During attack by Wahhabi Muslims of Saudi on Karbala city in Iraq, how many Shia Muslims were killed?

During attack by Wahhabi Muslims of Saudi on Karbala city in Iraq, how many Shia Muslims were killed?

There are different stats about this. It is mentioned in different references, numbers ranging from 4000 to even 120,000.

What is correct casualty count?

Also did this attack really happened in history?


The attack of Wahhabi Muslims on Karbala did happen in history, during the long quest of Wahhabi rise to power in creation of Saudi Arabia. It's just a few years before Wahhabis claimed the city of Mecca and Medina (1803). It was sacked because its role as one of the major center of Shi'i learning; the religious shrines and pilgrimage caravans were destroyed. One of the most notable tomb, the tomb of Husayn bin Ali (the grandson of the Prophet) was also destroyed.

Several authors hold different dates on when the events happened. Some wrote it happened on 1802, however most noted it happened on 1801. Here are some sources I've found noting the incident:

  1. Rashid Khalidi, Resurrecting Empire
  2. Yitzhak Nakash, The Shi'is of Iraq (also on different page)
  3. Ludwig Adamec, A to Z of Islam
  4. James Grehan, Everyday Life and Consumer Culture in Eighteenth-Century Damascus
  5. Andrew McGregor, A Military History of Modern Egypt
  6. Najma Heptula, Indo-West Asian Relations

I haven't been able to find the number of casualties though. Perhaps @MarkCWallace could help on this matter.


Saudis destroyed Islam’s holiest stone in Kaaba

SHAFAQNA – Saudi Monarchy destroyed the most sacred stone in Islam, a rare book by an Austrian academic has revealed.

In his book “Al-Saud”, Musil reported that the Blackstone, the original sacred stone at the corner of the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest building visited by millions of pilgrims every year, was destroyed by the Saudi dynasty who ransacked the city in the spring of 1806.

The Blackstone is Islam’s holiest stone and is sought by Muslims when they visit the Grand Mosque, the most revered in Islam. Muslims who are preforming pilgrimage [hajj] or minor pilgrimage [umrah] typically salute the stone or kiss it per prophetic tradition.

The Blackstone marks the beginning of the Muslim ritual of tawaf or circling the Kaaba seven times. Some Muslim sources say the Blackstone came from Heaven by the angel Gabriel. Others say it is the last original stone used in building the Kaaba by Prophet Abraham.

Musil’s account got a nod from a Makkah’s goldsmith, whose family has been maintaining the stone for over 100 years. Faisal Badr, the goldsmith in charge of maintaining the Blackstone told Saudi TV AlArabiya in June 2017 that only eight small pieces of the original stone remain today. He said that he uses a natural black tree gum called luk to hold them together and to give the oval orifice its shiny black appearance.

Badr said he repairs the stone three to five times a year by removing the old gum and applying a fresh coat. There is no independent evidence that these stone pieces are parts of the original Blackstone.

Musil’s discovery remains largely unknown due to enormous sensitivities surrounding the Kaaba. The Saudi Monarchy, which bills itself as the Muslim world leader and the Custodian of Islam’s most revered Holy Mosques, has kept this greatly embarrassing secret hidden, out of fear that it will reveal its deep-rooted extremist ideology of Wahhabism and contradicting Islam itself.

Destroying or harming the Blackstone undermines Saudi claims that they are serving Islam or upholding its basic tenets. It would be extremely damaging to the Saudi ruling clan if millions of Muslim pilgrims who travel to Makkah annually and bring billions of dollars to the Saudi state realized they were kissing tree gum and not the heavenly Blackstone they learned to revere.

It is hardly a coincidence that the Saudi Wahhabi ideology, which has destroyed Islam’s holiest stone and looted the Prophet Mohamed’s resting place, has also fueled the most devastating terrorist attacks around the world targeting Muslims and non-Muslim alike. It is a common thread that runs through the attacks of September 11, terror waves that struck many European capitals, and the multitude of bombings and mass killings in Iraq, Syria Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Musil also reported that Saudi clan violated the sanctity of the Prophet Mohamed’s grave and robbed its treasures, including gifts from Ottoman rulers to the shrine.

The valuables looted from the prophet’s resting place included an expensive diamond known as the Priceless Planet [AlKwakab AlDurri], which was commissioned and gifted by Othman Sultan Ahmed the First in 1613 to the Prophet Mohamed’s Shrine.

It was the Saudi looting of Makkah and Medina that prompted the Ottomans to take action and send the Egyptian army led by Ibrahim Pasha to sack Al-Dariya, the historical capitol of the Saudi state and to end its reign.

AlKwakab AlDurri was recovered by Ibrahim Pasha who destroyed Al-Dariya and took its Saudi leader Abdullah Bin Saud to Istanbul for trial and execution. AlKwakab AlDurri was sent back to the shrine in Medina until 1917 when the last Ottoman governor of Medina, Fahreddin Pasha, sent most of the Prophet’s shrine treasures to Turkey for safe keeping before Medina fell to the British-backed forces in January 1919. The diamond and other treasures remain in Turkish museums to date.

The Institute for Persian Gulf Affairs obtained a copy of an Arabic translation of the rare book written in German 1917. The book was translated in 2003 by Dr. Said Fayez Al-Said of the King Saud University. A Saudi author who wanted his identity to remain private for safety reasons said the Saudi government has bought the rights to many western books reporting on the origins of the Saudi states and altered their contents. This author works at King Abdulaziz Center, the main Saudi arm for such purchases.

The Kaaba revelation, striking as it is, is just another fact in a long history of Saudi monarchy’s systematic efforts to eradicate every trace of Islam’s indigenous culture, history and traditions that it deems incompatible with its Wahhabi ideology. Just over the last 40 years, the Saudi forces have destroyed an estimated 1000 historical landmarks across the country, including ancient mosques, such as a 1400-year old Ashams [the Sun] Mosque in Medina built during the life of the Prophet Mohamed.

The Al-Saud’s history of looting has been reflected through their own sources, including “The History of the Najd region from the mid-18th to mid-19th century” [‘Unwan al-majd fi ta’rikh Najd] by Wahhabi historian Uthman ibn Abdallah ibn Bishr.

Ibn Bisher details the many Saudi robberies and looting of Muslim shrines in Medina, Makkah, Karbala and other Arab cities, and mass killing of Muslim civilians.

Muslim shrines were a preferred target of Saudi forces because they housed priceless treasures gifted to the key figures in Islamic history by kings, envoys and wealthy people. In April of 1802, Saudi forces attacked Karbala, a sacred city of Shia Muslims in Iraq, and robbed the treasures of the shrine of Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Mohamed, after killing thousands.

Some of the Saudi forces’ recent desecrations include the homes of the prophet Mohamed in Makkah and Medina razed in the 1980s, the Uhud Mound, the location of the second battlefield in Islam, and two ancient forts – an 800-year old Ajyad Fort in Makkah in 2002 and a 600-year old AlNamas Fort razed in 2013. Other historical landmarks destroyed by the ruling family include a 600-year old AlMosawra district in AlAwamya in August of 2017, and AlKuaibah, a 2000-year old mud and stone structure in Qatif razed in 2013.


A Short History of Karbala and the Grave of Imam Hussain

The grave and its surrounding shrine have a long and storied history with numerous constructions and demolitions.

The city of Karbala has a rich history that is both beautiful and tragic, beginning with the slaughter of Imam Hussain, his companions, and family by the army of Omar ibn Sa’ad as commanded by the Caliph of the time, Yazid ibn Muawiyah. Hussain refused to give allegiance to a corrupt leader like Yazid, and chose to die before legitimising such a tyrant’s rule. In his own words, Hussain said he was rising up “to revive the affairs of the Ummah of my grandfather”, and to “enjoin the good, and forbid the evil”.

Today, the shrine of Hussain attracts millions of pilgrims from all over the world, all over the year, who visit to pay their respects and worship Allah (swt) by his side. Architecturally it is a stunning sight, with beautiful minarets and a glorious dome housing his grave. The shrine’s courtyard extends beyond the mausoleum, which itself holds a sarcophagus in the form a dharih – quite literally a cage that enshrines the grave of Hussain.

The grave and its surrounding shrine have a long and storied history with numerous constructions and demolitions, as well as the accompanying story of the city that surrounds it.

The Beginning

The origins of the name Karbala are contested. Some narrations mention that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) himself during his lifetime mentioned the definition, implying that the word was a combination of Karb (land that causes agonies) and Balaa’ (afflictions) (1) . In its etymology, Karbala most likely originates from Kar Bel, or Kur Babel, meaning a group of Babylonian villages, that included Nainawa, Al-Nawawees, Al-Ha’ir (also known as Al-Hira), among others. Other opinions mention that the name originated from qarballatu, an Akkadian word, referring to a sharp headgear and thereafter changing to Karbala in Aramaic, or from the word karbalaa’, meaning the imprint of a foot on soft ground. It is said by some (in what may perhaps be folklore) that the land once included an ancient temple (or graveyard) for Christians and was famous in pre-Islamic times , as part of the cities of the historic Tusuh An-Nahrain, situated on the shore of the old Euphrates river . Some also suggest the word comes from Karb/Ail (sacred precinct of Allah), or Kaar/Bolo (the higher work). Karbala may also be derived from Al-Kirbah, meaning softness, referring to the softness of the land. At the time of the battle of Karbala, the land was uninhabited, though it was rich with water and had fertile soil.

Source: Hussaini Center for Research

Three days after the battle of Karbala and he had been killed, Imam Hussain (pbuh) was buried by his son on the 1st (or 13th) October, 680 AD. His infant was placed on his chest and his elder son at his feet. Bani Asad, a tribe who lived on the outskirts, assisted with burying the martyrs, and a tree was planted to indicate the grave of Imam Hussain. Until today, its old location is indicated by a door to the shrine called ‘Baab Al-Sidrah’ (gate of the tree). The grave was visited by both travellers and local tribes, many of whom either stayed behind or asked relatives to bury them there after death, essentially beginning what would become the city of Karbala.

Mukhtar Al-Thaqafi, a Kufa-based revolutionary who led a rebellion against the Umayyads in vengeance for the death of Imam Hussain, visited the grave on the 18th August, 684, and built a mosque around the grave with a dome. It had two entrances.

Over half a century later, in 749, during the reign of Al-Saffah, a roof was built over a part of the mosque and a further two entrances were added. It was around this time that the Imams of the Shia school of thought, particularly Imam Jafar Al-Sadiq, began heavily institutionalising pilgrimages (or visitations, ziyarat) to Karbala and the grave of Imam Hussain. They did this by exalting the position of the land in Islamic thought, speaking of the blessings and healing qualities of its soil and highlighting the divine rewards pilgrims would receive by visiting. Many of these narrations are the biggest drive for pilgrims who travel from around the world to visit Karbala today. One example of such a hadith attributed to the Imams is,

“Do not avoid visiting the grave of Imam Hussain even during the days of prohibition. And one who visits him (his grave) in fear (of the enemies), Allah will give him refuge from the great fear of Qiyamah and he will gain reward proportionate to the fear. And the one who fears due to their fear, Allah will bestow him a refuge under the shade of His empyrean while he shall remain along with Imam Hussain and shall be protected from the fear of the day of Qiyamah.” (2)

While the shrine has benefitted from much construction, it has sadly suffered demolitions too. Its roof was demolished during the reign of Al-Mansur in 763. Around 787, the Abbasid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid demolished the roof and dome of the shrine, and cut down the tree that indicated Imam’s grave.

Source: Hussaini Centre for Research

It was reconstructed in 808 but demolished completely by the Caliph of the time, Al-Mutawakkil on the 15th July, 850. He was particularly harsh on the shrine of Hussain and on its pilgrims. Aside from banning visitations, he also ordered the land to be plowed and demolished the shrine a total of four times during his reign. Some stories narrate that visitors would need to seek the scent of the grave to find it thereafter.

Al-Muntasir built a roof over the grave in 861 and set up an iron pillar near it, to serve as a landmark for the pilgrims. In 893, a dome was built in the center, with two rooves and an enclosure with two entrances.

In 981 approx, Aadod Al-Dawla, a Buyid ruler, built a dome and constructed a screen of wood around the grave (today known as the dharih). He became the first to lay the foundations for large scale construction, and built houses and markets, also surrounding Karbala with a high boundary wall. Schools and hotels also began to be built in the city. Burial in Karbala had become particularly popular the century earlier, and therefore cemeteries were also on the rise.

Source: Hussaini Centre for Research

The shrines were damaged by a horrendous fire in 1016 after two large candles fell on the dharih (or on separate wooden decorations). These were rebuilt first by Al-Hasan ibn Al-Fadi, and then again by Nasir le-din-Illah in 1223. The dome was remodelled by Sultan Owais in 1365, who also extended the courtyard. Two minarets covered in gold were raised by Ahmad ibn Owais in 1384, like the minarets we see today. Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan scholar and traveller, visited Karbala in 1326.

Between Two Empires

It was in the 1500s that Karbala found itself caught in a battle between two rival empires. The Safavids, who ascribed to Shi’ism, were rising in Iran, and the Ottomans conquered Baghdad in 1533. The shrines changed hands several times, and the two brief periods the Safavids took control of the shrines resulted in mass construction and expansion, as well as the settlement of severeal thousand Persians in Karbala. The Safavids viewed the shrines as prized possessions. Shah Abbas Safavi constructed screens (dharihs) of brass and bronze around the grave in 1622. King Tahmaseb ordered the decoration of the dome of the Abbas shrine and built a dharih around the grave. The dome was whitewashed by Sultan Murad IV in 1638.

Much like the city of Najaf, Karbala had historically faced severe water shortages, to the extent that some reports suggest the city was almost completely abandoned by pilgrims in the late 1500s. This was finally resolved in the early 1700s when a dam was built at the head of the local Husayniyya canal, allowing it to enjoy a steady supply of water. Karbala then flourished, and became the center of Shia scholarship, taking the mantle from Isfahan, Iran. Together with an increase in pilgrims, Karbala improved its financial and physical infrastructure. As the Safavid empire began to collapse, there was a massive influx of Shia scholars from Persia. With the Ottoman Empire unable to keep its grip on Baghdad, scholars were able to build schools and study without much government interference. The city also enjoyed massive investments from Awadh, India during this time. The dome of Imam Hussain’s shrine was covered in gold by Shah Muhammad Qachar on the 7th July 1796.

Invasions, Occupations, and Recoveries

On the 4th May 1801 (it was on either Eid Al-Ghadir or Ashura day), Wahabis, led by Abd al-Aziz Saud, attacked Karbala, ransacking and looting the shrine, damaging the dharih and the building. They had originally tried to attack Najaf and laid it to siege, but failed to penetrate its famous walls. The Ottoman soldiers protecting the city fled, leaving between 2,000 and 5,000 Karbala inhabitants to be killed. Karbala lacked any kind of tribal army. The slaughter took about 8 hours. An eye-witness account describe the barbarity of the attack, saying,

󈫼,000 Wahhabis suddenly attacked the mosque of Imam Husayn after seizing more spoils than they had ever seized after their greatest victories, they put everything to fire and sword…The elderly, women, and children—everybody died by the barbarians’ sword. Besides, it is said that whenever they saw a pregnant woman, they disemboweled her and left the fetus on the mother’s bleeding corpse. Their cruelty could not be satisfied, they did not cease their murders and blood flowed like water. As a result of the bloody catastrophe, more than 4000 people perished… they destroyed the Imam’s shrine and converted it into a trench of abomination and blood. They inflicted the greatest damage on the minarets and the domes, believing those structures were made of gold bricks.” (3)

A Wahabi account of the same attack gives a similar account:

“The Muslims [i.e. the Wahhabis] surrounded Karbala and took it by storm. They killed most of the people in the houses and the markets. They destroyed the dome above al-Husayn’s grave. They took away everything they saw in the shrine and near it, including the coverlet decorated with emeralds, sapphires and pearls which covered the grave… Nearly 2000 people were killed in Karbala.” (4)

Fath-Ali Shah, who was Shah of Iran at the time, was fiercely critical of the Ottomans for failing to confront the Wahabis. While they refused his offer of Iranian troops to defend the town, he sent 500 families to settle in Karbala with the intention of defending it. Following the attack, a wall was built around the city to protect it against attacks, and the scholars of the city established a self-governing republic. The shrine itself recovered from the initial damage inflicted by the Wahabi invasion. Shah repaired the dharih and plated it with silver in 1817. He also plated the shrine with gold and repaired damage to it.

The autonomy was ended when the Ottomans sacked the city in the 1840s and reimposed their rule over it. The Ottomans had regained direct Ottoman control over Baghdad the decade earlier, and the new Ottoman governer, Najib Pasa, was determined to take control over the city. At the time, Karbala was heavily controlled by gangs, who themselves demanded protection money from the city’s inhabitants and pilgrims. These gangs refused to accept Ottoman control, and the Ottomans sieged the city, killing around 5,000 people and desecrating the shrines. It is mentioned in some texts that the massacre was so severe that one had to walk over bodies in order to cross the street. One scholar mentions seeing bodies left clinging to the dharih of Abbas ibn Ali.

“The dead were lying on top of one another to the extent that I could not cross the street except by walking over the corpses. It was as if I walked about invisibly, so many had perished… At the foundation of the mausoleum of our master Abu’l-Fadl ‘Abbas… I descried all about the illumined sepulchre murdered souls clinging to it, beseeching, seeking shelter and refuge within it. I saw most of the dead in the lanes and bazaars.” (5)

Thereafter, many scholars moved to Najaf, which took up the mantle of the center of Shia scholarship. The Ottomans, while not interfering in scholarly organisations, imposed a tighter grip on the city. Karbala began to recover with donations coming in once again from Awadh. The money would be transferred by the British and distributed to descendants of the nine leading scholarly families in Karbala, the custodians of the shrines, students and the poor. Money was also allocated for poor Indian residents, which attracted an Indian populace.

Imam Hussain Shrine, early 20th century.

By the early 20th century, Persians made up 75% of the city’s population. Around this time the city was effectively run by the Kammuna family, who were relatives of the Shah in Iran. Under their leadership, the city did not see much of World War I, as the Kammuna family had established contacts with the British and therefore enjoyed self-governance. The Ottomans tried to regain control in 1916 but were driven out by inhabitants. The city’s autonomy ended when the British Empire took over in 1917 and drove the Kammuna family out of power. The British introduced laws that were intended to push the Persian community out, one such example was banning foreigners from holding government posts. The Persian community was reduced to 12% of the city’s population by the 1950s, and were thereafter assimilated into the Iraqi population.

A rebellion against the British was led by a group of scholars in the 20s, which included Mirza Mohammed Taqi Shirazi, who famously issued fatwas demanding the boycott of British tobacco.

Ba’ath Rule

Karbala saw some of its darkest days under the rule of the Ba’ath party and Saddam Hussein. The extreme secularist movement excluded Shia Muslims from senior positions in government and led repressive measures against Shia institutions, eventually executing leading figures in the seminaries and expelling Iraqi Shias to Iran. Commemorations of Ashura were banned, with those seen to commemorate openly risking imprisonment and execution. Spies in the city reported anyone who remotely criticised the republic. Many fled the country or were imprisoned, tortured, or killed.

A revolt against the regime took place in Southern Iraq in 1991, with Karbala for a short period of no more than 2 weeks enjoying autonomy. Flyers were dropped by American planes calling for Iraqis to rise up against Saddam. Saddam’s forces crushed the Karbala revolt brutally in 1991, desecrating the shrines and killing all who sought refuge in them. The shrine of Imam Hussain was also shelled with mortar fire. Some bullet holes still remain today, kept there as a reminder of what happened.

Thereafter, the regime was especially harsh on Karbala. After the United Nations imposed sanctions on Iraq, Karbala suffered disproportionately.

Imam Hussain Shrine after the 1991 revolt.

2003-Present Day

After the 2003 U.S. led invasion, Karbala enjoyed freedom once again. Many Karbala natives who had been exiled or had fled returned to see family or to settle once again. Iran poured massive amounts of funds into the renovation of the shrines and the infastructure of the city. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the invasion, it suffered several attacks in the form of suicide bombings and car bombings by Al-Qaeda, and later ISIS. Despite this, the city recieved millions of visitors and pilgrims from around the world.

Pilgrims walking to Karbala.

In 2017, 13.8 million people visited Karbala and the shrine of Imam Hussain for the Arbaeen pilgrimage, making it the biggest annual pilgrimage in the world.


Contents

There are many opinions among different investigators, as to the origin of the word "Karbala". Some have pointed out that "Karbala" has a connection to the "Karbalato" language, while others attempt to derive the meaning of word "Karbala" by analyzing its spelling and language. They conclude that it originates from the Arabic word "Kar Babel" which was a group of ancient Babylonian villages that included Nainawa, Al-Ghadiriyya, Karbella (Karb Illu. as in Arba Illu [Arbil]), Al-Nawaweess, and Al-Heer. This last name is today known as Al-Hair and is where Husayn ibn Ali's grave is located.

The investigator Yaqut al-Hamawi had pointed out that the meaning of "Karbala" could have several explanations, one of which is that the place where Husayn ibn Ali was martyred is made of soft earth—"Al-Karbalat".

According to Shi'ite belief, the archangel Gabriel narrated the true meaning of the name Karbalā’ to Muhammad: a combination of karb (Arabic: كَرْب ‎, the land which will cause many agonies) and balā’ (Arabic: بَلَاء ‎, afflictions)." [19]

Karbala experiences a hot desert climate (BWh in the Köppen climate classification) with extremely hot, long, dry summers and mild winters. Almost all of the yearly precipitation is received between November and April, though no month is wet.

Climate data for Karbala
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Average high °C (°F) 15.7
(60.3)
18.8
(65.8)
23.6
(74.5)
30.6
(87.1)
36.9
(98.4)
41.5
(106.7)
43.9
(111.0)
43.6
(110.5)
40.2
(104.4)
33.3
(91.9)
23.7
(74.7)
17.6
(63.7)
30.8
(87.4)
Daily mean °C (°F) 10.6
(51.1)
12.9
(55.2)
17.4
(63.3)
23.9
(75.0)
29.7
(85.5)
33.9
(93.0)
36.4
(97.5)
35.9
(96.6)
32.3
(90.1)
26.2
(79.2)
17.7
(63.9)
12.3
(54.1)
24.1
(75.4)
Average low °C (°F) 5.4
(41.7)
7.0
(44.6)
11.2
(52.2)
17.1
(62.8)
22.5
(72.5)
26.3
(79.3)
28.8
(83.8)
28.2
(82.8)
24.3
(75.7)
19.0
(66.2)
11.6
(52.9)
6.9
(44.4)
17.4
(63.2)
Average precipitation mm (inches) 17.6
(0.69)
14.3
(0.56)
15.7
(0.62)
11.5
(0.45)
3.5
(0.14)
0.1
(0.00)
0.0
(0.0)
0.0
(0.0)
0.3
(0.01)
4.1
(0.16)
10.5
(0.41)
15.3
(0.60)
92.9
(3.64)
Average precipitation days 7 5 6 5 3 0 0 0 0 4 5 7 42
Source: World Meteorological Organisation (UN) [20]

Battle of Karbala Edit

The Battle of Karbala was fought on the bare deserts on the way to Kufa on October 10, 680 (10 Muharram 61 AH). Both Husayn ibn Ali and his brother Abbas ibn Ali were buried by the local Banī Asad tribe, at what later became known as the Mashhad Al-Husayn. The battle itself occurred as a result of Husain's refusal of Yazid I's demand for allegiance to his caliphate. The Kufan governor, Ubaydallah ibn Ziyad, sent thirty thousand horsemen against Husayn as he traveled to Kufa. The horsemen, under 'Umar ibn Sa'd, were ordered to deny Husayn and his followers water in order to force Husayn to agree to give an oath of allegiance. On the 9th of Muharram, Husayn refused, and asked to be given the night to pray. On 10 Muharram, Husayn ibn Ali prayed the morning prayer and led his troops into battle along with his brother Abbas. Many of Husayn's followers, including all of his present sons Ali Akbar, Ali Asghar (six months old) and his nephews Qassim, Aun and Muhammad were killed. [21]

In 63 AH (682 ), Yazid ibn Mu'awiya released the surviving members of Husayn's family from prison. On their way to Mecca, they stopped at the site of the battle. There is record of Sulayman ibn Surad going on pilgrimage to the site as early as 65 AH (685 CE). The city began as a tomb and shrine to Husayn and grew as a city in order to meet the needs of pilgrims. The city and tombs were greatly expanded by successive Muslim rulers, but suffered repeated destruction from attacking armies. The original shrine was destroyed by the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mutawakkil in 850 but was rebuilt in its present form around 979, only to be partly destroyed by fire in 1086 and rebuilt yet again.

