June 12, 2020 Abdul Haqq

Statue Reverence or Idol Worship? We’ve been idle for too long!

“The fact that a man who died 299 years ago is today on the front pages of most of Britain’s newspapers suggests that Bristol has not been brilliant at coming to terms with its history.” [1]

Neither has Britain. The above Guardian article excerpt is referring to Edward Colston, deputy governor of the Royal African Company, responsible for the transportation of an estimated 84,000 Africans and 19,000 deaths on slave ships destined for America and the West Indies during the infamous Middle Passage.[2]  National heroes are often other societies’ villains or tyrants, and this is undoubtedly the case when considering a number of personalities who have since been memorialized in the annals of Britain’s imperial past. The chain of events (chain being the operative word) that followed the toppling of Colston’s statue and unceremonious discarding into the sea has exacerbated existing schisms among an already polarised society following Brexit and George Floyd’s murder in the US. Impassioned arguments from both sides of the spectrum are gathering momentum and concerns about the prospect of violent confrontations during upcoming protests have increased.[3] In order to provide an immediate context to this article, the following extract will perhaps illustrate the depth of feeling from at least one perspective. Historian, David Olusoga observes:

“The historical symmetry of this moment is poetic. A bronze effigy of an infamous prolific slave trader dragged through the streets of a city built on the wealth of that trade, and then dumped, like the victims of the Middle Passage, into the water. Colston lies at the bottom of a harbor in which the ships of the triangular slave trade once moored, by the dockside on to which their cargoes were unloaded.”[4]

Among the protestors involved in this event, some were likely descendants from slavery, so while dissenting voices continue to increase, in disdain at the perceived sacrilege of Colston’s statue, they would do well to reflect on the violations meted upon enslaved Africans historically; not to mention the psychological effects on their progeny residing in the same cities as these symbols of oppression. In fact, it evokes incredulity that the removal and vandalism of monuments actually results in more of an outcry than the murder of minorities – especially among black communities. Contrast the official government timing and response regarding George Floyd’s death with the damage caused to statues:

“Boris Johnson has described the death of George Floyd as appalling and inexcusable, following days of protests across the US. The prime minister made the comments after he was challenged by Labour leader Keir Starmer that he had said nothing nine days after the killing shocked the world.” [5]

The Home Secretary’s lack of concern in this regard is more blatant than Johnson’s 9-day reticence:

“Priti Patel has urged people not to join protests planned across the UK in the wake of the death of George Floyd… the Home Secretary addressed those intending to protest this weekend, saying: “Please don’t. We must put public health first.” [6]

When considering that she prioritises visiting police stables to ensure one of the horses, Rupert, was not too startled following recent London protests, her plea to avoid protesting for human rights is duplicitous to say the least.[7] The language used by both Johnson and Patel, in relation to the disturbances and effacing of monuments, was arguably more forceful and echoes the type of vocabulary used to target ethnic minorities – particularly black ones – in the past; Johnson decried the protests being ‘subverted by thuggery[8] while Patel declared:

“I think that is utterly disgraceful. That speaks to the acts of public disorder that actually have become a distraction from the cause people are actually protesting about. It is a completely unacceptable act. Sheer vandalism and disorder are completely unacceptable.” [9]

The same article elucidates TV presenter, Piers Morgan’s, rebuke of Patel in which he queries:

“Does Priti Patel even know who Edward Colston was?

…[She] thinks pulling down a slave trader’s statue ‘undermines’ racism protests. Have we ever had a more tone-deaf Home Secretary?” [10] 

A Statute of Limitations for Statues?

The recent defacement of Winston Churchill’s statue in London has further intensified existing anger at the targeting of monuments, with some far right personalities rallying ‘patriots’ to attend and confront anti-racist protestors, while protecting these historical sites:

“Busloads of far-right demonstrators are feared to be planning to travel hundreds of miles to “defend” memorials at the weekend, campaigners have said. There are concerns that hundreds are mobilising to attend a “patriotic unity” event at Winston Churchill’s statue in Westminster on Saturday morning, in response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. The far-right activist Tommy Robinson and political group Britain First are among those supporting a “defend our memorials” event…” [11]

