each generation of Madinah students to the next. The saying goes:
“don't ever think you were so special to deserve to come here, but know that you needed this the most.”
Everything about being here reminds us of the responsibility. We are studying the faith that two billion people hold dear, in a tradition of over 1400 years, in the same location that the most beloved person to these two billion taught it in… the city of Madinah, one of the holiest cities in all of Islam.
The Prophet's masjid— Al-masjid Al-Nabawi —the world's oldest Islamic institution is the legacy of all of Islamic civilizations, scholarship, and history. All of it traces back to what every single Muslim shares and holds dear about this city. Not only because the masjid serves as the world's oldest Islamic learning institution, but because Muslims know the exact location where the beloved Prophet Muhammad is buried.
Madinah is where I read the article published by the Independent.
I feel sick. The language itself is loaded, divisive, intended to make an impact. And the reaction is the same. All of us feel it, think it, say it. “This CAN'T be true.”
I immediately send messages to my friends and contacts that are researchers at the Center for Historical Studies and Research of Madinah – to verify the news. My friend and long time researcher Abdullah Kabir Al-Shanqiti responds right away. He had already heard about the article. Many of the researchers, as well as the British-educated director of the center whom I know well, speak English. We have a conversation to discuss the details of the article and it is conclusive.
Standards of Journalism
Divisively worded to bring about an intended response, almost all of the facts in the article are not only out of context, but embellished or completely untrue. The article is laced with references to sectarian differences, and even manages to fit in a mention of ISIS for effect.
The source mentioned in the article, Dr. Irfan Al-Alawi, of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, represents a polarizing organization called the Center of Islamic Pluralism based out of Washington D.C. The background, connection, and history of the organization and Dr. Irfan Al-Alawi is deserving of an entire separate article.
The timing of this article is something that came to light as research is done by close friends that showed that the Independent regularly posts articles every year that seemingly recycled the same story regarding the destruction of masjid Nabwi, Mecca and/or the Prophet's tomb. These articles date as far back as least to 2011. Dr. Alawi is consistently used as a source annually on this topic in 2011, 2012, 2013 and now with the most recent one in 2014. One can recognize a clear trend or what some might call agenda.
Focusing on the facts of the latest Independent article, the article is pure tabloid—not journalism and certainly not news. Written not with intent to share an event, but a planned disposition for an intended effect.
Worse, it seems entirely premeditated.
Who is Dr Al-Shabal?
The entire story plays off the words “proposal” and “plans.” Emphasizing the veneration of this site by all Muslims, Shia and Sunni, of all backgrounds to create a crisis —a strategic divisive effect.
The reality is, there was no such proposal, and there were no plans.
The article discusses a 61-page document by a “leading Islamic academic Dr Ali ibn AbdulAziz al-Shabal.” The reality is he is not a leading academic, unheard of by the Center of Historical Studies, and someone unknown until the Independent coins him as a “leading Islamic academic” figure.
The document he wrote is a paper that post-doctoral candidates in Saudi Arabian universities write in order to reach the level of adjunct professor. Al-Shabal teaches at imam University. He submitted this paper to the Committee of the Presidency of the Two Masjids in order to establish credibility and at the end of his paper he makes suggestions. He did not submit a proposal to the government; that was never intended—let alone accepted. It is an entry submitted to an academic journal that was taken completely out of context in the Independent article—no, not out of context, seemingly used for an intended purpose.
The writer of the Independent article makes the claim that Dr. Al-Shabal “calls for the destruction of chambers around the Prophet's grave ” and “the removal of Mohamed's remains to the nearby al-Baqi cemetery, where they would be interred anonymously.” A prominent and well known scholar and professor in Umm al Qurra University in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, from the lineage of the Prophet , Dr. Hatim Al-Awni Al-Sharif calls this a lie and the article a fabrication.
He says that Dr. Al-Shabal in fact called for the “separation” of the grave from the masjid structure and not destruction of the tomb or removal and relocation of the grave.
While correcting this fact, he scathingly critiques Dr.Al-Shabal's academic journal submission and calls it “against the tradition of scholarship from the time of the companions and scholars of this ummah.”He further says while the Independent article stands corrected, “this does not change the fact that [Al-Shabal] went beyond all bounds… and the problem that exists with some is that they believe that they are more knowledgeable and stand more for (the defense of) monotheism than the entire Muslim nation, otherwise they would never have the audacity to put forth such a preposterous opinion!”
Dr Al-Sharif concludes that the academic paper went against the tradition and understanding of orthodoxy entirely and that even though the Independent is completely wrong, lied, and falsified what Dr. Al-Shabal wrote, it still is something that's rejected.
Furthermore, Dr. Al-Shabal is painted as a “leading islamic academic figure,” yet he does not represent any kind of scholarly decision-making body, such as the Council of Senior Scholars whom the government directly seeks approval from. Nor does he represent the Organization of the Islamic Council, a 500-member body comprised of scholars from all over the world that's based in Jeddah. Nor does he sit in the Fiqh Council (alMajma' al Fiqhi) another international council that has members such as renowned scholar Sh Abdullah ibn Bayyah, and holds its meetings in Mecca.
This single fact shows how little the Independent even knows about how scholarly bodies are petitioned when it comes to matters dealing with Islam's holiest sites.
Flashback to last year—the Council of Scholars in Saudi Arabia oversaw the decision to expand the Prophet 's masjid. An official government proposal and plan was given to them for approval. The expansion of the masjid in this proposal required changing the place of where the imam leads prayers in the original masjid.
For over 1000 years Imams have led prayer here. This proposal suggested—for the first time in Muslim history—that the imam would deliver sermons on a minbar other than the pulpit of the Prophet .