Early modern Edit

Like Najaf, the city suffered from severe water shortages that were only resolved in the early 18th century by building a dam at the head of the Husayniyya Canal. In 1737, the city replaced Isfahan in Iran as the main centre of Shia scholarship. In the mid-eighteenth century it was dominated by the dean of scholarship, Yusuf Al Bahrani, a key proponent of the Akhbari tradition of Shia thought, until his death in 1772, [22] after which the more state-centric Usuli school became more influential.

The Wahhabi sack of Karbala occurred in 21 April 1802 (1216 Hijri) (1801), [23] under the rule of Abdul-Aziz bin Muhammad the second ruler of the First Saudi State, when 12,000 Wahhabi Muslims from Najd attacked the city of Karbala. [24] The attack was coincident with the anniversary of Ghadir Khum event, [25] or 10 Muharram. [26] This fight left 3,000–5,000 deaths and the dome of the tomb of Husayn ibn Ali, grandson of Muhammad and son of Ali ibn Abi Talib, [26] was destroyed. The fight lasted for 8 hours. [27]

After the First Saudi State invasion, the city enjoyed semi-autonomy during Ottoman rule, governed by a group of gangs and mafia variously allied with members of the 'ulama. In order to reassert their authority, the Ottoman army laid siege to the city. On January 13, 1843 Ottoman troops entered the city. Many of the city leaders fled leaving defense of the city largely to tradespeople. About 3,000 Arabs were killed in the city, and another 2,000 outside the walls (this represented about 15% of the city's normal population). The Turks lost 400 men. [28] This prompted many students and scholars to move to Najaf, which became the main Shia religious centre. [29] Between 1850 and 1903, Karbala enjoyed a generous influx of money through the Oudh Bequest. The Shia-ruled Indian Province of Awadh, known by the British as Oudh, had always sent money and pilgrims to the holy city. The Oudh money, 10 million rupees, originated in 1825 from the Awadh Nawab Ghazi-ud-Din Haider. One third was to go to his wives, and the other two-thirds went to holy cities of Karbala and Najaf. When his wives died in 1850, the money piled up with interest in the hands of the British East India Company. The EIC sent the money to Karbala and Najaf per the wives' wishes, in the hopes of influencing the Ulama in Britain's favor. This effort to curry favor is generally considered to have been a failure. [30]

In 1928, an important drainage project was carried out to relieve the city of unhealthy swamps, formed between Hussainiya and the Bani Hassan Canals on the Euphrates. [32]

Defense of the City Hall in Karbala - a series of skirmishes fought from April 3 to April 6, 2004 between the Iraqi rebels of the Mahdi Army trying to conquer the city hall and the defending Polish and Bulgarian soldiers from the Multinational Division Central-South

In 2003 following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Karbala town council attempted to elected United States Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Lopez as Mayor. Ostensibly so that his marines, contractors, and funds couldn't leave. [33]

On April 14, 2007, a car bomb exploded about 600 ft (180 m) from the shrine, killing 47 [34] and wounding over 150.

On January 19, 2008, 2 million Iraqi Shia pilgrims marched through Karbala city, Iraq to commemorate Ashura. 20,000 Iraqi troops and police guarded the event amid tensions due to clashes between Iraqi troops and Shia which left 263 people dead (in Basra and Nasiriya). [35]

Karbala, alongside Najaf, is considered a thriving tourist destination for Shia Muslims and the tourism industry in the city boomed after the end of Saddam Hussein's rule. [36] Some religious tourism attractions include:


A history of oppression

Tensions between the Shia population of al-Hasa region (roughly today’s Eastern Province) and the House of Saud have a long history and go back to the time when Mohammed Ibn Saud, the son of the founder of the dynasty, adopted the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in late 18th century and used them to legitimise his rule. As he and his successors sought to expand the territory they controlled eastward under the banner of fighting infidels and deviants, the Shia of al-Hasa resisted.

In their raids, Wahhabi fighters would often destroy shrines and places of worship belonging to the Shia and Sufi orders in 1802, an army led by Mohammed’s son Saud even attacked one of the holiest cities for Shia Muslims, Karbala in neighbouring Iraq, looting and destroying shrines, damaging the Hussein mosque, massacring a large part of the civilian population, and leaving a painful mark in Shia collective memory.

For a century, al-Hasa would slip in and out of Saudi control, until Abdel Aziz Ibn Saud, the founder of the Saudi kingdom, retook it in 1913, unleashing a campaign of repression against its Shia population who opposed his rule. As he started building the foundations of the Saudi state, Wahhabi attitudes towards the Shia were woven into its institutions.

As a result, Shia Muslims to this day remain highly disenfranchised within Saudi society. For example, they are not allowed to hold key posts within the ministries of defence and interior, the National Guard, and the royal court. They face various restrictions on religious worship permits for building Shia mosques are often denied and, consequently, in places like the city of Dammam, there is only one mosque for the hundreds of thousands of Shia Muslims living there. Processions during Ashoura, the day commemorating the death of Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Hussein in the battle of Karbala, were banned until 2005 and today are still curbed in various ways.

Most importantly, although the majority of Saudi oil reserves fall within the territory of the Eastern Province, the Shia minority hardly benefits from the country’s massive oil revenues. Since the founding of the Saudi state in 1932, it has suffered systematic socioeconomic marginalisation and dispossession.

In addition, Saudi religious authorities – vested until recently with almost unrestricted power to police the public – have been allowed to spread anti-Shia rhetoric and even insert it into school curricula. As a result, anti-Shia attitudes among the general population are widespread and have led in the past to various attacks on the community.

Over the decades of systemic discrimination and disenfranchisement, Shia anger would periodically boil over and result in mass protests, which would always get brutally suppressed by Riyadh.

In 1979, the revolutionary upheaval in nearby Iran spurred mass demonstrations in the Shia-majority city of Qatif, which were met with a violent clampdown and executions.

In 2011, the Arab Spring also inspired pro-democracy protests in the Eastern Province. The Saudi authorities were quick to put down the unrest, opening fire on demonstrators and arresting many. It is for participating in these protests that a lot of the 37 men were arrested.

They, along with a number of other activists calling for the end of religious apartheid and sectarian discrimination, were charged with terrorism. In 2016, Shia leader Nimr al-Nimr, who had supported the protests and had long been critical of the House of Saud, was executed.


You Can't Understand ISIS If You Don't Know the History of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia

BEIRUT -- The dramatic arrival of Da'ish (ISIS) on the stage of Iraq has shocked many in the West. Many have been perplexed -- and horrified -- by its violence and its evident magnetism for Sunni youth. But more than this, they find Saudi Arabia's ambivalence in the face of this manifestation both troubling and inexplicable, wondering, "Don't the Saudis understand that ISIS threatens them, too?"

It appears -- even now -- that Saudi Arabia's ruling elite is divided. Some applaud that ISIS is fighting Iranian Shiite "fire" with Sunni "fire" that a new Sunni state is taking shape at the very heart of what they regard as a historical Sunni patrimony and they are drawn by Da'ish's strict Salafist ideology.

Other Saudis are more fearful, and recall the history of the revolt against Abd-al Aziz by the Wahhabist Ikhwan (Disclaimer: this Ikhwan has nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood Ikhwan -- please note, all further references hereafter are to the Wahhabist Ikhwan, and not to the Muslim Brotherhood Ikhwan), but which nearly imploded Wahhabism and the al-Saud in the late 1920s.

Many Saudis are deeply disturbed by the radical doctrines of Da'ish (ISIS) -- and are beginning to question some aspects of Saudi Arabia's direction and discourse.

THE SAUDI DUALITY

Saudi Arabia's internal discord and tensions over ISIS can only be understood by grasping the inherent (and persisting) duality that lies at the core of the Kingdom's doctrinal makeup and its historical origins.

One dominant strand to the Saudi identity pertains directly to Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab (the founder of Wahhabism), and the use to which his radical, exclusionist puritanism was put by Ibn Saud. (The latter was then no more than a minor leader -- amongst many -- of continually sparring and raiding Bedouin tribes in the baking and desperately poor deserts of the Nejd.)

The second strand to this perplexing duality, relates precisely to King Abd-al Aziz's subsequent shift towards statehood in the 1920s: his curbing of Ikhwani violence (in order to have diplomatic standing as a nation-state with Britain and America) his institutionalization of the original Wahhabist impulse -- and the subsequent seizing of the opportunely surging petrodollar spigot in the 1970s, to channel the volatile Ikhwani current away from home towards export -- by diffusing a cultural revolution, rather than violent revolution throughout the Muslim world.

But this "cultural revolution" was no docile reformism. It was a revolution based on Abd al-Wahhab's Jacobin-like hatred for the putrescence and deviationism that he perceived all about him -- hence his call to purge Islam of all its heresies and idolatries.

MUSLIM IMPOSTORS

The American author and journalist, Steven Coll, has written how this austere and censorious disciple of the 14th century scholar Ibn Taymiyyah, Abd al-Wahhab, despised "the decorous, arty, tobacco smoking, hashish imbibing, drum pounding Egyptian and Ottoman nobility who travelled across Arabia to pray at Mecca."

In Abd al-Wahhab's view, these were not Muslims they were imposters masquerading as Muslims. Nor, indeed, did he find the behavior of local Bedouin Arabs much better. They aggravated Abd al-Wahhab by their honoring of saints, by their erecting of tombstones, and their "superstition" (e.g. revering graves or places that were deemed particularly imbued with the divine).

All this behavior, Abd al-Wahhab denounced as bida -- forbidden by God.

Like Taymiyyah before him, Abd al-Wahhab believed that the period of the Prophet Muhammad's stay in Medina was the ideal of Muslim society (the "best of times"), to which all Muslims should aspire to emulate (this, essentially, is Salafism).

Taymiyyah had declared war on Shi'ism, Sufism and Greek philosophy. He spoke out, too against visiting the grave of the prophet and the celebration of his birthday, declaring that all such behavior represented mere imitation of the Christian worship of Jesus as God (i.e. idolatry). Abd al-Wahhab assimilated all this earlier teaching, stating that "any doubt or hesitation" on the part of a believer in respect to his or her acknowledging this particular interpretation of Islam should "deprive a man of immunity of his property and his life."

One of the main tenets of Abd al-Wahhab's doctrine has become the key idea of takfir. Under the takfiri doctrine, Abd al-Wahhab and his followers could deem fellow Muslims infidels should they engage in activities that in any way could be said to encroach on the sovereignty of the absolute Authority (that is, the King). Abd al-Wahhab denounced all Muslims who honored the dead, saints, or angels. He held that such sentiments detracted from the complete subservience one must feel towards God, and only God. Wahhabi Islam thus bans any prayer to saints and dead loved ones, pilgrimages to tombs and special mosques, religious festivals celebrating saints, the honoring of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad's birthday, and even prohibits the use of gravestones when burying the dead.

Abd al-Wahhab demanded conformity -- a conformity that was to be demonstrated in physical and tangible ways. He argued that all Muslims must individually pledge their allegiance to a single Muslim leader (a Caliph, if there were one). Those who would not conform to this view should be killed, their wives and daughters violated, and their possessions confiscated, he wrote. The list of apostates meriting death included the Shiite, Sufis and other Muslim denominations, whom Abd al-Wahhab did not consider to be Muslim at all.

There is nothing here that separates Wahhabism from ISIS. The rift would emerge only later: from the subsequent institutionalization of Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab's doctrine of "One Ruler, One Authority, One Mosque" -- these three pillars being taken respectively to refer to the Saudi king, the absolute authority of official Wahhabism, and its control of "the word" (i.e. the mosque).

It is this rift -- the ISIS denial of these three pillars on which the whole of Sunni authority presently rests -- makes ISIS, which in all other respects conforms to Wahhabism, a deep threat to Saudi Arabia.

BRIEF HISTORY 1741- 1818

Abd al-Wahhab's advocacy of these ultra radical views inevitably led to his expulsion from his own town -- and in 1741, after some wanderings, he found refuge under the protection of Ibn Saud and his tribe. What Ibn Saud perceived in Abd al-Wahhab's novel teaching was the means to overturn Arab tradition and convention. It was a path to seizing power.

