How the Wahhabis failed in desecrating the Holy Tomb of the Prophet of Islam

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[Excerpt from “NOTES OH THE BEDOUINS AND WAHABYS”, COLLECTED DURING HIS TRAVELS IN THE EAST, BY THE LATE JOHN LEWIS BURCKHARDT. PUBLISHED IN 1831.]

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    If farther proof were required that the Wahabys are very orthodox Muselmans, their catechism would furnish it. When Saoud took possession of Mekka, he distributed copies of this catechism among the inhabitants, and ordered that the pupils in public schools should learn it by heart. Its contents are nothing more than what the most orthodox Turk must admit to be true. Saoud entertained an absurd notion, that the townspeople were brought up in entire ignorance of their religion, and therefore wished to instruct those of Mekka in its first principles. Nothing, however, was contained in this catechism which the Mekkans had not already learned ; and when Saoud found that they were better informed than his own people, he desisted from further disseminating it among them.

The chief doctrines of the Wahabys, it will be seen, correspond with those taught in other parts of the Muselman empire. The Koran and the traditions of Mohammed are acknowledged as fundamental, comprising the laws ; and the opinions of the best commentators on the Koran are respected although not implicitly followed. In the attempt, however, to exhibit the primitive practices and pure dogmas of the original founder of Islam and of his first followers, as established upon these laws, they were naturally led to condemn a number of false opinions and corruptions which had crept into Islam as at this day taught, and also to point out the numerous cases in which Turks acted in direct opposition to the precepts they themselves acknowledged to be indispensable. I am not qualified by a sufficient knowledge of the controversy, to present my reader with full details on this head, and shall therefore confine myself to the notice of a few instances, which are considered as the chief points of dispute between the two parties : the Wahabys reproach the Turks with honouring the prophet, in a manner which approaches adoration, and with doing the same also to the memory of many saints. In this they seem not to be much mistaken. By once admitting the Koran as their revealed law, the Turks were obliged to believe implicitly the numerous passages wherein it is expressly declared that Mohammed is a mortal like themselves : but the fanatic love for their prophet could not be content with this modest declaration ; their learned men proved with sophistical subtlety that the prophet, although dead and buried, had not shared the common lot of mortals, but was still alive ; that his access to the Almighty, and his being dearly beloved by him, rendered it easy for him to protect or recommend any of his faithful adherents. Though Turks never address any distinct prayers to their prophet, yet they pronounce his name, as if to invoke him, in the same manner as we say ” O Lord !” and   this was enough to draw upon them the severe reprehension of the Wahabys. They moreover visited his tomb, with the same devotion as they do the great temple of Mekka, and, when standing before it, uttered aloud their impious invocations, as the Wahabys called them ; so that they fully deserved the opprobrious appellation of infidels, who associate an inferior divinity with the Almighty. In similar respect are held many sheikhs, or saints, but not to the same extent. In every Turkish town are many tombs ; and in almost every village at least one tomb of some renowned saint, whose exemplary life, (that is, great cunning or hypocrisy,) and sometimes great learning, had procured for him the reputation of sanctity. Their countrymen thought it incumbent on them to honour their memory, by erecting small buildings, with cupolas or vaulted roofs over their tombs, and in these places particularly to offer up their prayers to the Divinity, in the belief that the saint would thus be more inclined to second their supplications before the throne of the Almighty. In fact, the Mohammedan saints are venerated as highly as those of the Catholic church, and are said to perform as many miracles as the latter. The people of the East are extremely attached to their sheikhs ; and in every town and village there is annually, on a fixed day, a festival in honour of its particular patron.

The Wahabys declared, that all men were equal in the eyes of God ; that even the most virtuous could not intercede with him ; and that it was, consequently, sinful to invoke departed saints, and to honour their mortal remains more than those of any other persons. Wherever the Wahabys carried their arms, they destroyed all the domes and ornamented tombs ; a circumstance which served to inflame the fanaticism of their disciples, and to form a marked distinction between them and their opponents, which it has always been the policy of every founder of a sect to establish, and which was the more necessary with the common mass of the Wahabys, who are not capable of judging accurately on the other points of dispute. The destruction of cupolas and tombs of saints became the favourite taste of the Wahabys. In Hedjaz, Yemen, Mesopotamia, and Syria, this was always the first result of their victory ; and as many domes formed the roofs of mosques,^ they were charged with destroying these also. At Mekka, not a single cupola was suffered to remain over the tomb of any renowned Arab : those even covering the birth-place of Mohammed, and of his grandsons, Hassan and Hosseyn, and of his uncle, Abou Taleb, and his wife, Khadydje, were all broken down. While in the act of destroying them, the Wahabys were heard to exclaim, ” God have mercy upon those who destroyed, and none upon those who built them !” The Turks, who heard of these ravages, naturally believed that they were committed through disrespect for the persons to whose honour they had been erected, and disbelief in their sanctity. Even the large dome over the tomb of Mohammed, at Medinah, was destined to share a similar fate. Saoud had given orders that it should be demolished ; but its solid structure defied the rude efforts of his soldiers ; and after several of them had been killed by falling from the dome, the attempt was given up. This the inhabitants of Medinah declared to have been done through the interposition of Heaven.

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