Ending a tense 4-month siege of the sacred city of Najaf, the U.S. military rolls toward Shiism’s holiest shrine—the magnificent golden-domed Imam Ali Mosque—where the rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr and his black-clad “Army of the Mahdi” gather feverishly around the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali, convinced that the End of Days is at hand and ready to fight to the death both the American occupiers and the infidel Sunni establishment of Iraq.
Sometimes trying to understand the current crisis in Iraq can be like preparing for a vocabulary exam. Who is the Mahdi and why does he have an army? Why is Najaf so sacred? What is an imam? Are the differences between the Shiah and the Sunni so deeply rooted that they could ultimately destroy the stability of Iraq?
To answer these questions one must begin not with Ali’s tomb in Najaf, but with the barren plain of Karbala, where Ali’s son, Husayn, along with most of the Prophet Muhammad’s family, were brutally massacred in the year 680 by the forces of the Syrian Caliph, Yazid I.
When Ali died, the caliphate, or leadership of the Muslim community, had passed to the governor of Syria, a man named Muawiyah, in a complicated power-sharing agreement that ensured the title would once again belong to the family of the Prophet upon Muawiyah’s demise. However, after having transformed Muhammad’s small community of faith into a dominant, rapidly expanding, and ethnically Arab kingdom of enormous wealth and power, Muawiyah had no intention of relinquishing his rule to a small band of religious purists living in the distant Arabian Peninsula. He therefore named his son Yazid heir to his throne.
To those who believed that the leadership of the Muslim community should have never left the Prophet’s family in the first place, this was an intolerably impious act. Throughout the Empire, but particularly in the volatile regions of Iraq and Iran, a massive contingent of mostly non-Arab Muslims calling themselves the Shiatu Ali (“the Partisans of Ali”) rose up in revolt. The partisans sent a message to Ali’s eldest surviving son, Husayn, to come to Kufa, the center of the rebellion in Iraq, to lead them in battle against the evil usurper, Yazid.
Husayn agreed and prepared his family to march from their home in Medina to Kufa. They never made it. Having already crushed the Kufan rebellion, Yazid’s army intercepted Husayn and his entourage at Karbala and, over a period of 10 days, massacred nearly every last member of the Prophet Muhammad’s family.
The events at Karbala split the Muslim community into two major factions: those who considered Yazid the legitimate caliph, and those who believed that the rightful heirs to the Prophet’s mantle had been unjustly removed from power. Yet while Karbala signaled the end of the political aspirations of the Shiatu Ali and the beginning of the world’s first Muslim empire, there was a far greater significance to the events than anyone could have imagined at the time.
Four years after the massacre, a handful of the Shiatu Ali in Kufa gathered secretly at Karbala, not only to mourn the death of Husayn but also to atone for their failure to aid him at his hour of need. This concept of lamentation as penance was an unprecedented phenomenon in Islam. Indeed, as more and more partisans began gathering at Karbala, the Shiatu Ali gradually transformed from a failed political faction who aimed to restore leadership to the Prophet’s family into a wholly new religious sect—Shiism, a religion founded on the model of the righteous believer who, like Husayn, willingly sacrifices himself in the struggle for justice against tyranny and oppression.
Karbala launched a series of religious innovations in Islam that widened the gap between the Shiah and the mainstream, or orthodox, Sunni. Chief among these was the notion of atonement through sacrifice, a concept that existed in many religions—including Christianity and Judaism—but not in Islam. It is said that “a tear shed for Husayn washes away a hundred sins.” The Shiah believe Husayn’s martyrdom at Karbala, like Jesus’ sacrifice at Gethsemane, was a conscious decision predetermined by God before the beginning of time. They therefore celebrate his martyrdom every year with 10 days of festivities that include passion plays dramatizing the events of Karbala and funerary processions in which participants flog themselves with chains or beat their breasts in contrition.