Ibn Saud's clan, seizing on Abd al-Wahhab's doctrine, now could do what they always did, which was raiding neighboring villages and robbing them of their possessions. Only now they were doing it not within the ambit of Arab tradition, but rather under the banner of jihad. Ibn Saud and Abd al-Wahhab also reintroduced the idea of martyrdom in the name of jihad, as it granted those martyred immediate entry into paradise.

In the beginning, they conquered a few local communities and imposed their rule over them. (The conquered inhabitants were given a limited choice: conversion to Wahhabism or death.) By 1790, the Alliance controlled most of the Arabian Peninsula and repeatedly raided Medina, Syria and Iraq.

Their strategy -- like that of ISIS today -- was to bring the peoples whom they conquered into submission. They aimed to instill fear. In 1801, the Allies attacked the Holy City of Karbala in Iraq. They massacred thousands of Shiites, including women and children. Many Shiite shrines were destroyed, including the shrine of Imam Hussein, the murdered grandson of Prophet Muhammad.

A British official, Lieutenant Francis Warden, observing the situation at the time, wrote: "They pillaged the whole of it [Karbala], and plundered the Tomb of Hussein. slaying in the course of the day, with circumstances of peculiar cruelty, above five thousand of the inhabitants . "

Osman Ibn Bishr Najdi, the historian of the first Saudi state, wrote that Ibn Saud committed a massacre in Karbala in 1801. He proudly documented that massacre saying, "we took Karbala and slaughtered and took its people (as slaves), then praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds, and we do not apologize for that and say: 'And to the unbelievers: the same treatment.'"

In 1803, Abdul Aziz then entered the Holy City of Mecca, which surrendered under the impact of terror and panic (the same fate was to befall Medina, too). Abd al-Wahhab's followers demolished historical monuments and all the tombs and shrines in their midst. By the end, they had destroyed centuries of Islamic architecture near the Grand Mosque.

But in November of 1803, a Shiite assassin killed King Abdul Aziz (taking revenge for the massacre at Karbala). His son, Saud bin Abd al Aziz, succeeded him and continued the conquest of Arabia. Ottoman rulers, however, could no longer just sit back and watch as their empire was devoured piece by piece. In 1812, the Ottoman army, composed of Egyptians, pushed the Alliance out from Medina, Jeddah and Mecca. In 1814, Saud bin Abd al Aziz died of fever. His unfortunate son Abdullah bin Saud, however, was taken by the Ottomans to Istanbul, where he was gruesomely executed (a visitor to Istanbul reported seeing him having been humiliated in the streets of Istanbul for three days, then hanged and beheaded, his severed head fired from a canon, and his heart cut out and impaled on his body).

In 1815, Wahhabi forces were crushed by the Egyptians (acting on the Ottoman's behalf) in a decisive battle. In 1818, the Ottomans captured and destroyed the Wahhabi capital of Dariyah. The first Saudi state was no more. The few remaining Wahhabis withdrew into the desert to regroup, and there they remained, quiescent for most of the 19th century.

HISTORY RETURNS WITH ISIS

It is not hard to understand how the founding of the Islamic State by ISIS in contemporary Iraq might resonate amongst those who recall this history. Indeed, the ethos of 18th century Wahhabism did not just wither in Nejd, but it roared back into life when the Ottoman Empire collapsed amongst the chaos of World War I.

The Al Saud -- in this 20th century renaissance -- were led by the laconic and politically astute Abd-al Aziz, who, on uniting the fractious Bedouin tribes, launched the Saudi "Ikhwan" in the spirit of Abd-al Wahhab's and Ibn Saud's earlier fighting proselytisers.

The Ikhwan was a reincarnation of the early, fierce, semi-independent vanguard movement of committed armed Wahhabist "moralists" who almost had succeeded in seizing Arabia by the early 1800s. In the same manner as earlier, the Ikhwan again succeeded in capturing Mecca, Medina and Jeddah between 1914 and 1926. Abd-al Aziz, however, began to feel his wider interests to be threatened by the revolutionary "Jacobinism" exhibited by the Ikhwan. The Ikhwan revolted -- leading to a civil war that lasted until the 1930s, when the King had them put down: he machine-gunned them.

For this king, (Abd-al Aziz), the simple verities of previous decades were eroding. Oil was being discovered in the peninsular. Britain and America were courting Abd-al Aziz, but still were inclined to support Sharif Husain as the only legitimate ruler of Arabia. The Saudis needed to develop a more sophisticated diplomatic posture.

So Wahhabism was forcefully changed from a movement of revolutionary jihad and theological takfiri purification, to a movement of conservative social, political, theological, and religious da'wa (Islamic call) and to justifying the institution that upholds loyalty to the royal Saudi family and the King's absolute power.

OIL WEALTH SPREAD WAHHABISM

With the advent of the oil bonanza -- as the French scholar, Giles Kepel writes, Saudi goals were to "reach out and spread Wahhabism across the Muslim world . to "Wahhabise" Islam, thereby reducing the "multitude of voices within the religion" to a "single creed" -- a movement which would transcend national divisions. Billions of dollars were -- and continue to be -- invested in this manifestation of soft power.

It was this heady mix of billion dollar soft power projection -- and the Saudi willingness to manage Sunni Islam both to further America's interests, as it concomitantly embedded Wahhabism educationally, socially and culturally throughout the lands of Islam -- that brought into being a western policy dependency on Saudi Arabia, a dependency that has endured since Abd-al Aziz's meeting with Roosevelt on a U.S. warship (returning the president from the Yalta Conference) until today.

Westerners looked at the Kingdom and their gaze was taken by the wealth by the apparent modernization by the professed leadership of the Islamic world. They chose to presume that the Kingdom was bending to the imperatives of modern life -- and that the management of Sunni Islam would bend the Kingdom, too, to modern life.

But the Saudi Ikhwan approach to Islam did not die in the 1930s. It retreated, but it maintained its hold over parts of the system -- hence the duality that we observe today in the Saudi attitude towards ISIS.

On the one hand, ISIS is deeply Wahhabist. On the other hand, it is ultra radical in a different way. It could be seen essentially as a corrective movement to contemporary Wahhabism.

ISIS is a "post-Medina" movement: it looks to the actions of the first two Caliphs, rather than the Prophet Muhammad himself, as a source of emulation, and it forcefully denies the Saudis' claim of authority to rule.

As the Saudi monarchy blossomed in the oil age into an ever more inflated institution, the appeal of the Ikhwan message gained ground (despite King Faisal's modernization campaign). The "Ikhwan approach" enjoyed -- and still enjoys -- the support of many prominent men and women and sheikhs. In a sense, Osama bin Laden was precisely the representative of a late flowering of this Ikhwani approach.

Today, ISIS' undermining of the legitimacy of the King's legitimacy is not seen to be problematic, but rather a return to the true origins of the Saudi-Wahhab project.

In the collaborative management of the region by the Saudis and the West in pursuit of the many western projects (countering socialism, Ba'athism, Nasserism, Soviet and Iranian influence), western politicians have highlighted their chosen reading of Saudi Arabia (wealth, modernization and influence), but they chose to ignore the Wahhabist impulse.

After all, the more radical Islamist movements were perceived by Western intelligence services as being more effective in toppling the USSR in Afghanistan -- and in combatting out-of-favor Middle Eastern leaders and states.

Why should we be surprised then, that from Prince Bandar's Saudi-Western mandate to manage the insurgency in Syria against President Assad should have emerged a neo-Ikhwan type of violent, fear-inducing vanguard movement: ISIS? And why should we be surprised -- knowing a little about Wahhabism -- that "moderate" insurgents in Syria would become rarer than a mythical unicorn? Why should we have imagined that radical Wahhabism would create moderates? Or why could we imagine that a doctrine of "One leader, One authority, One mosque: submit to it, or be killed" could ever ultimately lead to moderation or tolerance?

Or, perhaps, we never imagined.

This article is Part I of Alastair Crooke's historical analysis of the roots of ISIS and its impact on the future of the Middle East. Read Part II here.


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As the so-called Islamic State demolishes nation states set up by the Europeans almost a century ago, IS’s obscene savagery seems to epitomise the violence that many believe to be inherent in religion in general and Islam in particular. It also suggests that the neoconservative ideology that inspired the Iraq war was delusory, since it assumed that the liberal nation state was an inevitable outcome of modernity and that, once Saddam’s dictatorship had gone, Iraq could not fail to become a western-style democracy. Instead, IS, which was born in the Iraq war and is intent on restoring the premodern autocracy of the caliphate, seems to be reverting to barbarism. On 16 November, the militants released a video showing that they had beheaded a fifth western hostage, the American aid worker Peter Kassig, as well as several captured Syrian soldiers. Some will see the group’s ferocious irredentism as proof of Islam’s chronic inability to embrace modern values.

Yet although IS is certainly an Islamic movement, it is neither typical nor mired in the distant past, because its roots are in Wahhabism, a form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia that developed only in the 18th century. In July 2013, the European Parliament identified Wahhabism as the main source of global terrorism, and yet the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, condemning IS in the strongest terms, has insisted that “the ideas of extremism, radicalism and terrorism do not belong to Islam in any way”. Other members of the Saudi ruling class, however, look more kindly on the movement, applauding its staunch opposition to Shiaism and for its Salafi piety, its adherence to the original practices of Islam. This inconsistency is a salutary reminder of the impossibility of making accurate generalisations about any religious tradition. In its short history, Wahhabism has developed at least two distinct forms, each of which has a wholly different take on violence.

During the 18th century, revivalist movements sprang up in many parts of the Islamic world as the Muslim imperial powers began to lose control of peripheral territories. In the west at this time, we were beginning to separate church from state, but this secular ideal was a radical innovation: as revolutionary as the commercial economy that Europe was concurrently devising. No other culture regarded religion as a purely private activity, separate from such worldly pursuits as politics, so for Muslims the political fragmentation of their society was also a religious problem. Because the Quran had given them a sacred mission – to build a just economy in which everybody was treated with equity and respect – the political well-being of the umma (“community”) was always a matter of sacred import. If the poor were oppressed, the vulnerable exploited or state institutions corrupt, Muslims were obliged to make every effort to put society back on track.

So the 18th-century reformers were convinced that if Muslims were to regain lost power and prestige, they must return to the fundamentals of their faith, ensuring that God – rather than materialism or worldly ambition – dominated the political order. There was nothing militant about this “fundamentalism” rather, it was a grass-roots attempt to reorient society and did not involve jihad. One of the most influential of these revivalists was Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-91), a learned scholar of Najd in central Arabia, whose teachings still inspire Muslim reformers and extremists today. He was especially concerned about the popular cult of saints and the idolatrous rituals at their tombs, which, he believed, attributed divinity to mere mortals. He insisted that every single man and woman should concentrate instead on the study of the Quran and the “traditions” (hadith) about the customary practice (Sunnah) of the Prophet and his companions. Like Luther, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab wanted to return to the earliest teachings of his faith and eject all later medieval accretions. He therefore opposed Sufism and Shiaism as heretical innovations (bidah), and he urged all Muslims to reject the learned exegesis developed over the centuries by the ulema (“scholars”) and interpret the texts for themselves.

This naturally incensed the clergy and threatened local rulers, who believed that interfering with these popular devotions would cause social unrest. Eventually, however, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab found a patron in Muhammad Ibn Saud, a chieftain of Najd who adopted his ideas. But tension soon developed between the two because Ibn Abd al-Wahhab refused to endorse Ibn Saud’s military campaigns for plunder and territory, insisting that jihad could not be waged for personal profit but was permissible only when the umma was attacked militarily. He also forbade the Arab custom of killing prisoners of war, the deliberate destruction of property and the slaughter of civilians, including women and children. Nor did he ever claim that those who fell in battle were martyrs who would be rewarded with a high place in heaven, because a desire for such self-aggrandisement was incompatible with jihad. Two forms of Wahhabism were emerging: where Ibn Saud was happy to enforce Wahhabi Islam with the sword to enhance his political position, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab insisted that education, study and debate were the only legitimate means of spreading the one true faith.

