Reaching for Power: The Shi’a in the Modern Arab World
by Yitzhak Nakash
Princeton University Press, 226 pp., $19.95
The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future
by Vali Nasr
Norton, 287 pp., $25.95
Servants of Allaah! The animosity of the Shee’ah towards the people of the Sunnah is severe. This animosity has been ingrained in their souls since the time they took the belief of corrupt partisanship as a rule and path for their religion. It is no wonder, because a snake gives birth to none other than a snake, and whoever reads the annals of history will find the murder and pillage that they committed on the people of the Sunnah, and will find their treaties with the enemies of Islaam far too notorious to be mentioned here.
—from a sermon by Sheikh Saalih al-Wanyyaan delivered in the Saudi province of Qasim, circa 1987
The Mosque of the Prophet at Medina makes a splendid showpiece for the lavish piety of Saudi Arabia’s rulers. Fully air-conditioned, richly carpeted, accessible by multiple escalators from a giant underground parking garage, clad in the costliest of polychrome marbles and embellished with nine soaring minarets, the stadium-sized building, which was massively expanded in the 1980s, hosts millions of pilgrims every year. The faithful come to pray here because this city is where their prophet found refuge, started the first Muslim community, spent most of his life, and was buried, at the site now marked by the green-domed shrine attached to his mosque.
Yet as I discovered on a recent visit, a good many pilgrims have another, additional purpose in mind. Thousands every day make their way to the southeast corner of the gleaming esplanade that surrounds the mosque. A short flight of steps here leads up to a concrete walkway, a sort of low parapet that skirts part of the esplanade, and is bounded on its far side by a heavily grilled fence.
A churning crowd of pilgrims pressed against this fence. Some clung to the metal links, muttering solitary prayers. Others wailed in lamentation, or implored the intercession of saints. Here and there, clusters of pilgrims huddled around tour leaders who recounted momentous events in the history of the faith, or roused their little flocks to heart-rending bouts of communal weeping.
In the midst of all this stood a smiling young Iranian couple, she in lacy white, he in jacket and tie. The fence provided, apparently, a suitable backdrop for their honeymoon photos, snapped by a giggly, chadored companion in flagrant disregard of prominent signs showing a camera with a diagonal red bar through it.
There were other forbidding signs, too, including a large one mounted on poles inside the fence. This explained pointedly, in Arabic, English, Urdu, and Farsi, that worship of tombs is condemned by Islam as a form of corruption on earth. It seemed a strange injunction, since there was nothing at all to be seen inside the fence except for that sign, and acres of dust and rubble.
But once upon a time this eerily empty space was a cemetery. Known as Jannat al-Baqi, or the Heavenly Grove, it was perhaps the most famous burial place in the Muslim …