The Shiite revolution in Iraq burst into public view barely 10 days after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Without his troops to forbid them, Shiite Muslim pilgrims began to throng Iraq’s highways as the festival of Arbayeen neared, the women’s black abayas flowing behind them in the breeze as if flocks of crows had taken to the roads.
At almost every hamlet along the route to the holy city of Karbala, volunteers scattered plastic chairs and tables and offered sweet tea, water, bread. The mood on the eve of the festival was one of exhilaration, exuberance -- and resolution. Everyone seemed to know why he or she was there. This was celebration, but also a moment of solidarity.
No one said, “Never again,” but that was the subtext. Never again would Iraq’s majority Shiites be denied the right to practice their religion. Never again would they be taken out and slaughtered just because they were suspected of disloyalty to the government. Never again would they be at the bottom of the heap.
Two years later, that revolution reached its apotheosis with the swearing-in last week of a Cabinet in which more than half the ministers are Shiite, including the prime minister. For the first time in its nearly 80-year history, Iraq is controlled by the religious descendants of the ancient battle of Karbala, a key event in the sect’s early history.
The emergence of political control is just one facet of a much broader Shiite renaissance in Iraq that has transformed the country’s social and cultural life.
Pilgrims jostle for space with the peddlers of religious souvenirs who fill the streets leading to the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, offering devotional tracts and garish prayer rugs emblazoned with depictions of favorite imams.
Scores of new Shiite religious schools offer Koran classes to boys and girls in central and southern Iraq. In poetry, music and book publishing, Shiites are openly reviving traditions that were brutally stifled by Hussein’s Sunni-led Baath Party.
Most of the world’s Muslims are Sunnis, who diverge little with Shiites in their core beliefs; the doctrinal roots of their difference lie in a disagreement over the rightful successor to the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam.
Battles fought 13 centuries ago over the leadership of the Muslims are at the core of Shiite beliefs, which, like the Catholic faith, is rife with saints, blood and martyrdom and boasts a rigorous intellectual tradition. The Shiites are in essence a people on pilgrimage, living over and over -- as some Christians do the passion of Christ -- the wrongs that were done them.
Often, pilgrims will weep as they describe the final battle of Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Hussein, near Karbala as if it had happened yesterday and they had known him personally.
“There began to be a revival of the life and the body of Shiites more than 25 years ago,” says Talal Talib, 33, a singer of religious music. “But then we were practicing in secret. Now we are practicing in the middle of the streets.”
A Music Once Silenced
The heart of Baghdad’s Shiite life is in Kadhimiya, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. Cantilevered windows lean out from wooden houses over the narrow dirt streets; the outdoor market is so thick with merchants’ booths that each awning touches the next. Small wooden doorways lead into warrens of tiny shops, apothecaries, barbers and cloth sellers.
At the very back of one of these dark hallways is a small jewelry store no more than 6 feet across and perhaps 8 or 9 feet deep. On a February afternoon, four men are inside, two of them chatting and the other two etching religious messages in fine calligraphy onto gold jewelry.
A small boy rushes in periodically with trays of heavily sugared tea. Portraits of revered Shiite leaders watch over the proceedings: Mohammed Sadeq Sadr, with his snow-white beard, and his darker-bearded brother, Mohammed Bakr Sadr. Both are believed to have been assassinated on Hussein’s orders.
The hunched jewelers are more than craftsmen. They are the “poets of the Husseini pulpit,” singers from a tradition stretching back more than 10 centuries. They sing the story of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, in versions ancient and contemporary, urban and Bedouin.
It is a form of a cappella music that strikes a chord in almost every Shiite who hears it, seeming at once ancient and utterly current. The men in the shop are reciters, or singers; generally, the poems have been handed down through an oral tradition or are written by contemporaries.
“Most of my thinking is spiritual. I go deeper and deeper into each word I utter and also have before my eyes the image of the death of Imam Hussein,” Haider abu Ameer, 23, says as he pauses in his engraving. Then, he lays down his tools and begins to sing.
The melody is lilting, yet carries a sadness so eloquent it brings many listeners to tears. The sound fills the small shop and seeps out under the door. It draws neighborhood children who, their noses pressed to the glass, listen from outside.
Ameer closes his eyes as his voice rises and falls by half and quarter tones.
Much more than a jewelry shop, this is a gathering place for Husseini pulpit singers. Many of them work the two jobs -- engraver and singer.
“There have been attempts over the centuries to extinguish the tradition of the Husseini pulpit,” says the singer Talib, 33, sitting in the shop listening to the conversation, a white shawl covering his head. “But it has been around for 1,400 years. There is no end to such a school. Saddam’s regime tried to diminish us as well, but we were able to continue.”
The Kadhimiya neighborhood has two flourishing schools that teach the art of Husseini pulpit singing. There are more in other Shiite areas of Baghdad as well as in Najaf and Karbala. Some graduates of the four-year schools become professionals and sing at religious festivals; others confine their performances to their own families. Some become teachers or travel to start Husseini pulpit schools in other places.
The singers, in demand for weddings and funerals, are almost always present on the Shiites’ high holidays, when corps of men walk in formation, alternately clapping their hands, beating their chests and hitting themselves with ropes or chains, as poets of the pulpit sing Imam Hussein’s story.
“The suffering which we have lived under is part of a cycle of actions and reactions,” Talib says. “And our suffering is rewarded by God.”
The signs began to appear in the Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad and in the larger cities across southern Iraq just a few months after Saddam Hussein’s disappearance from the capital. “Classes in Koran, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays,” and then, “Classes for Girls and Boys.”
By the fall of 2003, announcements blared from mosque loudspeakers. One proclaimed, “We are calling all women to join religious school. Secondary school certificates necessary. They will have to pass an exam. Classes start Saturday. Registration is at the Kadhimiya hospital.”
And women came. At first in small groups, then dozens, then scores. The clerics who ran some of the schools puzzled over how to accommodate them. In strict Islamic settings, men and women must attend separate classes, sometimes even at different times of the day.
“We started out just meeting once a week. Right away, we had to go to twice a week. Now we are trying to add a third class because the women want it,” Salah Ubaidi says at a low-slung, modern Arab house in Kadhimiya donated by a wealthy Shiite from the United Arab Emirates for use as a religious school.
In Iraq, Shiite clerics, including Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, encourage women to take part in politics and pursue an education, although they expect them to wear head scarves and abayas. In the domestic sphere, women are expected to allow their rights to be governed by Sharia -- Islamic law.
On that particular day, the instruction is for men. In the classrooms for theology lessons, students sit on rugs, and instead of desks there are rows of low wooden Koran holders that -- like the stands on which preachers place the Bible -- allow the book to stay open.
Other classrooms have rows of computers, and just before lunch a class gets underway in how to use the Internet for research.
In another Shiite neighborhood, a 100-year-old school that had been used by the Baath Party as a neighborhood headquarters is searching for a female teacher. Sheik Hassan Tuaima, who teaches women twice a week in two-hour sessions, needs the help.
In a neon-lighted classroom, about 25 women ranging from their late teens to their 40s, one or two quieting children they have brought along, listen closely to Hassan’s lecture. Several interrupt him with questions, and Hassan looks away as he answers. In Iraqi Muslim culture, it is considered rude for a man to look a woman in the eye when he is speaking to her.
After class, as they drink juice with Hassan, the students turn to a reporter and several talk animatedly about the hijab controversy in France, where the head covering was banned from public schools.
“You need to write very clearly about this,” admonishes Fatima, 25, who studied engineering at college. “This is about religious freedom. The hijab is a sign of our faith, like Christians wearing a cross. Why shouldn’t we be allowed to wear it?”
A Publishing Revival
During the first Ramadan after Saddam Hussein’s fall, the city fathers of the holy city of Najaf put on a book fair with the help of the Iranian Publishers Assn. Tens of thousands thronged to the event, which was part religious exhibition, part intellectual feast and part reminder of Iran’s influence in today’s Iraq. Iran is also predominantly Shiite.
On the opening day, the dignitaries of the city come in droves.
The wives and daughters of the learned of Najaf, one of two centers of religious teaching in the Shiite world, stand in a small clump, laughing and excited.
At the fair, Hassan Najafi rubs shoulders with clerics, professors and politicians. Najafi is a leader of the Badr organization, a Shiite armed force trained by the Iranian national guard during the Hussein years. Its members are reportedly disarming, but the militia is thought to retain close ties to Iranian intelligence and to be prepared to rearm at a moment’s notice.
“Among Saddam’s crimes and oppressions was that he forbade Shiite writing and publishing and the importation of books from outside,” Najafi says. “After the removal of the Baath regime, Iraqis are thirsty for such things, and Najaf has a special history because it is the capital of the Shiites, and because it’s the capital of poets and writers.
“So Iraqis in general, but especially the sons of the Shiites, are thirsty to read and write.”
Booksellers at the fair offer various editions of the Koran, many elaborately bound, and other accouterments to prayer: carved wooden Koran holders and prayer rugs. At the hour for the midday prayer, the place empties out. Several young women, fully veiled except for their faces, cannot tear themselves away and linger even as a bookseller begins to cover his wares with a plastic sheet.
“We are looking for political, cultural and religious books,” Sama Koraishi, 21, says.
