Monday, October 31, 2005

A look at the Hawza at Najaf, Ayatollah Sistani

Abu Khaleel has posted another rich and descriptive essay, this time about the history of the holy city of Najaf, its educational and religious history and the most important individual in Iraq, the Ayatollah Sistani. This is a short, clear, nonpartisan piece that will only take a few minutes to read.

For more than a thousand years, there have been two main activities in that city: religion and commerce. Commerce in the city derives mainly from its religious activities! Visitor hordes are there for the numerous pilgrims from other parts of Iraq and other countries, most notably Iran, doing ziaras (or holy visits)… or to bury their dead. So many people bury their loved ones in the holy soil of Najaf that the city ended with what is probably the largest cemetery in the world.
The nature of the city was summarized so concisely by a famous Najafi poet, Ahmed al Safi who said:

My town's imports are coffins……
My town's exports are turbans.

"Turbans" refer to the religious clergy. In that city, you see them everywhere. They are a sign of distinction. A scholar who is a Sayyed (a descendant of Imam Ali) dons a black turban. One who isn’t has a white one. Usually, the higher up in the hierarchy the person is the larger his turban! Non-scholars do not wear turbans; however, a Sayyed who is not a scholar usually has something green (or, much less frequently, black) in his headgear. Green headbands (worn by members of the Mehdi Army for example) are something else.

Check out this from Dave Price at Dean's World, as he wonders if Sistani might be Iraq's George Washington.
As Iraq endures similarly uncertain democratic beginnings, they too are blessed with a popular leader who eschews high political office that could easily be his. In fact, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani has not only not sought office for himself, he has directed all Shia clerics to avoid political office as well. In the current campaign for the December 15th elections, he has gone so far as to refuse to endorse any political party or coalition. In what is certainly one of the greatest ironies in the endeavor to democratize the Mideast, Iraq’s most powerful cleric is also its leading secularist.
Sistani’s leadership in other areas has been equally auspicious. He has consistently called for restraint in the face of hundreds of deaths inflicted by Sunni suicide bombings intended to provoke a Sunni-Shia civil war. When he has disagreed with coalition policy, he has advocated
peaceful, democratic means to achieve his ends. At every turn, he has advocated the path that seemed best for Iraqis rather than that which would accrue power to himself or the Shia clergy.

No comments: