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Article Info

published: 2/13/05
updated: 6/13/13

Najaf, Iraq: Holy City of Shi'a Islam



Najaf is a city in Iraq, about 160 km south of Baghdad, located at 31.99°N 44.33°E. The capital of Najaf province, the city of Najaf had an estimated population in 2003 of 585,600 people.

Najaf is one of the holiest cities in Shi'a Islam and is the center of Shi'a political power in Iraq.

Najaf's Religious Significance

Najaf is renowned as the site of the tomb of Ali ibn Abi Talib (also known as Imam Ali), who the Shi'a consider to be their founder and first Imam (some believe he is buried at Mazar-e Sharif in Afghanistan). The city is now a great center of pilgrimage from throughout the Islamic world. Only Mecca and Medina receive more Muslim pilgrims.





The Meshed Ali (Tomb of Ali) is housed in a grand structure with a gilded dome and many precious objects in the walls. Nearby is the Wadi-us-Salaam (Valley of Peace), claimed to be the largest cemetery in the Muslim world


The Meshed Ali, an important shrine in Najaf
(and possibly the largest in the entire world), containing the tombs of several other prophets. Many of the devout from other lands aspire to be buried here, to be raise from the dead with Imam Ali on Judgement Day.

Over the centuries, numerous hospices, schools, libraries and Sufi convents were built around the shrine to make the city the centre of Shi'a learning and theology. Many of these were badly damaged during the rule of Saddam Hussein, with a highway being driven through the middle of the Wadi-us-Salaam.

Many great Shia scholars, both ancient and modern (such as Allameh Tabatabaei, Ayatollah Khomeini, and Ayatollah Sistani), have studied in Najaf. Najaf, Iraq and Qom, Iran, are considered the centers of the Shia schools of faith.

History of Najaf

The Najaf area was situated near the Sassanid city of Suristan and at the time of the Sassanids was a part of the Middle Bih-Kavad province of Persia. The city itself was reputedly founded in 791 (178 A.H.) by the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid. Under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, Najaf experienced severe difficulties as the result of repeated raids by Arab desert tribes and acute water shortages caused by the lack of a reliable water supply. The number of inhabited houses in the city had plummeted from 3,000 to just 30 by the start of the 16th century. The city was besieged by the Wahhabis in the late 18th century. The water shortages were finally resolved in 1803 with the construction of the Hindiyya canal, following which the city's population rapidly doubled from 30,000 to 60,000. Even so, Najaf lost its religious primacy to the Iranian city of Qom in the 19th century and was not to regain it until the late 20th century.

The Ottomans were expelled in an uprising in 1915, following which the city fell under the rule of the British Empire. The sheikhs of Najaf rebelled in 1918, killing the British governor of the city and cutting off grain supplies to the Anaza, a tribe allied with the British. In retaliation the British besieged the city and cut off its water supply. The rebellion was put down and the rule of the sheikhs was forcibly ended.

Najaf under Saddam Hussein

Because of the common religious affinities between Iraq's Shi'a majority and the Iranians, Najaf was regarded with suspicion by the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein, which severely restricted Shi'a religious activities. A mass revolt broke out at the end of the Gulf War in 1991, which was put down by the Iraqi military with considerable brutality and damage to the city. Much of the damage was repaired fairly quickly but great resentment against Saddam's regime lingered for a long time afterwards.

In February 1999, Najaf's most senior cleric, Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, was murdered along with his two sons - the third killing of clerics in the city in less than a year. Although the Iraqi government claimed to have caught and executed the supposed killers, all Sh'ia, one of whom was actually in prison at the time, many opposition figures and ordinary Shi'as blamed the killings on Saddam's regime, which was said to be systematically attempting to suppress independent voices in the Shi'a community. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani succeeded al-Sadr as the city's most senior cleric, but one of his surviving sons, Moqtada al-Sadr, has assumed a prominent political role despite his relative paucity of formal theological credentials.

Najaf after Saddam

During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Najaf was a key target of the invading United States forces. The city was encircled during heavy fighting on March 26, 2003 but the Americans declined to storm it, apparently fearing the political consequences of damage to Najaf's shrines. In the event, it surrendered peacefully about ten days later around the time of the fall of Baghdad.

The clerical authorities of the Shiite enclave of Saddam City in Baghdad, which claimed autonomy in April 2003 after the fall of Baghdad, claimed to be taking their orders from senior Shiite clerics in Najaf.

On August 29, 2003 a car bomb exploded during prayers outside the Imam Ali Mosque, just as weekly prayers were ending. More than 80 people were killed, including the influential cleric Ayatollah Sayed Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, the Shiite leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Dozens of others were injured. Nobody claimed responsibility for the attack - Saddam himself, in hiding at the time, denied any involvement in a taped message. It was widely reported in the U.S. media that al-Qaida terrorists were possibly to blame but the murder was later blamed by the U.S. on followers of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who was allegedly engaged in a power struggle with the al-Hakim faction at the time.

During April-May 2004, fighting broke out in Najaf between U.S. forces and the al-Mahdi Army of al-Sadr, which launched a coordinated uprising across central and southern Iraq in an apparent attempt to seize control of the country ahead of the June 30, 2004 handover of power to a new Iraqi government. The situation aroused grave concerns among the Shi'a community of Iraq and Iran, as firefights took place within yards of the main shrines, which suffered superficial damage in the process.

In August 2004, fighting broke out again between American troops and al-Sadr supporters. The battle, which was mostly centered around Wadi al-Salam cemetery, lasted three weeks and ended when senior Iraqi cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani negotiated an end to the fighting. Hundreds of Mahdi Army guerrillas were killed and considerable damage was infliected on the old town and cemetery. The main shrines again suffered only superficial damage.

External Links on Najaf

References

"Najaf." Wikipedia. 2005.