Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Najaf - Sistani’s City

River water is so important to life in central and southern Iraq that most cities are built immediately on one of two large rivers, or one of their branches. Najaf (like the other holy city, Kerbala) is not… although it appears to be so on smaller maps. The whole town was built around a tomb of Imam Ali.

For more than a thousand years, there have been two main activities in that city: religion and commerce. Commerce in the city derives mainly from its religious activities! Visitor hordes are there for the numerous pilgrims from other parts of Iraq and other countries, most notably Iran, doing ziaras (or holy visits)… or to bury their dead. So may people bury their loved ones in the holy soil of Najaf that the city ended with what is probably the largest cemetery in the world.

These activities naturally reflected on the nature of the city’s inhabitants. Najafis, as a result, have earned the reputation in Iraq of being good salesmen and formidable debaters.

The effect of religious institutions on the life of the city runs deep. Centuries of study, research and dialogue resulted in a rich literary tradition. Najaf took pride in producing numerous non-religious literary figures, poets and historians… as well as political activists and leaders. The city played a central role in the revolution against British occupation in 1920. The current leader of the communist part comes from Najaf.

The religious institutions and the literary tradition are so central in the life of that city that it is not unusual for a family to acquire its name from the title of a highly regarded book published by one of its members. Perhaps the best know example in the outside world is “Bahr il Uloom”. Mohammed was a member of the now defunct IGC. His son, Ibrahim, is currently the Oil Minister in the Ja’afari government. “Bahr il Uloom” literally means “Sea of the Sciences” and is in fact part of the title of a book authored by one of their ancestors!

The nature of the city was summarized so concisely by a famous Najafi poet, Ahmed al Safi who said:
My town’s imports are coffins…
… My town’s exports are turbans.

‘Turbans’ refer to the religious clergy. In that city, you see them everywhere. They are a sign of distinction. A scholar who is a Sayyed (a descendant of Imam Ali) dons a black turban. One who isn’t has a white one. Usually, the higher up in the hierarchy the person is the larger his turban! Non-scholars do not wear turbans; however, a Sayyed who is not a scholar usually has something green (or, much less frequently, black) in his headgear. Green headbands (worn by members of the Mehdi Army for example) are something else.

The University called Hawza

They call it The Hawza. The word derives from the three-letter verb ‘haz’ - to acquire. The acquisition here refers to knowledge – religious knowledge in particular. It is basically a university, complete with students and competing professors.

At any given time, there are usually a handful of scholars at the top of that hierarchy, known as Mujtahideen – people who can ‘interpret’ and give an opinion on religious issues. Lesser scholars, known as Muqallideen, or ‘imitators’, follow the teachings of the first group. They choose whom to emulate, and consequently determine the master’s scholarly status.

At the moment there are 5 such senior figures. Ali Sistani, is the supreme head of that ‘university’. They (or sometimes only the most senior figure) are frequently referred to as The Marje’ia, “The Reference” (or source of emulation) - the ultimate authority in a chain of command. And in Shiite religious, and sometimes not-so-religious, matters… they are.

All students are financially supported by the Hawza throughout their learning career.
Money comes from donations made by devout Shiites. Many such people willingly give 20% of their yearly income. That usually means a lot of money! Donors choose which ‘scholar’ they pay the money to, and hence have an indirect effect on the ‘popularity’ of that particular professor. Senior figures can have control over enormous funds.

People, and sometimes heads of state, constantly make donations to the shrine. These can be sizeable: great works of art, precious rugs, gold artifacts, etc. The shrine also holds many valuable treasures accumulated over a thousand years. The government put its hand on those funds for the past several decades. That significant financial resource was an undeclared issue in much of the conflict over the control of the shrine in Najaf after the invasion. Many Najafis believed that Moqtada was really after that control during the conflict; hence all that fuss about the keys to the shrine and Sistani’s refusal to receive them until the shrine was evacuated of Moqtada’s supporters.

Those clergy are quite influential, not just in Najaf and not just in Iraq. In Iraq, all Shiite mosque preachers and local religious leaders look up to them for guidance. Most devout Shiites follow their directives. Local leaders and tribal chiefs have to show sufficient respect.

For most of the past 1000 years, the Hawza was situated in Najaf. It had to move out several times, but usually came back again. That long tradition, in addition to the fact that the whole city was built around Imam Ali’s tomb, has given Najaf considerable edge over other contenders.

Kadhimeyyah, in Baghdad, has always had a Shiite scholarly tradition, but never came near achieving the status of Najaf. Qum in Iran had supreme status (in Iran, and has acquired considerable influence in Iraq following Khomeini’s reign and the Iran-Iraq war, as I have mentioned in an earlier essay). But, in Iraq, the Hawza in Najaf remains the Reference for most devout Iraqi Shiites.

A unique feature of the Hawza is that for more than a thousand years, it never enjoyed earthly power (like the Catholic Church for example). Most of the time, it was in a weak position of opposition. Yet it wielded enormous power on millions of people… purely through their faith… voluntarily. Much of that comes out of respect and social pressure. At the same time, the Hawza managed to keep its hierarchy relatively free from the interference of those holding earthly power, assisted no doubt by its financial independence.

In that city, the unchallenged head of the Hawza, Ayatollah Sistani, reigns supreme.

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