Category Archives: Shi’i

The Partisans of Ali

The Partisans of Ali
A History of Shia Faith and Politics

The United States is immersed more deeply than ever in the Muslim world’s sectarian divide. A five-part series explores the split between Shia and Sunnis, from its origins shortly after the death of Muhammed in the seventh century to the modern-day upheaval in Iraq.

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The Origins of the Shia-Sunni Split

From NPR [link]

Morning Edition, February 12, 2007 · It’s not known precisely how many of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims are Shia. The Shia are a minority, comprising between 10 percent and 15 percent of the Muslim population — certainly fewer than 200 million, all told.

The Shia are concentrated in Iran, southern Iraq and southern Lebanon. But there are significant Shiite communities in Saudi Arabia and Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India as well.

Although the origins of the Sunni-Shia split were violent, over the centuries Shia and Sunnis lived peacefully together for long periods of time.

But that appears to be giving way to a new period of spreading conflict in the Middle East between Shia and Sunni.

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Shias Add Fuel to Hatred with “Gangsta-rap” Incitement

Shias add fuel to hatred with ‘gangsta-rap’ incitement
By Aqeel Hussein in Baghdad and Colin Freeman
(Filed: 05/03/2006)
The Telegraph

Shia musicians in Iraq are raising sectarian tensions by producing “gangsta-rap” songs in which they call for Shias to kill Sunnis.

The hate-filled lyrics of singers such as Riyadh al Wadi have proved a big hit in Shia areas after the tit-for-tat killings that have pushed the country to the brink of civil war in the past two weeks. In his songs, he urges fellow Shias to ignore the appeals of their most senior cleric not to retaliate against acts of provocation by Sunni insurgents.

Pleas for calm issued by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani are credited with stopping a slide into large-scale violence, but have fallen on increasingly deaf ears since the bombing 10 days ago of the sacred Shia shrine at Samarra.

Al Wadi, who is from Al Amara in the Shia heartlands of southern Iraq, talks of revenge for Sunni-sponsored pogroms in cities such as Latifiya and Madan last year.

“We should teach them a lesson not to kill anybody else,” he sings. “Why does Sistani prevent us from killing them? If we enter Latifiyah we’ll wipe it from the map. We’ve had enough and the end is coming.”

His song, which also has a video that can be downloaded on mobile telephones, is the first of its kind to emerge among Iraq’s Shias. It also makes lewd and unfounded comments about members of Saddam Hussein’s family and their relationship with various Sunni Arab rulers of neighbouring states.

While similar material has been peddled by extremist Sunni musicians for some time, the fact that Shias are following suit is likely to be seen as further evidence of an increasingly tense religious climate.

In the latest spate of violence, suspected Sunni gunmen stormed through the town of Nahrawan near Baghdad, killing at least 19 Shias at a brickworks. The dead were said to include a woman and three children, one a girl aged six.

The Shia prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, whose own position is increasingly perilous because of Sunni and Kurdish opposition in parliament, has pleaded for an end to “inflammatory” sermons by Iraq’s imams.

The violence, which has claimed more than 200 lives since the shrine bombing, has continued despite heavy security in Baghdad which has reduced the city to a virtual ghost town.

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In the Destruction of a Golden Dome, The Debris of Certainty

What Was and Never Shall Be
In the Destruction of a Golden Dome, the Debris of Certainty

The Askariya shrine in Samarra, one of the most revered Shiite sites in Iraq, after yesterday's bombing.

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, , 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


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The Important Position of the Iraqi City of Samarra in Shi’a Belief

Over the centuries, the central Iraqi city of Samarra has attracted millions of Shia pilgrims from all over the Muslim world.

They travel to the city to worship at the sacred tombs of Ali al-Hadi and al-Hasan al-Askari, the 10th and 11th Shia Imams, and the site where the 12th Imam, Mohammed al-Mahdi, disappeared.

Imam al-Mahdi, known as the “hidden Imam”, was the son and grandson of the two previous imams, and Shias pray at the mosque for his return.

Shia Islam was led by imams, believed to be divinely appointed from the Prophet Muhammad’s family, until the late 9th Century.

Al-Hadi, the 10th Shia Imam, was born in Medina in modern-day Saudi Arabia in 827. He became Imam at the age of six.

In 848, he and his son were brought to Samarra, then the capital of the Abbasid Empire and placed under house arrest by the Caliph al-Mutawakkil.

It is believed Imam al-Hadi was poisoned in 868, and buried in a house near the original mosque of al-Mutasim.Al-Askari succeeded his father as imam, but remained under house arrest until his death in 874. He was buried beside his father in what was later to become the al-Askari shrine.

In addition to the tombs of the two imams, are those of Hakima Khatun, the sister of Imam al-Hadi, and Narjis Khatun, the mother of Imam al-Mahdi.

The huge complex also contains a second shrine above the cave (sirdab), where the young Imam al-Mahdi, Al-Askari’s son, was said to have been hidden before he disappeared in 878.

Not accepting that he died, Shias still await his return more than 1,100 years later.

Visitors descend stairs to enter the sirdab, which bears an 800-year-old inscription from the Abbasid Caliph Nasser al-Din Allah.

Gold dome

The huge complex was first developed during the 10th and 11th Centuries by the Shia Hamdanid and Buyid dynasties, and soon became an important place of pilgrimage.

The complex was rebuilt several times, most recently in 1905, when a gold-plated dome was erected above the tomb of the two imams. The dome was covered by 72,00 golden pieces and measured roughly 20m wide and 68m high.

A blue-tiled dome also marks the sirdab where Imam al-Mahdi disappeared.

Robert Hillenbrand, the professor of Islamic Art at Edinburgh University, told the BBC that the shrine may not be of enormous architectural importance, but is of immense spiritual importance for hundreds of millions of Shia Muslims.

In a Christian context, he said, the shrine would equate in spiritual importance to the burial place of St James at Santiago de Compostela.

“Pilgrimage to such shrines, of which the majority are in Iraq, is an absolutely integral part of their religious life,” he added.

The other three major Shia shrines in Iraq are Najaf, Karbala and Kadhimiya in Baghdad.


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