The main contention against removing these historical figures is the erasure of history and sentiments for characters, like Winston Churchill, remain high as he is considered to be the ‘greatest statesman of the 20th century.’[12] However, the national appetite for monuments of this kind is not as strong as other societies. In fact:

“Here in Britain we have never been particularly statue-conscious. With the exception of Nelson on his column, few of the monuments to the once powerful dotted around our cities have made much impression on the national consciousness. It is hard to imagine a memorable sculptural monument to any living British politician…” [13]

Clearly then, recent protests and the targeting of statues has aroused a consciousness that has galvanised many to publicly defend them in various cities across the UK. Scouts founder, Baden-Powell’s statue in Brownsea Island, Poole Harbour was defended by former members who gathered around to protect and prevent the local council from removing it.[14] These acts of commitment are meritorious but are they not misguided? After all, who was Baden-Powell? Why is the alternative account enough of a concern to petition the removal his statue? Author and journalist, Afua Hirsch’s perspective is one that resonates, primarily due to this military leader’s proximity and impact upon her forefathers, summarised in her biography:

“Baden-Powell’s concern, in the area of turbulence and change that accompanied the dawn of the twentieth century, was how to restore white, British masculinity to its rightful glory, and paternal leadership of inferior races… He drew on the experience of defeating, humiliating and ransacking the cultural heritage of the Ashanti kingdom to reinforce his confidence in the inherent supremacy of the white British male over inferior species like the African, an ideology which was, at its conception, at the very heart of the Scouting movement.” [15]

Indeed, it is an unfortunate reality that many of Britain’s historical icons herald from an era of imperialism long past. The inevitability of history catching up with the present and shining an unremitting spotlight on behaviour and, in many instances, what can be considered crimes against humanity, means that history must now be reviewed and adjusted to reflect actual truths that are submerged beneath this society’s tarnished legacy. That would require redressing imbalanced and literally whitewashed historical accounts, counterbalancing the nation’s successes and advancements with its failures and crimes. Our penal justice system facilitates reformation of character after the establishment of guilt, coupled with a resolve to transform. At a microcosmic societal level, this is an effective instrument but would be equally effective a strategy if scaled up to address historical injustices and subsequent reparations where applicable.

Many more examples could be cited to highlight the less illustrious facets of our nation’s icons, such as Cecil Rhodes, Horatio Nelson etc. however, the ambit of this article is not solely to chronicle the murkier chapters of every historical personality but to address aspects within a wider context.

You of little faith! Why are you so afraid?[16]

On the whole, the UK is still predominantly considered a Christian society, so the above verse should be familiar to many who read it. Adherents to Christianity will also be familiar with the biblical censure against idol worship:

You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in the heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth.” [17]

In light of the above verse, consideration must be given to the emphasis placed on preserving the monuments in question. Admittedly, the 2nd Council of Nicea, in 787 CE, officially sanctioned the veneration of icons; however, this was in relation to symbolic sacred images as a sign of faith in the purported incarnation.[18] In any event, neither ideological premise is correct. The present alarmism around preserving these statues is – once again – arguably, exaggerated and based more on nostalgia, alongside personality worship, in contrast to what Christianity actually subscribes.

Rhodes must fall, alongside all other idols!

In contrast to Christianity and other faiths, Islam is unambiguous regarding the prohibition of imagery, idols and monuments resembling historical figures and the like. Therefore, the debates currently raging across the UK and other parts of Europe are not found in predominantly Muslim societies that are known to implement and adhere to these monotheistic principles. The desire to eulogize and commemorate heroes is not new and authentic narratives provide an illustrative account as to how reverence of notable personalities eventually lead to hero worship followed by polytheistic practices that remain today. One of Islam’s more prominent associates (companions) of Prophet Muhammed, Ibn Abbas, narrated the following, regarding false deities that were revered by Arabs before the advent of Islam:

“These idols were named after some righteous men among [prophet] Noah’s people. When these righteous men died, Satan inspired Noah’s people to make statues of them, named after them. These statues were placed in their favourite meeting places as a reminder of righteousness, and no one of that generation worshipped them.

However, when that generation died off and the purpose of the statues was forgotten, Satan came to their descendants and informed them that their predecessors used to worship the statues… The descendants were fooled and began to worship them as idols. The following generations continued to worship them.” [19]

Excessive praise of individuals + Celebrity Culture = Personality Worship!

