Nadjaf in Iraq is the historical site of a regular impressive religious pageant with spiritual and political background …
… because there is the shrine of Imam Ali, the fourth caliph in the line of successors of the Prophet Mohammed and on the obit of the Imam in Ramadan, just like recently, more than two million pilgrims come to the city even from abroad despite the real danger of terror attacks. Thus the question arises for whom and why would these people risk their lives?
Imam Ali Ibn Abu Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Mohammed, is according to Shiite believe the rightful successor of the Prophet. Despite (in accordance with Shiite conception) clear instructions of the Prophet, however, his companions elected Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s close friend and father-in-law, as his successor. The followers or „Shia“ of Imam Ali were since then considered a splitting-off, thus the unity of the Muslims had already broken up at least emotionally with the Prophet’s death; a critical development that has fatal consequences to this day for Muslims, both theoretically and practically.
The question regarding the rightful successors of the Prophet is still a point of serious dispute between the sects and influences strongly their political and theological interpretations of Islam. The majority worldwide are Sunnis, while the Shiites who were often persecuted and fought against throughout history have the majority only in very few Islamic countries, such as Iran, Iraq and Bahrain. This old conflict between Sunnis and Shiites about the Prophet’s rightful successors is also a reason for the fighting and bloodshed between Muslim brothers, like in Iraq these days, because some Sunnis consider the Shiites to be infidels just as the American and European „enemies“ of Islam. Therefore this theological question remains important and of concern for many Muslims, who nowadays discuss it on different television programs and in various conferences with fierce and impetuous disputes.
Moreover, the holy shrines of a number of important religious personalities of Islam are situated in Iraq, mainly that of Imam Ali and Imam Hussain, the son of Ali and his wife Fatima Az-Zahra, the daughter of the Prophet. The family members of the Prophet who are revered by all Muslims did not die their honoured martyr-death while fighting the unbelievers, but they were killed by their own Muslim brothers, who wanted to get rid of them in an inner political struggle in order to secure their own power. This is why millions of Shiite pilgrims visit the shrines of the Imams for their obits in order to commemorate the martyrdom in their fight for justice, truth and against oppression.
At night when the processions take place the illumined shrines covered in gold and crystal tower out of the darkness showy and lofty shining like a treasure. The pilgrims often bear great strains in order to take part in these processions. On the eve of the 21st of Ramadan the streets are packed with pilgrims in commemoration of Imam Ali, many dressed in black, the colour of mourning. The pilgrim masses mourn in different groups by singing choral tones or melodies about sorrow but also about actual historical subjects, the so-called „Azza“, during which many beat with their bare hands vigorously on their chests or heads; a strange but impressive and noisy pageant for the ignorant observer.
The emotion-filled and zealous rallies in support of „Ahlul Bayt“, the Prophet’s family, that are demonstrated there on every orbit of the Prophet or one of the leading 11 Imams excel the previous event, especially since the end of Saddam’s dictatorship. What is more, the Shiites do not simply and quietly perform some commemoration rituals, but show during these occasions their determination and spiritual affiliation for the Prophet’s family unfamiliar to others, which infuriates many Sunnis, who are angry about the display of such opposing vigour against their ascendancy.
The history of the followers of the Imams is marked by a struggle of defence against the despotic rulers of their times fighting oppression and tyranny, which has left deep wounds in the relationship between the sects. Their zeal and dedication which the Shiites so openly demonstrate during their processions is obtained from this very history and those very wounds. The importance of such traditions that the Shiites show off so impressively during their processions and „Azza“ traditions should not be underestimated, because they constantly question therewith the veracity and legitimacy of the Sunni Islamic governments, by relentlessly reminding their followers of the circumstances and political backgrounds of the martyrs‘ death of the beloved family members of the Prophet and their faithful companions.
The sects‘ dispute is (since almost 1400 years) unfortunately also the reason for sometimes fierce fighting and terrible human loss on both sides, especially for the Shiites who are in the minority, as for instance the massacres of the Shiite population by the former Iraqi dictatorship or the numerous suicide attacks in Iraq nowadays in areas with a high Shiite population density that are mostly committed by Sunni extremists..
Although Shiite leaders (including Sayed Hassan Nasrallah and Sayed Fadlalla in Lebanon, Sayed Sistani in Iraq or Sayed Ali Khamanai in Iran) constantly caution their followers not to allow the provocations from some Sunni fanatics to be the reason for a new civil war, but insist on the unity of all Muslims, the situation remains very dangerous. Another Sunni school of thought, that equally strives to return to the original and pure form of Islam, is called Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia (originated through their founder Mohammed Ibn Abdel Wahab, about 1703 till 1791). Osama bin Laden & Co also belongs to this sect. They are not friends of the Shiites, to say the least, but they consider the Shiites to be apostates and thus infidels, why they are strictly observed and controlled under Sunni governments (as in Saudi Arabia or by the Taliban in former Afghanistan). Hence, it came as a surprise that for the first time a few leading Wahabis commented positively on the strategic victory of the Shiite Hezbollah in the recent war with Israel.
The differences, however, seem impossible to be settled or even to find a compromise. This conflict does not only have a negative impact on the Muslim community on different levels but it also weakens it. The continuous conflict between the sects, nevertheless, benefits especially those who are interested to disturb the political structures between Muslims and to destabilize their power in order to enlarge their own influence in Islamic countries. This is also a subject during the processions at night in front of the Imams‘ shrines; an impressive pageant not only with spiritual but especially with a political background – a kind of oath of allegiance to the Prophet and the Imams, inclusive of a pledge by the pilgrim in form of a possible martyr’s death in case of a terror attack.