28 Aug 2012

Sufi saints and roundheads

I don’t suppose the men who attacked the Al Sha’ab shrine in Tripoli with jackhammers and a bulldozer on Saturday have heard of William Dowsing. But I see him as their spiritual ancestor.

He was a Christian, not a Muslim, English not Libyan, and he lived in the 17th not the 21st century. But as “Commissioner for the destruction of monuments of idolatry and superstition”, he, like they, was determined to remove the emblems of a different sect of his own religion. It was during the English Civil War, when British puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell, set about destroying crosses, pictures of the Virgin Mary, statues of saints and other manifestations of Catholicism. Dowsing had a particular thing about angels. Countless works of art were lost to history – between 1643 and 44 Dowsing and his assistants damaged 250 churches in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk alone.

Today’s Puritans are the Salafists – strict Islamists who follow the Wahhabi form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, and do not tolerate other interpretations. Sufis, who practice a mystical version of Islam, are similar to Catholics in that they venerate saints, and see shrines as holy. On Friday, Salafists destroyed the Sidi Abdul-Salam Al-Asmar Al-Fituri shrine in Zliten, and set fire to an adjoining library. Hundreds of Islamic manuscripts went up in flames. On Saturday, the latter day Dowsings turned their attention to the Al Sha’ab shrine in Tripoli, which contains the graves of saints from the 16th century.

I feel particularly sad about the Al Sha’ab shrine and the mosque which surrounds it, because last year I used to sit in the open air cafe next door and drink sweet tea with Libyan friends there. Those friends are horrified not just about the destruction, but also the behaviour of the Libyan authorities.

Men from the Supreme Security Council, which comes under the Ministry of Interior, surrounded the mosque but did nothing to stop the men with the bulldozer. (They did, however, arrest three Libyan journalists trying to cover the story.) Someone within the Ministry told Reuters they had approved the destruction because “black magic” was being practiced at the shrine. (And, yes, that’s exactly the allegation Dowsing and the puritans made against the Catholics). The story later changed – they said they wanted to prevent violence, which is why they did not intervene to stop the demolition.

William Dowsing was acting on the orders of Parliament, which passed an ordinance on 28 August 1643 calling for “monuments of idolatry and superstition to be removed and abolished.”

When Libyans elected a new parliament last month, they chose not religious extremists and iconoclasts, but technocrats. Libyans have been out demonstrating, and calling on their leaders to stop any further destruction. The Minister of the Interior has resigned. Rather belatedly, the Grand Mufti has condemned the desecration of shrines.

But, this, I fear is not the end of it. Last week I was reporting on the destruction of Sufi shrines by extremist groups which have taken control of Timbuktu in northern Mali. Everyone remembers the blowing up of the Bamyan Buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Salafi current is rising, and shrines which embody a living heritage are under threat across the Muslim world.

Follow Lindsey on Twitter @lindseyhilsum

Tweets by @lindseyhilsum