As Mosul rebuilds, its past is a reminder that Islam is not a rigid rulebook of regulations and prohibitions, but a complex religion that has often embraced many traditions.
The Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, built nearly a millennium ago and one of Iraq’s most revered religious sites, was destroyed when the ISIS detonated explosives inside it in June of this year.
Founded in the 12th century by one of Islam’s most famous rulers, Nur al-Din ibn Zangi, in the medieval period the mosque was considered the “ultimate in beauty and excellence.” It was famous for its soaring, 150-foot minaret, the tallest in Iraq and nicknamed “al-Hadba’” or “the Hunchback” because it leaned to one side, like an Islamic Tower of Pisa. Its destruction was a terrible blow to the people of Mosul, and for the rest of the world.
I am a scholar of Islamic art, and my research reveals that such acts of deliberate, ideologically based destruction are unusual in Islamic history. Although today Mosul is famous outside of Iraq primarily as a site of conflict, its rich and diverse history forms an important legacy.
What was lost in Mosul?
Mosul was founded in ancient times, on the outskirts of the older Assyrian city of Nineveh. The precise date of the city’s foundation is unknown, but at least from the medieval era, it was known as “Madinat al-anbiya’” or “City of the Prophets,” with dozens of tombs, shrines, synagogues and churches.
Perhaps the most famous of these was the Tomb of the Prophet Jonah, a figure revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. In the Bible, God causes Jonah to be swallowed by a whale to convince him of his prophetic mission to preach to the people of Nineveh. For Jews, Jonah is venerated as a symbol of repentance on the holiday of Yom Kippur. And in Islam, Jonah evokes the themes of justice, mercy and obedience – seen as exemplary models for human behavior.
There were numerous other sites in Mosul linked to prophetic figures: among them, the Monastery of Elijah or Dar Eliyas, a 1,400-year-old Christian monastery thought to be the oldest in Iraq.
World trade, intellectual centre
Mosul was also an important center for trade as well as scholarly exchange. It sat at a key junction on the Silk Road – a rich network of pre modern superhighways – stretching over mountains, deserts and plains across three continents that moved goods from lands that seemed impossibly distant and exotic to those at either end. Mosul itself was known for some of the most luxurious inlaid metalware of the medieval era.
As a centre of such exchange, the city was home to a diverse group of people: Arabs and Kurds, Jews and Christians, Sunnis and Shias, Sufis and dozens of saints holy to many faiths.
It was also home to poets, scholars and philosophers such as the 10th-century philosopher al-Mawsili and the 11th-century astronomer al-Qabisi, one of a line of famous Mosul astronomers who helped formulate a critique of the Earth-centered model of the universe. That model would eventually make its way to Europe to inform Copernicus’ view of the solar system. Mosul also produced one of Islam’s most famous historians, Ibn al-Athir, who completed his magnum opus, a monumental universal chronicle called “The Complete History,” in the city in 1231.
Important works of mathematics, including a commentary on the Greek mathematician Euclid that was later translated into Latin, were written in Mosul. It was also a center for significant medical advances, including an early description of surgery to remove cataracts.
As mosques were traditionally places of knowledge transmission and learning, it is entirely possible that some of these scholars’ ideas were formulated, discussed and refined within the mosque of al-Nuri’s walls.
Mosul’s medieval past informed its contemporary history as well: in modern times, the city was home to some of the most important museums, libraries and universities in Iraq, including a renowned medical school.
The meaning of the mosque in Iraq
Although the mosque of al-Nuri was transformed over the centuries, it remained a beloved symbol of the ancient city and its diverse heritage. In 1942, much of the mosque, with the exception of the minaret, the prayer niche and some of its columns, went through significant renovation. But the mosque did not lose its value for the citizens of Mosul – in fact, it appeared on the Iraqi 10,000 dinar bill.
In June of 2014, when ISIS originally captured the city and approached the mosque with explosives, residents of the town formed a human chain around it.
Only a few short weeks later, in a complete about-face, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stood at the pulpit of that same mosque and declared the creation of his “caliphate.”
Mosul past and future
Over time, Mosul will rebuild its damaged mosque. But for those of us outside Iraq, who today know Mosul largely through newspaper stories of war and intolerance, the loss of the mosque will make it that much harder to imagine the diverse intellectual and religious world that once characterised not only Mosul, but all of the Middle East.
Although there were conflicts, Christians, Jews and Muslims lived in pragmatic cooperation for much of their history. It was the Christians of the city, after all, who said that the minaret leaned because it was bowing toward the tomb of the Virgin Mary.
Stephennie Mulder is associate professor of Middle Eastern Studies, University of Texas at Austin.