Ahl al-Bayt (people of the Prophet Muhammad’s household) are known as nur-e-Muhammadi, or the bearers of his light, as well as his trustees ‘privy to his esoteric and religious knowledge’
An imposing mosque with its glittering golden dome and soaring minarets stood out in Najaf’s skyline as we drove into the Iraqi city as part of a group of journalists covering the war on ISIS in February 2016.
The mosque is Najaf’s centrepiece. Tens of thousands of pilgrims from India, Pakistan, Iran, Bahrain, and seminarians in flowing black robes and white turbans were either on their way to the mosque or returning from there.
Najaf has been among the top Muslim pilgrim sites since it rose from obscurity when the eighth-century Abbasid ruler Harun al-Rashid ordered a mausoleum be built atop what was believed to be fourth caliph Ali ‘s grave. The ruler came to know about the grave during a hunt long after Ali was buried secretly.
Ali’s shrine is seen to be imbued with divine blessings needed to cleanse souls. In the 19th century, Shia rulers of India’s northern region of Awadh imported soil from Iraq’s holy cities such as Najaf to Lucknow. They enshrined the soil in the city’s imambaras (literally, house of Imam), making them places of pilgrimage.
Hawza, the assembly of top Shia theologians, too, has been based in Najaf for over 10 centuries as one of the main centres of religious scholarship because of the city’s association with Ali.
The Shias globally place tablets, or turba, made of clay from Najaf on their prayer mats so that their foreheads touch it when they bow forward in prostration before God.
They revere Ali as the first of the infallible imams, or leaders, appointed by God to be the Prophet’s successor. The Shias believe that inspired by God, the imams could interpret the Quran without errors.
Ali’s sons, Hasan and Hussain, and Hussain’s descendants over the next nine generations became the subsequent 11 imams. The imams are part of a sanctified Chahardah Masum (14 immaculate from sin) group, which also includes the Prophet and his daughter, Fatima.
To Shias, beginning with Ali, Ahl al-Bayt (People of the Prophet’s household), were the true leaders of the community after the Prophet Muhammad’s passing. They believe Ali and his descendants inherited the charisma and the spiritual qualities God vested in the Prophet.
The Shias insist the Prophet chose Ali, who was still in his teens when he came to be known for his chivalry and heroism, as his successor at Ghadir Khumm (the Pool of Khumm) when they stopped for the night at the spring-fed watering hole while returning from Mecca after Haj.
The Prophet is believed to have ordered a temporary pulpit be made of camel saddles placed on top of stacked palm branches and called Ali to join him there after evening prayers. The Prophet is said to have raised Ali’s hand high in his own and said: ‘He of whom I am the master [mawla], Ali is also the master. God be the friend of he who is his friend, and the enemy of he who is his enemy.’
Shias say this meant Ali was designated as his khalifa (caliph) or successor and his bloodline would thus be the line of succession. Those, who came to be known as Sunni (derived from Sunna or the practice of Muhammad), argued the Prophet Muhammad’s comments at Ghadir Khumm demonstrated his affection for Ali given their closeness and the latter’s worthiness.
The Sunnis opposed the bloodline succession, saying it violated the fundamental Islamic principle of equality before God.
Shias celebrate Ghadir Khumm festival to mark the day of the Prophet Muhammad’s anointment of Ali as his successor. They reject the legitimacy of three of the other caliphs’ Abu Bakar, Uthman, and Umar, and see them as ordinary mortals.
Unlike the Sunnis, Shias believe the Prophet’s successor was not supposed to only succeed him as the leader but was to have a special relationship with God too. Shias believe Ali, the first male convert to Islam, and his descendants were endowed with this quality.
Shias believe Ahl al-Bayt were divinely favoured to help people strengthen their bond with God and live as per the inner truths of religion.
As the inheritors of the Prophet’s spiritual qualities, Ali and his descendants were believed to have the ability to understand the deeper meaning of religious teachings as opposed to their outward manifestations. They are known as nur-e-Muhammadi, or the bearers of the Prophet’s light, as well as his trustees ‘privy to his esoteric and religious knowledge.’
The Shias invoke Ahl al-Bayt in prayers; commemorate their birth and death anniversaries and make pilgrimages to their tombs. The visits are second in importance only to the Hajj to Mecca.
Six of the 12 imams are buried in Iraq with the 10th and 11th imams, father, and son, at Samarra’s Askari mosque. Muhammad al-Mahdi, the last of the 12th revered as a divinely-guided redeemer, is believed to have disappeared in 872 from the mosque to return to ensure justice and equality before the end of the world.
Iraq is thus of great significance to Shiism as the final resting place of the six imams. It is also where Ali moved his capital to the banks of the Euphrates in Kufa from Medina.
Because of its association with Ali, Najaf would emerge as the most important seat of Shia learning along with Qom. The senior-most Shia clerics, the marja, have traditionally resided in either of the two cities.
Among the current top-ranking clerics grand ayatollahs Ali al-Sistani, Muhammad Ishaq al-Fayyad, Bashir al Najafi, and Muhammad Said al-Hakim live in narrow lanes around Ali’s shrine in Najaf.
Thousands of students from across the world enroll to study at Najaf’s seminaries to become clerics after at least 10-year study of Islamic jurisprudence, philosophy, theology, logic, and Quranic interpretation.
We jostled past a sea of humanity including students of these seminaries to reach the main hall of Ali’s mosque adorned with arches and mosaics. The shrine’s marbled and carpeted floor was spanking clean even as pilgrims continued to pour in invariably after kissing its doors and arches. The cream and yellow carpets at the shrine, we were told, were from the Iranian city of Isfahan.
Uniformed volunteers constantly vacuumed the carpets to ensure they remained spotless. The shrine also stood out with its opulence and cleanliness in the middle of the dusty warrens of Najaf and its otherwise poor civic infrastructure.
Shortly after we arrived there, pilgrims were served free meals in batches at the Imam Ali shrine’s dining halls. Volunteers would lay the tables within seconds after one set of people finished their meals to prepare for more to dine. A sense of service at one of the most exalted shrines explained their remarkable efficiency.
Shops had recently sprung up in the vicinity selling combat wears, shoes, and other equipment to anyone willing to join Hashd’s volunteer brigades in the fight against ISIS. A Hashd formation marched past carrying flags and wowing to root out terrorism. It included a volunteer we met at a shop while he was buying his battle fatigues determined to fight till the last.
Najaf was emerging from the decline it suffered under decades of dictator Saddam Hussein’s hostile rule. Saddam’s regime reduced it to an insignificant provincial town by choking its economy through regulation of the pilgrims it allowed to visit Najaf. The post-Saddam violence contributed to its further decline but things appeared looking up with an improvement in Iraq’s security situation.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide