One of Islam’s most revered holy sites – the tomb of the Prophet Mohammed – could be destroyed and his body removed to an anonymous grave under plans which threaten to spark discord across the Muslim world.
The controversial proposals are part of a consultation document by a leading Saudi academic which has been circulated among the supervisors of al-Masjid al-Nabawi mosque in Medina, where the remains of the Prophet are housed under the Green Dome, visited by millions of pilgrims and venerated as Islam’s second-holiest site.
The formal custodian of the mosque is Saudi Arabia’s ageing monarch King Abdullah.
The plans, brought to light by another Saudi academic who has exposed and criticised the destruction of holy places and artefacts in Mecca – the holiest site in the Muslim world – call for the destruction of chambers around the Prophet’s grave which are particularly venerated by Shia Muslims.
The 61-page document also calls for the removal of Mohammed’s remains to the nearby al-Baqi cemetery, where they would be interred anonymously.
There is no suggestion that any decision has been taken to act upon the plans. The Saudi government has in the past insisted that it treats any changes to Islam’s holiest sites with “the utmost seriousness”.
But such is the importance of the mosque to both Sunni and Shia Muslims that Dr Irfan al-Alawi warned that any attempt to carry out the work could spark unrest. It also runs the risk of inflaming sectarian tensions between the two branches of Islam, already running perilously high due to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
Hardline Saudi clerics have long preached that the country’s strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam – an offshoot of the Sunni tradition – prohibits the worship of any object or “saint”, a practice considered “shirq” or idolatrous.
Dr Alawi, director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, said: “People visit the chambers, which are the rooms where the Prophet’s family lived, and turn towards the burial chamber to pray.
“Now they want to prevent pilgrims from attending and venerating the tomb because they believe this is shirq, or idolatry. But the only way they can stop people visiting the Prophet is to get him out and into the cemetery.”
For centuries Muslim pilgrims have made their way to Mecca in order to visit the Kaaba – a black granite cubed building said to be built by Abraham, around which al-Masjid al-Haram, or the Grand Mosque, is built, and towards which every Muslim faces when they pray.
This pilgrimage, or hajj, is a religious duty that has to be carried out at least once in a lifetime.
Many go on to make their way to the nearby city of Medina to pay their respects at the Prophet’s tomb.
Al-Nabawi mosque around the tomb has been expanded by generations of Arabian rulers, particularly the Ottomans. It includes hand-painted calligraphy documenting details of the Prophet’s life and his family. Dr Alawi said the plans also call for these to be destroyed as well as the Green Dome which covers the Prophet’s tomb.
The Prophet is venerated by both branches of Islam, Sunni and Shia. The strict Wahhabi sect is a branch of the Sunni faith, however, and removing the Prophet could further inflame tensions between the two groups .
The current crisis in Iraq has been blamed on the Shia former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarianism, which alienated the Sunni, leading to the uprising. Isis, also known as Islamic State, which holds swathes of Iraq and Syria, and which murdered the American journalist James Foley, is a Sunni organisation.
Mainstream Sunni Muslims would be just as aghast at any desecration of the tomb as the Shia, Dr Alawi said.
King Abdullah has appointed the prominent Wahhabi cleric and imam of the Grand Mosque, Abdul Rahman al-Sudais, to oversee the expansion project – necessary to cope with the huge number of pilgrims who now visit each year.
Dr Alawi says the consultation document for the al-Nabawi mosque in Medina, by the leading Saudi academic Dr Ali bin Abdulaziz al-Shabal of Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, has been circulated to the Committee of the Presidency of the Two Mosques.
Several pages of the consultation document have just been published in the presidency’s journal. They call for the destruction of the rooms surrounding the tomb – used by the Prophet’s wives and daughters, and venerated by the Shia because of their association with his youngest daughter, Fatima.
The document also calls for the Green Dome, which covers the tomb and these living quarters, to be removed, and the ultimate removal of the Prophet’s body to a nearby cemetery.
The al-Baqi cemetery already contains the bodies of many of the Prophet’s family, including his father who was removed there in the 1970s, Dr Alawi said. In 1924 all the grave markers were removed, so pilgrims would not know who was buried there, and so be unable to pray to them.
“The Prophet would be anonymous,” Dr Alawi added. “Everything around the Prophet’s mosque has already been destroyed. It is surrounded by bulldozers. Once they’ve removed everything they can move towards the mosque. The imam is likely to say there is a need to expand the mosque and do it that way, while the world’s eyes are on Iraq and Syria. The Prophet Mohammed’s grave is venerated by the mainstream Sunni, who would never do it. It is just as important for the Shia too, who venerate the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima.
“I’m sure there will be shock across the Muslim world at these revelations. It will cause outrage.”
The Saudi Arabian embassy said in a statement last year: “The development of the Holy Mosque of Makkah al-Mukarramah [Mecca] is an extremely important subject and one which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in its capacity as custodian of the two holy mosques, takes with the utmost seriousness. This role is at the heart of the principles upon which Saudi Arabia is founded.”