In a world filled with picturesque ruins, Palmyra is among the most magical, its beauty at certain moments so overwhelming that it becomes painful. I was privileged to spend a few days there five years ago, including one night in accommodation within the main complex which meant we had the columns, arches and buildings virtually to ourselves in the fresh dawn. At twilight, as we watched the sandstone acquire a delicate rose glow, I felt like a bridge in time had opened up, and Queen Zenobia might pass through the central avenue at the head of a procession.

I have waited with incipient grief and anger for news of ISIS destroying the carefully reconstructed 2,000- year-old treasure. The  group repeatedly vandalised the site after it took control of the region in May, but the scale of its destruction accelerated last week when it beheaded Palmyra’s revered 82 year-old chief curator Khaled Asaad, and later dynamited one of the most important structures, the temple of Baal Shamin.

Those awful actions, like the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas a decade ago, have once again brought to the foreground Islam’s history of iconoclasm. Right-wingers will paint the act as characteristic of the faith, while the Left will argue for a political understanding rather than a doctrinal one. Such deeds, we liberals will explain, are carried out by adherents of an extreme version of Islam, which should not be taken to represent the moderate majority. It’s another matter that this extreme doctrine, call it Salafism or Wahhabism, has been gaining strength steadily for decades and can hardly be called a fringe belief system any longer.

The debate has more resonance in India than any other nation, for it is here that Islamic iconoclasm remains an unhealed wound. The Hindu Right makes contemporary political capital of the destruction of temples by Muslim armies in centuries past. I have written frequently about the falsehoods inherent in the Hindutva version of history, falsehoods which in many cases are taken as historical truths by the mainstream and not just the Hindutva flock. I urge a reading of this article published five years ago about historical biases contained in the India edition of the popular guidebook Lonely Planet, to balance the rest of this column.

Finding the balance

Much as the Right’s view of Islam’s history is blinkered and inaccurate, the Left’s reflexive defensiveness has brought it dangerously close to becoming an apologist for Islam, and implicitly viewing as victims the faith’s billion-plus adherents. The Left locates caste inequities at the root of Hinduism (and is in my opinion perfectly justified in doing so), and rarely shrinks from citing texts such as the Manusmriti to back that case, but tends to dismiss as "out of context quotation" links between temple desecration and Quranic injunctions, and condemns as essentialist any suggestion of problems at the core of Islam itself. The Right has exploited to the hilt this manifest double standard.

To flesh out what I have said about the Left’s approach, I will consider the work of Richard Eaton, an Arizona-based historian who has become a hero of the Left for cataloguing instances of shrine destruction in India (his analysis can be found in two parts, here  and here) and concluding that only 80 such instances can be accepted with certainty based on contemporary accounts. Eaton further argues that temples were demolished almost exclusively as a consequence of war, and the intent of the destruction was political humiliation of adversaries rather than the fulfillment of any doctrinal imperative. His preference for politics over religion as an explanation for acts of vandalism precisely parallels contemporary left-wing responses to the Taliban and ISIS.

How accurate is Eaton’s analysis? I will show its weakness based on one example, that of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. Shah Jahan was a relatively observant Muslim, unlike his father and forefathers, Jehangir, Akbar, Humayun and Babur, all of whom flouted some of the faith’s basic tenets. On the other hand, in the struggle for succession that brewed for years among his sons, Shah Jahan came down squarely in favour of the least orthodox among them, Dara Shikoh, against the punctiliously observant Aurangzeb. It’s fair to say, then, that Shah Jahan falls precisely in the middle of the scale between heretical and orthodox, and between ecumenical and fundamentalist. He also happens to be one of history’s most famous builders, imbued with an understanding of design unparalleled among major sovereigns. This presumably made him less liable to order temples demolished than a man with the same beliefs but less regard for architectural quality.

Eaton notes two instances of temple desecration during Shah Jahan’s reign. One involved the demolition of a large shrine in Orchha, described thus in the Shah Jahan Nama of Inayat Khan (edited by W.E.Begley and Z.A.Desai, Oxford Univesity Press, Delhi, 1990):
 When the environs of Orchha became the site of the royal standards, an ordinance was issued authorising the demolition of the idol temple, which Bir Singh Deo had erected at a great expense by the side of his private palace, and also of the idols contained in it (page 161).

The razing of Orchha’s temple fits precisely into Eaton’s scheme, which is that demolitions occurred as a consequence of conquering new territory or else when "Hindu patrons of prominent temples committed acts of disloyalty to the Indo-Muslim states they served”. Jhujhar Singh, Bir Singh Deo’s son, rebelled against Jehangir in the 1620s and was subdued by Shah Jahan’s forces a few years later. Shah Jahan could be said to have ordered Orchha’s temple levelled as a punishment for Jhujhar Singh’s rebellion.

