Saudi Arabia inaugurates a wax museum in Riyadh, overturning centuries of orthodox rejection of 'idolatry'

Thursday 14 February 201907:52 am
If one had proposed such an idea two years ago, it would have led to charges of insanity, or charges by the ‘Hisbah,’ the Islamic religious police, for attempting to destroy religious values. However, sculptures in Saudi Arabia are about to become a reality after the recently-created Saudi General Entertainment Authority (GEA) announced that a branch of the Madame Tussauds wax museum will open in Riyadh, following a decision by the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. The prince, known as MBS, has styled himself as a reformer and modernizer of the kingdom, which in the past has adhered to a strict interpretation of Islam. His image has been tarnished by the recent brutal murder of the critical journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The new museum will be one of the GEA’s upcoming projects outlined this week by its chairman and adviser at the Royal Court, Turki al-Sheikh, and which are expected to stir controversy for allowing music and art performances in restaurants and establishments in Mecca, much like elsewhere in the kingdom. The London-based Madame Tussauds is a wax museum with branches in many countries that displays waxworks of prominent figures in the political, art, and sport arenas. Sources revealed to Raseef22 that the construction work is set to begin in mid-2019, and will be completed within months. The museum will be open to the public soon after. Saudi Arabia’s Madame Tussauds will display prominent figures from the kingdom’s history. The wax figure of King Faisal bin Abdulaziz will be the first to be inaugurated in Riyadh and later in Jeddah. Saudi Arabia has banned such sculptures under the official doctrines crafted through the fatwas of senior religious scholars, which prohibit the sculpting and drawing of creatures with souls. One such edict by Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz, the former Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, declared: “Based on the Hadith of the prophet Muhammad, it is not allowed to hang a picture or keep a picture of any being that possesses a soul as it is an attempt to create creation like Allah, and is an imitation of the enemies of Allah. Stuffed animals are also not allowed because they are a waste of money, an imitation of the enemies of Allah and they lead to people hanging pictures of living creatures.” In the past, Saudi Arabia has removed numerous monuments out of fear of idol worship. For example, a horse sculpture in the southern city of Abu `Arish in Jazan region was removed five years ago following an order from Abdul-Aziz al-Sheikh, Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti who considered such sculptures prohibited by Sharia. These fatwas are not limited to Saudi Arabia. Last September, Kuwait City’s municipality ordered the closure of a store that sells human figurines. The municipality’s decision came after the store products provoked controversy among religious clerics who viewed the sculptures as ‘Asnam’, or idols. Kuwaiti activist Bader al-Yakoub said the Saudi move was a manifestation of Islamic moderation, arguing that the prohibition on idolatry was not meant to bar artistic expression. “To begin with, the Kuwait municipality had no right to close down the sculptures store. Asnam don’t refer to sculptures, but rather to what is worshiped,” Al-Yakoub told Raseef22. “I believe the Kuwait municipality will revisit its decision following the announcement of the new wax museum in Saudi Arabia. We are not more knowledgeable in religion than them.” Sculptor Jabr al-Abdullah believes that the ban on sculpting was too strict. He said: “The ban could be applicable in the medieval age. It’s inconceivable that idolatry could be practiced in the modern age. In my opinion, this issue will put an end to the ‘Shirk’ or polytheism controversy by showing that waxworks commemorate prominent figures rather than turning them into gods. We don’t live in the time of the Pharaohs nor the pre-Islamic Jahiliyya”. The Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Ifta, the only official entity authorized to discuss religious matters, has yet to issue an official statement concerning the new announcement. Nonetheless, such a move could not have seen the light without the acquiescence of the religious clerics. Adil al-Kalbani, a former Imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, has praised the GEA and its new projects including the wax museum, tweeting: “The GEA is adopting a new approach, and we should support it.” The former Imam emphasized that “the GEA has a grasp on the inclusivity of entertainment for all segments of the society, this grasp demonstrated itself through the diversity of the religious, social, sport and Ramadan programs all whilst preserving the religious teachings and the social norms and traditions”. But the announcement sparked broad debate on Twitter, with some condemning the new museum and seeing it as promoting idolatry, an attitude that in turn was ridiculed by others. Mohammad al-Murri, an opponent who is stunned by the new idea, tweeted: “Following the conquest [of Mecca], the prophet destroyed 360 idols. Meanwhile, we currently have people attempting to revive idolatry in another way.” Others argued the concept was a waste of time and money, saying the country ought to focus on scientific and technological advancement and pride in its heritage. Another user, Ali al-Farhan expressed dismay at those who reject the idea of the museum, writing: “They travel, visit museums, attend musical concerts, theaters and cinemas, and they go to mixed restaurants with live music. But all hell breaks loose if these exact same things happen here. Give us a break, would you”.
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