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Bamiyan Ten Years On: What this Anniversary tells us about the New Global Iconoclasm

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. What does this anniversary tell us about attacks on images in the post-Bamiyan world, and the relationship of these attacks to both religious and political conflict? In this brief piece, I will attempt to put the relationship into context, comparing events ten years ago in Bamiyan to other subsequent acts of Islamist image-breaking, and will ask whether such acts can be categorized as a singular type of contemporary iconoclasm, interpretable through the often-used label of “Wahhabism.”

What happened to the Buddhas Ten Years Ago?

In March 2001, the two large standing Buddhas of the Bamiyan valley in Afghanistan were destroyed by the then-ruling Taliban regime. The exact details of this destruction were unclear at the time, leading to accusations between rival factions over who was responsible. Some reports claimed that local Shi’ite Hazara were forced by outside Sunni (also labeled as Deobandi and Wahhabi) Taliban to destroy the statues. Other reports claimed that the attacks were carried out by local Taliban fighters under orders from Mullah Omar; some argued that Omar himself reluctantly followed orders from Osama bin Laden. As such, within this web of claims and counter-claims, the destruction of the Buddhas reflected the complex levels of tribal, Islamic, Pashtun, and Arab identity that defined the conflict in Afghanistan.

Speaking in a 2005 documentary by Christian Frei, one inhabitant of the network of caves next to the statues claimed that “the Taliban initially attempted to hack away at the Buddha and the frescoes adorning the niches. And then . . . they attacked the statues with tanks, grenades and anti-aircraft missiles . . . the Taliban placed large quantities of mines, grenades, and bombs at the feet and shoulders of the statues and ignited the whole lot. The torso of the giant figure, however, remained intact. Only after around 20 days of senseless attacks at the beginning of March 2001, were specialists flown in to blow up the two giant Buddhas professionally.” Other reports echoed this claim that initially the Taliban coerced locals into abseiling from the cliffs and defacing the statues; when this strategy failed, they detonated the statues themselves with high explosives in a series of spectacular attacks, caught on video and subsequently broadcast by Frei.[1]

Was this an act of political or religious violence?

Intrinsic to the different claims over responsibility for the attack was a debate over whether it was an act of political or religious violence. The Taliban Foreign Minister told the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun that “we are destroying the Buddha statues in accordance with Islamic law and it is purely a religious issue.” Just prior to the event, Taliban envoy Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi declared, during a tour of America, that the Buddhas were being destroyed in retaliation for the 1992 attack by Hindu extremists on the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, India.

However, the attack was also justified as a political retaliation to food shortages following the UN sanctions imposed on Afghanistan in 2000. In this context, the Taliban had been threatening to destroy the Buddhas for several months, and diplomatic negotiations had been taking place between countries that considered them a legitimate regime and appealed to Islamic law to preserve the statues, and other countries that appealed to the idea of a universal cultural heritage (similar to that of UNESCO). During these negotiations, India had offered to take the statues away from Afghanistan; in response to this offer, according to one report, Mullah Omar ordered their destruction because he was angered by the idea that protecting stone objects was more important than addressing the starvation of Afghan people. It is important to note that this issue remains pertinent today in the debate over whether the Buddhas should be rebuilt—at a cost of many millions of dollars—when the money involved could be spent on aiding the infrastructure and food supplies of the people of Bamiyan.

Something else to note, on the political level, is the effect of years of civil war on Afghanistan, during which it was possible to find, at the feet of the Buddhas, large trucks being moved and munitions being stored in caves, threatening the structural integrity of the statues. In this environment of disorder and poverty, the late 1990s also saw a spate of theft and looting; indeed, the main museum at Kabul, having already been damaged during the civil war, then had its pre-Islamic artifacts destroyed by the Taliban at the same time as the attacks at Bamiyan. Clearly, when analyzing such events, it is difficult to distinguish the “religious” motive from the “social” act. The attacks last month on the Egyptian Museum in Cairo have also demonstrated this problem of categorization: the uncertainty over whether they were carried out by thieves, protestors, opportunists, Muslim Brotherhood members, plain-clothed security forces, or a combination of all these factions shows that attempts to label such violence as either primarily Islamist or political risks misunderstanding a complicated situation.