Allahabad shrines

The second case is very different. This involves a general order to demolish new temples across the kingdom:
It has been previously represented that there were some of the finest Hindu temples at Banaras. In former reigns, the foundations of many new ones had been laid, some of which had been completed while others still remained in an imperfect state; and these the opulent among the pagans were desirous of seeing finished. The infidel-consuming monarch, who is the guardian of true religion, had therefore commanded that at Banaras and throughout the entire imperial dominions, wheresoever idol-temples had been recently built, they should be razed to the ground. Accordingly, in these days it was reported from the province of Allahabad that 70 had been demolished at Banaras alone (pages 89, 90).

There was no rebellion in Banaras or its environs that had to be put down in 1633. The province had been a stable part of the Mughal empire for decades. Shah Jahan’s order appears to contravene Eaton’s categories, and fall within the ambit of an act motivated more by religious dogma than political calculation. Strangely, Eaton classifies this as one single temple desecration, while it is clear that at least 70 shrines were razed in Allahabad alone. Such special pleading is a consistent feature of his method: he repeatedly takes passages that describe the demolition of dozens or even hundreds of shrines and classifies them as a single temple being torn down. His figure of 80, therefore is probably as far from the truth as the conventional Hindutva figure of 60,000 temples destroyed.

The Shah Jahan Nama records a third black mark against the builder of the most beautiful monument on the planet. On page 137 of the Begley-Desai edition, which covers events of September-October 1634 in Kashmir, we read:
 His majesty desired to go by boat up to the Kathbal bridge where the navigation of the stream ceases. He accordingly traversed the distance on board a boat, after which he mounted an open litter and arrived at Anantnag. In this pargana was an ancient idol-temple which the monarch, the bulwark of true religion and the destroyer of paganism, ordered to be demolished. And to the pargana itself, which was held in jagir by Islam Khan, he gave the appellation of Islamabad.

Not a newly constructed place of worship in this case, but one that had stood for perhaps centuries, within a district that was not even controlled by a Hindu chief. Not only does this act of vandalism fall outside Eaton’s analytical framework, it isn’t included in his list of 80 at all. How many more such did he miss? And what does it say for the liberal press that it has so uncritically celebrated such shoddy history writing?

 The Satanic Verses 

As a counter to Eaton’s foregrounding of political circumstance, Palmyra itself provides good examples of  the deep-rootedness of Islam’s conflict with idol-bearing buildings. The temple ISIS demolished a few days ago was dedicated to Baal Shamin, often known merely as Ba ‘al, which simply means Lord. Jehovah was called by that name on occasion, but eventually Ba ‘al became one of the Old Testament’s most prominent false gods. It was a short step from false god to devil, a transition that took place in the Christian era with the identification of one of the god’s variant names, Ba ‘al Zebub (or Beelzebub, meaning Lord of the Flies), with Satan. The demonisation of gods worshipped in sites like Palmyra was common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and inspired vandals of all three faiths.

A short walk from the Baal Shamim temple is a shrine dedicated to the goddess Al-lāt. Centuries after Palmyra’s decline, Al-lāt continued to be worshipped across West Asia, notably in the Kaaba at Mecca, where her idol found place alongside her fellow goddesses Manāt, and Al-‘Uzzá. When Muhammad was in a relatively weak position in his struggle against the Meccans, he is said to have considered a religious compromise, which became the basis of the so-called Satanic Verses accepting the three goddesses as intercessors along with the chief deity Allah.

After the Muslims triumphed against the Meccans, that particular verse was replaced by another which asserted Allah’s absolute uniqueness. It is possible the story of the Satanic Verses is apocryphal, for the evidence for it, though fairly strong, is not incontrovertible. What is beyond doubt is that in 630 CE Muhammad dispatched a follower named Abu Sufyan to destroy the idol and temple of Al-lāt in the city of Taif as a precondition for reconciliation with the besieged citizens. When, ISIS troops reduced to rubble Palmyra’s marvelous "lion of Al-lāt",  it is hard to argue they did it without adequate doctrinal sanction. To classify the act as a political manoeuvre is a necessary but not sufficient description of it.

Neither politics alone nor doctrine alone explains Islamic iconoclasm, but the two are like immiscible liquids that can be shaken together for the length of an article, but never stay blended for long enough to become components of a stable theoretical framework.