Dr. Bilal Philips discerns:

“The previously mentioned story about the appearance of polytheism during the time of Prophet Noah’s people also indicates that excessive love and praise of the righteous provided a foundation on which idolatry could be established. The worship of images of Buddha and Jesus in Buddhism and Christianity respectively, represent clear examples of contemporary idolatry based on excessive love and praise of the righteous. Due to the dangers inherent in excessive praise, Prophet Muhammad ordered his Companions and Muslims in general not to praise him beyond his real worth.” [20]

This article is perhaps unusual for some readers in view of its tangential angle and focus on fundamental aspects of faith. In view of the prevailing climate around Confederate statues in the US, those discussed in this article and others, like King Leopold II in Belgium, it is necessary to consider an altogether different and faith-based dimension in order to identify and consign this contentious issue to its rightful place. Its significance has been exaggerated and is a reflection of a greater pandemic plaguing society today, perpetuated by externally referencing avenues such as social media, reality TV and a host of other instruments.




[1] Olusoga, D: ‘The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue is not an attack on history. It is history,’ The Guardian, 8th June 2020: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/08/edward-colston-statue-history-slave-trader-bristol-protest?CMP=share_btn_link

[2] Ibid

[3] Hymas, C: ‘Police in full riot gear on standby amid fears of clashes between Far Right and Black Lives Matter protestors,’ The Telegraph: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/06/10/police-full-riot-gear-standby-amid-fears-clashes-far-right-black/

[4] Olusoga, D: ‘The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue is not an attack on history. It is history,’ The Guardian, 8th June 2020: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/08/edward-colston-statue-history-slave-trader-bristol-protest?CMP=share_btn_link

[5] Devlin, K: George Floyd: Boris Johnson ‘appalled’ by killing in first comments since death nine days ago,’ Independent, 2nd June 2020: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/boris-johnson-first-comment-george-floyd-death-a9546421.html

[6] Clifton, K: ‘Priti Patel urges people not to join George Floyd protests and says UK must put public health first,’ Evening Standard, 6th June 2020: https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/priti-patel-george-floyd-protest-uk-a4461681.html

[7] Priti Patel official Twitter account, date: 10th June 2020, accessed 11th June 2020: https://twitter.com/pritipatel/status/1270760897506574336

[8] BBC News: ‘Boris Johnson: Ant-Racism protests ‘subverted by thuggery’, 8th June 2020: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-52960756

[9] Bristol Post: ‘Priti Patel says toppling of Colston statue is ‘utterly disgraceful’ – but Piers Morgan hits back,’ 7th June 2020: https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/priti-patel-says-toppling-colston-4202300

[10] Ibid

[11] Sabbagh, D: ‘Campaigners fear far-right ‘defence’ of statues such as Churchills,’ The Guardian, 10th June 2020: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/10/far-right-protesters-plan-defence-of-statues-such-as-churchills

[12] Winstonchurchill.org: ‘Churchill: Leader and Statesman,’  Last accessed on 12th June 2020: https://winstonchurchill.org/the-life-of-churchill/life/churchill-leader-and-statesman/

[13] Gayford, M: ‘Moving statues,’ Spectator, 9th January 2016: https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/moving-statues

[14] Humphries, W: ‘Scouts mobile to defend Baden-Powell statue from removal after threats over Hitler ties,’ The Times, 11th June 2020: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/lord-baden-powell-statue-to-be-torn-down-over-hitler-ties-gbchw2hfs

[15] Hirsch, A: ‘Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging,’ Kindlequotes:  https://amzn.eu/huOe3Od

[16] The Bible, Chapter, Matthew (8:26)

[17] Ibid, Chapter, Exodus (20:4)

[18] Philips, B: ‘The Fundamentals of Tawheed,’ p.189, citing Dictionary of Religion, p.159, International Islamic Publishing House, 1997.

[19] Philips, B: ‘Islamic Studies, Book 4,’ p.90 citing hadeeth collection Bukhari, vo.6, pp. 414-5, hadeeth no. 442

[20] Ibid, pp. 91-92.

WP Twitter Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com