What Was and Never Shall Be
In the Destruction of a Golden Dome, the Debris of Certainty
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 23, 2006; C01
Again and again, it’s distressing how little we know about how Iraq looked before destruction became an everyday occurrence. And so the first glimpse, for many, of the Askariya shrine was not of a magnificent shining dome, but twisted metal and broken walls.
As the first images of a massive destruction at one of Iraq’s holiest shrines began coming in yesterday, it was hard not to think of the building, rather than what it stands for. How old was it? What was the architecture like? Was this another loss, like the Bamiyan Buddhas, needlessly destroyed by the Taliban? Is its destruction equivalent, say, to the bombing of St. Peter’s in Rome, or Chartres Cathedral? The mind grasps for an easy equivalence.
It was reassuring — in the rather heartless way that people in a secular society look at old religious buildings as mere relics or potential tourist destinations — to learn from the BBC, which quoted Robert Hillenbrand, a professor of Islamic Art at Edinburgh University, that while the shrine had immense religious and emotional importance to Iraq’s Shiite population, it was not of enormous architectural importance. Measuring religious importance seems to land us in the realm of the irrational; measuring architectural or historical importance is different, but ultimately leads us down all the wrong paths.
But there was hardly time for any of those fumbling efforts to find an analogue between the Christianity many Americans know and the Islam so many of us learn about only when violence brings it into view. And no sooner had the building appeared on our television screens than it was obscured by images of rage in the streets. Tens of thousands of Shiites protested the bombing, and Sunni mosques were attacked in Basra and Baghdad. The pundits chattered about civil war. A great golden dome, that most of us had never seen, came down, replaced by images we’ve seen all too often, proof that yet again the sum total of anger in the world had gone up a few notches.
“It is not a question of the date or the age of the structure,” said Professor Hamid Algar, of the University of California at Berkeley. Algar, who hadn’t yet heard of the bombing when a reporter called, sounded sad and weary as he explained the historical background to the Askariya shrine. It is the burial place of the 10th and 11th imams, revered by Shiites as the direct descendants and spiritual heirs to the prophet Muhammad.
Besides the obvious religious and historic significance, Algar explained, its location in Samarra, north of the traditional Shiite stronghold of southern Iraq, makes it particularly fraught with religious tension. It was here, in the late 19th century, that the great scholar Mirza Hasan Shirazi set up as the spiritual leader of the Shiites, making inroads into the Sunni north. He led a newly vigorous Shiite community, and one that was increasingly threatening to Sunnis and the Ottoman overlords, who controlled the country. Samarra was, in some ways, a line in the sand in a long-standing religious struggle. And it is a line in the sand again.
Was. Is. Terrorism functions by conflating the categories. Old grievances are renewed, old tensions rekindled. The past, filled with the sting of injustice — there’s always enough to go around, no matter what small niche of the human race you occupy — isn’t so much remembered as it is constantly relived. There’s no time for reflection, no time to come off the boil; humanity finds itself in a state of perpetual adolescence, short-fused and remarkably indifferent to whether it wants or expects to have a future.
Unlike so many images of terrorist destruction, the calculated demolition of the shrine in Samarra captures the “was” and “is” with rare power. When the twin towers came down, there was nothing left, just rubble and then, with astonishing alacrity, a sterile hole in the ground. In Samarra, they leveled the dome, destroying the visual focal point of the shrine, and one of the most distinctive features of the city of Samarra. There’s a bit of twisted metal left, and the shell of the building that held it. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of images of the old industrial hall that was left standing in Hiroshima after the atom bomb attack — the remains of which are now a memorial to the victims (was, is, was, is).
The before and after shots show the shell of a building stripped of its most magnificent feature. The attackers went for the surface, the showy, the part of the architecture that best expresses the daring and determination on the part of those who raised it. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University, says that while Islamic architecture was originally very simple and plain, and while graves of ordinary people remain quite austere today, the mausoleums associated with imams, saints and early spiritual leaders developed a magnificence one saw plainly in the old, now destroyed dome. This wasn’t just an architectural nicety, but something that expressed “the wisdom of the community,” as manifested in the imams it honors.
And for a Shiite to see it destroyed?
“To see this before your eyes is like the world crumbling before you,” he says. In part, that’s because it was in Samarra that the last imam, the “Mahdi,” disappeared, leaving the world to await both his return and the restitution of justice and order that will come with it. Some interpreters of Islam associate dire apocalyptic events with his reappearance. Others, including Algar, dismiss the idea, arguing that even making predictions about the when of the return is religiously frowned upon. But seeing the destruction of a shrine raised in the city of the imam’s disappearance — or occultation — which contains the bodies of his forebears, brings with it profound eschatological resonance, according to Nasr.
“Nobody would think it is possible to destroy the most sacred objects,” he says.
The side-by-side photographs, the was and is, shatter that certainty. Again, with grim admiration, one confronts the profound methodology of terror: To attack certainty is to attack the very basis on which societies are built. Certainty that the bank where you place your money is secure; that the title to your home is valid; that elections will happen on schedule; that power will be transferred without bloodshed. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, New Yorkers were horrified by the fact that the simple, certain form of their skyline had been altered. That couldn’t happen. Now imagine that same wound to the orderliness of the world magnified by an overlay of religious disbelief.
It isn’t easy, which is why it was tempting to process the news, and the images, in other ways. On a right-wing Web site in this country, http://lucianne.com/ , people posting reactions under pseudonyms were often gleeful. “Isn’t pretty much every real or imagined location of every Imam’s spitoon a ‘Holy’ site?” wrote someone called “kwddave.” That post suggested the vicious cycle of miscommunication we’ve entered. Anger is no longer read, here, as a sign of great depth of feeling, or sincerity, or as a symptom of fear; it is now proof of the insignificance of what Muslims are angry about. Simply because they are angry, their shrines are no better than spittoons. Rhetorically, “kwddave” repeats the act of terror, diminishing the meaning of a building that terrorists, literally, have reduced to a gaping cavity open to the rain.
Images of a building are never as interesting as the dynamic, moving pictures of people in the streets. And that image, of anger and protest, has been seen so often that it’s become what we might as well just label The Blur — the loud, threatening tape loop of enraged people that blends together all distinctions about who they are, where they are and why they’re angry.
The first and most difficult fact of the bombing is its portent of civil war, and its most troubling message for Americans is its reminder of the degree to which we went to war, as a nation, ignorant of the basic sectarian rifts that we are now struggling to manage. But The Blur has a different message. Even when “they” are victims of internecine strife, the images seem to confirm that they are all the same in a particularly dangerous and hard to understand way. That has become our certainty, and one wonders what could possibly shatter it.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company