IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Lessons for Iraq in Najaf's revival

More than just a city’s renaissance, Najaf’s revival is a story of shifting fortunes and unintended consequences in the tumult of postwar Iraq. 
A rebirth is underway in a city that, by virtue of its religious stature, looks to Baghdad as its equal.
A rebirth is underway in a city that, by virtue of its religious stature, looks to Baghdad as its equal.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The story of Iraq is written on the walls of the Prophet’s Street.

Staring down on the crowds of Najaf are portraits of men killed under 35 years of Baath Party rule. They are clergy, their families and followers who were assassinated or executed, often tortured first. Along the street’s colonnade are leaflets celebrating the community’s new freedoms. Signs announce the anniversary of the death of Shiite Islam’s most revered saint, and rickety stands offer the beads and prayer stones of ritual long discouraged. On banners and posters are the demands of the resurgent community. Elections, some insist. Others urge loyalty to the clergy or call on the young to join the muammimeen, or turbaned ones.

Through the cacophony walked Heidar Moammar, a gaunt, 25-year-old cleric in a white turban.

“What was forbidden is beloved,” he said, smiling as he glanced at the signs of the city’s reawakening.

Across a thousand-year history as a seat of Shiite Islam, Najaf has weathered pillaging by puritanical tribes from the desert, the tyranny of Sunni Muslim rulers in Baghdad and the ascent of rival seminaries in Iraq and Iran. But in the wake of the fall of former president Saddam Hussein, a rebirth is underway in a city that, by virtue of its religious stature, looks to Baghdad as its equal. Long-dormant Shiite seminaries are proliferating, hotels are being built to cope with tens of thousands of pilgrims, and the bazaars of Najaf are boasting of profits that have doubled, even tripled, despite growing frustration with a lack of basic services.

Shifting fortunes
More than just a city’s renaissance, Najaf’s revival is a story of shifting fortunes and unintended consequences in the tumult of postwar Iraq. The U.S. invasion dismantled one system, the construction of another is lagging, and a vacuum of leadership has ensued. With renewed confidence, the clergy have begun fashioning their headquarters into the spiritual capital of the country, and their leaders as the guardians of Iraq’s Shiite majority. Few endorse Iran’s Islamic government and perhaps even fewer support the U.S. goal of a secular state. But in between are vigorous debates—over law and religion, Islam and state—that could resonate throughout the Shiite world, where Iran and its revolution have long held sway as the unchallenged model.

Moammar—a religious student by age 13, a prisoner in Hussein’s jails by 16 -- sees himself as a soldier in that struggle.

As the call to Friday’s prayers floated along the Prophet’s Street, he walked toward the shrine of Imam Ali, the gold-domed resting place that gives Najaf its sanctity. The melancholy call clashed with the city’s vibrant sounds. Iranian pilgrims chattered in Persian. Television blared footage of a Shiite ceremony from Iran and the training of a Shiite militia. Vendors hawked cassettes of ritual chants of grief, near piles of yellow brick for construction. Along one wall, scrawled in red, was a slogan that declared, “Saddam is a criminal.”

“This is the freedom that is available to the Shiites,” Moammar said. “In the time of the tyrant Saddam, no one could let even a prayer fall from his tongue.”

He glanced at leaflets announcing the opening of new religious centers—Imam Mahdi, Imam Ali, Imam Sadiq. “Space is very limited,” one said. An advertisement offered courses to memorize the Koran. The prize: a trip to the Iranian shrine of Mashhad.

And, in the tone that tolerates little compromise, politics were in the air. A poster pictured Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, his first raised. “Absolutely no to Israel, absolutely no to America,” it said. In another, Mohammed Bakir Hakim, killed with dozens of others in a car bomb in August in Najaf, looked out with a halo around his head. “Our submission is out of the question,” it read.

“The future of Najaf depends on the future of Iraq,” Moammar said as he walked the street. He thought for a moment, then insisted the opposite was true as well. “Najaf is the only guarantee for the Shiites and for Iraqis.”

