A general view shows the leaning minaret of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, on March 10, 2017, as Iraqi forces shell enemy positions during an offensive to retake the western parts of the city from the jihadists.
Mosul's Great Mosque of al-Nuri blown up
02:22 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Kishwar Rizvi is an Associate Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at Yale University. She is the author of “The Transnational Mosque: Architecture and Historical Memory in the Contemporary Middle East.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

Story highlights

Rizvi: Muslims revere houses of worship and the destruction of Mosul mosque is particularly repellent

The mosque was built in 1172 by one of the most renowned Sunni generals of the medieval period, she writes

CNN  — 

Muslims consider mosques to be the houses of God, the bayt Allah. They are places of worship, sanctuaries, and where Muslim communities come together. The first mosque, which was a modest structure built in 622 in Medina, was the house of the Prophet Mohammed.

Soon after his faith gained political legitimacy, mosques were built wherever Muslims settled, whether in desert landscapes or in historic urban centers. Building a mosque was a sacred trust, dedicated to fulfilling the spiritual needs of the community at large.

Thus, it comes as a shock to most Muslims to hear of the repeated destruction of mosques and shrines by Daesh, or the so-called Islamic State. The latest example, blowing up the 12th-century Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, which happened Wednesday, is particularly disturbing.

The mosque was built in 1172 by one of the most renowned Sunni generals of the medieval period. It is also where the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, sought to declare the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in 2014. When al-Baghdadi stood at the pulpit of this historic building, it showed the group’s acknowledgment of precedent and the power that mosques have in the Muslim religious consciousness.

Kishwar Rizvi

However, the destruction of the Mosul mosque also follows a pattern of ISIS destroying symbolically rich religious sites, such as Coptic churches in Egypt, and Shia and Sufi shrines in Iraq and Pakistan.

Religious buildings currently in use are not the only targets of ISIS, as shown by the destruction of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra in 2015. Their propagandists depict such sites as structures that in their view are only meaningful to anti-Muslim organizations such as UNESCO, and are a distraction from “true” Islamic history. Their destruction is seen as a sacred duty.

There are several reasons for targeting holy and historic sites: intimidation of local residents, wiping out of religious differences and gaining international attention. But what are the roots of ISIS’ destruction of Muslim holy sites and, more importantly, what effect can it have on local populations?

Historical precedent can be found in nearby Saudi Arabia, where removing sites associated with early Islamic history took place since the founding of the dynasty in 1744. For example, the tomb-shrine of the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter, Fatima, was razed in the 19th century, and the grave of his uncle, Hamza ibn Abdul Muttalib, in the 20th century.

Saudi clerics announced that these tombs perpetuated idolatry, in which people prayed not to God, but to human intercessors. It is also the reason given for the destruction of Shia and Sufi shrines, by the Saudis as well as ISIS. In more recent years sites surrounding the Kaaba in Mecca have also been removed to make way for luxury hotels and imperial palaces.

Even as the Kingdom encouraged the elimination of commemorative structures, it launched a Mosques Project in the 1980s to bring modern design to traditional Islamic architecture. At the same time, the government sponsored the construction of thousands of mosques and madrassas (theological colleges) throughout the world.

The building of mosques and madrassas provided legitimacy and also perpetuated Saudi authority among a wide range of Muslim communities. It came alongside increased persecution of minorities and the eradication of their religious institutions.

The Islamic State draws its inspiration from the Salafist ideology of the Saudi kingdom, yet destruction is hardly a legacy to build upon. If history shows us anything, it is that successful political entities choose to mark their authority through architecture and city building. It is not clear what that means in the occupied territories in Syria and Iraq.

ISIS and its affiliates have certainly changed the way people inhabit public spaces and undertake communal devotion, but it has also been a call to arms to those who see it as an existential threat to their own version of Islam. After the suicide attack on the Sufi shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Pakistan this February which killed more than 88 people, community leaders mobilized resources for a complete rebuilding of the site.

Follow CNN Opinion

  • Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    Shia shrines in Iraq are constant targets, especially during religious festivities, yet they are rebuilt almost as soon as the last traces of blood are washed away. Even the Mosul mosque was to be destroyed in 2014 but the residents of the city linked their arms together to protect its beloved minaret. This was the same mosque where al-Baghdadi stood at the pulpit and sought to establish himself as the leader of the new Islamic caliphate.

    The chain of local resistance was broken this week, but the effects of the mosque’s destruction are likely not what ISIS intended. Iraqis are appalled and horrified by this desecration of their history; they will find ways to commemorate it – if not with bricks and mortar, then with poems and paintings, and with a greater resolve to preserve their religious and cultural heritage.