Iraq & Shi’a Muslims
By: Hussein Al-Rumaithi
When the name IRAQ is mentioned majority of people tend to think of ancient Mesopotamia, Babylon Gardens, Hammurabi’s code of laws, the Akkadians and many historical realities, which chose this place to exist. However, there are other notions that are revived every time the name of Iraq is mentioned, which distort the image of this beautiful nation and its long history of tolerance and diversity that accepted numerous ethnic and religious groups alongside each other. The one fact that makes Iraq a unique place with all its minorities and different ethnicities, is its majority population, and their acceptance of others along with their continuous struggle against tyrants and regimes.
Iraq’s majority population are Shi’a Muslims, and it has been like that for centuries, which gives this groups a historical depth and root within the sociological foundation of this country. However, the majority of Iraq’s population wasn’t always the Shi’as, and there are numerous historical, political and religious aspects, which caused this demographic transformation. The actual map of this nation has been subjected to many changes throughout history, but there were always political and geographical facts that mandated certain realities upon this part of the world that could not exclude specific parts.
Iraq of Basra & Iraq of Kufa
The southern city of Basra was founded in 636 as an encampment for Arab for tribesmen and armies of the Islamic state, and gradually it became a civilized position due to its location, which was near the Persian Gulf. Throughout the Islamic history Basra witnessed numerous battle and confrontations, and was the host to the first Islamic civil war, which was raged by Ayesha (wife of the Prophet) against Imam Ali (the rightful Caliph of Prophet Mohammad, SAWS).
Kufa, which is located in central Iraq was founded in 637, and it was founded as a military camp and command center during the Caliphate of Omar Ibn Khattab. However, Kufa came to be known for its Arab tribes, who were loyal to Imam Ali, which was considered a hub for Shi’a Muslims. When Imam Ali became the Caliph, he transferred his capital from Medina to Kufa, and chose this city as the center of his Caliphate. During this era, many of the followers of Imam Ali migrated to this country and resided in different parts of this land, and Iraq officially became to be known as the center for Shi’a Muslims. This was a huge factor for later Sunni dynasties to assign their most brutal governors for Kufa and Basra, since they had realized, these places (Basra and Kufa) would become the spark locations revolts and uprisings.
Shi’a Imams & Iraq
- Imam Ali (a): Imam Ali moved the capital city of Muslim Empire from Medina and Kufa as mentioned above, which was a huge factor in many of his followers migrating to this place. In addition, the centrality of place made Iraq a strategic place politically, socially and militarily, since it was close to Persia, which was the newly conquered nation under the Muslim’s rule. It was close to the Levant and it was considered as central defence location against possible Roman invasion from the north. Ultimately, Imam Ali was assassinated in Kufa, while he was praying and he was buried in modern day city of Najaf, which was the outskirts of Kufa during that time.
- Imam Al-Hussein (a): Imam Al-Hussein, who is the third Imam of Shi’a Muslims came to Iraq after the ruler of his time, Yazid Ibn Muawiya, who was known for his corruption and was hated by majority of Muslims, decided to either assassinate him or force him to give allegiance. Therefore, Imam Al-Hussein decided to leave Medina and go to Mecca for Haj, which later he found out that Yazid would not hesitate in violating the holiness of Mecca for the purpose of killing him. Finally, Imam Al-Hussein left Mecca for Iraq after he received thousands of invitations from dignitaries of Kufa. Prior to his arrival, the army of Yazid surrounded Imam Al-Hussein in a place called vally of Karbala, which is modern day city of Karbala. In a historic battle, Yazid’s army, which exceeded thirty thousand troops stood against Imam Al-Hussein and his seventy two companions. The battle of Karbala represented the victory of blood over sword, and how a small group are glorified through their ultimate sacrifice, and how a large group are doomed and cursed in history for carrying the most vicious crime in history of mankind. Imam Al-Hussein and his companions were slaughtered in Karbala and later on they were buried in that location. Karbala became the aim for all Shi’a Muslims from all over the world, and visiting the shrine of Imam Al-Hussein became the ultimate goal of each Shi’a Muslim, which gave Iraq as a country and Shi’a Muslims in this country an extra importance.
- Imam Al-Kadhem (a): Imam Al-Kadhem is the seventh imam of Shi’a Muslims, and he is known for spending the lengthiest time in the prisons of the Abbasid dynasty under the rule of Harun Al-Abbasi. Imam Al-Kadhem was exiled from Medina, his birth city and brought to Baghdad, by the order of Harun. Harun’s strategy was keeping the Imam of Shi’a Muslims under his supervision would prevent any attempt for revolt and uprising, since the Shi’as were afraid for the life of their leader. Finally, Harun could not accept the presence of Al-Kadhem anymore and ordered his assassination by poison, while he was in prison. He was buried in Baghdad, and the area around his shrine became a a destination for Shi’as from around the world.