‘Money From God’
Sitting in a lobby smoking a water pipe, with a grin that comes with dazzling profit, Farhan Thijil celebrated his good fortune. For two months, busloads of Iranian pilgrims, seizing the opportunity of an open border, have kept his 45-room hotel booked solid. He has more than tripled his rates—from $8 to $25. His revenue has jumped five times, he estimated, and he no longer pays taxes. His only inconvenience: angry pilgrims who, he said, feel they are being cheated. (They often are, but not by him, he insisted.) Who does he credit?

“It’s money from God,” said the ebullient Thijil. “And the thanks after that go to the shrine of Imam Ali.”

“If it wasn’t for the shrine,” he added, blowing as he flicked his wrist, in a motion that suggested throwing it all away, “nothing.”

Baghdad and Najaf are both cities of geographical coincidence. Baghdad was founded by a medieval Arab emperor, who chose the site after spending what a contemporary historian called “the sweetest and gentlest night on Earth.” By tradition, Najaf was founded when a dying Ali—a son-in-law and cousin of the prophet Muhammad whom Shiites consider his heir—instructed his followers to put his body on a camel and bury him where it knelt.

To their residents, both are cities whose pasts outshine their present. But unlike Baghdad—mired as it is in frustration and violence—Najaf has showed signs of recapturing its luster.

“A million times better than Baghdad,” as Thijil put it.

Real estate has skyrocketed. Next to Thijil’s hotel, a 7,250-square-foot parcel has gone from a price of $25,000 in 1999 to $1.4 million today. Twenty hotels are under construction; the existing 120 hotels are all full.

In the covered market—bombed by the Iraqi army after a 1991 Shiite uprising and then looted by Iraqi soldiers—Iranian pilgrims haggled with vendors, nearly all of whom speak some Persian. “Visit me! Visit me!” a merchant shouted to visitors in English. Young boys pushed carts down alleys lined with goldsmiths, appliance and clothing stores, and pastry shops baking a Najaf specialty known as dahina.

“In Saddam’s days, tomorrow was worse than today,” said Aqil Rubaie, a jeweler. “Now tomorrow is better than today.”

Like many in Najaf, Rubaie had a list of complaints. Electricity, as in much of Iraq, has become scarcer in past weeks. That, in turn, has hampered the water supply. A shortage of gasoline has made for hours-long waits in lines that snake down the street. Security remains a mantra among residents, who still shudder at the memory of the Aug. 29 car bombing, the worst in Iraq since the government’s fall.

“We’re a rose between the thorns,” he said. “The scent is not enough. We want to grasp it in our hands.”

No one in Najaf seems to know the precise number of pilgrims who have unleashed the boom. The overwhelming majority are from Iran, but others have come from Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. For the pilgrims, many of them elderly, Iraq is a journey of a lifetime. Six of the 12 most revered Shiite saints are buried within its borders, and pilgrims typically spend a few days in Najaf before making their way to Karbala, then on to shrines in the Kadhimiya neighborhood of Baghdad and Samarra to the north.

“There’s 2,000 a day,” said Najah Bahash, a jeweler whose family has worked in the market for 40 years.

“Maybe more,” interjected his friend, Heidar Najafi.

“At night, they’re sleeping in the street!” Bahash said, throwing up his hands.

Bahash runs a store selling rings of carnelian and other stones thought to bring blessings, and he speaks about traditions with the authority of his family’s experience. This ring, he said, pointing to a particularly old stone from Yemen, stops bleeding. This one, he said, holding up a ruby, regulates the heartbeat. Jade, he added, settles the stomach.

His revenue from the rings has tripled, and he delights in telling stories about dozens of Sunni businessmen visiting him to ask about opportunities in Najaf. Like the rings, he said, his city is driven by tradition, and its traditions are the key to its future.

“Najaf is considered the capital of the Shiites,” he said. “We expect Najaf to be the capital of the future.”

Surviving Hussein
Adel Zirgani followed a circuitous path to the seminary.

Born to a family of eight in the southern city of Nasiriyah, he began his adult life as a reporter for the newspaper Babel, owned by Saddam Hussein’s son Uday. In time, he was fired. He was a gadfly, he said, in a business that tolerated almost no dissent.

