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Was the 'desecration of Caliph Umar II's tomb' fake news?

The tomb of Umayyad Caliph Umar Ibn Abdul Aziz was burnt and destroyed by militias in Syria 28 May 2020 [Sa'na Agency/Twitter]
The tomb of Umayyad Caliph Umar Ibn Abdul Aziz was burnt and destroyed by militias in Syria, 28 May 2020 [Sana/Twitter]

Sectarianism is a salient feature of contemporary warfare in the Middle East, especially in multi-religious societies. The ongoing conflict in Syria is no exception. The rapid online spread of information and misinformation has added to the problem, promoting propaganda and adding credence to competing narratives aimed at a global audience; it also fuels and instils existing sectarian sentiments.

One recent example has been the claim about the desecration and exhumation of the tomb of the eighth Umayyad Caliph, Umar Ibn Abdul Aziz (also known as Umar II) who reigned from 717 to 720. When a short video clip emerged online on 26 May alleging that his tomb and those of his wife and servant were exhumed by "Russian mercenaries and the [Syrian] regime", it was not long before it went viral on pro-opposition social media with the conclusion drawn that it was a Shia militia which was responsible.

Among the first news sites to report the incident were Turkey's Daily Sabah and Anadolu Agency, followed by Al-Jazeera and others. MEMO's own article on 28 May was the highest trending of the week and has been shared widely.

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Yet the first question that struck me when it was said that "Iranian-backed" terrorists had desecrated the graves was simple: why? My scepticism was based on the fact that unlike most of the Umayyad dynasty, Caliph Umar II was respected widely by both Sunni and Shia alike, in the classical era and today. He is commonly referred to as the "Fifth Rightly Guided Caliph" and is known as a pious and just ruler in a dynasty that has largely been described as worldly, corrupt and decadent, and which would be overthrown by the more egalitarian Abbasids. Interestingly, one SOAS PhD thesis published in 1967 on the Abbasid Caliphate noted how the incoming dynasty exacted "revenge" for the Prophet's clan of Banu Hashim by desecrating all of the Umayyad tombs, but leaving Umar II's intact.

One biography on a Sunni-affiliated website refers to Umar II as a great revivalist and a "black sheep" among the Umayyads; his short rule was cut short, when he — it is alleged — was poisoned by political rivals from his own House. He earned the Shias' respect largely because of his decision to redress certain historic wrongs against the Prophet's family, including discontinuing an early Umayyad policy of public cursing of the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law Ali Ibn Abi Talib from the pulpit — he is regarded by Shia as the first Imam — and his descendants during Friday sermons in mosques under state control.

Images also surfaced online of the damaged and partially burnt burial site, although these were actually of an incident earlier in the year after Syrian government forces reclaimed more state territory from armed opposition groups in Idlib's Maarat Al-Numan. Both sides have accused the other of causing the damage, although the images were first published by the official SANA news agency in late January and described as what was left behind by retreating terrorists.

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Part of the confusion surrounding the desecration claim lies in apparent contradictions in the location of where Umar II was actually buried. According to the news reports, the incident occurred in the village of Deir Sharqi near Maarat Al-Numan. However, an Arab News article from 2012 states that Umar II was buried in Deir Samaan on a plot of land purchased from a Christian. This site is commonly known as the Church of Saint Simeon Stylites near Aleppo, which is almost 70 miles from the location noted in the news about the desecration. This can be corroborated in the work of the distinguished medieval historian Al-Tabari in The History of Al-Tabari Volume 24: The Empire in Transition, in which he writes that Umar II died in Khunasirah, Aleppo and was buried in Deir Samaan. This is also confirmed as the burial location according to The Princeton Encyclopaedia of Islamic Political Thought.

The Professor of Islamic Civilisation at Georgetown University, Jonathan Brown, posted his own images that he took during a 2005 visit near the Aleppo site. However, it could be that more than one location is identified as the caliph's tomb. This is certainly the case according to the Arabic website eSyria which mentioned in a 2008 article that there were several possible mausoleum sites due to the existence of more than one location known as "Deir Samaan"; Homs is listed as one possibility. Indeed, even the Deir Sharqi location in Idlib has been used interchangeably with this name, adding to the uncertainty.

Regardless of the whereabouts of the true location, though, it has now been stated officially by the Syrian government that the mausoleum in Deir Sharqi, contrary to the initial reports in Turkish media, was not exhumed. On Friday, the Syrian Ministry of Endowments issued a statement dispelling reports by "hostile media" but acknowledged that there were "traces of some sabotage in the walls and location of the shrine by the terrorist gangs and Al-Nusra Front"; the shrine is set to be re-opened for visitors soon. Images of the ministry's inspection have also made their way onto social media.

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It does not make much strategic nor even tactical sense for pro-government or allied forces to desecrate the shrine of a caliph who is respected widely across Muslim sects. This is especially so when we take into account the fact that the mausoleum of the founder of the Umayyad dynasty, Muawiyah Ibn Abi Sufyan, is still intact in Bab Al-Saghir Cemetery in Old Damascus, which remains in the hands of the Syrian government. Moreover, there has been an increased presence of Shia Muslims from many countries in recent years which has altered the Syrian capital's demographics, reportedly encouraged by Syria's ally, Iran. The point is, if Umar II's tomb was attacked by Iranian-backed militia, why hasn't the tomb of Muawiyah been targeted? He isn't as highly regarded by Shia as Umar II is, and there have been ample opportunities for desecration over the years.

The graves of opposition fighters have been destroyed by the Syrian Arab Army, but similar attacks have also been carried out by Turkish-backed militia in Afrin, with reports of tombs and religious shrines exhumed, bulldozed or looted. In occupied Ras Al-Ayn and Tel Abyad, Yazidi graves were vandalised as recently as last month, in the belief that gold was buried with the bodies.

However, it is the phenomenon of iconoclasm which is more associated with Wahabbism that caused me to doubt the report that an "Iranian-backed militia" had desecrated the caliph's tomb. Furthermore, in 2013 a rebel militia exhumed the grave of a companion of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and a notable loyalist of Imam Ali by the name of Hujr Ibn Adi, in the countryside outside Damascus. The recent anniversary of the destruction of shrines at Jannat Al-Baqi cemetery in Madinah by the Saudis – who did so on two occasions, after they were reconstructed by the Ottoman authorities — is a stark reminder that Wahhabi ideology continues to flourish among some Muslims to this day.

The stoking of sectarian tensions and ensuring they exist serves to keep the conflict alive in Syria and beyond. Sometimes such reports about this are credible. An example happened in neighbouring Lebanon, where clashes erupted over sectarian curses being made by some Hezbollah supporters in retaliation for demonstrators chanting anti-Hezbollah slogans. However, the movement distanced itself and denounced the chants in a statement issued on Saturday. Nevertheless, in other cases and arguably in the case of the desecration of Umar II's grave, reports are less convincing and marred by half-truths and misinformation. Unfortunately, such allegations thrive in the often toxic and sectarian atmosphere of social media.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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