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New Role for Najaf

Long a place of pilgrimage for Iraqi Shia, the holy city now also draws national politicians eager to consult top religious figures.
By Emad al-Shara
  • The Imam Ali holy shrine in Najaf. (Photo: Qasim al-Kaabi)
    The Imam Ali holy shrine in Najaf. (Photo: Qasim al-Kaabi)
  • A man prays outside the Imam Ali holy shrine in Najaf. (Photo: Qasim al-Kaabi)
    A man prays outside the Imam Ali holy shrine in Najaf. (Photo: Qasim al-Kaabi)

Najaf is a place where Shia identity is ever-present. You are aware of it everywhere you go in the city.

Its function as a centre for the Shia community has not altered through the ages – but in recent years its role has changed in other ways.

The city, 180 kilometres to the south-west of Baghdad, was a pilgrimage site for all Shia, however since the fall of Saddam it has increasingly also become a destination for both Iraqi and foreign officials.

They come here to visit and consult the marja council – Iraq’s highest Shia religious authority - on a whole range of national issues.

Najaf is more than just a religious city now; it is a place where crucial policy decisions are made.

Although there are other majority Shia cities in Iraq, Najaf is special. It is believed to be the burial place of Imam Ali, the founder of the sect, and therefore the third holiest place in the world for all Shia Muslims.

At the heart of the city is the holy shrine of Imam Ali, also a cousin of the Prophet Mohamed, visited by thousands every day who come away feeling spiritually uplifted.

His grave is surrounded by golden walls, with phrases from the Koran engraved over the walls of the whole tomb. The tradition is that each pilgrim should read the text written on the front gates before entering, in effect asking the Imam’s permission to approach.

Nearby lies what is reputed to be the biggest Muslim cemetery in the world, known as Wadi al-Salam. Devout Shia believe that whoever is laid to rest there will rise from the dead, together with Imam Ali, on Judgement Day.

Like many other Shia, I have visited Najaf city regularly since childhood. Returning there now, I see few changes, apart from some new construction here and there.

To my eyes, the major difference centres on Marja street, also known as Great Prophet Street, where Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is based, as well as the hawza, a traditional Shia seminary, which he heads.

In Saddam’s time, people were forced to visit the marja and its clerics secretly, fearing arrest and persecution, even death. Now it is safe to go there openly, and people wait in line to visit.

In the past, this street was quiet, but now barely a week passes without seeing it jammed with armoured vehicles carrying high-profile dignitaries queuing to get permission to enter the marjia headquarters.

The appearance of the students at the hawza has also changed. When I visited in 1998, I remember that teachers and students were badly dressed and obviously poverty-stricken. Now that the hawza is better financed, both teachers and students are paid for taking part in the seminars.

During that visit in 1998, I just happened to bump into Muqtada al-Sadr at the front gate of the school. We said hello to each other. Now he is a powerful Shia cleric – then he was just an ordinary student, and his father, the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr , was being targeted for his anti-regime speeches.

I smile when I think of how difficult it would be to reach Muqtada al-Sadr now that he has become a key political and religious figure, with a massive following of thousands.

Once, if Saddam Hussein wanted to speak to a scholar from the marja in Najaf, he would send staff to bring him to one of the presidential palaces in Baghdad.

Now, if political leaders - even the prime minister - want to speak to Sistani, the process is very different. They have to come to Najaf in person, make their way to the old neighbourhood where the marja is situated and queue to see the venerated man himself, with – if they are lucky – the chance to shake his hand and address him directly.

If they are unlucky, they leave without an audience at all.

It is just one sign of how the role of Najaf has changed in the last eight years; from a place of pilgrimage to a destination for all the prominent personalities who want a say in Iraq's politics.

Emad al-Shara is an Arabic editor in IWPR’s Baghdad office.

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