The Persian Gulf War followed, and after that came the Shiite uprising that was encouraged, then abandoned, by the first Bush administration. Scarred by its toll—thousands killed, their bodies filling mass graves—Zirgani chose to enter the clergy, splitting his time between study in Najaf and a mosque where he preached in Nasiriyah.

He estimated that he was detained 10 times in the decade that followed. Of his 30 fellow students, he said, 15 were arrested and 10 were executed. He suspected that of those who weren’t detained, many were spying.

“I never slept well before the fall of Saddam,” he said. “Now I sleep well.”

On this day, he had registered for classes at the Imam Ali College, a new religious school set up by one of Iraq’s leading religious parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. In Hussein’s time, he was afraid to openly accept stipends that serve as a student’s income. Now, at the beginning of each month, he visits the offices of the four highest-ranking ayatollahs and collects a monthly subsidy—about $12.50 from each, $50 in all. He was determined, he said, to restore respect for the clergy.

“This is the land of the prophets. This is an Islamic country,” he said. “This is where the revival should happen.”

For centuries, Najaf was the preeminent seat of Islamic scholarship. Its seminary, founded in the 11th century and known as the Hawza Ilmiya, often maintained an element of independence. In modern times, brilliant clerics such as Mohammed Baqir Sadr planted the seeds of Shiite religious activism in the 1950s and ‘60s. But Najaf was long feared for its influence, and Hussein’s Baath Party was well aware of the decisive role the clergy had played in crucial moments of Iraq’s history. Hundreds of clerics were arrested, expelled or killed, independent sources of income were stanched, and students were relentlessly harassed.

The best estimates say those students numbered in the thousands before the Baath Party seized power in 1968, and in the hundreds—perhaps dozens—when it fell. As Najaf emerged after the U.S.-led invasion this spring, it was left with little more than its reputation for past glory.

“It is still the mother of all Hawzas,” said Hussein Sadr, a ranking cleric in Baghdad who was educated in Najaf, referring to the seminary-based fraternity of scholars.

Along the Prophet’s Street, the new openness is everywhere. Mohammed Baqir Sadr’s books—imported from Lebanon and copied in bulk in Baghdad and Najaf—line shelves. At the Imam Sadiq Center, down a winding alley, Majid Zeini shows off his stacks of books from Lebanon’s most prestigious cleric, Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, who once served as the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, a militant Shiite movement. Fadlallah’s religious organization in Beirut sent dozens for free, adding another current to what has become an intellectual free-for-all unmatched anywhere in the Shiite world.

“The tyrant has collapsed,” said Zeini, who returned in September from 23 years of exile, “and new horizons have opened.”

Sitting on a green Persian carpet, leaning against pillows that match, Qassim Hashemi has emerged as a force in the expansion of the city’s religious scholarship. A member of the Supreme Council, Hashemi has helped oversee the establishment of the Islamic University, with a student body of 200. Registration has begun for the Imam Ali College, which specializes in the Shiite equivalent of missionary work and staffing mosques with Friday prayer leaders. He said he expects 300 students, maybe more. A counterpart for women, the Zahra College, is planned to follow. About 160 women have already enrolled, he said, after they met the requirements—age 17 to 30, high school graduate, their father’s permission and a character evaluation.

The growth is no less dramatic in the more traditional seminary. At one point, lessons were offered to students in only three mosques and the homes of senior clergy. Renowned seminaries had become dormitories; studying there was considered too risky. Since the fall, however, the number of seminaries has grown to as many as 40, the most influential of them run by a group loyal to a radical cleric, Moqtada Sadr.

Along with their revival is the return of hundreds of students to Iraq. Hashemi estimated that at least 50 scholars had come from the prestigious Iranian seminary of Qom, which has eclipsed Najaf.

“Day after day, the Hawza is improving,” said Hashemi, who himself returned to Iraq after 13 years studying in Qom. “The day is coming when we will be able to say, ‘This is the Hawza. Pay attention to it.’ “

Guidance and direction
Assembled with brick but constructed by ideas, that Hawza is now being built. Its architects are steeped in tradition, endowed with prosperity and emboldened by ambition. In a contest for leadership, they view themselves as the arbiters of Iraq’s future.

