Monday's bombing in the Saudi city of Medina stands out, even among the wave of terrorist attacks in recent days. It wasn't the death toll. It didn't produce the scenes of carnage like Saturday's bombing in Baghdad that killed nearly 200 people or last week's attack on the airport in Istanbul that left 44 dead.
It was the chosen target — Medina, the site of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad's tomb and his house.
"It's not like a Shiite shrine or a Sunni shrine," says Jonathan A.C. Brown, the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Chair of Islamic Civilization at Georgetown University. "This is literally the burial place of the prophet of God. This is his mosque, this is his house."
Medina is second only to Mecca in its sacredness in Islam, Brown explains. It's the place where Muhammad lived, where he started the Muslim community and where he was laid to rest.
According to Islamic hadith — the sayings and teachings of the prophet — Muhammad said that when you visit his grave in Medina to greet him, it is as if you were visiting him when he was alive. And it's a place that is sacred to all Muslims, whether conservative or liberal, Shiite or Sunni.
"To attack it is just a sign that you are attacking Muslims as a whole and the Muslim community as a whole and Islam as a religion," Brown says.
He speculates about possible reasons for the attack.
"Either they're literally attacking their own religion, which is psychotic," he says. Or "they're so intent on de-legitimizing the Saudi government, they don't care about doing violence in this sacred place and trying to kill Muslims who are engaged in this tremendous act of devotion that every Muslim agrees on."
Saudi Arabia's ruler, King Salman, holds the title of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, as the protector of the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet's Mosque in Medina. Militants laid siege to the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979. It's a place where fighting is forbidden; even trees aren't supposed to be cut down.
The suspected culprit of Monday's Medina attack is the Islamic State. And while Muslim religious scholars and leaders always widely condemn the group and its attacks, this one struck a sharper than usual emotional chord.
Muslims from around the world took to social media to express their grief, using an Arabic hashtag that translates as "ISIS desecrates the Prophet's mosque and his grave."
One woman tweeted, "Every terror attack is horrific and heartbreaking, but an attack on #Medina is an attack on the soul of the Muslim world."
The attack will only intensify widespread anger at ISIS, which has already killed thousands of Muslims and displaced millions of people in Iraq and Syria. "Today's attack in Medina is a sign of the end of ISIS," a respected Syrian Islamic scholar, Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, tweeted.
"Every Muslim scholar I know of, except for one or two Muslim scholars who work for ISIS, considers ISIS either to be extremist heretics or to be apostates — so they're not Muslims," Brown says. "It's probably one of the single biggest questions, articles of agreements, amongst Muslims today."
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Yesterday's bombing at a Muslim holy site in the Saudi city of Medina stands out even among a wave of recent attacks. It wasn't the death toll or who the victims were. The attack didn't approach the 250 people now reported by the Iraqi government who have been killed in Baghdad's Sunday bombing, and the prime suspect, the self-proclaimed Islamic State, has already killed thousands of Sunnis and Shiites to the horror of Muslims around the world. This bombing stood out because of where it took place. Medina is the site of Muhammad's house and tomb. NPR's Leila Fadel reports.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Saudi state TV flashed pictures of the four people killed, members of the security force.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).
FADEL: Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef visited the wounded, thanking God the attacker didn't quite reach the mosque where the Muslim Prophet Muhammad is entombed.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken).
FADEL: And Islamic religious scholars from across the world expressed rage and disbelief on television and in statements that anyone would attack Medina where pilgrims pray to God and where the prophet is buried. One Syrian religious scholar who is anti-ISIS, Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, tweeted quotes from hadiths, sayings and teachings of the Prophet. (Reading) Anyone who harms the people of Medina God will melt like iron in fire or salt in water.
Jonathan A.C. Brown is a professor of Islamic civilization at Georgetown University.
JONATHAN A C BROWN: You're talking, you know, the house of the Prophet. You have to be pretty low to do that.
FADEL: The attack is particularly emotional for Muslims of all sects and from the conservative to the liberal because in theory, Brown says, all Muslims venerate this place because Muhammad started the Muslim community here. This was his house, and he's buried here, and so are many of his companions.
BROWN: It's not like a Shiite shrine or a Sunni shrine or - you know, this is literally the burial place of the prophet of God. And this is his mosque. This is his house.
FADEL: The Saudi regime bills itself as the protectors of the religious sites in Medina and Mecca where militants laid siege to that mosque in 1979. Brown says the goal in attacking a place like Medina would be one of two things.
BROWN: Those are the two possibilities for someone doing this as a Muslim. Either they are literally trying to attack their own religion, which is psychotic. And the second one is that they are so intent on trying to delegitimize the Saudi government, they don't care about doing violence in this sacred place and trying to kill Muslims who are engaged in this tremendous act of devotion that every Muslim agrees on.
FADEL: The visuals of smoke rising from just beyond the Prophet's Mosque will likely intensify Muslim anger against violent extremism that's already claimed thousands of Muslim lives. In fact, Brown says the most widely agreed upon point among Islamic scholars save a couple who work for ISIS is that the group is either heretical to the extreme or apostate. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.