Man Without Qualities

Sunday, April 06, 2003

Why Karbala And Najaf Especially Matter

The Washington Post reports:

U.S. Army troops took control of [Karbala,] revered by Shiite Muslims today, and once again drew cheers and thumbs-up accolades from thousands of smiling residents. In a pattern first established last week in Najaf, about 50 miles southeast of here, the Army routed several hundred Fedayeen fighters with airstrikes, artillery, armor and infantry fire for 24 hours. After pounding Karbala on Saturday, the 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division this morning massed six companies to sweep through a final stronghold of southwestern Karbala.

The media refer to Karbala and Najaf as "Shia Holy Cities" and the like and also provide some detail. But the coverage that I have seen doesn't really capture just how important these cities are to the history of Islam.

Ali was the first cousin and son-in-law of Mohammed, but a very controversial leader of Islam. Ali's two sons - Hussein (or Husayn) and Hassad - were therefore Mohammed's grandchildren. "Shia" originally meant "Those Who Favor or Endorse Ali." Ali was murdered. From that point, one source summarizes the key events of Karbala and Najaf this way:

Muawiyah was declared caliph. Thus began the Umayyad Dynasty, which had its capital at Damascus. Yazid I, Muawiyah's son and his successor in 680, was unable to contain the opposition that his strong father had vigorously quelled. Husayn, Ali's second son, refused to pay homage and fled to Mecca, where he was asked to lead the Shias--mostly Iraqis--in a revolt against Yazid I. Ubayd Allah, governor of Al Kufah, discovered the plot and sent detachments to dissuade him. At Karbala, in Iraq, Husayn's band of 200 men and women refused to surrender and finally were cut down by a force of perhaps 4,000 Umayyad troops. Yazid I received Husayn's head, and Husayn's death on the tenth of Muharram (October 10, 680) continues to be observed as a day of mourning for all Shias. Ali's burial place at An Najaf, about 130 kilometers south of Baghdad, and Husayn's at Karbala, about 80 kilometers southwest of Baghdad, are holy places of pilgrimage for Shias, many of whom feel that a pilgrimage to both sites is equal to a pilgrimage to Mecca.

The importance of these events in the history of Islam cannot be overemphasized. They created the greatest of the Islamic schisms, between the party of Ali (the Shiat Ali, known in the West as Shias or Shiites) and the upholders of Muawiyah (the Ahl as Sunna, the People of the Sunna--those who follow Muhammad's custom and example) or the Sunnis (see Glossary). The Sunnis believe they are the followers of orthodoxy. The ascendancy of the Umayyads and the events at Karbala, in contrast, led to a Shia Islam which, although similar to Sunni Islam in its basic tenets, maintains important doctrinal differences that have had pervasive effects on the Shia world view. Most notably, Shias have viewed themselves as the opposition in Islam, the opponents of privilege and power. They believe that after the death of Ali and the ascension of the "usurper" Umayyads to the caliphate, Islam took the wrong path; therefore, obedience to existing temporal authority is not obligatory. Furthermore, in sacrificing his own life for a just cause, Husayn became the archetypal role model who inspired generations of Shias to fight for social equality and for economic justice.

Comments: Post a Comment