The judgments they make will echo across a country in ferment and pose the greatest challenges to U.S. aspirations for Iraq. At stake is the very essence of the nation’s future—the line between religion and law, between faith and government.

In the clerical families that have long held sway in Najaf, Mohammed Hussein Hakim claims proud parentage. His great-grandfather was Muhsin Hakim, a renowned marja al-taqlid, or source of emulation, the highest clerical rank. His father is Mohammed Saeed Hakim, who sits with three other clerics—among them Ayatollah Ali Sistani—as the four marjas in Iraq today. He speaks for his father. His message is that the marjas see this moment in history as theirs.

“Who will guarantee the rights of the people?” he asked, sitting in the courtyard of his home. “Who will prevent the exploitation of the people and prevent the repetition of the same experience we have already endured?”

The U.S.-led administration has proposed carrying out Iraq’s transition to sovereignty, beginning with a basic law by February and a provisional government by June. The process—cobbled together in hasty deliberations—will play out over months.

Hakim and other clerics said they viewed the process in years, even decades. Many acknowledge the decisions they make will determine the legacy of the clergy and their city for future generations. Their perspective is shaped by the sense of betrayal and duplicity in the Shiite community’s past. A conversation in Najaf rarely ends without mention of the 1991 uprising. Often referred to are the 1920 revolt against British occupation and battles over Iran’s constitution in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“We have a previous experience with the foreigners,” Hakim said. “Is it possible to trust them?”

The clerics see themselves as the last and perhaps only bulwark to protect what they call Iraq’s Islamic identity. Suspicions abound—that the Americans fear elections will show Shiites are an even greater majority, that elections will prevent U.S.-advocated secularism, that elections will give voice to the influential clergy, if only indirectly.

“America doesn’t cross the seas and spend of millions of dollars for the purpose of leaving,” said Bashir Hussein Najafi, the son and spokesman of another marja. Delaying elections, he said, “is another reason for them to remain here.”

But even today, very few in Najaf advocate a direct role for clerics in Iraq’s future government. Many see Iran’s theocracy as an aberration of centuries of Shiite thought in which the clergy were not the rulers, but an effective counter-establishment. Instead, the phrase heard often in Najaf is “irshad wa tawjeeh”—guidance and direction. Debate is underway over what guidance and direction mean.

“We believe in God, we believe in the Koran, and I am a Muslim, but there is a difference in claiming you represent God. The person who claims he is the legitimate representative of God is a liar,” said Ayad Jamal Din.

Jamal Din, 42, is a cleric at one end of the debate—in the clergy’s context, admittedly extreme. He rejects any political role by the four marjas—three of whom were born outside Iraq. He has no problem, he said, with guidance and direction, but it should amount to no more. Even he hesitates to use the word secularism, given the baggage it carries among clerics. But the concept is clear in his argument—an unbreakable barrier should be established between religion and state.

“I’ve said more than once that I have no problem with the president of Iraq being an apostate, Christian or Jew,” said Jamal Din, who returned after 24 years in exile. “I don’t want to pray behind the president. I want the president to manage the country.”

Moammar, the cleric walking down the Prophet’s Street, bristled at the notion. The clergy should be able to dismiss the president, he insisted. They should be the final arbiters of what violates sharia, or Islamic law.

“Sharia is above the law,” said another cleric, Mustafa Jabari. “Sharia is the law.”

With Ghaith Shukur, Jabari edits the magazine Holy Najaf, sponsored by Iraq’s marjas. Both have served in the clergy for nearly a decade. Both have weathered Hussein’s repression, and both insist their role will be greater than that advocated by Jamal Din.

They listed the laws that would contradict sharia—inheritance laws that did not generally grant male relatives twice as much as female relatives, interest on loans, artificial insemination and taxes beyond traditional religious levies. The marjas would decide when disputes arose. Sharia itself should be the only source of legislation.

Anything short of that, they said, endangers the country’s Islamic identity.

Sitting in the magazine office, over cups of sweet, dark tea, Shukur compared the struggle between the Americans and the clergy over the law to two men walking in the desert. They have one piece of bread between them.

“Who gets it?” he asked.