Wadi al-Salam: A Cemetery to Cleanse Sins

This picture released by the US Army shows soldiers searching around graves in the Wadi al-Salam (Valley of Peace) cemetery in Najaf 9 August 2004. (Photo: AFP - Lester Colley)

By: Qassem Fayyad

Published Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Many Lebanese Shia Muslims request that they be buried in the historic Wadi al-Salam cemetery in the Iraqi city of Najaf. Al-Akhbar investigates why.

Wadi al-Salam is the name of a large valley that lies northeast of the city of Najaf in Iraq. The valley has become one of the largest cemeteries in the world, containing the remains of millions of ordinary Muslims as well as hundred of clerics, revered religious figures, and political and social leaders.

The cemetery, which runs alongside the tomb of the Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law and ruler of the early Islamic caliphate, was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites nearly a year ago.

The Lebanese own a share of the cemetery – a section dedicated to the families and even whole villages of Jabal Amel in South Lebanon. The first Lebanese burial in Wadi al-Salam dates back to 1964, when Sheikh Mohammad Taqi Sadiq was laid to rest there, according to Sheikh Salman Khalil who is said to be one of the first funeral organizers there.

Sheihk Khalil later established a pilgrimage service between Lebanon and Iraq, which his son Bilal currently runs. Bilal explains what motivates people to request that they be buried in Wadi al-Salam, saying that it is for “those who want to rest in peace.”

“It is also because Imam Ali is said to be buried here, as people seek his blessings so that they may be forgiven for their sins,” he adds.

As for the types of people who seek to be buried here, Bilal says that it is not only followers of the Shia school of Islam. “And we also receive bodies from southeast Asia, India, Pakistan, Iran, the Gulf Arab countries and many parts of Iraq. There is no difference between rich and poor, for there are those who pay for others who seek burial here.”

“Recently, more graves have become available after a group of clerics purchased land for those hoping to be laid to rest in the cemetery,” he continues. “But the main problem remains the cost of transporting the body.”

He points out that many Shia, who do not hail from well-known religious families, are planning to be buried in Wadi al-Salam, asking their children to keep some money aside to cover transport costs.

The imam of a Beirut mosque, Sheikh Kazem Ayyad, feels a close connection to the cemetery as many of his grandparents and great grandparents are buried there. He says that “his father has already reserved an area for him and his wife to be laid to rest there.”

As for the religious edicts that encourage the faithful to bury their dead in Wadi al-Salam, the sheikh refers to traditions attributed to the companions of Imam Ali who designated this patch of land as sacred burial ground.

Others, like Sheikh Ali Faqih from the Lebanese Shia Higher Council, says that the clergy do in fact encourage burial in the Najaf cemetery due to the presence of Imam Ali’s tomb, “who has a special place in the eyes of God,” thus imparting “grace and forgiveness upon those laid to rest in Wadi al-Salam.”

Concerning whether even the worst of sinners can be forgiven their wrongdoings through their burial rites, clerics distinguish between principles and beliefs, giving the former more weight than the latter. The core principles of Islam say that only God can forgive one’s sins. At best, some say, burial on holy ground may ease a person’s accounting on judgement day.

The sheikh points out that this tradition goes back nearly a thousand years and for most of that time it could only be practiced by the faithful around the Najaf area due the difficulty of transporting bodies. As transportation methods improved, the deceased began to arrive from all corners of the world.

This begs the question as to whether there is enough space in Wadi al-Salam to accommodate the increasing numbers. Sheikh Ayyad explains that burial here means being placed in one of the cemetery’s many catacombs. For this reason, it has been able to absorb all these bodies over so many centuries.

As the sheikh points out, this great cemetery must be carefully maintained, particularly after Najaf was recently chosen as the Capital of Islamic Culture for the year 2012 (later postponed to the year 2020).


A Costly Final Trip

$8,500 is the current cost of the final resting trip from Beirut to Najaf. Funeral organizer Bilal al-Khalil explains that $3,200 of the cost go to covering Lebanese and Iraqi government fees.

Khalil adds that money is not the only obstacle as the burial process has stringent bureaucratic requirements. These include a valid passport for the deceased, a notarized death certificate, a coroner’s certificate of embalming, and a declaration of the coffin’s contents all of which have to be approved by the Lebanese health and foreign ministries, as well as the Iraqi Embassy.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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