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Allied forces respecting Shiite Muslim holy sites

Sacred locations in Karbala and Najaf

Monday, April 07, 2003

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Imagine that in early Christianity Paul had murdered Peter and that, to this day, Christians who revered Peter were buried near him so he could plead their case on Judgment Day.

That would be a rough analogy to the Shiite theology and passion concerning the Shrine of Ali in Najaf, and the tomb of Ali's son Hussein in Karbala. Most Shiites consider them the first and third of 12 successors of the Prophet Muhammad, successors whose intercession assures their salvation.

That explains why coalition forces have been careful not to damage the Shrine of Ali -- even when Iraqi snipers holed up there -- and have avoided battle in Karbala. Damaging the tombs would unleash unparalleled grief and rage in the Muslim world.

The world's 120 million Shiites account for 10 percent of the world's Muslims. About 14 million of them live in Iraq, where they are the majority ethnic group. The road to Baghdad runs past their holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

At Najaf, a spectacular gold-domed mosque enshrines the tomb of Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad's cousin, one of his first followers and the husband of Muhammad's beloved daughter, Fatima. The word Shi'a is a contraction of the Arabic for "the party of Ali." But all Muslims, not just Shiites, remember Ali for chivalry in battle, scholarship -- he wrote the first Arabic grammar -- piety and generosity.

Shiites believe that Muhammad chose Ali to be his successor, or caliph. But because Ali, then 30, was at the Prophet's deathbed, he was not present when other leaders elected an older man as caliph.

Ali was finally elected as the fourth caliph in 656. One of Muhammad's widows then joined a revolt against him, but Ali defeated it. Tribal and sectarian troubles continued, however, and Ali was assassinated in 661 by one of his former soldiers who was angry that Ali had negotiated an end to a long battle. The Shrine of Ali in Najaf is known as "the wondrous place of martyrdom."

In mainstream Shiite theology, Ali is the first of 12 Imams, and the word means far more than its Sunni usage of "prayer leader." Most Shiites revere 12 Imams as successors and descendants of Muhammad.

The imams have divine powers to intercede between God and the believer. The 12th Imam is believed not to have died in the ninth century but to have been "hidden." He is expected to return as the Mahdi, a powerful messianic figure.

"Among Shiites the Imam is not just the religious leader, but he inherits the comprehensive religious authority of the Prophet," said Liyakat Takim, a professor of religious studies at the University of Denver, and an authority on Shiite doctrine.

The second and third Imams were Ali and Fatima's sons, Hassan and Hussein.

Hassan succeeded Ali as the fifth caliph, but surrendered his title to a rival who had threatened war. Hassan was assassinated a few years later, purportedly by one of his 130 wives so she could marry the son of the new caliph. Ali's son, Hussein, then led a revolt but was let down by Muslims who promised support and never delivered.

Hussein's death in battle at Karbala in 680 is so important to Shiite Muslims that some writers compare it to the crucifixion in Christianity. On the anniversary of Hussein's death, Shiites recall their ancestors' failure to support the Prophet's grandson, sometimes beating themselves in repentance.

Ali's shrine in Najaf is the third-largest site of Muslim pilgrimage after Mecca and Medina because Sunni Muslims also revere Ali. But Hussein's shrine in Karbala is the most sacred site to Shiites. Many Shiites rest their foreheads on small blocks of clay from Karbala when they pray.

So far coalition forces have largely bypassed Karbala, but they have taken all of Najaf except for the shrine. Damaging it would incur the wrath of Muslims worldwide. A graveyard outside Najaf is the world's largest, because so many Shiites are buried there.

"Shiites believe Imams have the capacity to act as intercessors between Shiites and God on the day of Resurrection. That is why a lot of Shiites prefer to be buried in cemeteries in Najaf and Karbala -- to be in close proximity to the Imam so they will be among the first resurrected," said Yitzhak Nakash, professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University and author of "The Shi'is of Iraq."

Today Shiites view their grand ayatollahs as representatives of the 12th "hidden Imam," Takim said.

"There can be many ayatollahs at one time. What is important is that the lay person who is not capable of discerning the intent or will of God can follow the rulings of the ayatollah," he said.

Many Americans associate the word "ayatollah" with Islamic militancy and the Iranian hostage crisis. But the Iraqi ayatollahs reject the idea of a government ruled by religious jurists, Takim said. Iraqi ayatollahs confine their rulings to religious questions ranging from fasting to cloning, and oversee the foundation of mosques, seminaries, hospitals and other institutions.

"Most of them are not political," Takim said.

Each Shiite can choose which ayatollah to follow. Among the most important is Najaf's Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani.

Saddam Hussein's regime had kept Sistani under house arrest for years. According to U.S. Central Command, he has issued a fatwa, or ruling, instructing Shiites not to interfere with coalition forces.

Iraq's Shiites have suffered under Saddam -- a Sunni nationalist ruler. When the Shiites revolted after the first Persian Gulf War, Saddam's forces slaughtered tens of thousands. But a bloodbath between Shiites and Sunnis after this war is unlikely, nor will Iraqi Shiites press for an Iranian-style theocracy, experts believe.

Despite historic tensions with Sunni rulers, Shiite and Sunni Iraqis have good relationships in everyday life. "There are a good number of mixed marriages," said Nakash.

For government purposes, the biggest difference between the two groups is their political vision. The Sunni minority embraces pan-Arabism, which would tie Iraq's future to that of surrounding Arab states, which all have Sunni majorities. But while Iraqi Shiites are Arabs, they are nationalists who only want what is good for Iraq, Nakash said.

They do not want to seize control of Iraq, but to participate in a broad-based democracy, the experts said.

"They are keen to ensure democracy, freedom of expression and an end to the tyranny," Takim said.

Ann Rodgers-Melnick can be reached at arodgersmelnick@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.

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