Yet although scripture was so central to Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s ideology, by insisting that his version of Islam alone had validity, he had distorted the Quranic message. The Quran firmly stated that “There must be no coercion in matters of faith” (2:256), ruled that Muslims must believe in the revelations of all the great prophets (3:84) and that religious pluralism was God’s will (5:48). Muslims had, therefore, been traditionally wary of takfir, the practice of declaring a fellow Muslim to be an unbeliever (kafir). Hitherto Sufism, which had developed an outstanding appreciation of other faith traditions, had been the most popular form of Islam and had played an important role in both social and religious life. “Do not praise your own faith so exclusively that you disbelieve all the rest,” urged the great mystic Ibn al-Arabi (d.1240). “God the omniscient and omnipresent cannot be confined to any one creed.” It was common for a Sufi to claim that he was a neither a Jew nor a Christian, nor even a Muslim, because once you glimpsed the divine, you left these man-made distinctions behind.

Despite his rejection of other forms of Islam, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab himself refrained from takfir, arguing that God alone could read the heart, but after his death Wahhabis cast this inhibition aside and the generous pluralism of Sufism became increasingly suspect in the Muslim world.

After his death, too, Wahhabism became more violent, an instrument of state terror. As he sought to establish an independent kingdom, Abd al-Aziz Ibn Muhammad, Ibn Saud’s son and successor, used takfir to justify the wholesale slaughter of resistant populations. In 1801, his army sacked the holy Shia city of Karbala in what is now Iraq, plundered the tomb of Imam Husain, and slaughtered thousands of Shias, including women and children in 1803, in fear and panic, the holy city of Mecca surrendered to the Saudi leader.

Eventually, in 1815, the Ottomans despatched Muhammad Ali Pasha, governor of Egypt, to crush the Wahhabi forces and destroy their capital. But Wahhabism became a political force once again during the First World War when the Saudi chieftain – another Abd al-Aziz – made a new push for statehood and began to carve out a large kingdom for himself in the Middle East with his devout Bedouin army, known as the Ikhwan, the “Brotherhood”.

In the Ikhwan we see the roots of IS. To break up the tribes and wean them from the nomadic life, which was deemed incompatible with Islam, the Wahhabi clergy had settled the Bedouin in oases, where they learned farming and the crafts of sedentary life and were indoctrinated in Wahhabi Islam. Once they exchanged the time-honoured ghazu raid, which typically resulted in the plunder of livestock, for the jihad, these Bedouin fighters became more violent and extreme, covering their faces when they encountered Europeans and non-Saudi Arabs and fighting with lances and swords because they disdained weaponry not used by the Prophet. In the old ghazu raids, the Bedouin had always kept casualties to a minimum and did not attack non-combatants. Now the Ikhwan routinely massacred “apostate” unarmed villagers in their thousands, thought nothing of slaughtering women and children, and routinely slit the throats of all male captives.

In 1915, Abd al-Aziz planned to conquer the Hijaz (an area in the west of present-day Saudi Arabia that includes the cities of Mecca and Medina), the Persian Gulf to the east of Najd, and the land that is now Syria and Jordan in the north, but during the 1920s he tempered his ambitions in order to acquire diplomatic standing as a nation state with Britain and the United States. The Ikhwan, however, continued to raid the British protectorates of Iraq, Transjordan and Kuwait, insisting that no limits could be placed on jihad. Regarding all modernisation as bidah, the Ikhwan also attacked Abd al-Aziz for permitting telephones, cars, the telegraph, music and smoking – indeed, anything unknown in Muhammad’s time – until finally Abd al-Aziz quashed their rebellion in 1930.

After the defeat of the Ikhwan, the official Wahhabism of the Saudi kingdom abandoned militant jihad and became a religiously conservative movement, similar to the original movement in the time of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, except that takfir was now an accepted practice and, indeed, essential to the Wahhabi faith. Henceforth there would always be tension between the ruling Saudi establishment and more radical Wahhabis. The Ikhwan spirit and its dream of territorial expansion did not die, but gained new ground in the 1970s, when the kingdom became central to western foreign policy in the region. Washington welcomed the Saudis’ opposition to Nasserism (the pan-Arab socialist ideology of Egypt’s second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser) and to Soviet influence. After the Iranian Revolution, it gave tacit support to the Saudis’ project of countering Shia radicalism by Wahhabising the entire Muslim world.

The soaring oil price created by the 1973 embargo – when Arab petroleum producers cut off supplies to the US to protest against the Americans’ military support for Israel – gave the kingdom all the petrodollars it needed to export its idiosyncratic form of Islam. The old military jihad to spread the faith was now replaced by a cultural offensive. The Saudi-based Muslim World League opened offices in every region inhabited by Muslims, and the Saudi ministry of religion printed and distributed Wahhabi translations of the Quran, Wahhabi doctrinal texts and the writings of modern thinkers whom the Saudis found congenial, such as Sayyids Abul-A’la Maududi and Qutb, to Muslim communities throughout the Middle East, Africa, Indonesia, the United States and Europe. In all these places, they funded the building of Saudi-style mosques with Wahhabi preachers and established madrasas that provided free education for the poor, with, of course, a Wahhabi curriculum. At the same time, young men from the poorer Muslim countries, such as Egypt and Pakistan, who had felt compelled to find work in the Gulf to support their families, associated their relative affluence with Wahhabism and brought this faith back home with them, living in new neighbourhoods with Saudi mosques and shopping malls that segregated the sexes. The Saudis demanded religious conformity in return for their munificence, so Wahhabi rejection of all other forms of Islam as well as other faiths would reach as deeply into Bradford, England, and Buffalo, New York, as into Pakistan, Jordan or Syria: everywhere gravely undermining Islam’s traditional pluralism.

A whole generation of Muslims, therefore, has grown up with a maverick form of Islam that has given them a negative view of other faiths and an intolerantly sectarian understanding of their own. While not extremist per se, this is an outlook in which radicalism can develop. In the past, the learned exegesis of the ulema, which Wahhabis rejected, had held extremist interpretations of scripture in check but now unqualified freelancers such as Osama Bin Laden were free to develop highly unorthodox readings of the Quran. To prevent the spread of radicalism, the Saudis tried to deflect their young from the internal problems of the kingdom during the 1980s by encouraging a pan-Islamist sentiment of which the Wahhabi ulema did not approve.

Where Islamists in such countries as Egypt fought tyranny and corruption at home, Saudi Islamists focused on the humiliation and oppression of Muslims worldwide. Television brought images of Muslim suffering in Palestine or Lebanon into comfortable Saudi homes. The gov­ernment also encouraged young men to join the steady stream of recruits from the Arab world who were joining the Afghans’ jihad against the Soviet Union. The response of these militants may throw light on the motivation of those joining the jihad in Syria and Iraq today.

A survey of those Saudi men who volunteered for Afghanistan and who later fought in Bosnia and Chechnya or trained in al-Qaeda camps has found that most were motivated not by hatred of the west but by the desire to help their Muslim brothers and sisters – in rather the same way as men from all over Europe left home in 1938 to fight the Fascists in Spain, and as Jews from all over the diaspora hastened to Israel at the beginning of the Six Day War in 1967. The welfare of the umma had always been a spiritual as well as a political concern in Islam, so the desperate plight of their fellow Muslims cut to the core of their religious identity. This pan-Islamist emphasis was also central to Bin Laden’s propaganda, and the martyr-videos of the Saudis who took part in the 9/11 atrocity show that they were influenced less by Wahhabism than by the pain and humiliation of the umma as a whole.

Like the Ikhwan, IS represents a rebellion against the official Wahhabism of modern Saudi Arabia. Its swords, covered faces and cut-throat executions all recall the original Brotherhood. But it is unlikely that the IS hordes consist entirely of diehard jihadists. A substantial number are probably secularists who resent the status quo in Iraq: Ba’athists from Saddam Hussein’s regime and former soldiers of his disbanded army. This would explain IS’s strong performance against professional military forces. In all likelihood, few of the young recruits are motivated either by Wahhabism or by more traditional Muslim ideals. In 2008, MI5’s behavioural science unit noted that, “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could . . . be regarded as religious novices.” A significant proportion of those convicted of terrorism offences since the 9/11 attacks have been non-observant, or are self-taught, or, like the gunman in the recent attack on the Canadian parliament, are converts to Islam. They may claim to be acting in the name of Islam, but when an untalented beginner tells us that he is playing a Beethoven sonata, we hear only cacophony. Two wannabe jihadists who set out from Birmingham for Syria last May had ordered Islam for Dummies from Amazon.

It would be a mistake to see IS as a throwback it is, as the British philosopher John Gray has argued, a thoroughly modern movement that has become an efficient, self-financing business with assets estimated at $2bn. Its looting, theft of gold bullion from banks, kidnapping, siphoning of oil in the conquered territories and extortion have made it the wealthiest jihadist group in the world. There is nothing random or irrational about IS violence. The execution videos are carefully and strategically planned to inspire terror, deter dissent and sow chaos in the greater population.

Mass killing is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. During the French Revolution, which led to the emergence of the first secular state in Europe, the Jacobins publicly beheaded about 17,000 men, women and children. In the First World War, the Young Turks slaughtered over a million Armenians, including women, children and the elderly, to create a pure Turkic nation. The Soviet Bolsheviks, the Khmer Rouge and the Red Guard all used systematic terrorism to purge humanity of corruption. Similarly, IS uses violence to achieve a single, limited and clearly defined objective that would be impossible without such slaughter. As such, it is another expression of the dark side of modernity.

In 1922, as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk rose to power, he completed the Young Turks’ racial purge by forcibly deporting all Greek-speaking Christians from Turkey in 1925 he declared null and void the caliphate that IS has vowed to reinstate. The caliphate had long been a dead letter politically, but because it symbolised the unity of the umma and its link with the Prophet, Sunni Muslims mourned its loss as a spiritual and cultural trauma. Yet IS’s projected caliphate has no support among ulema internationally and is derided throughout the Muslim world. That said, the limitations of the nation state are becoming increasingly apparent in our world this is especially true in the Middle East, which has no tradition of nationalism, and where the frontiers drawn by invaders were so arbitrary that it was well nigh impossible to create a truly national spirit. Here, too, IS is not simply harking back to a bygone age but is, however eccentrically, enunciating a modern concern.

The liberal-democratic nation state developed in Europe in part to serve the Industrial Revolution, which made the ideals of the Enlightenment no longer noble aspirations but practical necessities. It is not ideal: its Achilles heel has always been an inability to tolerate ethnic minorities – a failing responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. In other parts of the world where modernisation has developed differently, other polities may be more appropriate. So the liberal state is not an inevitable consequence of modernity the attempt to produce democracy in Iraq using the colo­nial methods of invasion, subjugation and occupation could only result in an unnatural birth – and so IS emerged from the resulting mayhem.

IS may have overreached itself its policies may not be sustainable and it faces determined opposition from Sunni and Shia Muslims alike. Interestingly Saudi Arabia, with its impressive counterterrorist resources, has already thwarted IS attempts to launch a series of attacks in the kingdom and may be the only regional power capable of bringing it down. The shooting in Canada on 22 October, where a Muslim convert killed a soldier at a war memorial, indicates that the blowback in the west has begun to deal realistically with our situation, we need an informed understanding of the precise and limited role of Islam in the conflict, and to recognise that IS is not an atavistic return to a primitive past, but in some real sense a product of modernity.

Karen Armstrong is the author of “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence” (Bodley Head, £25)


Customs

The uprising of Imam al-Husayn (a) and the event of Karbala left a lasting cultural effect on the Shi'a population. The city of Karbala was the source of many of the cultural activities of the Shi'a that stemmed from 'Ashura. Some of those practices include the Tuwairij mourning ceremony, the Ziyarah al-Arba'in and its procession, the building of husayniyyas and religious centers, the making turbah and misbaha from the soil of Karbala and ta'ziya depicting the events of Karbala.

Tuwairij

One of the mourning rituals of the Shi'a during the days of Muharram is the occurrence of the Tuwairij mourning ritual. Tuwairij is a name of a village that is located approximately ten kilometers from Karbala and has become mainly associated with this ritual of the Shi'a on the day of Ashura. The Shi'a of Karbala walk towards the mausoleums of Imam al-Husayn (a) and al-'Abbas (a) from this village on the afternoon of the Ashura, when they arrive in the vicinity of the mausoleums, they run between "Bayn al-Haramayn" (the place between the two mausoleums) while beating heads and cheats in grief. This ritual is done in remembrance of the late arrival of the inhabitants of this city to Karbala on the day of Ashura.