Most of the Sunni world condemns such acts of ritual devotion as contrary to the original principles of Islam. The Sunni are particularly offended by the Shiite notion that salvation requires any kind of intercession, something the Quran absolutely rejects. Since only God can forgive sins, the Sunni consider any intermediary between the worshipper and the divine to be a desecration of the Prophet’s message.
But the Shiah believe that the Quran contains both an explicit message accessible to all Muslims, and an implicit message meant solely for them. This is, of course, a common belief among sectarian movements. The early Christians, for example, eagerly sifted through the Hebrew Scriptures looking for anything that could be interpreted as an allusion to Jesus. In the same way, the Shiah scoured the Quran and found within its pages numerous references to justify their distinctive beliefs and practices. They also possess a secret, esoteric knowledge passed down through a mystical transfer of consciousness from God to Muhammad, from Muhammad to Ali (and his wife Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter), from Ali to Hasan (Ali’s eldest son) and Husayn, and down to the rest of the Holy imams.
The word “imam” has multiple connotations. In Sunni Islam, the imam is simply the person who stands at the head of the mosque and leads the congregation in prayer. For the Shiah, however, the imam is a divinely guided leader and the living spirit of the Prophet. As the executor of God’s will, the Shiite imam is infallible and sinless. He is created not from dust, as other humans are, but from eternal light. He has access to extra-Quranic texts such as The Book of Fatima, which recounts God’s revelations to Fatima after Muhammad’s death. He knows the secret name of God and is ultimately the only person with the spiritual power necessary to reveal the inner truth of the Muslim faith.
The Sunnis consider the Shiite conception of the imam to be a heretical innovation, at odds with the principal belief of Islam that God is unrivaled, inimitable, utterly unique, and completely indivisible. To claim that the imam is sinless and divinely guided, that he is different from the rest of humanity is, for Sunnis, akin to giving a human being equal status with the Almighty.
The Shiah counter that the imam is in no way equal to God. Like Catholic saints, he is merely set apart from the rest of humanity. The imam may be prayed to for intercession, and he may have the power to heal the sick, but his authority is derived solely from his connection to the Prophet. And just as there are a fixed number of prophets, ending with Muhammad, so are there a fixed number of imams, ending with “the Hidden Imam,” known as the Mahdi.
Nearly all Muslims acknowledge the existence of the Mahdi, a messianic figure who will return at the End of Days to usher in a time of peace and justice. Sunni and Shiah alike believe the Mahdi’s coming will be an apocalyptic event portended by earthquakes, wars, famine, and false prophets. In Islam, the Mahdi’s returnwill herald the return of Jesus; both prophets will rule the next world together.
However, as the Shiah shaped the doctrine of the Mahdi into the central tenet of their faith, Sunni scholars began to distance themselves from further speculation on the topic in an attempt to separate themselves from what fast became a politically disruptive ideology. That’s because according to the Shiah, the Mahdi’s principal task upon returning to earth will be to avenge the injustice inflicted by the Sunni authorities upon Husayn and hisfollowers at Karbala.
So, when Muqtada Sadr and his band of disaffected and impoverished Iraqi youths managed, during those first hectic months after the fall of the Sunni tyrant Saddam Hussein, to take control of the sacred cities of Kufa, Karbala, and Najaf, it seemed that the Army of the Mahdi had truly arrived to finally avenge Husayn. Sadr has stoked the traditional sentiments of Iraq’s Shiite community by brazenly framing his rebellion in apocalyptic terms. He sets himself apart as the herald of the messiah and calls his followers the last true Muslims in Iraq. Taking refuge next to the body of the blessed Imam Ali, in what was once the most glorious shrine in Shiism (but which has now become a wrecked and ramshackle garrison), Sadr claims he is fighting a holy war against both foreign oppressors and treasonous hypocrites. Vowing to follow in the footsteps of Husayn, he has convinced his ragged band of followers to fling themselves recklessly at American troops, only to be mowed down by the hundreds.
Of course, now that most of Iraq has turned against him and the American and Iraqi forces seem intent on capturing or killing him once and for all, the End of Days may be nearer for Sadr and his Army of the Mahdi than they think.