No Heritage, No History

Living nations that value their traditions seek to preserve significant historical traces related to their past. In doing so, they ensure that they have an authentic record of their contributions to the advancement of civilization, arts, and sciences. This record then becomes a lasting proof of traditions founded on firm roots and a deep foundation. As French historian Charles Victor Langlois said, “History is made by documents which are the monuments that remain from the ideas of the precedents and their actions, and if there are no documents there is no history.”1 As such, people from all backgrounds agree that loss of heritage is profoundly damaging to humanity as a whole. Suay Aksoy, the president of the Global Assembly for Museums, once said, “The destruction of heritage and historical sites is a process of draining human memory of its content.2

It is normal for a vigilant nation to preserve its cultural, industrial, and architectural heritage for the sake of safeguarding its structure and demonstrating its impact on human civilization. This noble purpose often requires the appointment of a designated group to carry out this task. It entails the preservation of manuscripts, engraved markings on stones, vases, lighthouses, buildings, castles, fortresses, tombs, and scenes of the heroes and personalities who played a significant role in the founding, administration, and advancement of their nation. Moreover, nations usually dedicate ample resources for workers, experts, specialists, and consultants and allocate funds for upkeep, repair, and maintenance.

The general sentiments of a nation and the transitions it has undergone over time determine what that nation considers to be a part of their heritage. Thus, prominent foreign visitors to a country usually visit its historical and cultural sites, including the prominent shrines and mausoleums of its greatest religious, social, and political personalities who struggled and sacrificed in the nation’s formation. This indicates that recognition of historical contributions is a natural tendency in humans so we that can remind ourselves of how we got to where we are. Much of the focus is on a nation or civilization at its peak and the legacy of success it left behind. Hence, many organizations continue the quest to uncover historical monuments and to understand heritage that may have become lost. This is the reason the ancient civilizations of China, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Sumeria, which date back to before 500 BCE, are known to us today.

Monuments: Innate and Religious Significance

It becomes evident from an examination of history that religious traditions strengthen a given nation’s heritage and amplify its significance. Belief in God stems from human instinct and thrives on purity of spirit and soundness of reasoning, which gives rise to zeal and unwavering devotion. Thus, followers of religion are often committed to preserving their heritage, sometimes to a degree of sanctification, so that what they see as hallowed remains for coming generations to appreciate. Therefore, even today, the world witnesses pilgrimages of believers to sacred places to renew the memory of events established by different religions. For example, the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, Egypt, which is said to be a place where the box containing baby Moses (p) was found is a common site for visitation by the faithful.  Other examples are the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is considered to be one of the oldest churches by many Christian denominations and has historical significance dating back to the time of Jesus(p); or the Buddhist temple in the city of Bamiyan, Afghanistan, which contained two great statues of Buddha and dated back to the sixth century before Jesus (p); or the famous Hindu Kailasanatha Temple in India, which dates back to the second century CE.

Similarly, the oldest heritage sites for Muslims trace back to the monuments established by various Islamic civilizations since Islam’s founding by the Seal of the Prophets, Muhammad ibn Abdullah, and his family (pbut) in Mecca and Medina. In Mecca, the Kabah’s history extends back to its first founder, Prophet Abraham and his son Ismail (pbut), and continues until the advent of Islam, which made it honorable, raised its status, and made it a focal point for worshippers. In Medina, the Prophet’s Mosque represents the start of Islamic heritage from the time of Muhammad (pbuh&hp) and the initial decade of Islam. Thereafter, over a period of one thousand years in various Islamic countries such as Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iran, and others, the faithful constructed many mosques and holy shrines of righteous individuals. The most prominent of these is the shrine of Imam Ali (p) in Najaf and the shrine of Imam Hussain (p) in Karbala, Iraq, which receive millions of visitors every year. Therefore, it is no surprise that organizations seeking to preserve heritage characterize these sites and monuments as “of outstanding global value” and classify them under the Convention for the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage.3

The Serious Consequences of Neglecting Heritage

If the safeguarding of heritage means the preservation of civilization and the proof of its existence, then naturally, neglecting or destroying heritage would amount to the demise of civilization. Unfortunately, this destruction can often occur at the hands of those who are a part of that nation. For example, the history of Muslims witnessed the rise and influence of individuals who strove for such destruction in more than one place. However, the harmful actions of these people absolutely contradict the innate inclination of humans to preserve their heritage and the basic philosophy of religions to propagate an ongoing tradition. Clearly, this includes Islam, which is plagued by the ignorance and personal vendettas of some of its adherents.

The Importance of Heritage from the Islamic Perspective

There is no doubt that every preserved element of a religion or civilization, including Islam, is tangible and substantive, has significance to its followers, and reflects its special influence on human history. As Muslims we contend that today’s remaining Islamic monuments prove that the Islamic message and its messenger are real and cannot be denied. Furthermore, God sent Prophet Muhammad (pbuh&hp) with a universal code of law and a miraculous book at a crucial time in human history. Islam began to challenge the pagan tendencies and ignorant practices of society and became trusted by many people. Then, the Prophet emigrated from his homeland to Yathrib and spread his message throughout the Arabian Peninsula. His message continued to flourish and reach more distant lands because it resonated with people of different backgrounds through its logic, reasoning, immense knowledge, and for the very simple reason that people who embraced Islam immediately felt the need to continue to share this message with patience and sacrifice. Thus, our heritage is the imprint, shrines, graves, books, and pens of these Muslims and all that they have left for us as witnesses of history.

Therefore, preservation of Islamic tradition through the ages demonstrates to all humanity the truthfulness of its claim and removes any doubt or suspicion about its validity. Islamic heritage through the ages is based on devotion to God and the foundational acts of prophetic worship (e.g., Abraham (p) sacrificing the ram) that Muslims continue to practice today as they did hundreds of years ago. The secrets behind worship and the manner of its performance depend on the divine will, which obliges humankind to obey, even if they do not fathom them. For example, the significance of the Black Stone continues to this day, even though it is just a stone, not worth more than any other stone, and might have become ordinary if Islamic laws had not legislated for Muslims to perform pilgrimage, circumambulate around the Kabah, and pass by it on every turn. Similarly, why stand specifically in Arafah, stay overnight in Muzdalifah, or rush between Safa and Marwa? It is because of the wisdom of divine will in obligating Muslims to perform these rituals and in establishing them as a key heritage that reflects the lofty position of Muslims.

In Islam, belief in both the seen and the unseen, and in the wisdom and power of the Lord Creator occurs without seeing Him, and instead, relies on visualizing His creative forces in this physical world and the wonderful creations within it. This sparks the realization that we must obey and execute His orders in every circumstance, including the obligation to visit the places that became sacred because God assigned them to play a role in His servants’ worship. The tangible existential connection with all these sacred places, monuments, and heritage sites instills in the believer a connection to the way of servitude that the Prophet (pbuh&hp) and his successors initiated. As such, they become an ever-present reminder to Muslims of our relationship with God and represent devotion and worship to Him exclusively.

The presence of these holy sites, shrines, and historical structures that are associated with events, people, and sacred symbols increases the believers’ certainty of the divine mission and truth of those whom God sent with this religion (i.e., the Prophet [pbuh&hp]). Furthermore, it reminds us of the supporters who expended every effort to support his mission, and of the grueling eras that witnessed the establishment of Islam’s pillars and the various social and political phases that Islam went through.

Heritage, by its description, can never just be something that historians or academicians talk about. Instead, it is a living entity that represents the lives and heroic acts of the heroes of that journey, especially the Messenger of God (pbuh&hp) and his successors and companions. Thus, meditation and worship in these holy sites or pondering their immense significance raises the spirituality of a believer from being merely a recollection of memory or information to living in the presence of those heroes and mentally, psychologically, and spiritually experiencing their courageous and resolute acts.

Islam has Preserved Human Heritage

Throughout history, Muslims have almost unanimously accepted the importance of preserving heritage, regardless of certain minor points of disagreement. The Holy Quran calls upon us to contemplate former nations so that we can recognize and understand what happened to them. Whether they were on the path of God or against it, the point is to learn lessons from their history. God states, “(Muhammad), say to them, “Travel through the land and see how He has begun the creation.”4 Other similar Quranic verses are for reminding and deriving lessons so that humans can form a civilization and leave behind a legacy that inspires future generations. Religious texts5 stressed the need to preserve heritage, particularly in the minds of Muslims who witnessed the important events that shaped our identity since ancient times.

Muslims, after the conquest of the Levant, took control over the tombs of the prophets, many of which were surrounded by magnificent buildings. They left them intact, and none of the Muslims, whom Omar ibn al-Khattab led at that time, thought that erecting monuments on graves was forbidden. It is reported in the Association of Muslim Studies, “That which Muslims consider sacred has been considered sacred by Jews and Christians.”6 Some people follow a religion that lacks a heritage or significant monuments or relics that reflect its history and teachings. It is quite the opposite for Muslims, who draw on the history of Islam and its civilization through a set of monuments, which reaffirm their faith and connection to the prophetic feats that established their religion. This heritage, preserved in Mecca and Medina, and cared for and maintained for more than 1400 years resoundingly declares that these are glimpses from the life of our prophet. This is the house where he was born, this is the cave of Hira in which the revelation descended, here is the mosque in which he stood for prayer, and this is the home in which he was buried. Elsewhere are the homes of his children, wives, and relatives, and the graves of his descendants and successors. Elimination of any of these is tantamount to eliminating our identity. Thus, Muslims should safeguard this heritage, because its destruction is not only ill-treatment of the Prophet and his holy family (pbut), but also an infringement of their inviolability. It is blatant hostility against the Seal of the Prophets and the features of true faith and a step to try to erase Islam from memory.

Future Generations will ask about our Heritage

One of the most important features of life in the West is diversity. The Constitution of the United States and the laws of the land have preserved this quality through such things as freedom of speech, religion, the press, and peaceable assembly to petition for redress of grievances. People from various backgrounds comprise diverse groups in the West and create a mosaic that is unique and rich in its existence. Moreover, its heritage represents a rich and culturally deep historical tradition. On the other hand, Western diversity could lead to a fusion of traditions, and in some cases theological doctrines, resulting in the formation of hybrids that lead to the original heritage being forgotten. In the case of Islam and its theology, this potential fusion would be the equivalent of losing our original history, origins, and existence. In fact, celebration of diversity should not mean an abandonment of what makes us unique.

People, communities, societies, and nations that are proud of their heritage and conscious of preserving it are the ones who are interested in inheriting from their ancestors. All of this leads to the strengthening of future generations because they are not today’s children, but tomorrow’s, and yet they should not be strangers to today’s world. Artifacts in a museum are found throughout the country and although many of them are very rare and significant, they are not in the living consciousness of the people and do not apply to day-to-day activities. The public must own monuments and artifacts, be they mosques, centers, relics, or practiced traditions, so that they do not cease to exist with the death of any person. Heritage must be broader than personal ownership and family inheritance, and it must be a social legacy to remain a lifeline for humanity. In the history of our religion, from the time of our father Adam (p), religious people have occasionally been subjected to challenges to their faith that remind them of the importance of preserving and reviving their heritage, raising its status through building places of worship, and grounding it for future generations by practicing it in the best manner. Then it will be conveyed in its robust entirety to coming generations. This is a trust, and as we have received it from previous generations, we must hand it over to upcoming ones.

1. Langlois, Charles-Victor and Seignobos, Charles, Introduction aux études historiques, Librairie Hachette, Paris, 1898.
2.From a speech by Suay Aksoy:,
3.The sites are designated as having “outstanding universal value” under the Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage.
4. The Holy Quran 29:20, Muhammad Sarwar translation. (قُلْ سِيرُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ فَانظُرُوا كَيْفَ بَدَأَ الْخَلْقَ ثُمَّ اللَّـهُ يُنشِئُ النَّشْأَةَ الْآخِرَةَ إِنَّ اللَّـهَ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِيرٌ)
5. Almighty God says in the Quran 24:36-37, Ali Quli Qarai translation, “In houses Allah has allowed to be raised and wherein His Name is celebrated, He is glorified therein, morning and evening by men whom neither trade nor bargaining distracts from the remembrance of Allah, and the maintenance of prayer and the giving of zakat. They are fearful of a day wherein the heart and the sight will be transformed.” Commentators of the Holy Quran have stated that the houses which are mentioned here are the houses of prophets and their successors, since the Prophet (pbuh&hp) replied to a person who inquired about the verse by saying that among the best of these houses is the house of Ali and Fatimah (p). [al-Siuti, Al-dir al-manthur, vol. 5, p. 50]. As for raising the houses, it is referred to in this verse “As Abraham raised the foundations of the House with Ishmael, [they prayed]: ‘Our Lord, accept it from us! Indeed You are the All-hearing, the All-knowing.’”[The Quran 2: 127] which means that it is to be built, to be honored, and to be given a high status. [see al-Zamakshari, Al-kashaf, vol. 2, p. 390, and al-Qurtubi, Jawami al-ahkam, vol. 12, p. 266]. Another example, in the Quran 18:21, the Almighty says, “So it was that We let them come upon them, that they might know that Allah’s promise is true, and that there is no doubt in the Hour. As they were disputing among themselves about their matter, they said, ‘Build a building over them. Their Lord knows them best.’ Those who had the say in their matter said, ‘We will set up a place of worship over them.’” The text is clear about the permissibility of building shrines or places of worship on graves. In addition, the Almighty says in the Quran 22:32, “That. And whoever venerates the sacraments of Allah—indeed that arises from the Godwariness of hearts.” Also, 2:158 gives an example of sacraments “Indeed Safa and Marwah are among Allah’s sacraments. So whoever makes hajj to the House, or performs the ‘umrah, there is no sin upon him to circuit between them.” as do many other verses and religious texts.
6.  Encyclopedia of Islam, vol. 5, p. 484.

4. {قُلْ سِيرُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ فَانظُرُوا كَيْفَ بَدَأَ الْخَلْقَ ثُمَّ اللَّـهُ يُنشِئُ النَّشْأَةَ الْآخِرَةَ إِنَّ اللَّـهَ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِيرٌ}

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