“Shirk:” Why the Islamic State Hates Shrines (and Kills Those Who Worship There)
by Michael Kelvington
On 16 February 2017, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device that killed at least 83 Pakistanis at the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a Sufi shrine in Sindh Province. It was a catastrophic attack which also wounded over 200 other innocent worshippers, and has already been claimed by the Islamic State through their propaganda arm, Amaq News Agency.
While the attack targeted scores of worshippers which included attendees of many religious sects, a ceremony called “dhamal” brought the community together over food, fellowship, and worship, underscored by a religious ritual. However, this ritual and shrine is considered shirk in the eyes of the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations, specifically Sunni groups including the Taliban. Shirk involves worshipping anything other than Allah or elevating a person or likeness to the same level as Allah, which in this case, included Sufis praying at the shrine of a saint.
While the concept of shirk did not originate in the 18th century, it was Muhammad bin ‘Abdul-Wahhab who focused on this alleged violation of the Muslim faith by perverting tawhid, or the acknowledgement of the “oneness of God” by worshipping anything other than Allah, including idols, symbols, saints, or gravesites.
Muhammad bin ‘Abdul-Wahhab called on the ulama of Mecca to ensure no Muslim was violating tawhid, ensuring the population was “abandoning of attributing partners of Allaah [sic].” As a shrine of the Sufi version of Islam, this placed the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine in the crosshairs of the Islamic State, a group that has grown in in strength and influence in eastern Afghanistan and the federally administered tribal area (FATA) of Pakistan since the declaration of the caliphate in July 2014.
In the eyes of Wahhabi and Salafist adherents, the conduct of shirk essentially nullifies an individual’s faith and causes them to be declared as takfir. In the eyes of those who claim to be the “true Muslims,” this is someone who has nullified their status as a Muslim and labeled an unbeliever. They can therefore be branded a kaafir, or infidel, which could be put to death for their conduct and the denial of the oneness of god, especially as a former believer, or apostate.
As fundamentalists, the Islamic State follows the same theological beliefs as Muhammad bin ‘Abdul-Wahhab, who highlighted a passage in the Quran in Chapter 21 of his book, Kitab at-Tawhid, which stated, “Allah is sufficient for me . . . none has the right to be worshipped but He.” He also highlighted a passage in the hadith, which states, “Do not make my grave a place of celebration and do not make your houses graveyards. Send your blessing on me.” It is in these and similar passages that Wahhabist and Salafist adherents justify the destruction of shrines serving as idols for worship in violation of tawhid.
When Wahhab and the Saudi tribe seized Mecca and Medina, Wahhab proceeded to destroy the gravesites being worshipped by locals and those conducting the hajj, which was in violation of tawhid. Followers of the Wahhabist ideology have made similar calls, and for those living in the “Land of Islam,” they are to “command them to demolish the domes (which are on top of graves), and order them to forsake shirk and its derivatives.” Adherents of this belief include the Islamic State.
The attack in Pakistan was not the first time the Islamic State targeted grave sites and shrines during the past three years of the existence of their caliphate. In 2014, when the Islamic State seized Mosul, they denied the locals access to the tomb of Jonah (prophet Younis) in what was ancient Ninevah. They later rigged the building with explosives and blew it up and posted videos of extremists destroying the actual tomb with sledge hammers. Additionally, when they seized Palmyra, the Islamic State proceeded to “two ancient shrines they consider sacrilegious in Palmyra, a 2,000-year-old UNESCO World Heritage site in central Syria.”
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab also declared that in addition to the observance of the “oneness of God,” one did not “make one’s religion complete unless on also showed open enmity toward the idolators.” After the seizure of Mecca from the Ottoman proxies and local tribes, he justified even the killing of other Muslims by citing Quranic verses because they had sided with infidels and those former believers conducting shirk.
This and other writings is where the Islamic State extrapolates their authority to not only destroy the shrines they believe to be idols, but also target the idolaters. Sadly, this is the religious justification behind the Islamic States’ actions last week that left at least 83 Pakistanis dead. It wasn’t the first, and unfortunately, it won’t be the last.
Mike Kelvington is an MPA candidate at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs. He is an Infantry officer in the U.S. Army with seven deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, including with the 75th Ranger Regiment. The opinions expressed above are his own, and do not represent the official position of the Combating Terrorism Center, the U.S. Army, or the U.S. Government.
 Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, Letter to the Ulama of Mecca, Trans. Ash-Shaykh ‘Abdullaah.
 Muhammad bin ‘Abdul-Wahhab, Kitab at-Tawhid, Trans. Abu Sakinah Ismail bin Sirajuddin, (Birmingham, UK: Dar Makkah International, 2012), 67.
 Ibid., 68.
 Imam Hamad Ibn ‘Atiq An-Najdi, Can Makkah become Dar Al-Harb?, (Shawwal: At-Tibyan Publications, 2004), 7.
 David Commins, The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia, (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2009), 35.
 Ibid., 34.