On the contrary, the evidence of Bamiyan shows that such moments of destruction are complex and hybrid acts that combine religious and social elements, as well as local (in this case, Hazara) and external (Taliban). Furthermore, within the religious and the social are other divisions: Shi’a and Sunni, Sunni and Deobandi, Deobandi and Wahhabi, Pashtun and Afghan, socialist and nationalist, ruling and ruled. The destruction of the Buddhas at Bamiyan serves as an extreme example of how such a network of conflict resists Western categorization and how we, as Western observers, must be cautious in our accounts.

Iconoclasm in the Post-Bamiyan World

The destruction of images during moments of political conflict, war, and the reconstruction of cities takes place in a variety of circumstances. Examples in the past thirty years have included the shelling of mosques and churches during the Balkan wars, attacks on mosques and temples (Hindu and Sikh) in India and in Indian expatriate communities abroad, and the destruction of Soviet imagery in central and eastern European countries following the collapse of Communism in 1989. These events were subject to complex social, political, and religious circumstances and as such resist generalizing categories. However, the ten years of the post-Bamiyan era have presented a more consolidated movement of iconoclasm associated with the rise of Islamist violence and the so-called “war on terror.” Among these examples of post-Bamiyan iconoclasm are the toppling of Saddam effigies in Baghdad, attacks by Sunni militants on Shi’ite shrines in Karbala and Najaf, the publication in the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten of cartoons and caricatures of Muhammad and the violent response that followed, two attacks by suspected pro-Taliban militants in 2007 on an ancient rock carving of a seated Buddha located near Janabad, Pakistan, and the demolition of the eighteenth-century Ottoman Ajyad fortress in Mecca to make room for Abraj al-Beit—a development of hotels, commercial centers, and luxury apartments built next to the Masjid al-Haram, “the Sacred Mosque.”

These events, despite crossing both geographical and cultural boundaries, can be considered in the post-Bamiyan world as comparable features of Islamist conflict. They have shifted the terms of debate concerning “conventional” weapons of destruction used during times of war to question the use of images of Allah and prophets in Islam; as a result, these attacks have connected present-day military conflicts to an ancient theological issue.

Abraj al-Beit provides an intriguing example of how the different global and local dimensions of this issue come together, and puts Saudi Arabia at the forefront of the study of contemporary iconoclasm. While some construction work continues today, most of what is the world’s largest concrete structure has now been finished. The name Abraj al-Beit means “The Towers of the House,” referring to a cluster of skyscrapers that are situated about 250 meters from the Ka’aba (the “house”). These towers have transformed radically the skyline of Mecca, the central Hotel tower reaching a height of 600 meters. Pilgrims performing the Hajj in the past decade have worshipped under large cranes dwarfing the minarets of the mosque. The finished construction, financed by the King Abdul Aziz Endowment, contains luxury studios for these pilgrims, a shopping mall and restaurants, a prayer area for several thousand people, a convention room, and a four-storey parking area for almost a thousand vehicles.

For many Muslims, this construction is a source of pride for the ummah, bringing Mecca into the twenty-first century and providing a spectacular frame for the Ka’aba as an epicenter.[2] However, the proximity of a skyscraper to the Ka’aba, which includes a shopping mall containing Western food chains and clothing brands and depends financially on a Saudi endowment that affects all pilgrims, has also caused controversy within the international Muslim community. In particular, the beginning of construction in 2002 involved the demolition of the eighteenth-century Ottoman Ajyad fortress, prompting Istemihan Talay, Turkey’s Culture Minister, to appeal to UNESCO over a “cultural massacre” where, he claimed, “the destruction of the al-Ajyad fort, part of the common cultural heritage of humanity, is an act equivalent to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan.”[3] This comparison of the construction of Abraj al-Beit to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, in the context of both the Saudi King Abdul Aziz Endowment and the Saudi origins of bin Laden before his affiliation with the Taliban, has resulted in giving present-day Islamist image-breaking a label typically associated with Saudi Arabia: that of “Wahhabism.”

Can Islamist iconoclasm be labeled as “Wahhabism”?