Arba'in Visitation

One of the religious rituals of the Shi'a is the Arba'in visitation of Karbala. The Shi'a from the very first centuries, because of the importance given to it by the Infallible Imams, had a great religious zeal towards the Arba'in visitation. ⎼] Shi'a from Iraq and all over the World partake in this event by walking from Najaf to Karbala this event is more commonly known as the Arba'in procession. On the day of Arba'in, a huge gathering of mourners from all over Iraq and the World are present in Karbala and form one of the largest gatherings on Earth.

Soil of Karbala

The soil of Karbala or the soil of Imam al-Husayn (a) that is usually sand or dust gathered from around the grave of Imam al-Husayn (a) is shown a great deal of respect by the Shi'a because of the qualities that have been narrated about it. ⎽] The soil is also used to make clay prayer tablets and misbahas. In jurisprudence, doing prostration on the soil of Karbala is a highly recommended action.

Establishment of Husayniyyas

The building of husayniyyas to house and shelter the visitors of Imam al-Husayn (a) is one of the steps that have been done over the last century. It is reported that the first husayniyya that was built in Karbala dates back to the 11th/17th century. While the Qajars were rebuilding the religious sites of Iraq, the governor of the Ottomans in Iraq built a husayniyya to assist the visitors of Karbala in the year 1127/1715. ⎾] Afterward, in the year 1368/1948-49, a group of Iranian businessmen bought this property from the Awqaf Organization of Iraq and together with a group of Iraqi and Kuwaiti entrepreneurs refurbished and renovated this husayniyya. After its renovations, this husayniyya became known as the Tihrani husayniyya, which was later changed to the Haydariyah husayniyya. Before this, there are no records of any husayniyyas existing in the city.

After the above dates, most of the well-known husayniyyas of Karbala were built in the second and third decades of the 14th/20th century. Some of these historical husayniyyas were built by Iranian scholars and businessmen whilst some others were built by Indian Shi'a. After the fall of the Baathist regime, the building of husayniyyas increased drastically and even the construction of hotels was not able to decrease the emergence of new husayniyyas.

Ta'ziya

Ta'ziyas are like religious depictions which can be seen in many Iraqi cities including Karbala. Ta'ziyas as it is known today, was first extremely popular during the Qajar era in Iran it then entered Iraq around the 20th century. These ta'ziyas are also known in Najaf and Karbala as "tashabih" or "masrah al-Husayni". The performance of these plays, like many other Shi'a rituals, were restricted and eventually forbidden by the Baathist Party when they came into power during the 1970s. After their fall in 2003, these plays were revived in many areas across Iraq.


Saudi Arabia, Wahhabi, and the Illuminati

Winston Churchill, placed fake war hero with Jewish mom.

As executed by the Round Table organizations, the brunt of the Illuminati’s plan for the twentieth century depended significantly on the assistance of the Salafi intriguers, beginning with the destruction of the Ottoman Empire. More important still was the role-played by the puppet-state of Saudi Arabia, which became the sponsor of Salafi terrorism. The Saudis would become an important linchpin in the Illuminati strategy to make the world dependent on Rockefeller-controlled oil, thus not only increasing demand and profits, but enhancing their strangle-hold over the world’s governments and economies.

The primary agent in this agenda was Winston Churchill. Winston Churchill was a descendant of the first famous member of the Churchill family, John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough. Churchill’s legal surname was Spencer-Churchill, as he was related to the Spencer family, though, starting with his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, his branch of the family used the name Churchill in his public life. Randolph Churchill’s mother, like his grandfather’s wife, and his great-grandfather’s wife, was a Stewart, also descended from James Douglas. Winston Churchill’s mother was Jennie Jerome, daughter of American Jewish millionaire Leonard Jerome. [1]

Winston Churchill, a Scottish Rite Freemason, was eventually invested as Knight of the Order of the Garter. He was also a member of the Ancient Order of Druids, created by Wentworth Little, founder of the SRIA. [2] The famous “V for Victory” sign used by Churchill has been attributed to Aleister Crowley. At the request of his friend, naval intelligence officer Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond 007, Crowley provided Winston Churchill with valuable insights into the superstitions of the Nazis. Crowley suggested that Churchill exploit the Nazis’ magical paranoia by being photographed as much as possible giving the two-fingered “V for Victory” gesture, a powerful symbol of destruction and annihilation that, according to magical tradition, is capable of defeating the perverted solar energies represented by the Nazi swastika. [3]

As indicated in “The Rothchilds, Winston Churchill and the Final Solution”, by Clifford Shack, No naval issue would affect Britain’s foreign policy more than the crucial debate whether or not the Royal Navy should be converted from coal propulsion to oil. [4] Oil was not only superior to coal, but the French branch of the Rothschilds were, together with the Rockefellers, supreme rulers of the oil business, having entered into a world cartel with Standard Oil.

Lord Nathaniel Mayer Rothschild was a keen proponent of increases in the strength of the Royal Navy, for in 1888, the London house of Rothschild had issued shares worth £225,000 for the Naval Construction and Armaments Company. However, in order to provide the pretext to legitimize Britain’s increased spending for naval construction, the Rothschilds fabricated the threat of Germany’s naval build-up in the late nineteenth century. On July 1, 1911, Kaiser Wilhelm, a Rothschild front-man, sent a gunboat, called the Panther, steaming into the harbor at Agadir, on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, which was perceived as a direct challenge to British global positions.

Nathaniel Rothschild was an intimate friend of Lord Randolph Churchill, the father of Winston Churchill, who immediately after the Agadir crisis, was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. [5] Churchill vowed to do everything he could to prepare Britain militarily for the “inescapable day of reckoning”. His charge was to ensure that the Royal Navy, the symbol of Britain’s imperial power, was to meet the German “challenge” on the high seas. According to Daniel Yergin’s Pulitzer prize winning book, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power:

“One of the most important and contentious questions he faced was seemingly technical in nature, but would in fact have vast implications for the twentieth century. The issue was whether to convert the British Navy to oil for its power source, in place of coal, which was the traditional fuel. Many thought that such a conversion was pure folly, for it meant that the Navy could no longer rely on safe, secure Welsh coal, but rather would have to depend on distant and insecure oil supplies from Persia, as Iran was then known.” [6]

The importance of guaranteeing a supply of oil for Britain’s navy had assumed centre stage, as oil had not yet been discovered in its Arab possessions in the Gulf. On June 17, 1914, Churchill introduced a bill proposing that the British government invest in an oil company, after which it acquired 51 percent of Anglo-Persian, which in actuality was already partially-owned by the British government, and was financed in part by the Rothschild’s bank. Britain had acquired its first oil concession, and kept its involvement secret. By the summer of 1914, the British Navy was fully committed to oil and the British government had assumed the role of majority stockholder in Anglo-Persian. The company grew rapidly, first into Anglo-Iranian, and then finally into British Petroleum, or BP.

Anglo-Persian was not to be Britain’s sole supplier of oil, as Churchill stated to Parliament in 1913, “On no one quality, on no one process, on no one country, on no one route and on no one field must we be dependent. Safety and certainty in oil lie in variety, and variety alone.” [7] Germany had already expanded toward Turkey and South into Africa. But, Germany’s move eastward was restricted by Britain’s control of important sea lanes. Therefore, Germany struck a deal with the Ottoman Empire to build a railway from Berlin to Baghdad. The Round Table was especially alarmed about this agreement, as it would provide direct German access to the Middle East oil, bypassing the Suez Canal controlled by the British. Britain had earlier precluded extension of the railway to the Persian Gulf by secretly concluding an agreement with the Sabah clan, of Kuwait, another family of secret Jews, related to the Saudis through the Anza tribe, to establish Kuwait as a “British protectorate”, thus effectively sealing it off from the Ottoman Empire.

The last northern link of the railway was in Serbia. History books record that World War I started when the nations went to war to avenge the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the heir-apparent to the Habsburg throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, top-level officials of European Freemasonry met in Switzerland in 1912, during which it was decided to assassinate the Archduke Ferdinand, in order to bring about World War I. [8] The actual date on which the date on which the murder was to be committed was postponed, as the time was not yet considered appropriate. The act was finally committed on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, by members of a Serbian terrorist organization called the Black Hand, with ties to Freemasonry. The Austro-Hungarian Empire then declared war on Serbia, and WWI officially began.


Wahhabism to ISIS: how Saudi Arabia exported the main source of global terrorism

Karen Armstrong writes although IS is certainly an Islamic movement, it is neither typical nor mired in the distant past, because its roots are in Wahhabism, a form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia that developed only in the 18th century

As the so-called Islamic State demolishes nation states set up by the Europeans almost a century ago, IS’s obscene savagery seems to epitomise the violence that many believe to be inherent in religion in general and Islam in particular. It also suggests that the neoconservative ideology that inspired the Iraq war was delusory, since it assumed that the liberal nation state was an inevitable outcome of modernity and that, once Saddam’s dictatorship had gone, Iraq could not fail to become a western-style democracy. Instead, IS, which was born in the Iraq war and is intent on restoring the premodern autocracy of the caliphate, seems to be reverting to barbarism. On 16 November, the militants released a video showing that they had beheaded a fifth western hostage, the American aid worker Peter Kassig, as well as several captured Syrian soldiers. Some will see the group’s ferocious irredentism as proof of Islam’s chronic inability to embrace modern values.

Yet although IS is certainly an Islamic movement, it is neither typical nor mired in the distant past, because its roots are in Wahhabism, a form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia that developed only in the 18th century. In July 2013, the European Parliament identified Wahhabism as the main source of global terrorism, and yet the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, condemning IS in the strongest terms, has insisted that “the ideas of extremism, radicalism and terrorism do not belong to Islam in any way”. Other members of the Saudi ruling class, however, look more kindly on the movement, applauding its staunch opposition to Shiaism and for its Salafi piety, its adherence to the original practices of Islam. This inconsistency is a salutary reminder of the impossibility of making accurate generalisations about any religious tradition. In its short history, Wahhabism has developed at least two distinct forms, each of which has a wholly different take on violence.

During the 18th century, revivalist movements sprang up in many parts of the Islamic world as the Muslim imperial powers began to lose control of peripheral territories. In the west at this time, we were beginning to separate church from state, but this secular ideal was a radical innovation: as revolutionary as the commercial economy that Europe was concurrently devising. No other culture regarded religion as a purely private activity, separate from such worldly pursuits as politics, so for Muslims the political fragmentation of their society was also a religious problem. Because the Quran had given them a sacred mission – to build a just economy in which everybody was treated with equity and respect – the political well-being of the umma(“community”) was always a matter of sacred import. If the poor were oppressed, the vulnerable exploited or state institutions corrupt, Muslims were obliged to make every effort to put society back on track.

So the 18th-century reformers were convinced that if Muslims were to regain lost power and prestige, they must return to the fundamentals of their faith, ensuring that God – rather than materialism or worldly ambition – dominated the political order. There was nothing militant about this “fundamentalism” rather, it was a grass-roots attempt to reorient society and did not involve jihad. One of the most influential of these revivalists was Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-91), a learned scholar of Najd in central Arabia, whose teachings still inspire Muslim reformers and extremists today. He was especially concerned about the popular cult of saints and the idolatrous rituals at their tombs, which, he believed, attributed divinity to mere mortals. He insisted that every single man and woman should concentrate instead on the study of the Quran and the “traditions” (hadith) about the customary practice (Sunnah) of the Prophet and his companions. Like Luther, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab wanted to return to the earliest teachings of his faith and eject all later medieval accretions. He therefore opposed Sufism and Shiaism as heretical innovations (bidah), and he urged all Muslims to reject the learned exegesis developed over the centuries by the ulema (“scholars”) and interpret the texts for themselves.

This naturally incensed the clergy and threatened local rulers, who believed that interfering with these popular devotions would cause social unrest. Eventually, however, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab found a patron in Muhammad Ibn Saud, a chieftain of Najd who adopted his ideas. But tension soon developed between the two because Ibn Abd al-Wahhab refused to endorse Ibn Saud’s military campaigns for plunder and territory, insisting that jihad could not be waged for personal profit but was permissible only when the umma was attacked militarily. He also forbade the Arab custom of killing prisoners of war, the deliberate destruction of property and the slaughter of civilians, including women and children. Nor did he ever claim that those who fell in battle were martyrs who would be rewarded with a high place in heaven, because a desire for such self-aggrandisement was incompatible with jihad. Two forms of Wahhabism were emerging: where Ibn Saud was happy to enforce Wahhabi Islam with the sword to enhance his political position, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab insisted that education, study and debate were the only legitimate means of spreading the one true faith.

Yet although scripture was so central to Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s ideology, by insisting that his version of Islam alone had validity, he had distorted the Quranic message. The Quran firmly stated that “There must be no coercion in matters of faith” (2:256), ruled that Muslims must believe in the revelations of all the great prophets (3:84) and that religious pluralism was God’s will (5:48). Muslims had, therefore, been traditionally wary of takfir, the practice of declaring a fellow Muslim to be an unbeliever (kafir). Hitherto Sufism, which had developed an outstanding appreciation of other faith traditions, had been the most popular form of Islam and had played an important role in both social and religious life. “Do not praise your own faith so exclusively that you disbelieve all the rest,” urged the great mystic Ibn al-Arabi (d.1240). “God the omniscient and omnipresent cannot be confined to any one creed.” It was common for a Sufi to claim that he was a neither a Jew nor a Christian, nor even a Muslim, because once you glimpsed the divine, you left these man-made distinctions behind.

Despite his rejection of other forms of Islam, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab himself refrained from takfir, arguing that God alone could read the heart, but after his death Wahhabis cast this inhibition aside and the generous pluralism of Sufism became increasingly suspect in the Muslim world.

After his death, too, Wahhabism became more violent, an instrument of state terror. As he sought to establish an independent kingdom, Abd al-Aziz Ibn Muhammad, Ibn Saud’s son and successor, used takfir to justify the wholesale slaughter of resistant populations. In 1801, his army sacked the holy Shia city of Karbala in what is now Iraq, plundered the tomb of Imam Husain, and slaughtered thousands of Shias, including women and children in 1803, in fear and panic, the holy city of Mecca surrendered to the Saudi leader.

Eventually, in 1815, the Ottomans despatched Muhammad Ali Pasha, governor of Egypt, to crush the Wahhabi forces and destroy their capital. But Wahhabism became a political force once again during the First World War when the Saudi chieftain – another Abd al-Aziz – made a new push for statehood and began to carve out a large kingdom for himself in the Middle East with his devout Bedouin army, known as the Ikhwan, the “Brotherhood”.

In the Ikhwan we see the roots of IS. To break up the tribes and wean them from the nomadic life, which was deemed incompatible with Islam, the Wahhabi clergy had settled the Bedouin in oases, where they learned farming and the crafts of sedentary life and were indoctrinated in Wahhabi Islam. Once they exchanged the time-honoured ghazu raid, which typically resulted in the plunder of livestock, for the jihad, these Bedouin fighters became more violent and extreme, covering their faces when they encountered Europeans and non-Saudi Arabs and fighting with lances and swords because they disdained weaponry not used by the Prophet. In the old ghazu raids, the Bedouin had always kept casualties to a minimum and did not attack non-combatants. Now the Ikhwan routinely massacred “apostate” unarmed villagers in their thousands, thought nothing of slaughtering women and children, and routinely slit the throats of all male captives.

In 1915, Abd al-Aziz planned to conquer the Hijaz (an area in the west of present-day Saudi Arabia that includes the cities of Mecca and Medina), the Persian Gulf to the east of Najd, and the land that is now Syria and Jordan in the north, but during the 1920s he tempered his ambitions in order to acquire diplomatic standing as a nation state with Britain and the United States. The Ikhwan, however, continued to raid the British protectorates of Iraq, Transjordan and Kuwait, insisting that no limits could be placed on jihad. Regarding all modernisation as bidah, the Ikhwan also attacked Abd al-Aziz for permitting telephones, cars, the telegraph, music and smoking – indeed, anything unknown in Muhammad’s time – until finally Abd al-Aziz quashed their rebellion in 1930.

After the defeat of the Ikhwan, the official Wahhabism of the Saudi kingdom abandoned militant jihad and became a religiously conservative movement, similar to the original movement in the time of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, except that takfir was now an accepted practice and, indeed, essential to the Wahhabi faith. Henceforth there would always be tension between the ruling Saudi establishment and more radical Wahhabis. The Ikhwan spirit and its dream of territorial expansion did not die, but gained new ground in the 1970s, when the kingdom became central to western foreign policy in the region. Washington welcomed the Saudis’ opposition to Nasserism (the pan-Arab socialist ideology of Egypt’s second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser) and to Soviet influence. After the Iranian Revolution, it gave tacit support to the Saudis’ project of countering Shia radicalism by Wahhabising the entire Muslim world.

The soaring oil price created by the 1973 embargo – when Arab petroleum producers cut off supplies to the US to protest against the Americans’ military support for Israel – gave the kingdom all the petrodollars it needed to export its idiosyncratic form of Islam. The old military jihad to spread the faith was now replaced by a cultural offensive. The Saudi-based Muslim World League opened offices in every region inhabited by Muslims, and the Saudi ministry of religion printed and distributed Wahhabi translations of the Quran, Wahhabi doctrinal texts and the writings of modern thinkers whom the Saudis found congenial, such as Sayyids Abul-A’la Maududi and Qutb, to Muslim communities throughout the Middle East, Africa, Indonesia, the United States and Europe. In all these places, they funded the building of Saudi-style mosques with Wahhabi preachers and established madrasas that provided free education for the poor, with, of course, a Wahhabi curriculum. At the same time, young men from the poorer Muslim countries, such as Egypt and Pakistan, who had felt compelled to find work in the Gulf to support their families, associated their relative affluence with Wahhabism and brought this faith back home with them, living in new neighbourhoods with Saudi mosques and shopping malls that segregated the sexes. The Saudis demanded religious conformity in return for their munificence, so Wahhabi rejection of all other forms of Islam as well as other faiths would reach as deeply into Bradford, England, and Buffalo, New York, as into Pakistan, Jordan or Syria: everywhere gravely undermining Islam’s traditional pluralism.

A whole generation of Muslims, therefore, has grown up with a maverick form of Islam that has given them a negative view of other faiths and an intolerantly sectarian understanding of their own. While not extremist per se, this is an outlook in which radicalism can develop. In the past, the learned exegesis of the ulema, which Wahhabis rejected, had held extremist interpretations of scripture in check but now unqualified freelancers such as Osama Bin Laden were free to develop highly unorthodox readings of the Quran. To prevent the spread of radicalism, the Saudis tried to deflect their young from the internal problems of the kingdom during the 1980s by encouraging a pan-Islamist sentiment of which the Wahhabi ulema did not approve.

Where Islamists in such countries as Egypt fought tyranny and corruption at home, Saudi Islamists focused on the humiliation and oppression of Muslims worldwide. Television brought images of Muslim suffering in Palestine or Lebanon into comfortable Saudi homes. The gov­ernment also encouraged young men to join the steady stream of recruits from the Arab world who were joining the Afghans’ jihad against the Soviet Union. The response of these militants may throw light on the motivation of those joining the jihad in Syria and Iraq today.

A survey of those Saudi men who volunteered for Afghanistan and who later fought in Bosnia and Chechnya or trained in al-Qaeda camps has found that most were motivated not by hatred of the west but by the desire to help their Muslim brothers and sisters – in rather the same way as men from all over Europe left home in 1938 to fight the Fascists in Spain, and as Jews from all over the diaspora hastened to Israel at the beginning of the Six Day War in 1967. The welfare of the umma had always been a spiritual as well as a political concern in Islam, so the desperate plight of their fellow Muslims cut to the core of their religious identity. This pan-Islamist emphasis was also central to Bin Laden’s propaganda, and the martyr-videos of the Saudis who took part in the 9/11 atrocity show that they were influenced less by Wahhabism than by the pain and humiliation of the umma as a whole.

Like the Ikhwan, IS represents a rebellion against the official Wahhabism of modern Saudi Arabia. Its swords, covered faces and cut-throat executions all recall the original Brotherhood. But it is unlikely that the IS hordes consist entirely of diehard jihadists. A substantial number are probably secularists who resent the status quo in Iraq: Ba’athists from Saddam Hussein’s regime and former soldiers of his disbanded army. This would explain IS’s strong performance against professional military forces. In all likelihood, few of the young recruits are motivated either by Wahhabism or by more traditional Muslim ideals. In 2008, MI5’s behavioural science unit noted that, “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could . . . be regarded as religious novices.” A significant proportion of those convicted of terrorism offences since the 9/11 attacks have been non-observant, or are self-taught, or, like the gunman in the recent attack on the Canadian parliament, are converts to Islam. They may claim to be acting in the name of Islam, but when an untalented beginner tells us that he is playing a Beethoven sonata, we hear only cacophony. Two wannabe jihadists who set out from Birmingham for Syria last May had ordered Islam for Dummies from Amazon.

It would be a mistake to see IS as a throwback it is, as the British philosopher John Gray has argued, a thoroughly modern movement that has become an efficient, self-financing business with assets estimated at $2bn. Its looting, theft of gold bullion from banks, kidnapping, siphoning of oil in the conquered territories and extortion have made it the wealthiest jihadist group in the world. There is nothing random or irrational about IS violence. The execution videos are carefully and strategically planned to inspire terror, deter dissent and sow chaos in the greater population.

Mass killing is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. During the French Revolution, which led to the emergence of the first secular state in Europe, the Jacobins publicly beheaded about 17,000 men, women and children. In the First World War, the Young Turks slaughtered over a million Armenians, including women, children and the elderly, to create a pure Turkic nation. The Soviet Bolsheviks, the Khmer Rouge and the Red Guard all used systematic terrorism to purge humanity of corruption. Similarly, IS uses violence to achieve a single, limited and clearly defined objective that would be impossible without such slaughter. As such, it is another expression of the dark side of modernity.

In 1922, as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk rose to power, he completed the Young Turks’ racial purge by forcibly deporting all Greek-speaking Christians from Turkey in 1925 he declared null and void the caliphate that IS has vowed to reinstate. The caliphate had long been a dead letter politically, but because it symbolised the unity of the umma and its link with the Prophet, Sunni Muslims mourned its loss as a spiritual and cultural trauma. Yet IS’s projected caliphate has no support among ulema internationally and is derided throughout the Muslim world. That said, the limitations of the nation state are becoming increasingly apparent in our world this is especially true in the Middle East, which has no tradition of nationalism, and where the frontiers drawn by invaders were so arbitrary that it was well nigh impossible to create a truly national spirit. Here, too, IS is not simply harking back to a bygone age but is, however eccentrically, enunciating a modern concern.

The liberal-democratic nation state developed in Europe in part to serve the Industrial Revolution, which made the ideals of the Enlightenment no longer noble aspirations but practical necessities. It is not ideal: its Achilles heel has always been an inability to tolerate ethnic minorities – a failing responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. In other parts of the world where modernisation has developed differently, other polities may be more appropriate. So the liberal state is not an inevitable consequence of modernity the attempt to produce democracy in Iraq using the colo­nial methods of invasion, subjugation and occupation could only result in an unnatural birth – and so IS emerged from the resulting mayhem.

IS may have overreached itself its policies may not be sustainable and it faces determined opposition from Sunni and Shia Muslims alike. Interestingly Saudi Arabia, with its impressive counterterrorist resources, has already thwarted IS attempts to launch a series of attacks in the kingdom and may be the only regional power capable of bringing it down. The shooting in Canada on 22 October, where a Muslim convert killed a soldier at a war memorial, indicates that the blowback in the west has begun to deal realistically with our situation, we need an informed understanding of the precise and limited role of Islam in the conflict, and to recognise that IS is not an atavistic return to a primitive past, but in some real sense a product of modernity.

Karen Armstrong is the author of “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence” (Bodley Head, £25). She is also on the editorial board of Critical Muslim.


Iraq’s Oppressed Majority

Karbala, 60 miles southwest of Baghdad, is usually no more than a 90-minute drive through an increasingly green landscape of date palms, eucalyptus trees and reeds watered by the nearby Euphrates. But for most of a week this past October, the journey turned into a five-hour crawl. Highways leading to Karbala were choked by an enormous mass of humanity heading toward the city to celebrate the birth of the 12th Imam, a redeemer born more than a thousand years ago who disappeared as a child and, so these travelers believe, will one day return to overthrow all tyrants. Many walked all the way from Baghdad—crowds had been streaming out of the city since midweek—while others had set out days earlier from towns as far away as Nasiriyah, in the deep south, and Kirkuk, 200 miles north of Baghdad.

