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Devout Shia in Awe at Lunar Eclipse

Shia faithful see divine significance as eclipse falls in holy month.
One of the more obscure aspects of Shia Muslim faith was brought to light in Baghdad last week, by the glow of an extraordinary moon.

In an exceptionally rare occurrence, a lunar eclipse coincided with the holy Muslim month of Muharram, which began on December 16 by the western calendar.

Since the time of the Prophet Muhammed, faithful Muslims have performed special prayers during eclipses of the sun and moon.

These astronomical events are seen as awesome symbols of God’s power and his disapproval of the sins of man. Some also believe an eclipse is a warning that the end of the world is nigh, and the time has come for a hasty spiritual reckoning, charity and repentance.

An eclipse during Muharram is more significant for the Shia than for adherents of other branches of Islam. Muharram is the second holiest month on the Muslim calendar after Ramadan, and for the Shia, it includes the commemoration of the Imam Hussein's death in a seventh-century battle.

So it was that at 9:56 pm on December 31, Shia neighbourhoods in Baghdad were filled with the sound of the calls to prayer from minarets of local mosques, where the last service of the day would normally have taken place shortly after sunset.

The cadence of the call was unusual as well - this was the unique sound of the moon-eclipse prayer during Muharram.

A once-in-a-lifetime occasion was about to begin.

For the next 56 minutes, the moon was partially obscured by the earth’s shadow. In Iraq, the event was broadcast live on state-run Iraqiya television.

In the capital Baghdad, the occasion was a subject of much theological debate.

“An eclipse during Muharram means Doomsday will be here soon. When? Only God knows the exact date. Maybe after a day, or a month, or even after ten years or more,” said 42-year-old Shia cleric Sheikh Ali al-Materi.

“This is the first time in my life that I have heard of this happening,” he added.

As the earth’s shadow began to crawl across the moon, Shia men gathered in Al-Mohammadi mosque, in an hall unfurnished except for a lush green carpet and walls lined with shelves of books on Islam and multicoloured copies of the Holy Quran.

Some of the men were still in their pyjamas, puzzled about why they had been called to pray at nearly 10 pm.

“It is time for the moon-eclipse prayer,” Sheikh Mahmoud Thannon announced to the faithful.

Immediately the men knelt in rows behind the sheikh as he stood before them. The cleric began to recite verses of the Quran, with the congregation solemnly repeating his words.

Before ending the prayer, which lasted for the entirety of the eclipse, Sheikh Thannon shouted and wept as he asked God for forgiveness.

“God, keep torment away,” he cried. “We do believe in You.”

Many Islamic clerics explain eclipses as natural phenomena that demonstrate the greatness of the Creator. Others believe these events are signs of the many sins of people, and represent a stern warning from God.

“There are alcohol stores and night clubs everywhere. What can await us from God, other than torment?” the sheikh asked the men sitting on the ground after finishing the prayer.

“Kidnapping children, killing innocent men and robbery – all these sins deserve punishment by God.”

Eclipses have been held to be ominous signs by Muslims ever since the sun was blocked out by the moon when the Prophet Muhammed's son Ibrahim died. Prayers were read at that time, even though the Prophet later said the two events were not connected.

There are several passages in the Quran specifically referring to lunar eclipses, including verses saying that the world will end while the moon is in eclipse.

Sheikh Mohammed Ali Mohammed, an imam at the Al-Ali al-Adhem mosque in the Zafaraniya neighbourhood of south Baghdad, says some Shia believe that an eclipse will signal the advent of Doomsday.

”Any eclipse could be that pre-Doomsday eclipse,” he told IWPR.

Khalid Sami, a researcher at the Iraqi Astronomy Centre gave IWPR a strictly scientific reading of the event. ”An eclipse of the moon has no effect on life on earth in any way, either negatively or positively,” he said in a telephone interview.

Some Baghdad residents are not so sure.

Battol Muhsin, a 38-year-old nurse in the city, said she had never heard of an eclipse occurring during Muharram before, and was taking it seriously.

As most women do not pray in mosques, Muhsin spent the period of the eclipse praying and asking for forgiveness in private.

“I haven’t been wearing my headscarf, so I am asking God to forgive that sin. Sometimes I don’t wake up in time for morning prayers and sometimes I gossip,” she said.

“The thought of Doomsday scares me. I fear that if that day comes at a time when my deeds are more bad than good, my destiny will be hell rather than heaven.

“This lunar eclipse is telling us we need to attend to our actions.”

Abeer Mohammed is IWPR Iraq’s senior local editor, and is based in Baghdad.

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