Identifying Abraj al-Beit as an example of post-Bamiyan iconoclasm uses a network of comparison and terms—those of destruction, endowment, and city-building—that has defined the history of Islamist image-breaking since the first attacks on shrines in Mecca by followers of Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahāb in 1803. The label “Wahhabism”—while being a problematic way of describing the original Najdi muwahhidun or “proponents of tawhid“[4]—is a heuristic tool that can be used to categorize a wide range of attacks on religious sites. Examples include: first of all, Mecca; second, Iraq (the “Wahhabis” attacked Najaf in 1810); third, Bosnia (reflecting claims over both the presence of Saudi mujahideen fighting Serb forces and the Saudi charities that rebuilt Ottoman mosques destroyed during the war of 1992–1995); fourth, Afghanistan (not only in the attack on the Bamiyan Buddhas but also in the presence of Saudi mujahideen, including bin Laden, fighting Soviet forces in the 1980s); and finally, America (six months after the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, predominantly Saudi mujahideen attacked the World Trade Center in New York—an attack on what Der Spiegel called “the ultimate icon of capitalism,” and what Jürgen Habermas labeled, during an interview alongside Jacques Derrida with Giovanna Borradori, “an icon in the household imagery of the American nation”).[5]

The label “Wahhabi” is believed to have emerged as a British accusation against certain Indian Islamists under the guidance of Sayyid Ahmad in the nineteenth century.[6] It has been continually rejected by both Saudis and muwahhidun. In 2002, the Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom, Ghazi bin Abdulrahman Al-Qusaibi, complained during an address at the University of Westminster about “Saudi Arabian Myths”: “I must start by frankly admitting that Saudi Arabia has always been an extremely efficient factory for the production of myths . . . . We Saudis—and this may shock you—consider Wahhabism a myth. No so-called Wahhabi ever accepted to be called a Wahhabi. The term was coined by the enemies of the reformist movement of Shaikh Muhammad bin Abdul-Wahhab and soon gained wide currency. We will continue to refuse the label in the hope that one day the outside world will listen, as it did when it stopped the earlier common practice of referring to Muslims as Muhammadans. I will quote directly from the Encyclopedia Britannica (15th edition): “Members of the Wahhabi call themselves Al-Muwahhidin, ‘Unitarians,’ a name derived from their emphasis on the absolute ‘oneness of God’ (tawhid). They deny all acts implying polytheism, such as visiting tombs and venerating saints; and advocate a return to the original teachings of Islam as incorporated in the Qur’an and Hadith.”[7]

With this caveat concerning the label in mind, then, what is the historical background to “Wahhabi” iconoclasm? It is generally accepted that the label stems from the “Wahhabi” destruction of idols (that is, attacks carried out by the followers of Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahāb in the late-eighteenth century) belonging to certain local traditions throughout the Arabian peninsula that were deemed to deviate from tawhid, in the desire to recreate an idealized first Islamic community.[8] These attacks were against targets as varied as the Najdi tribal worship of non-Islamic deities, dead ancestors, and natural objects, such as the male palm tree at Bulaydat al-Fidda, to the veneration of Islamic shrines in the Hijazi cities of Mecca and Medina under the cosmopolitan auspices of the Hashemite Sharifs. The destruction of such diverse local traditions reflected a desire for unity not only in the theological approach to God but also in the political approach to land; from the beginning, there was an attempt to unite both under the rule of Najd following the 1744 contract between ibn ‘Abd al-Wahāb and the al-Sa’ud family.

As such, the iconoclasm of the “Wahhabis” represented a means of bridging the twin principles of theological and political unity. In eighteenth-century Najd, the majority of the population (and the majority of those who were subsequently called “Wahhabis”) were nomads, but the Sa’udi family with whom ibn ‘Abd al-Wahāb forged his pact were urban hadar. Madawi al-Rasheed writes that “both the Sa’udi leadership and the mutawwa’a [the enforcers of “Wahhabi” law] represented the interest of the Najdi hadar communities at the expense of those of the Bedouin tribal population.” Indeed, she adds that “most probably the al-Sa’ud were a sedentary group . . . the [1744] settlement recognized the authority of the Sa’udi amir as a result of . . . his residence in the oasis and his ownership of cultivated land and wells around the settlement.”[9] Thus the Arabian political context introduces some important features to the study of “Wahhabi” iconoclasm: first, that the origins of Wahhabism reflected overtly social conditions as much as religious complaints; second, that Wahhabism emerged within a settled community, but depended on nomads to further its influence through clan ties and conquest; and third, that the urban base of the settled Sa’udi family, al-Dir’iyyah, became the central influence in Najd, pulling the nomadic communities and the lands they occupied towards its own orbit and creating, in the process, a new region under Sa’udi rule.

These social questions surrounding the control of Hijaz and the Hajj, the unification of the nomadic and settled groups throughout the Arabian peninsula, and the pull of Sa’udi authority towards Najd, were each as central to the identity of “Wahhabism” as the theology of tawhid. Thus the notion of centralization around a Sa’udi orbit marks the first defining feature of Wahhabism—the idea of reducing other, local Islamic or Arab cultures to its own. The political implementation of a theology of tawhid bridged complex social and political divides between blocs of Najdi-Hijazi, Wahhabi-Najdi, Hijazi-Ottoman, and Arab-Turk interests.

This was the “conflation,” as Aziz al-Azmeh calls it, of targets against which a single Islamic movement could identify itself and be identified. In other words, the cultural overlaps involved in acts of image-breaking during the Najdi attack on Mecca provided the context for a “Wahhabi” myth to develop and be reinforced by comparable later events, from nineteenth-century assaults on Shi’ite shrines in Karbala to Ibn Sa’ud’s final move on Mecca in 1925 and consolidation of Riyadh as a new capital. Such a homogenization echoes Ernest Gellner’s distinction between a “high” Islam inhabiting an urban environment of scriptural and legal formalism (what he terms Islamic “Puritanism”) and the differentiation and superstition of “folk” Islam.[10] Al-Azmeh claims: “there can be little doubt that the Wahhabite [sic] assault on popular practices and other manifestations of devotional and doctrinal difference was directed not only against dogmatic and devotional aberrations, but was also the counterpart of the fact that these were not only aberrant, but also and decidedly local. This acted to fragment religious authority in this world as well as in others, and militated against the emergence of a political authority which, busily devouring and incorporating social and geographical territory into a unifying vortex, was sustained by the Saudi-Wahhabite alliance.”[11] The control of the Ka’aba and the regulation of pilgrimage during the Hajj are central to this notion of authority; as such, the construction of skyscrapers around the Ka’aba represents a physical example of it, provoking a wider debate concerning the global and the local, the deconstructed and the destroyed, that faces many Muslims making their pilgrimage today.


This very small window into the social and religious context to image-breaking since the 1744 contract between ibn ‘Abd al-Wahāb and the al-Sa’ud family has shown that the term “Wahhabism,” while culturally problematic and unpopular for many Saudis, nevertheless provides a useful label with which to analyze the processes of centralization and national myth-making in the construction of a Saudi state and, by extension, the control of international pilgrimage sites and the destruction of non-Saudi shrines, tombs, and images. Thus the term “Wahhabism” can be considered on the epistemological level as a suitable way of describing an iconoclasm which extends beyond geographical and cultural boundaries.

This remains a delicate issue. As Alexander Knysh states in his study of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the term “Wahhabism” should be avoided as “a rhetoric of fear,” where both academics and journalists hold a “firm belief in the unproblematic heuristic value and self-sufficiency of the categories in question,” regardless of whether “we are dealing with a ‘real’ organized movement, a catch-all name for Islamic political activism, or a bugbear of the philistine imagination shocked by acts of ‘Islamic’ terror.”[12] Beyond the rhetoric of fear, however, the term “Wahhabi iconoclasm” remains—for the reasons I have given above—an appropriate label for the categorization of comparable acts of destruction that exceed the boundaries of nation state, culture, and history. In this context, the construction of a shopping mall only several hundred meters from the Ka’aba funded by a mixture of patriarchal endowment and international commerce can indeed be described as a vivid example of Wahhabi iconoclasm in the digital age.

It is this element of internationalism to the Taliban’s attack on the Bamiyan Buddhas that connects it to a “Wahhabi” narrative far more significantly than the unclear details of whether Mullah Omar did or did not have a close relationship to Osama bin Laden. The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas became part of a mythical Wahhabi iconoclastic narrative that has operated in the past decade as the prism through which we can understand the destruction of Ottoman forts in Mecca, effigies and shrines in Iraq, statues in Pakistan, and cartoons in Denmark. As such, the study of iconoclasm in the post-Bamiyan era functions as a way of understanding Islamist conflict and, by extension, the wider relationship between religion and political society.


