Shrines in Iraq: 'Mako' Imam, 'Mako' Najaf

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Muslims run between the Imam Hussein (background) and Imam Abbas shrines as part of the ritual ceremony of Ashura in Karbala, 80 km (50 miles) southwest of Baghdad, during the commemoration of Ashura, on November 14, 2013. (Photo: AFP - Ali al-Saadi)

By: Maha Zaraket

Published Thursday, November 14, 2013

The holy city of Najaf in Iraq is teeming with visitors from all over Iraq and a number of other countries. But the rituals that take place in Najaf year after year, to commemorate Ashura, are not something that can be understood in isolation from the very special bond between the people of Najaf and the Imam buried here.

The hospitality of the people chases you wherever you go in Najaf. The Najafis have different explanations for their generosity: that we are Lebanese and they love Lebanon; that we are guests and it is the Iraqis’ habit to honor their guests. They say, Only those who have the blessing of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib have the honor of making it to Najaf. If you are here, it is because you are Ali’s guest.

On the way from the hotel to the shrine of Imam Ali, the taxi driver corroborates this. He points toward the Wadi al-Salam cemetery, perhaps the world’s largest cemetery, where many Muslims ask to be buried to be close to Imam Ali and be blessed with Ali’s intercessions on judgment day. He said, “Even those who are buried here arrive only with the blessing of the Emir of the Faithful [i.e. Imam Ali]. Those who do not would never make it here, even if they paid thousands of dollars.”

We arrive to the Imam Ali shrine, which has changed dramatically since the US-led invasion of Iraq. The mosque’s nave has been expanded and many more doors have been introduced. The Najafis speak of additional projects underway to expand it further, much to the chagrin of the merchants in the nearby market, who fear for their businesses.

But despite the renovations, the shrine remains overcrowded, particularly with Iranians. We remember what the driver told us; “You may not reach the cage [enclosing the tomb]; the Iranians stick close to it, and then never leave.”

Based on this, it is easy to make out who is Iranian at the shrine. They are the ones usually standing closest to the cage-like structure enclosing Ali’s tomb, and the most visibly emotional, as though they cannot believe they are finally able to visit the Imam’s resting place, having been denied the chance to do so for decades.

Iraqis may also be discerned by the unique bond they seem to have with the man buried here: It is enough to stand away from the cage and observe, to see how Iraqis act with the Imam. They talk about him and with him, as if he’s not dead, as though he is their father, colleague, and neighbor.

We saw an Iraqi woman draw close to an opening in the cage, before she said, “Emir of the Faithful, I have vowed this earring in my ear to you if you heal my daughter.” She then put her hand to her ear, and added, “I will not remove it now, but I will when she is healed.”

Elsewhere, a man stands at the door waiting for his wife, who is inside praying for her son’s health. He had swallowed a metallic object, and must now undergo surgery. Since the family cannot afford to pay for it, the Imam is their only hope. “Otherwise, I will never visit your doorstep again,” the man threatens. To prove he is serious, he says, “As you can see, I did not enter this time, and I will not, unless my son is healed, without surgery.”

To the residents of the city, everything in Najaf is linked to the Imam. “Mako Imam Ali, Mako Najaf,” says 20-year-old Amir Jammali, which translates roughly as “without Imam Ali, there would be no Najaf.” Echoing his remark, Mouna Jaber, professor at the Women’s Education Faculty of the University of Kufa, argues, “Najaf would not have existed were it not for Imam Ali. The city was founded after the establishment of the shrine, and for this reason, it is called the City of Pilgrims. If the Imam is our raison d'être, then it is natural for the people of Najaf to enjoy a special bond with him.”

This has cemented over the years many social traditions in the relationship between the people of Najaf and the shrine of Imam Ali. Jaber said, “As soon as an infant is 40 days old, and it is time for it to venture for the first time outside the house, its parents take the child to Imam Ali. The child then grows in Najaf with the gilded dome of Imam Ali Mosque, always in sight, ever enthralling him.”

“Similarly,” she continued, “the first visit a new bride traditionally makes, when she leaves her home on the seventh day after her wedding, is to Imam Ali’s shrine. It is also customary for mourners, after the end of the mourning period, to change from black to colored garments and circumambulate the tomb. Then, when a Najafi dies, the shrine is usually his last stop as he bids life farewell,” she said.

Indeed, in a single hour at the shrine, we observed three bodies being brought to the shrine, in addition to an infant whose mother struggled to reach the cage to have the Imam bless the child. But while we were there, we could also hear jokes told by the Najafis about the Imam with the “long arm,” which explains why a woman there was telling her friend, who had just bought some goods from the market, to keep an eye on her things, saying, “The Imam might reach out and take your things, to give them to a needy person.”

In short, the relationship with Imam Ali extends from birth to death, throughout all the joys and sorrows in between. This is why, according to Jaber, Najafis are often called the “Children of Ali.”

True, the spiritual side is not the only thing that characterizes Najaf, but it does dominate the relationship between the city and its residents. Every Najafi has lots of memories involving the shrine, one way or the other, from childhood.

Jammali visited the shrine of Imam Ali when he was five years old. He said, “My father would take us to the Imam, who would then solve our problems for us.” The same goes for Maan al-Manawri, 25, who also remembers the shrine from back when he was five. He said, “We felt safer there than in our homes. It’s still the place where we open our hearts. My father told me that Iraqis from various sects also come to pray at the shrine. There is a story that a gazelle sought protection, and the Imam protected it too.”

Since the Imam included even an animal in his protection, it is only natural that he also protected the city during “the first war,” the term Manawri uses for the popular uprising of 1991. He said, “We fled Najaf and walked 20 kilometers on foot. We were 50. We were lost and we hungry, and many of those who were with us were killed, until my father decided to take us back to take shelter in the shrine.”

It was mutual protection, according to the young man. “In the second war, the Americans got within a few meters of the shrine, but people did not allow them to get any closer. I sat in the road to stop them.”

Jaber, in turn, recalls that she was seven when she visited Imam Ali with her parents. It caught her attention at the time how strongly people were attached to the tomb and how hard they tried to hold on to the cage. When she asked why, she was told, “How do you greet someone you love very much? We stay close to the cage to feel close to the Imam.”

Jaber argues that this spiritual relationship, as strong as it may be, is not enough by itself to express the connection with “this great man who gave humanity so much.” In her opinion, “When Imam Ali told us ‘aid me in piety and jihad,’ he wanted us to assist him by emulating him, not just by loving him. Today, we love him excessively. We love him, yes, but I believe that we should be worthy of his love.”

Jaber quickly finds an example of how someone can be worthy of the Imam’s love. She says, in response to a question about conditions in Najaf today, “Najaf needs a lot of work. It needs a comprehensive renaissance because it deserves to be a city we can be proud of. It is a legacy of knowledge that has not been exploited well, and I believe that Imam Ali is pained by us. We violate his sanctity every day in many ways. Because we do not emulate him in how we run the city, he is in pain.”

Karbala and Kufa

Karbala and Kufa are essential stops in any pilgrimage to Najaf. Many rest stops are spread along the right side of the road from Najaf to Karbala, with varying size and luxury. They were all built to cater to the pilgrims who travel on foot to Karbala to visit Imam Hussein’s shrine. Interestingly, the other side of the road almost has no rest stops because almost all pilgrims return by car.

In Kufa, where Imam Ali’s home is located, as well as the shrines of a number of his companions, a visitor might feel that she has taken a trip back in time, with the locals still invoking accounts of the companions of Imam Ali. When we arrived at night, the people of Kufa were preparing keema, a local delicacy, for the occasion of the martyrdom of Maitham al-Tamar, one of the companions of Imam.

Hawza: So That We Do Not Cry Over Ruins

Muhannad Jamal al-Din, son of poet Mustafa Jamal al-Din, returned to Najaf 10 years ago. He wrote a verse of poetry describing how he found the city strange upon his return. He recited the verse at the end of his conversation with Al-Akhbar about current conditions in Najaf, especially the conditions of the hawza in the city – the traditional seminary that trains Shia clerics. But when asked directly whether this was still true today, he said, “No. I still have hope that the situation would change with time, even if slowly.”

The word “hope” sounds surprising coming from Jamal al-Din, especially after he retold many facts that do not bode well for the future of the city and its seminary. Indeed, he says, the two are intricately linked. “For the shrine in Najaf, if there is no scholarly institution by its side, it becomes an ordinary shrine,” Jamal al-Din said. “Karbala, home to the tomb of Imam Hussein, cannot be said to be a scholarly city either, and the same goes for Kadhimiya, unlike Najaf, which for a thousand years produced scholars, writers, and poets.”

Moreover, Najaf became a scholarly city with the arrival of Sheikh al-Tusi in 1075 AD. It played a key role in Iraq’s political, religious, and social history with its scholars at the forefront of any political action. The Najafis even boast that the revolt of 1920 against the British occupation was led by Najaf scholars.

Today, Jamal al-Din said, “the Hawza has declined for many reasons. If it doesn’t take heed and preserve its heritage, I believe it might wither and wane over time, and become just memories.”

The seminary is no longer able to attract students from different countries, he said, even though there is interest among many to come to Najaf to study. “They do not have the financial ability to do so,” he said. “In the past, life was simple, and the idea was that the seminary would only receive those seeking it [for pure scholarly pursuits]. This is not possible today. There are many requirements now, and the same goes for individuals’ needs. People with outstanding intellect now feel that studying medicine would secure their needs, so why should they come to the seminary? They are still religious whether they are doctors or clerics.”

He continued, “For this reason, I think that to preserve the seminary, those in charge must attract outstanding individuals by providing them with facilities. If they won’t come out of their own desire, then we should entice them.” This is one of the major reasons while Jamal al-Din feels concerned for the seminary. He said, “Those in charge are convinced that those who come to Najaf, must do so out of desire. Very well, but isn’t it relevant that religious families no longer send their children to the seminary, but send them abroad instead, to study medicine or engineering? Isn’t it significant that a number of religious families are now extinct?”

With this reality in mind, what does Jamal al-Din have to say about the rumored rivalry between the seminary of Qom in Iran and the one in Najaf? “It is not rivalry as much as it is reality,” he replies, adding, “Qom has evolved into a scholarly hub at the expense of Najaf, which has been abandoned by exceptional students over 30 years after the brutal repression of the regime. When the regime fell, Arab students who studied in Qom returned to Najaf and this debate started. In my opinion, the issue requires more attention from the scholars themselves.”

Electricity, Internet, and Beggars

Najaf has changed a lot. A visitor who knew the city before the US-led invasion in 2003 cannot help but notice. Renovation works are taking place in many streets across the city, new bridges have been built, and many shops, restaurants, and hotels continue to be opened – reportedly mainly by Lebanese and Syrian investors.

On the other hand, the one thing that characterized Najaf – and Iraq – before the “fall” is still extant: poverty. Child beggars are everywhere, but especially around religious shrines. Other children sell palm dates, tissue papers, and so on. But perhaps one important difference between children in 2003 and children in 2013 is that some of them now know certain Persian words that they use to peddle their goods with the many Iranian visitors.

People in Najaf say it distorts the image of their city and its shrines. Others justify it by saying, “We have been denied all kinds of public services for decades, including infrastructure, and so change is going to take more time to happen.”

Others still point to the lack of interest by officials in the shrines and surrounding areas, instead “acting on the basis that those who come to the shrines and stay there are the poor, because the wealthy make short visits and then leave.” These people believe that “there is a lot of money around today, but those in charge in the city don’t know how to put it to use.”

Meanwhile, the Iraqis now enjoy round-the-clock electricity and Internet at a reasonable speed. Hussein, a young Najafi, is very pleased with this, but then he quickly turns to complaining about the public works and how much they have disrupted life the city. He said, “There are homes that you cannot get into now because of the works.” This is something that we heard from other Najafis too, as they apologized for not inviting us to their homes “because the car would not be able to reach the homes on account of the works.”

The Popularity of the Sadrist Movement

The Sadrist movement is very popular among the Najafis. This, according to Sadrist leader Sheikh Muhannad al-Ghrawi, is due to the person of Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr. “First because [Sadr] is an extension of the two martyrs from the Sadr family, and second, because he was a model of perseverance toward the liberation of Iraq from occupation, who also protected youths from joining the occupation and falling into collaboration.”

“Some Iraqis had some illusions: Were it not for America, Saddam would not have fallen. But this is like the chicken and the egg, because we also ask, who brought Saddam? Were it not for America, there would have been no Saddam.”

The Sadrist movement succeeded in debunking such illusions, and now enjoys a great deal of popularity that makes it aspire to contest the next election with great confidence in all of Iraq. Ghrawi said that among the conditions being prepared by his group is one that would allow “any Iraqi to stand in the primaries, regardless of religious or national or sectarian affiliation,” adding, “We want to help sincere people reach parliament. What matters is that the person is an Iraqi technocrat who understand where the country’s interests begin and where they end.”

In addition to political work, the Sadrist movement runs a network of social institutions called al-Mumahiddun, or the Enablers, focusing on areas like education and vocational training for youths, with 7,000 students from different ages graduating each year.

Secretary General of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah is no less popular than the Sadrists in Najaf, especially among young people. Ali al-Moussawi becomes tearful as he tries to express his love for Nasrallah. He said, “I don’t know why I love him. I feel he is like a father to me. I have strong feelings for him. I am certain that if he were a clerical reference, I would emulate him.” He then adds in all seriousness, in a low voice, as though disclosing a secret, “Even my parents at home don’t know how much I love this man. In my opinion, if he leads Iraq personally, our situation would improve greatly. If he had an office here, I would work for him for free.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


We Syrians decide and we welcome Muslims and their help
“..........since the US-led invasion of Iraq.......”
Ahh but isn’t that the reason for the TERRORISM in Iraq by US/UK+ their 40 thieves of Baghdad. The Church of England’s office told us “do not worry the war will be OVER in 2 WEEKS and than they will START REBUILDING” WHEN WE RANG THEM TO ASK THEIR Lords = Archbishop of Canterbury to take our message to their Supreme War Criminal not to attack OUR HOLY LAND where 50% of the population were children!

Secondly, the butchers of Baghdad wanted “planners of Milton Keynes (a rather unattractive built city in UK near London) to set out plans for rebuilding Najaf. We sent a hand delivered letter to Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani regarding this matter, we refuse to elaborate further.

The ignorant uneducated devoid of culture zionised crusader ILLEGALS did try to destroy Najaf and Muslims from all over the world showed them their “actions”. We were there and we should know.
Many Muslims come to Najaf for one very important reason - TO HELP IRAQI ECONOMY, follow teaching of Imam Ali

You fail to understand the profound message. this article is a hotch potch to views

The epitome of progressivism. Do as you please. But get the hell out of syria.

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