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Hugh Fitzgerald: Pickaxes in Paradise, Keeping Muslims Safe

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Here’s the story, about an underwater  art gallery in the Maldives destroyed by cops after the President declares it “offensive to Islam.”

The British-designed installation at the Fairmont Maldives Sirru Fen Fushi resort was destroyed  after being criticised by religious leaders in the country.

Pickaxe-wielding policemen have demolished a semi-submerged art gallery in the Maldives for being “offensive to Islam.”

Islam is the official religion of the paradise island chain which is also a popular destination for honeymooners.

The Coralarium was designed by British artist Jason deCaires Taylor and allowed guests at the island hotel to swim from the shore to the underwater gallery.

Outgoing president Abdulla Yameen ordered the removal and destruction of the sculptures, deeming them “idols” which are banned by the religion.

This is despite the statues having no religious meaning whatsoever.

The gallery structure was designed to act as a sheltered space offering a sanctuary for fish and other sea-life.

In the evening, a light system illuminated the gallery attracting underwater critters and creating an impressive sight for guests.

But Yameen said in July that there was “significant public sentiment” against the Coralarium, making him decide to raze the structure.

There is a profound misunderstanding in this story about this destruction of statues in the Maldives. The writer appears to think that the statues in question were destroyed “despite having no religious meaning whatsoever.” But they did have significance, a negative significance, for the religion of Islam. In a famous hadith, Muhammad says that “Angels do not enter a house in which there is a dog or a picture” (Muslim 5249). The word “picture” has been interpreted to cover any images or representations of living creatures, including statues. These statues did not merely offend Muslims in the Maldives. They offended Muslims everywhere, whether they were seen as pictures, forbidden by that hadith, or as idols, forbidden by the Qur’an. It was enough that they were statues — they need not have been Christian or Hindu or Buddhist in content — to violate the tenets of Islam.  They were destroyed simply for being statues.

Yet not a single one of the stories in the world media about this destruction mentions anything about that hadith forbidding “pictures,” or those Qur’anic passages that forbid the worship of idols. One is left with the impression that the Maldivian president was merely enforcing his own personal and supposedly “extremist” dislike. But there was nothing extreme about it. He was being a good Muslim, enforcing the perfectly orthodox prohibition on pictures and on idols.

It would have been useful if even just one of the reports on the Maldives destruction had allude to, or even better quoted in their entirety, the relevant hadith against “pictures” so that non-Muslims could be made aware of how a single line uttered by Mohammad came to limit the artistic expressiveness of an entire civilization. For 1,400 years Muslims have been unable to paint portraits or to sculpt statues. Just as bad, they have destroyed the statuary of other religions. Sometimes the destruction has been complete: Tens of thousands of statues, Hindu and Buddhist, were destroyed by the Muslim conquerors of India. In Egypt, it was enough to knock the nose off the Sphinx to render the face no longer human. Christian saints would have their eyes gouged out, or endure some other defacement, which would be enough to render the statue, as far as Muslims were concerned, no longer that of a living creature. The last notable achievement in this line was the destruction by the Muslim Afghans of the two giant Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001. What took them so long? you might wonder. It was not out of any sense that these enormous works deserved to be spared. It was just that until then the Afghans hadn’t the means to destroy those statues, but in 2001, with enough dynamite available, and Pakistani engineers to help, they were finally able to blow up those Buddhas.

The statues smashed to smithereens in the Maldives were less impressive in every way than the Bamiyan Buddhas, but the Islamic prohibition that condemned them was the same. And it is that prohibition, and not some reigning official’s personal whim, that explains their destruction this September. The only surprising thing in this tale is why the Maldivians allowed those statues to be built and placed underwater in shore cages in the first place. Possibly out of a desire to please Western tourists, they briefly put aside their Islamic principles. But now, with the destruction by pickaxe of those subaqueous statues — smash! crash! —  they have clearly found those principles once again.

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