1. The trailer for Frei’s 2005 film The Giant Buddhas shows the attacks from two angles, one close-range and the other from across the valley. It is available online here. Another film of historical interest is that of Hal, Halla and David Linker’s travelogue documentary Adventure in Afghanistan: The Wild, the Weird, and the Wonderful (1973), available through the Smithsonian Institution and the Human Studies Film Archives’ series of anthropological films posted on YouTube. It shows the Linkers walking up the cliff side and through a newly discovered network of passages and caves to stand on one of the Buddhas’ heads, from which wall paintings can be seen on the rock face. It is available online here.

2. For the idea of Abraj al-Beit glorifying the Ka’aba, see this video, posted on YouTube here.

3. On the Turkish minister’s comparison of Saudi Arabia’s construction of Abraj al-Beit and the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, see the Turkish Directorate General of Press and Information, Office of the Prime Minister, available here.

4. This reformist version of Islam is based on an adherence to the absolute unity of God (tawhid) and the refutation of associationism (shirk). In the opening statement of his Kitāb al-Tawhid, ibn ‘Abd al-Wahāb emphasized these twin principles by quoting the Qur’an 4.36—”worship Allah and do not associate anything with him,” where “worship” refers specifically to tawhid and the worship of the one God (Allah) precludes his association with anything else. In this context, worship of Allah is literally synonymous with the destruction of idols as the words used to describe both idolatry and unbelief are the same (notably when describing the mushrikun, those who commit shirk or associationism (Qur’an 2.132, 2.134, 2.135). As such, the Muslims are described as fulfilling the “true religion” of the covenant between God and Ibrāhim because of the associationism of the Jews and Christians, linking “those who disbelieve among the people of the scripture” with shirk (Qur’an 2.105) and asserting that “Ibrāhim was a true Muslim and not al-Mushrikun” (Qur’an 3.67). This distinction is then re-emphasized in the story of Musā (Moses) and the golden calf (Qur’an 4.153–55).

5. See Giovanna Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, partly available here.

6. See W. W. Hunter, The Indian Musalmans: Are they Bound in Conscience to Rebel against the Queen? (London: Trubner, 1871).

7. Ghazi bin Abdulrahman Al-Qusaibi, “Saudi Arabian Myths” (9/7/2002), available here.

8. For example, Natana Delong-Bas writes in her book Wahhabi Islam: from Revival and Reform to Global Jihad (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004) that: “ibn ‘Abd al-Wahāb addressed these local customs by referring to early Muslim history—namely, the deaths of Muhammad and some of his Companions—because it was during this time that the question of shrine and dome buildings over tombs came to a head for the early Muslim community. According to the historical record, Muhammad was buried in his house underneath the apartments of his favorite wife, Aisha. This house was later converted into a mosque. After a time, the tribe that controlled the mosque sought to expand it. This was opposed by some, who claimed it should not be done because this was also the location of Muhammad’s tomb. The tribe in control responded that it had no intention of expanding the chamber where Muhammad was buried but simply wanted to expand the mosque. In reviewing the record, ibn ‘Abd al-Wahāb agreed with the decision to expand the mosque because it was confined to the mosque. There was to be no embellishment or expansion of Muhammad’s tomb. However, he remained concerned about the precedent that the construction of such a mosque set for future generations. He noted that Muhammad himself had feared that people would come to his grave to worship him. Consequently, he instructed his followers not to place his grave above ground so that it could not be taken for a mosque . . . Muhammad had expressly forbidden people to build graves within their homes or make graves places of celebration, even in the case of his own . . . ibn ‘Abd al-Wahāb expanded his discussion into a broader analysis of Muhammad’s general opposition to shrines and mausoleums. The Hadith record Muhammad’s declaration that all images should be wiped out and all high graves leveled to the ground so that no-one could use these images or graves as objects or sites of worship or claim that any human being has the power to grant them souls and life. Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahāb’s own commands to destroy elaborate tombs therefore stemmed from Muhammad’s similar actions” (pp. 66–67).

9. Madawi al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia (Cambridge: Cambridge UP: 2002), pp. 8, 15.

10. See Ernest Gellner, Muslim Society (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981).

11. Aziz al-Azmeh, Islam and Modernities (London: Verso, 1993), pp. 106ndash;7.

12. Alexander Knysh, “A Clear and Present Danger: ‘Wahhabism’ as a Rhetorical Foil,” in Die Welt des Islams 4, no. 1 (2004): 9, 22.

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