“I would like to be a mujtahid,” she says, using the term for a formal student of religion, and her friend nods. “Our uncles are sheiks,” Koraishi says. “It is our family tradition.”
As the merchant closes his stall, her friend buys a book of supplications. “It was forbidden during Saddam’s time,” she says, smiling broadly, tucking the book into a large black purse.
All day long, crowds flock to an exhibition of photos of the late Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, many lining up to write prayers and requests to the cleric, who died in 1989. The letters are to be put on his grave.
A New Role in Politics
As the enthusiasm for Khomeini suggests, the Shiites’ reclamation of their cultural identity mingles with the possibility of a political identification that could worry Iraq’s other neighbors -- and the United States.
Whether the political revolution will lead to a theocratic government is not yet clear. Until recently, Iraq’s government has been subject to the moderating influence of the Americans, and Shiite politicians are only now taking over a more independent government.
“There’s a dark side and a light side to this revival,” said Jalil Roshandel, a professor of political science at Duke University who specializes in Middle Eastern international relations. “We should not eliminate the possibility that Iraq will turn toward a more absolutist rule by clerics.”
Although active primarily in the religious space of the mosque, the Shiite religious hierarchy has been an architect of the surge in politics. The imams have used the pulpit, particularly at Friday prayer, attended by hundreds of thousands of Shiites nationwide, to instruct the faithful in political action -- whether to vote, whom to vote for and when to turn out on the street in mass protests to ensure their political rights.
Sistani, the senior Iraqi Shiite cleric, pushed hard for a general election to ensure Shiite hegemony and engineered the creation of a broad slate of Shiite candidates to ensure that the sect did not fracture into small, powerless groups.
Most Shiite leaders would like to see Iraq become an Islamic state, but they believe that such an outcome is an ideal and thus far have appeared reconciled to a combination of Islamic and secular law.
The Islamic Dawa Party, which represents some of the most hard-line Shiites and is the party of new Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, took a conciliatory line in the months following the invasion.
“Our goal is an Islamic state -- we are Muslims,” said Qasim Sahlani, who was running the Dawa Party office shortly after the fall of Baghdad. “But only if people want it. But if not, we will continue to try to persuade people peacefully.”
Their line has changed little since then, and Dawa and others have backed the idea of a constitution that makes Sharia one of the bases for Iraqi law rather than the only one.
Jafari himself, while conservative on such issues as whether religious or secular law should be relied on for domestic matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance, recently told a small group of reporters that he was reading a biography of one of America’s founding fathers, George Washington.
So far, the Shiites have shown restraint, despite the wrongs done them in the past and the present -- including repeated attacks by assassins and suicide bombers. But now that they control key ministries, including Interior, it would be surprising if some Shiite leaders did not turn a blind eye toward efforts to avenge the deaths of sons and brothers, said a senior Western diplomat in Iraq who has spent years in the region.
In fact, apparent revenge killings of Sunnis and Shiites alike have become increasingly common.
“This is a revolution,” the diplomat said. “The only question is how violent will it be.”
Talib, one of the pulpit singers, described his joy at his rediscovered tradition with a zeal that could go in many directions.
“When you are reciting the [Imam] Hussein poems, it’s an Islamic act, a jihad act, but it’s an intellectual jihad,” he said, “so I will not be considered a terrorist for my singing.”
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Shiites are a minority among Muslims worldwide but the majority in Iraq. They wield more power since the fall of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni.
Religions in Iraq
The split in Islam occurred more than 1,000 years ago with the death of the prophet Muhammad, and centers on succession to Muhammad. Both sects revere the Koran as Islam’s holy book, but differ in the performance of prayers.
* Recognize all four caliphs after Muhammad, including Ali, as legitimate successors and do not require blood ties to the prophet as a qualification to be leader
* Reject the Shiite line of imams and hold that Muhammad and the Koran are the only two authorities of religion
* Leaders have historically been more heads of state than religious authorities
* Lack an elaborate clergy and allow lay people to lead prayers
* Seen by Westerners as more staid, moderate and open to the world
* Reject the first three successors (caliphs) after Muhammad as usurpers
* Regard Ali, the fourth caliph, and Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, as the first caliph or imam, the term they use for the head of the community
* Hold that imams are sinless and must be obeyed on all matters; each imam appoints his successor, who must be of Muhammad’s bloodline
* Believe imams are both religious and political heads
* Seen by Westerners as more orthodox, zealous and less open to outside influence
Sources: Congressional Research Service, Center for History and New Media, understanding-islam.com, Times reporting, Wikipedia, CIA World Factbook
Graphics reporting by Tom Reinken and Scott Wilson