The Council unanimously rejected the proposal with the exception of only two members who gave secondary suggestions. The King called for a readjustment of the expansion to demolish all of the 5 star hotels in the back of the Prophet masjid and expand in a direction that preserves the original building, pulpit, and prayer cove.
I had to ask. How could the Council of Scholars, made up of at least one Madinan scholar, my own teacher, Sh. Muhammad Al-Mukhtar Al-Shanqiti, reject a plan and proposal to not have the pulpit of the Prophet moved, yet they listened to a plan for his tomb to be moved? It was something impossible.
A Divisive Strategy to Sow Seeds of Discord
The problem of manufactured journalism is something we've seen more rampant today. A former CNN reporter, Amber Lyon, exposed that some news outlets even get paid by governments.
Regardless, seeds of discord spread among Muslims throughout social media because of the pervasive and almost subliminal impact such media plays. Many are in deep hate mode and have lunged full on attacks… without checking the facts.
When the facts are pointed out to many that the article contains false information, most seem to not care, “the reality is we can't forget that Saudi did…” or “but in Saudi…” type rhetoric is spreading. Even academics that lay claim to scholastic standard, even journalists, even educators… many are falling prey to the exact intention of the article —the sowing of discord.
For many equating Saudi to not just a government but to an ideology that pigeonhole others is becoming comfortable, again. The “they” and “us” is something that spread through the discussions on social media, no matter which “spectrum” the person belonged to. The standing and representing movements rather than Islam again reared its ugly head.
Many are letting their feelings dictate their rationale—it doesn't matter if the assertions in the article are false, there is injustice that needs to be spoken against, and criticism that needs to be made.
Destruction and Preservation in the Haramain
We must admit. We must be truthful. The realities of history, the truth of demolishing many archaeological sites, historical locations, and other damages to the two holiest sites in Islam is something that is concrete, recorded, and undeniable. There is no doubt, a time, a place, and a discourse that must be had on the destruction of historical sites (I plan on writing a critical analysis of the destruction and preservation of historical sites in the Haramain). However, many do not know about the existence and the work of the organizations to preserve historical sites. In fact, the Center for Historical Studies and Research of Madinah has an entire division that oversees preservation of archaeological sites in Madinah, makes recommendations to the government body overseeing expansion, and I have personally witnessed the director signing 18 sites to be preserved in the future expansion of the Prophet 's masjid.
Another organization that does the same in Mecca is called the Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, and many other organizations exist both in Mecca and Madinah that work to preserve historical and archaeological sites as best as they can.
But what must be realized, what must resonate, is that there is no doubt that this strategy of manufactured journalism to sow discord is prevalent and strategically placed.
Muslims cannot afford to fall prey to this. Muslims cannot accept to give up the ethos of our faith in verifying news, not spreading everything we hear, and lose sight of the brotherhood that unifies us to collectively speak out against injustice, oppression, and transgression in our faith.
Muslims cannot fall into emboldening sentiments of partisanship and hatred that these type of articles wish for. Right now a correction of false information that's spreading, an understanding of our history, our heritage, our tradition, and our knowledge must be sought. It is in these turbulent times that we clearly see the work of strategy in play, and it is in these times that we beseech our teachers, our scholars, our academics, our journalists, our educators, all Muslims to hold fast and not let distraction seep in. Not let the seeds of discord blur our vision. Not let the disagreements distance ourselves from the objective of reaching a mutual understanding. Holding tight to the same rope, the unity of Muslims, a mutual understanding, a strength must be kept.
Holding on to the Legacy of Madinah
After my preliminary responses on Twitter, I have the opportunity to have an exchange with prominent British journalist Mehdi Hasan. The disagreement over the facts isn't there. It is a deeper sentiment that the article targets and wishes to sow.
We have a calm exchange, where we lay out our points. I point out the factual inaccuracy and emphasize that. And the exchange ends cheerfully with me offering him a cup of tea on his next visit to the holy city of Madinah and a discussion we can have—person to person.
He happily obligeds and says he was looking forward to it.
And I respond; I assure him the Legacy of Madinah is alive and well and will continue to be. This legacy will always defeat those who wish the seeds of discord. The legacy of the Prophet that is ingrained in our faith to overcome and realize the bigger picture, know and understand not just the time to discuss disagreements but the place and environment as well, and to see through the elements that wish to sow that discord in our ranks.
This is the type of discourse we should encourage to have with one another, this is the type of legacy that we should preserve.
In trying times where there are major events occurring in the world, our priorities should be directed by that legacy. A legacy that informs us, that the honor, blood, and sanctity of a Muslim is holier than the Ka'aba itself (1). A legacy that tells us, “It is enough of a lie to relate to others everything you hear (2).” A legacy that guides us, “O you who have believed, if there comes to you an immoral person with information, investigate, lest you harm a people out of ignorance and become, over what you have done, regretful (3).”
Let's uphold to that legacy, and not allow our discourse to be set by divisive elements and let discord sow in our hearts and ranks. These are from the hadiths of the beloved, our Prophet Muhammad and guidance from the Qur'an. That is the legacy we must carry.
That legacy lives on… and will continue to live on.
Hasib Noor, completing his final year in Bachelors at the College of Islamic Law in the University of Madinah, following undergraduate study in the US majoring Pre-Med & minor in Psychology.
1. A hadith narrated in Tirmidhi, Ibn Majah, & Ibn Hibban- by Abdullah ibn Amr who said “I saw the Messenger of Allah circumambulating the Ka'bah and saying: 'How beautiful are you and how good your fragrance; how great are you and how great your sanctity. By the One in Whose Hand is the soul of Muhammad, the sanctity of the believer is greater before Allah than your sanctity, his blood and his wealth, and to think anything but good of him.'”
2. A hadith narrated in Sahih Muslim by Abu Hurayrah
3. Qur'an 49:6
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