- Imam Al-Jawad (a): He is the ninth Imam of Shi’a Muslims and the shortest-lived Imam. Al-Jawad is the grandson of Imam Al-Kadhem and after the death of his father, Imam Al-Redha, who was assassinated by Al-Mammoun (son of Harun) in Iran, he was summoned to stay in Baghdad. After a while he was allowed to go back to Medina and he devoted his life to education and helping the needy. When Al-Mammoun passed away, the next Abbasid king (Al-Mu’tasem) summoned him to Baghdad again, and forced him to stay there. Al-Mammoun had forced Imam Al-Jawad to marry his daughter, and later on Al-Mu’tasem ueged Imam Al-Jawad’s wife, Um Al-Fathl (daughter of Al-Mammoun) to poison the Imam and end his life. Imam Al-Jawad was buried next to his grandfather, Imam Al-Kadhem in Baghdad and Shi’a Muslims around the world had another reason for visiting this holy site in Baghdad.
- Imam Al-Hadi (a): He is the tenth Imam of Shi’a Muslims and the son of Imam Al-Jawad. During the era of Mutawakkil Al-Abbasi, the governor of Medina sent a letter to Mutawakkil and explained the popularity of the Imam and how the people were gathered around him. Mutawakkil feared that such a notion would encourage uprising and unrest against his survival, therefore, he ordered his governor in Medina to exile the Imam to Samara, which was the new capital of the Abbasids. Mutawakkil placed the Imam under house arrest and limited his access to the outside world, and only few people were allowed to see the Imam and interact with him. Mutawakkil tried to assassinate the Imam, but his fear of unrest and angering the Shi’a Muslims prevented him. Ultimately the next Abbasid king, Al-Mu’taz decided to assassinate Al-Hadi and end his life, since even though Al-Hadi was under house arrest, his popularity was growing even among the army leaders. Therefore, Al-Mu’taz ordered his guards to poison Imam Al-Hadi and bury him in Samara as well. Samara became another destination for Shi’a Muslims and the list of Shi’a holy sites expanded, and Samara was added to Najaf, Karbala and Baghdad.
- Imam Al-Askari (a): Imam Al-Askari is the eleventh Imam of Shi’a Muslims and son of Imam Al-Hadi and father of last Imam of Shi’a Muslims, who is in occultation, Imam Al-Mahdi. Imam Al-Askari almost spent his entire life under house arrest, which many Shi’a scholars consider this era a preparation for the occultation of Imam Al-Mahdi, since Imam Al-Askari was preparing the Shi’a Muslims for the notion of not being able to see their Imam. Al-Askari spent majority of his life in Samara, and his daily life activities were limited to minimal and interaction with the outside world was only possible under the supervision of guards. The criticism of Imam Al-Askari against the Al-Mu’tamid (the Abbasid King) and the corruption of his officials very worried about the impact of such statements. Al-Mu’tamid was known for favoritism and corruption during his reign, which made him one the worst rulers of the Abbasid dynasty. Finally, Al-Mu’tamid got to a point, where he could not accept the existence of Imam Al-Askari, and house arrest was not sufficient anymore. Therefore, he ordered his guards to poison Imam Al-Askari and bury him beside his father, Imam Al-Hadi in Samara. Imam Al-Askari’s burial in Samara made the number of Shi’a Imams buried in Iraqi a total number of six Imams, which is the highest number any other country has.
- Imam Al-Mahdi (a): He is the last of Imams in Shi’a Islam, and currently he is in occultation, which it shall end at the end of time, when the world is filled with oppression and tyranny. Imam Al-Mahdi’s return would restore order and hope in the world and end all calamities for humans. However, his birth in Samara (Iraq) and his occultation from the same place, gave Iraq an added importance for Shi’a Muslims. Shi’a Muslims also believe that Imam Al-Mahdi will choose the city of Kufa as the capital city of Muslim world. Therefore, Iraq is the future command center for Imam Al-Mahdi and the ultimate destination for all Muslims to come and visit.
The enormous amount of importance that Iraq has in Shi’a literature is unlike any other place on the face of this planet. This is why, we witness many of the Salafi groups, who are the back bone of all terrorist groups are eager to kill as many as Iraqi Shi’a Muslims in Iraq, and cause as much pain and destruction in this country. Regardless, of who believes in what, the importance of Iraq as a strategic location has been identified by all sides and groups, which has cost Iraq and its people a high price.