The Iraqi shrines and State Support

9/12/2005 4:01:05 PM

A colossal crisis, the size of the Al Aima bridge itself in Iraq, where over one thousand Iraqis died, invokes a look at the history and geography of religious sacred sites and shrines in Iraq belonging to different religions and sects. The only exception is the sect of Al Sabe'ah Al Menda'een, which according to their religious traditions, does not maintain any shrines. This sect recommends the practice only for a matter of 45 days during which it is believed that the spirit leaves the body for the place of judgment. Recently however, they have taken up the practice of keeping shrines due to the influence of others, yet they do not offer any sacrifices or claim any miracles.

Due to a collective imagination, the Iraqis created a tomb in which the bodies of both Adam and Noah lie. In addition, they created two tombs with domes in Najaf for the prophets Saleh and Houd, whom according to the famous historian Ibn Kathir in his work "Stories of the Prophets," lived in Ahqaf between present day Oman and Hadramout. One can also find Jewish shrines in Iraq for the prophets Isaiah along the Euphrates in Babylon, and Ezra along the Tigris between Misan and Basra. In Mosul, there exists the shrine of Prophet Jonas, which was originally an Assyrian temple, then a Christian monastery, and eventually a Mosque. In addition, one can find in Mosul the shrine of the prophet Gergis, which is called Mar Gergis by the Christians. The Muslims have also created a shrine and mosque there. Also in Qoush, not far from Mosul, there is the shrine of Nahoum, one of the Israelite prophets according to the "Bible's Dictionary." All these sacred sites have been approvingly referred to in the preamble of the new Iraqi constitution that refers to Iraq as "the Land of Prophets."

The Iraqis have further sought to enrich their country with more sites that are sacred and shrines for the Imams, the descendants of the Prophet Mohamed (Peace Be Upon Him) and Muslim saints. There are numerous shrines in the areas inhabited by Sunnis, Shi'a, Yazidis, and Kakais alike. It is also common to find more than one shrine for the sons of Imam Moussa Al Kazem all called Mohamed. Two Sunni sects venerate two different shrines apparently for two of Imam Moussa's sons who were both named Mohamed. One exists in Samra and the other in Anbar. The Shi'a venerates a third shrine for another son also named Mohamed. The Shi'a also visit two shrines that are located amidst a majority of Sunnis who look after the shrines in Samara: the shrine of Imam 'Ali Al Hadi and the shrine of Imam AL Hassan Al 'Askari from the twelve imams. In Mosul there are several shrines for sons of the Imams (descendants of the Prophet, PBUH) that were erected by the medieval Shi'a ruler of that city Badr Lu'lu. Badr Lu'lu reigned in the 7th century A.H.

Baghdad is also crowded with its share of shrines. There exists the shrine of Abu Hanifa, which faces that of Moussa Al Kazem and his grandson on the other side of Karkh. There are also a number of shrines for Sufi saints such as Abdel Qader Al Jilani, Ma'rouf Al Karkhi, Al Junaid, Al Shebli, Al Saqti and so on. Amidst these shrines, a cone-shaped dome signifies the tomb of Zumurd Khatoon, the mother of the Abbasid Caliph Al Nasser Li Din Allah (d. 622A.H).

What is surprising however is the sectarian inter-correlation between Shi'a and Sunnis in terms of worshipping shrines in Iraq. For example, the shrine of Abi Al Khilal the main sheikh of Hanbalis (Hanbali is one of the four major schools of Jurisprudence in Islam named after the founder Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal) has transformed to a Shi'a site from where a procession for the commemoration of Ashoura (the memory of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein) is annually commenced. In Karkh, even a tomb for the founder of the religion of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, could be found where the following inscription is engraved: Guru Nanak headed for Baghdad as a traveler, and there he took a house for himself at its gates." On the 23rd of November, 1969, his followers celebrated his 500th birthday by erecting a memorial statue at his tomb.

Usually, the believers do not consider anything that may contradict their dogmatic belief. According to Al Baghdadi the medieval historian, Imam 'Ali was buried in Kufah. The historian said, "If the Shi'a knew who is buried in Najaf, where they still believe that this is where Imam Ali was buried, they would stop their visits to his shrine and would cover the shrine in stones." The followers did not concern themselves with the destruction of the Abu Hanifa shrine, the demolishing of the shrine of Imam Hussein, the burning of the shrine of Al Kharkhi, and the frequent arson attacks on Moussa Al Kazem's shrine. They continued with their pilgrimages to all those shrines venerating them more and more. According to Ibn Al Athir's 'The Complete History', (Al Kamil Fi a-Tareekh), "a flood swept through the tombs in 554 A.H raising the dead bodies out of their tombs." The Yazidis themselves witnessed the Ottoman soldiers extract the remnants of their venerated Sheikh and burn them. Yet, they rebuilt the shrine and continued their rituals with even more zeal than before.

The Iraqi Christians visit the shrine of Mar Sahmouni in an attempt to cure their illnesses. This shrine belongs to a Christian woman who was killed by pagans in 'Ain Kawa. Similar to the Iraqi Christians, the Iraqi Shi'a seek treatment for illnesses by visiting the shrine of Imam 'Ali and the Sunnis from the shrine of Abdel Qader Al Jilani.

The crisis that took place recently on Al-Aima Bridge has raised numerous questions concerning the Iraqi obsession with grief and the dead saints. A stranger to Iraqi culture would find it difficult to differentiate between festive songs and the elegies of funerals. The roots of such forms of grieving are historical and are related to repression and the permanent opposition to authority, which in time, took on the form of obstinacy.

What remains unexplainable however is the attitude of the state. The state under the presidency of Ahmad Hassan Al Bakr for example, maintained this culture of grievance for saints and reinforced the practice amongst the Iraqis. Even though the state was officially persecuting the Shi'a, Ahmad Hassan Al Bakr visited the shrine of Al Hamza, a descendant of Moussa Al Kazem, which is a Shi'a site in the center of the Euphrates region. It was reported that Al Bakr had dreamt that by visiting Al Hamza's shrine, he would be cured of a serious illness from which he suffered. Al Bakr, as stated in the memoirs of Heradan Al Takriti, feared Al 'Abass, another shrine of one of the Prophet's (PBUH) family members, as the members of the Revolutionary Command Council that was headed by Al Bakr would vow loyalty to each other.

We have recently watched and listened to the vice president, 'Adel Mahdi, who broadcasted his visit to the Imam's shrine. He grieved firstly for the Imam and secondly for the victims of the atrocities of Al-Aima bridge. Mahdi has experienced more than one important technocratic and intellectual post including that of Minister of Finance.

Furthermore, we listened to Prime Minister Ibrahim Al Jaafari who stated that huge number of victims of the Al-Aima bridge incident were worshippers who died for the sake of religious mourning.

I do not know of the benefits that this collective death has achieved for the Prime Ministers words are nothing but the state's contribution to supporting absurdity. The state practices such support firstly by outright repression, and secondly by conformity and acceptance of such acts of worship. The doctrine of the state should only be concerned with the politics of the country, rather than either encouraging or repressing such rituals.