A heated debate has been raging for weeks in Saudi Arabia about whether or not to preserve historical religious sites, and if they are, should the public be allowed to visit them.
One of the most famous sites being discussed is the place where the Prophet Mohammed is believed to be born. Another is Ghar Hira, the cave where the Prophet received the revelation. Add to these famous sites the locations of the first battles that Muslims fought against heretics, like the battles of Badr and Uhud, as well as mosques that are 1,400 years old.
In the midst of this debate, the Saudi General Commission for Tourism and Antiquities announced its readiness to restore, maintain and reconstruct 200 archaeological sites around the country. The Commission also announced the designation of Madain Saleh, a pre-Islamic archaeological site located within the Al Madinah region, as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, which it considers to be a "great achievement".
The major parties in the debate are both members of official religious institutions. While Dr. Abdel Wahab Abu Suleiman, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars is heading the preservationists' movement for the protection of the antiquities, Sheikh Ahmad al-Ghamadi, head of the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in Mecca, leads the group seeking to remove the sites.
Abu Suleiman joined the Council a few months ago when it was restructured by Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz to represent most of the Islamic schools of thought in the country after years of members belonging exclusively to the Wahabism school. Al-Ghamidi follows Wahabism, while Abu Suleiman does not belong to the school.
The Wahabism school takes an extremist position regarding archaeological sites, especially Islamic sites. Indeed, Wahabis believe that allowing Muslims to visit these sites "might lead them to believe in more than one God, or do actions that are offensive to the Islamic faith".
But Abu Suleiman invites the leaders of his country to "put more effort into preserving historic sites in order to protect Islamic history and prevent it from obliteration, as well as keeping major historical events in Islam from turning into legends that have no proof of existence". He adds that the removal of these sites "was not required by the methodology of the righteous predecessors."
Abu Suleiman also has called for the construction of a global library at the Prophet's birthplace "that befits the place and stands as a witness of the Saudi state's concern for Islamic heritage. There is a big hope that a modern library will be built so that it becomes a landmark for civilization and intellect."
Meanwhile, Al-Ghamadi not only questions the authenticity of these archaeological sites by asking Abu Suleiman for "proof that confirms their presence", but he also asks to remove them, saying that these places, most of which are in Mecca and Medina, "shake the Muslim visitor's faith."
"Promoting and focusing on the belief in one God is better than preserving ruins," he adds.
In an interview with Al-Shorfa, Abu Suleiman responded to al-Ghamadi.
"The removal of historical sites is a denial of the beliefs of visitors to the land of the Two Holy Mosques," he said. "Ignoring these beliefs is denying the truth of human nature. Visitors to this land, whether they are pilgrims, travellers or just visitors, have their own spiritual feelings and beliefs, and they are awaiting impatiently the opportunity to visit these historical sites and this must be respected."
On a related issue, Prince Sultan Ben Selman, head of the General Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, announced a series of projects of renovation, maintenance and reconstruction of tens of archaeological sites in various Saudi regions, some of which are palaces related to the founder of Saudi Arabia, King Abdul Aziz al-Saud.
He also announced steps to attract tourists to these sites, part of which would be the establishment by the ministry of interior of a tourist police. The steps also include facilitating tourist visas for foreigners who wish to visit the sites, as well as organizing group tours.