Destruction of Idols and Idol-Temples in 
Jihãd: The Evidence of the Sunnah

A natural and in fact inevitable consequence of spreading Islam by jihãd is the destruction of non-believers’ places of worship and their idols. It is somewhat remarkable that this duty has not been enjoined in any Koranic verse as a part of jihãd. The destruction of idols is often mentioned in the Koran, but nowhere in connection with jihãd. Such an ordinance derives from the Sunnah and the Sunnah alone. In the Koran there are descriptions of such destruction in heaven at the hands of angels (firishtas) and on earth at the hands of Prophet Ibrãhîm (Abraham), who is proclaimed the first Mussalman in the world. But these descriptions are not connected with any jihãd.

(1) The sûrah for the destruction of idols and images is Sûrah Sãffãt, the 37th chapter of the Koran. This sûrah tells us that on the Day of Judgement Allah would assemble idols and idol-worshippers through his firishtas and throw them into the everlasting fire of hell. As the Koran puts it:

“(And it is said unto the angels) assemble those who did wrong, together with their wives and what (idols) they used to worship instead of Allah, and lead them to the path of hell… Then lo! this day they (both) are sharers in the doom. Thus deal We with the guilty” (K 37/22, 23, 33, 39).

(2) So much for the destruction of idols by Allah himself through his heavenly hosts. As regards Prophet Ibrãhîm’s hand in the matter, the Koran describes his iconoclasm in several passages, notably in the same sûrah 37 as also in sûrah 21 (Ambiyã). In the former this is how Ibrãhîm proceeded in regard to the deities of his kinsmen:

“Ibrahim said unto his father and his folk: What is it that ye worship? Is it a falsehood - gods beside Allah - that ye desire?… And he glanced a glance at the stars; then said: Lo! I feel sick. And they turned their backs and went away from him. Then turned he to their gods and said: Will ye not eat? What aileth ye that ye speak not? Then he attacked them striking with his right hand. And his people came towards him hastening. He said: Worship ye that ye yourselves carve?” (K 37/85ff).

Such are the Koranic accounts of the destruction of idols. It appears that what Ibrãhîm objected to was his folk’s addiction to ‘false gods’ who could not ‘eat or speak’. To us this does not constitute so serious an offence as to rouse one to iconoclastic fury. However, the Koran does not mention if, beyond striking his folk’s idols behind their back, Ibrãhîm waged any full-fledged jihãd against his idolatrous kinsmen. That was left to the Prophet of Islam who in his jihãd against his kinsmen destroyed all the idols in and around the Ka‘bah and signalled the event as a permanent legacy to future mujãhids.

According to the account given by all biographers of the Prophet, on reaching Mecca, he mounted his camel Al-Kaswa and proceeded towards the Ka‘bah. On reaching there he saluted the famous Black Stone with his staff and made seven circuits round the sacred building. “Then pointing with his staff to the idols one by one, he commanded them to be hewn down.” The huge idol of Hubal stood in front of the temple. As the Prophet’s followers attacked it with pickaxes the image fell down with a crash. The Prophet celebrated its fall by shouting a verse from the Koran: “Truth hath come and falsehood gone, for falsehood verily vanisheth away,” (K 17/81).

This was not all. The destruction of Hubal was followed by the destruction of all the pictures decorating the walls of the temple. An announcer was asked to go down the streets of Mecca shouting a proclamation: “Whoever believeth in Allah, let him not leave in his house any image whatever that he doth not break in pieces.” The fury of idol-breaking was unleashed in the city.

In the next two weeks the Prophet despatched his armed squads to all places in the neighbourhood with the express command to destroy the images as also their shrines. Khãlid destroyed the fane of Al-Uzzã at Nakhla. Amr smashed the image of Suwã‘ worshipped by the tribe of Hudhail. Al-Manãt was destroyed at Kodeid. This particular work of destruction was entrusted to a tribe of Medina who had been specially attached to this deity. This was the Prophet’s way of testing their zeal for Islam.

Muir’s description of the destruction of the image of Al-Lãt, worshipped by the Thakif tribe of Taif, is particularly touching. Following close upon the conquest of Mecca the Prophet had besieged the city of Taif, but the siege had to be raised because of the heroic resistance of the Thakafites. But when every surrounding tribe started professing Islam and organising raid upon raid against them, the Thakafites decided to offer submission. Their attachment to their Goddess Al-Lãt, however, was too strong to be renounced so easily. Already they had killed one of their own chiefs, Urwa, who, having professed Islam on his own, would have all his fellow-citizens follow in his footsteps. But harassed and exhausted by Islamic attacks from all sides they at last sent out a deputation of six chiefs who pleaded with the Prophet for retaining the temple of Al-Lãt for another three years even after professing Islam. As was to be expected, the Prophet rejected the plea. Thereafter they prayed for a respite of two years, one year, six months, successively with tearful supplication. The Prophet was stubborn in his refusal, declaring that Al-Lãt could not coexist with Allah for a single day. The only concession the Thakafites could get was that they were not required to destroy the image of Al-Lãt with their own hands. Al-Mughira, a kinsman to Urwa, and Abu Sufyan, the Koreishite leader, volunteered to perform that task. “Al-Mughira, wielding a pickaxe and surrounded by a guard of his relatives, and amid the cries and wailing of the women, with his own hand, hewed [the image] to the ground.”

A Christian with iconoclastic tendencies himself, Muir has wasted few words of sympathy for the people whose Gods and shrines were so ruthlessly destroyed. But even he seems to have been somewhat affected by the devotion of the Thakafites to their deity. As he puts it, “Al-Taif was the last stronghold that held out against the authority of Mohammad. It is remarkable as the only place where the fate of an idol excited the sympathy of the people. Everywhere else the images seem to have been destroyed by the people themselves without a pang.” We can ignore the last sentence as proceeding from the pen of a would-be iconoclast, but the heartless manner of trampling upon the devotion of the Thakafites as illustrated in the above incident is an eloquent commentary on the virtue of breaking other people’s idols.

But whatever be one’s opinion about this vandalism, the Islamic significance of these events can hardly be exaggerated. Iconoclasm became part and parcel of jihãd not by any specific injunction of the Koran but by the very activities following upon the conquest of Mecca. These constituted the Prophet’s Sunnah and was an addition to the teachings of the Koran, so much so that in a great many jihãds waged by the latter-day zealots of Islam, the very words which the Prophet had uttered at the time of destroying the image of Hubal at Ka‘bah became a part of the ritual of iconoclasm unleashed at the end of a successful jihãd. “Truth hat come and falsehood gone; for verily falsehood vanisheth away.”

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