A tapering gateway of inscriptions and geometric themes now leads to Mustansiriya University, one of the world’s oldest universities which survived the Mongol onslaught, floods, and manmade and natural calamities that claimed much of Baghdad’s heritage over centuries
When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini-led popular uprising ushered in the Iranian revolution by overthrowing the Pahlavi monarchy in 1979, it offered pan-Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which congratulated him and saw him as an inspiration, a potentially replicable model.
The enthusiasm the revolution triggered sparked fears among Arab monarchies that they could be next and prompted them to fan sectarianism as part of a strategy to prevent Iran from exporting it.
Saddam Hussein would jump on the bandwagon fearing Iraq’s Shia majority may try and replicate the revolution to overthrow his Sunni-dominated government.
The sectarianism it spawned gained traction when the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s polarised the region and heightened tensions. Over the years, anti-Iran and anti-Shia rhetoric was weaponised, drawing on the 16th-century Safavid Dynasty’s legacy of converting Iran into a Shia state.
The American reliance on the colonial divide-and-rule policy to counter a broad-based challenge to its occupation following the 2003 invasion to remove Saddam, who kept blatant sectarianism in check, escalated the sectarian rift.
The sectarian violence peaked in 2006 when a bomb ripped through the Shia Askari Mosque in Iraq’s Samarra and deepened social fissures. The bombing sparked a decade-long civil war and retaliatory violence.
A rapprochement was in the works when I visited Iraq in 2016 as part of a group of journalists covering the war on ISIS. There appeared to be feelings of hope that Iraq would rise from the ashes again.
It was not the first time that what is now Iraq was facing a crisis. Conquerors and natural disasters repeatedly ravaged it so much so that hardly any landmark from the Islamic Golden Age, which was centered in Baghdad from the eighth to the 14th century, survives in the city.
Blue-domed Mustansiriya remains one of the few monuments in Baghdad dating back to the Abbasid Empire, which helmed the Golden Age. Al Mustansir (1226–42), the second last Abbasid caliph, founded the university named after himself in 1233.
Made from sun-baked and kiln-fired mud, the monument was an important marker of the thriving intellectual life even under the late Abbasids when the empire was decaying. Mustansir founded it to rival educational institutions such as Nizamiya College.
Nizamiya, which opened in 1065 and is associated with iconic Muslim figures such as philosopher Ghazali who lectured there, once stood on the Tigris bank. Persian poet Sadi, the writer of the iconic Golestan (Flower Garden) and Bustan (Garden) that influenced Voltaire and Emerson, was among the academy’s alumni.
Ghazali, who strived to harmonise Islamic mysticism with orthodoxy, studied the falasifa or Arabic philosophers for two years at Nizâmiya College. He later wrote Incoherence of the Philosophers, which has been described as a masterwork of philosophical literature, as a response to Aristotelianism.
Ghazali and Al-Farabi were among the most revered names in philosophy and influential intellectuals when Baghdad was the world’s knowledge capital at the peak of the Islamic Golden Age.
Baghdad continued to attract students from far-off places to institutes such as Mustansiriya even during the eclipsing of the Abbasids. It was one of the world’s first universities with a library full of books on medicine, mathematics, and Islamic jurisprudence.
Four Islamic schools of law—Hanbali, Hanafi, Shafi, and Maliki—were located on the Mustansiriya campus, which also had an attached hospital. A water-powered clock at the university’s entrance hall announced prayer and study times.
Ibn Battuta, the legendary Moroccan traveller who visited Baghdad in 1327, wrote Nizamiya College’s splendour ‘is commemorated in a number of proverbial phrases’ but Mustansiriya University became his favourite.
All four schools had separate spaces with mosques and lecture rooms. The teachers would lecture from a wooden canopy on a chair covered with rugs wearing black robes and turbans. Two assistant teachers would repeat what the teachers dictated.
The four schools differed in methodologies and philosophies of law but agreed on the larger issues. They defined the proper practice of the faith striking a balance between religious and political domains.
The Hanbali school held sway over Baghdad by the 10th century while Hanafi law has long been the traditional doctrine of the region’s Sunnis. The schools are associated with leading jurists who studied and taught in Baghdad.
Imam Abu Hanifa (699–767) founded the Hanafi, Imam Malik ibn Anas (715–95) the Maliki, Imam Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi (767–820) the Shafi, and Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780–855) the Hanbali school.
The Hanafi school is the largest of the four. The shrine of its founder, Abu Hanifa, is located in Baghdad’s Adhamiya. Hanifa, who declined the position of a judge, was one of the four main overseers of Baghdad’s construction.
He was mainly put in charge of brick-making, and recruiting labourers. Hanifa improved on a prevailing practice by devising a time-saving way of measuring bricks by the stack with a cane.
Ottoman Sultan Suleiman restored Hanifa’s tomb as the Ottomans favoured his school. He also built a dome, a mosque, and a hospice attached to the shrine, which would become a major pilgrimage site.
The Mustansiriya’s status as a university also ended during Ottoman rule when the Ottomans shifted its formidable library to Istanbul in the 16th century. It was neglected for centuries before its restoration work first started in 1944.
By the 1950s, a large portion of the monument was restored. The Mustansiriya’s prospects appeared to look up when Baghdad was nominated as the Arab world’s culture capital in 2013 and the government appeared keen to spruce it up as the city was mostly at peace.
The conservation work was renewed before ISIS’s onslaught forced foreign conservators to leave Iraq. The project was stalled and later also suffered budget cuts. A tapering gateway of inscriptions and geometric themes now leads to one of the world’s oldest universities.
Mustansiriya University survived the Mongol onslaught, floods, and other manmade and natural calamities that claimed much of Baghdad’s heritage over the centuries. The Abbasid-era mostly buildings succumbed to invasions or faded away when Baghdad decayed as a backwater of the Ottoman Empire.
In a September 2019 essay in the Smithsonian journal, Peter Schwartzstein wrote Mustansiriya endured against all odds for 800 years as it adapted to each of the needs of the occupiers to remain only among a dozen or so structures in Baghdad dating back to the Abbasid period.
Schwartzstein noted the squat, thick-walled Mustansiriya University was not too showy to prove irresistible to looters, nor was it prominently placed to fall foul of urban planners. Mustansiriya’s design allowed for myriad uses and was sturdy enough for Baghdad’s conquerors who were often ‘exceptionally clumsy.’
The monument escaped British urban renewal projects perhaps because of its location in a narrow and overlooked strip along the Tigris. Schwartzstein first visited the Mustansiriya in early 2014 while hunting for remnants of Baghdad’s past and saw how it bore the scars of Iraq’s recent troubled history.
He wrote the upper walls were pockmarked by car bomb fragments from bomb blasts. ‘The lower walls along the river embankment were scorched by garbage fires, an illegal practice that took off amid the general breakdown in law and order after the 2003 invasion by US forces,’ wrote Schwartzstein.
In 2016, Iraq appeared to be beginning to overcome the damage done since the 1980s. The country was seeking to change how it was being perceived by trying to refocus on its enviable heritage that Mustansiriya University represents.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide