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The Time of the Shia

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 19871


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 world. Aside from housing a reputed seven thousand graves of the Prophet’s venerated companions, it was the main resting place for the Ahl al-Bayt, or House of the Prophet, containing the tombs of Muhammad’s aunts, of nine of his wives, and of his infant son Ibrahim, as well as of male descendants through the marriage of the Prophet’s only child to survive, his daughter Fatima, to his cousin Ali. These included the shrines of the Prophet’s grandson Hassan, great-grandson Ali Zayn al-Abdin, great-great-grandson Muhammad al-Baqir, and great-great-great-grandson Jaafar al-Saddiq.

Those last four of Muhammad’s descendants are known to Shia Muslims as the second, fourth, fifth, and sixth in the chain of imams, or infallible exemplars who succeeded to the mantle of the Prophet. One branch of Shias believes that the chain subsequently passed to, and ended with, Jaafar’s son Ismail. They are known as Sevener Shias, or Ismailis. A separate branch, with currently far more adherents, believes that the chain passed to another of Jaafar’s sons, Musa al-Kazim, whose gold-domed shrine stands on the right bank of the Tigris at Baghdad, and has lately been a target for mortar shells and suicide bombers. This branch is known as the Jaafaris, or Twelvers, since they believe that the chain of living imams expired with the twelfth imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, who disappeared as a five-year-old child in the year 874. It is said that he has since been concealed by God, but will one day return to deliver the world from injustice.

There are those in the present age who believe that this return is imminent. One of them is the populist president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who often declares that his government’s main task is to prepare for the Mahdi. The President is rumored to be close to a radical messianic group known as the Hojjatieh. Detractors claim that this group seeks to hasten the Mahdi’s return by creating chaos on earth. Whatever the case, its adherents are likely to interpret current events as signs of imminence—for instance, the demolition of the Askariya shrine at Samarra, northwest of Baghdad, this February. The shrine houses the tombs of the Mahdi’s father and grandfather, the tenth and eleventh imams.2 Its destruction was carried out by skilled explosives experts who are widely assumed to have been al-Qaeda operatives and it sparked the most furious round of sectarian bloodletting yet seen in Iraq. More than any other single incident, the attack on this shrine markedly accelerated the country’s slide toward full-scale civil war.

But to return to the Heavenly Grove of Medina: What happened to this center of so much devotion over the centuries, and incidentally not only by Shias, but by the many variants of Sunni Islam, including Sufism, that revere the House of the Prophet? On April 21, 1925, a horde of Bedouin warriors razed the cemetery, flattening its hallowed cenotaphs and mausoleums to the ground.3 Commanded by Abdul Aziz al-Saud, the founder and first king of modern Saudi Arabia, they were inspired by the teachings of Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab, a Sunni puritan whose obsession was to purge the faith of the terrible sin of shirk, or “association,” which is to say, the ascribing of heavenly power to anything but God. It is said that only the personal intervention of Abdul Aziz prevented his soldiers from exercising their iconoclastic zeal on the tomb of the Prophet himself.4

Understandably, the Shia narrative of history is largely one of accumulating grievances. Yet this worldview is constructed from faith as well as fact. Shiism revolves, more than any other religious doctrine except perhaps Christianity, around notions of redemption through suffering. Its origins lie in the grudge that rapidly grew, following the death of the Prophet in 632 AD, among the partisans (shi’ain Arabic) of Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. Passed over three times for the title of caliph, or worldly successor to Muhammad, Ali then reigned only briefly before being assassinated. His son Hussein later tried to rally supporters in Iraq, but the institutions of the caliphate had been captured by the Ummayads, distant cousins from a powerful rival branch of Muhammad’s clan. Claiming hereditary title, the Ummayad Caliph Yazid dispatched an army that surrounded and slaughtered Hussein and his followers.

Survivors of that massacre, including Hussein’s sister Zaynab, subsequently drew support from other disgruntled Muslims, particularly among newly converted, non-Arab groups such as the Persians. (Hussein was said to have married the daughter of the last Sassanian shah of Iran.) With time, a subtle accretion of pre-Islamic beliefs grew to overlay their Shiism. In much the same way that the preexisting myths of Isis and Horus, Astarte and Adonis eased the spread of Christianity, the tragic saga of the House of the Prophet came to be seen as a parable about the struggle of good against evil. The Shia came to regard Ali as their first imam, a model of virtue and the true vessel of the word passed through Muhammad, whose divine right was usurped by treachery. The martyrdom of Hussein, now recognized as the third imam, became, after his followers’ failure to protect him, a symbol of communal guilt, to be expiated by penitence, most dramatically in the flagellation rites of the Ashura festival.

The House of the Prophet emerged as a sort of priestly class, whose leading male descendant in each generation was accepted as a manifestation of God’s will on earth. The trouble of choosing which of these descendants to anoint led to successive splits in the movement. Yet even when this form of legitimation ran its course for the predominant Twelver Shias, with the disappearance of the Mahdi in 874, a mix of money and politics continued to sustain the sect’s particularism.

The money component was the application of a tax on worshipers, known as the Mahdi’s share, or khums (literally, a fifth), to be collected by clerics for the common good. These riches both enhanced the role of the Shia clergy and strengthened solidarity within the sect. Shiism derived continued political potency from its identification with the defense of the weak: to be a partisan of Ali was to practice a form of resistance against perceived injustice. The result was that the faith thrived among oppressed minorities, or was championed by ambitious dynasts such as the sixteenth-century Safavid rulers of Iran, who succeeded in melding Twelver Shiism with a sense of Persian national identity.

Until recently most Sunnis, most of the time, have given little thought to the challenge presented by Shiism. (The word “Sunni” refers to the sunnah, or “way” of the Prophet, i.e., the punctilious following of his recorded practices, to the exclusion of other exemplars.) They have not had to, because their brand of Islam has been so dominant. Sunnis make up some 85 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims. In solidly Sunni countries such as Morocco, Bangladesh, or Indonesia, few have much idea of what Shias are, or how their practices differ.

In Islam’s major rituals, such as prayer and fasting, the answer is very little. Yet while Sunnis, too, show special respect to the House of the Prophet (the royal families of Jordan and Morocco proudly claim descent from Muhammad), the exalting of Ali, and the notion of a hereditary imamate, are seen as dubious “innovations” that obscure the core message of Islam, which is the oneness of God. Sunnis deride the Shia doctrine of takiyya, a form of concealment of true belief that was adopted as a defense against Sunni inquisition; they call it a license for deviousness. In the Sunni narrative, the Shia are seen as outsiders, Persian-tinged schismatics whose assault on Muslim unity has periodically weakened the faith.

Such mistrust reflects the fact that Sunni dominance has not always been assured. In its first centuries, Sunnism found itself challenged not just by Shia uprisings, but by doubters of all stripes. The strength of the early Sunni caliphates, in Damascus and later in Baghdad, weakened over time. By the tenth century, Shia rulers had managed to seize control across much of Islam. In Baghdad, a Persian Shia dynasty held temporal power, reducing the Sunni caliphs to figureheads. The Fatimids, an illustrious Sevener Shia dynasty that claimed descent from the Prophet’s daughter, set up a rival caliphate in Cairo. Their prosperous and tolerant realm stretched from Sicily to Syria, and held the custodianship of the two holy cities for two hundred years, until 1171; even before the Fatimids’ arrival, a more radical Sevener Shia cult known as the Carmathians had raided Mecca and stolen the sacred Black Stone that is embedded in the side of the Kaaba, the cubical shrine that Muslims face in prayer. It was returned twenty-one years later, apparently broken into seven pieces.

  1. 1

    The source is www.alminbar.com/khutbaheng/695.htm. This Web site features model sermons, mostly by Saudi preachers espousing rigid Wahhabism.

  2. 2

    For the sake of completeness, the resting places of the remaining imams are, respectively, Najaf in Iraq for Ali, the first imam; Karbala in Iraq for Hussein, the third imam; and Mashhad in Iran for Ali Rida, the eighth imam. The shrine of Ali’s daughter Zaynab near Damascus is also greatly venerated, as are numerous lesser tombs in the Iranian city of Qom.

  3. 3

    Some accounts say the Saudis forced Shia residents of Medina to carry out the deed themselves.

  4. 4

    Under Saudi rule, scores of other monuments in the Muslim holy cities have been defaced or demolished. Most have succumbed to property developers and urbanization schemes, but puritan religious motives are also evident. Photographs from 2002 of the dynamiting of a minaret near Medina, which was attached to a mosque associated with one of the sons of the sixth Shia imam, show Saudi religious police raising their hands in exaltation at the sight.

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