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Despite dust and 90-degree heat, the pilgrims, many of them barefoot, kept up an urgent pace. The flags they carried— mostly bright green, but also red, yellow, pink—made brilliant splashes of color in the flat landscape, contrasting with the all-enveloping black abayas of the women. They marched in separate groups, parties of friends or neighbors, until they drew close to their destination and coalesced into one dense column. Every so often a group would break into a rhythmic chant, invoking the names of the martyr-saints that inspire their faith. “We are Shia,” the men roared in unison, stabbing their fists in the air. “We are the sons of Imam Hussein, and the name of Ali is always on our tongues.” Shiites or Shia—the terms are used interchangeably and both mean “partisans”—form one of the two great branches of Islam. About 150 million Shiites are spread around the world, most of them in Iran, Iraq, India and Pakistan. While the Sunni branch makes up the greater part of the global Muslim population of more than a billion, Shiites form the majority in Iraq—as many as 15 million out of a population of 24 million. Nonetheless, Shiites have never held power in Iraq nor fully participated in its government, and at times have been brutally repressed.

The future role of the Shiites is one of the most important issues facing Iraq. Now that their greatest oppressor, Saddam Hussein, is gone, they will no longer tolerate second-class status. At the same time, others in Iraq and elsewhere, including many in the United States, fear that a Shiite-dominated government might impose an Iranian-style fundamentalist Islamic regime. If a democratic Iraq is to emerge from the ruins bequeathed by Saddam Hussein, both the hopes of the Shiites and the fears of non-Shiites will somehow have to be accommodated.

Iraqi Shiites are a diverse group. Some are educated and middle class, but most are poor Arabs living in rural southern Iraq or Baghdad’s slums (there are significant communities among the non-Arab Kurdish and Turkmen peoples of the north as well). They range from the deeply religious to the wholly secular. Their common bond is a memory of discrimination, whether in the form of the mass executions common during the reign of Saddam Hussein or simply in their exclusion from power throughout Iraq’s history.

Today, the Shiites are confident that those days ended with the fall of Saddam Hussein. “Everything is changing,” Adil Abdul Mehdi, a leader of a powerful Shiite party, told me cheerfully in Baghdad, as we sped across town in a convoy of SUVs, surrounded by armed bodyguards. “For too long the Shia have been a majority that acted like a minority. They have to raise their heads. They have a right to represent Iraq.”

Now, on the road to Karbala, I was watching the Shiites assert one of those rights: the freedom to celebrate one of their great religious festivals. Fifteenth Shaban, as the festival is called, is the date in the Muslim calendar (October 11 this year) that marks the birthday of the 12th Imam. By the evening of the festival, well over a million people were crowded onto the vast plaza surrounding the two colossal shrines crowned with golden domes and minarets that dominate the center of the city.

Karbala is a holy place for Shiites because of the two men buried in those shrines. Half brothers, they died in a battle here long ago, a battle that grew out of a ferocious struggle to lead Islam after the death of the prophet Muhammad in a.d. 632. The Shiite faith originated with those Muslims who thought that the wrong side—that led by Abu Bakr, fatherin- law of the prophet Muhammad—won, unjustly usurping Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali. (Sunnis believe that Abu Bakr was the rightful heir.) Ali did finally become caliph in 656 but was assassinated five years later and buried in nearby Najaf. Shiites regard Ali’s brief reign as the last period of legitimate and just rule on earth.

Nineteen years after Ali’s death, his second son, Hussein, who had been living without evident political ambition in Medina, responded to a call from the people of Kufa, then chafing under the harsh rule of a Sunni caliph, Yazid, and set out across the desert to lead them in rebellion. It is a fundamental tenet of Shiism that Hussein’s motivation was not power lust but revulsion at Yazid’s tyrannical rule. As one cleric in a theological school in Najaf assured me, “When Imam Hussein left Medina, he said, ‘I’m not going to win a fortune or a throne. I am going out for justice,’ even though he knew he was going to be sacrificed.” Indeed, many believe that Hussein knew before he left Medina that his supporters had been rounded up and that his cause was doomed. Intercepted by the caliph’s army on the plain of Karbala after a long journey across the desert, Hussein and his band of 72 family members and followers refused to surrender, digging a ditch behind them to preclude retreat. The saga cherished by Iraqi Shiites recounts how, in the midst of battle, Hussein’s warrior half brother Abbas heard the women and children crying from thirst. Fighting his way to a nearby stream to fetch water, he was cut down. Hussein, fighting on a few hundred yards away, was the last to die, sword in one hand, Koran in the other.

This religious schism between Sunnis and Shiites is not, however, mutually antagonistic in the manner of Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland or Christians and Muslims in Beirut. “My mother is Sunni, my father Shia,” says Baghdad native Fareer Yassin. “One third of the Muslims in my high- school graduating class were from mixed Sunni Shia marriages, and that was typical of Baghdad.” I have heard similar stories from many Iraqis, who also point out that direct clashes between the two communities are extremely rare and that discrimination against the Shiites has inevitably been orchestrated by rulers—whether kings or Saddam Hussein— for political, not religious reasons.

For the masses of faithful pouring into Karbala for the festival this past October, the ancient battle at this site might well have happened yesterday. Strolling late in the warm evening through the vast crowd around the shrines of Hussein and Abbas, I heard constant reaffirmations of support for the long dead heroes. “See the love that people have for Imam Hussein,” said my guide, Ala’a Baqir, a pharmacist influential in local affairs. “He is for justice, and people think we are losing that in our own time. We are ready to fight at any time for Imam Hussein.”

It would be easy to dismiss such assertions as simply the celebration of a folk myth, but the saga of the martyrs has preserved a potent philosophy at the core of the Shiite faith. “Shiites regard the opposing of injustice and tyranny and fighting against an unjust ruler as a supreme religious duty,” explained Hussain Shahristani, a nuclear scientist, devout Shiite and lifelong rebel, as we sat in the Karbala office of the humanitarian relief group he founded and directs. He cited the great national uprising of 1920 (his father’s first cousin was one of its leaders) against the British, who occupied Iraq between 1917 and 1932—and effectively controlled it until 1958. Although both Shiites and Sunnis joined the revolt, Shiite religious and tribal leaders played the major role. Politically, the failed rebellion proved disastrous for the Shiites, since the British thereafter relied exclusively on the Sunni elite to govern Iraq. But, says Shahristani, Shiites “couldn’t do anything else. It might be politically better to just go along with the master, but for us that’s impossible.”

Shahristani speaks with authority on the topic of dissent. In September 1979 he told Saddam Hussein to his face that building a nuclear weapon was wrong and refused to work on the project. He was tortured and spent 11 years behind bars, 10 in solitary confinement. During the Gulf War in 1991, he made a daring escape—he stole a guard’s uniform and drove out the prison’s main gate. Afterward, he declined a comfortable exile in the West in favor of organizing humanitarian aid for both Iraqi refugees in Iran and anti-Saddam resistance in Iraq.

I found Shahristani’s views echoed by religious authorities, who made it clear that this obligation to resist applies even to the American-led occupation, of which the Shiites are increasingly resentful. In a modest house in the center of Karbala, Sheik Abdul Mehdi Salami, who leads the Friday prayers at the Hussein shrine (an immensely prestigious position), said that “fighting injustice is the principal duty for all Shia.” “For the meantime,” he added, his people were using “peaceful means” to assert their rights from the coalition and that Shiites do not like “killing and blood.” But if they must, they will “sacrifice everything to get their rights.”

Compared with what they endured in Saddam Hussein’s time, the Shiites today appear to have little cause for complaint. Saddam not only had banned all public religious processions but, according to worshipers I spoke to, particularly disliked the notion of a 12th Imam who would return to overthrow tyrants. As a result, anyone who attended the birthday festival during Saddam’s rule was risking his life. Strolling with me through the crowd on the eve of the festival, Ala’a Baqir recalled how celebrants would evade Saddam’s security forces on the main roads by sneaking through fields and palm groves. “We would go out and leave food and put down little lights to guide them,” said Baqir.

This year, for the first time in decades, there was no need for surreptitious measures, and the plaza was alive with light and the noise of declaiming preachers and chanting marchers—“we are the Shia . . .”—against the background noise of several hundred thousand people. Above us, party balloons soared up past the golden dome of the Abbas shrine.

Yet even this happy atmosphere harbored ominous undercurrents. A coffin was carried around the Hussein shrine—a traditional Shiite rite—but this one contained the body of a man killed the night before in a firefight with American soldiers in Sadr City, the vast Shiite slum in northeast Baghdad. I began noticing how many young men in the crowd were wearing white burial shrouds over their shoulders, a symbol of their willingness to die as martyrs, an attitude much favored by supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, the 30- year-old extremist whose men had ambushed and killed two American soldiers in that firefight.

For centuries, Karbala and its sister shrine city, Najaf, had been islands of Shiism, well connected to the international Shiite community but with few ties to the nomadic Bedouin tribes roaming the desert just beyond the cities’ gates. Only at the beginning of the 19th century did the clergy of Karbala and Najaf begin to convert the desert tribes, partly because they needed muscle to defend against increasing attacks by fanatical Wahhabi Sunni sweeping across the desert from what is now Saudi Arabia.

At the same time, Shiite clerical leaders decided that only the most learned among them should be allowed to issue fatwas, religious rulings on matters of law or common concern. These few senior figures became known as “sources of emulation.” One hot day in late September I sat in on a class at Najaf’s 900-year-old religious university conducted by one of four such living sources of emulation, the Pakistan-born Ayatollah Bashir al-Najri. My classmates were turbaned, graywhiskered elders. We sat respectfully on the floor while our revered teacher expounded at some length on the requirements of women to perform ritual ablutions. Some parts of the syllabus, I felt, had probably not changed over the centuries.

The Shiite religious leadership gained power and influence in the last years of Ottoman rule, just before World War I, then fell on harder times during the British occupation and the succeeding Sunni monarchy installed in 1921. “The first Shia prime minister was appointed in 1947,” Adil Mehdi said bitterly. “That was nearly 28 years after the founding of the state. Though the Shia represented 60 percent of the population, we only ever had 20 percent of the cabinet posts.”

In hopes of bettering their lot in the 1950s and early 󈨀s, many Shiites were drawn to radical organizations, principally the Communist Party but also the Arab nationalist Baath Party. Thus, when the monarchy was swept away by a leftist revolution in 1958, the Shiites were at last represented in the radical military government that assumed power. But that regime was overthrown in another coup five years later, and the Shiites’ brief moment in the sun came to an end.

Though the Baath Party had originally numbered many Shiites among its leaders, by the time it began its 35-year rule with a coup in 1968, the leadership was solidly in the hands of a tight group of Sunni tribesmen, including a ruthless hit man named Saddam Hussein, from the region around Tikrit. Apart from hunting down and killing their former Communist rivals, Saddam and his militantly secular colleagues also took aim at the Shiite religious leadership.

In response to the wholesale defection of many of their flock to the Communists, the Shiite religious leadership made efforts to modernize their message and attract new followers. Prominent among them was a brilliant scholar named Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, the principal sponsor of Dawa, a radical Islamic political party that confronted the Baathists as an opposition group throughout the 1970s.

The confrontation intensified after Ayatollah Khomeini, himself a Shiite who had spent most of the 1960s and 󈨊s in Najaf developing his theory that clergy had the exclusive right to govern, seized power in Iran in 1979. Sadr, thrilled by Iran’s mass Islamic uprising against the shah, thought a similar religious takeover of the government was possible in Iraq. Saddam, apparently worried that Sadr might be right, launched a campaign to round up his supporters. In April 1980, Sadr and his sister were arrested and executed.

Shahristani, the nuclear scientist and prison escapee, was close to Sadr. He told me that at the end, the Baathists offered Sadr a deal. “They said they would release him in exchange for a promise of silence. Sadr said, ‘No. I have closed all the doors, there is no escape for you. Now you have to kill me so the people can rise up.’ ” As any Shiite would immediately understand, it was an embrace of martyrdom that echoed the self-sacrifice of Hussein 1,300 years before.

Both Sadr’s hopes and Saddam’s fears proved groundless. The people did not rise up, and in the eight-year war that followed Saddam’s invasion of Iran in September 1980, Shiite conscripts for the most part fought doggedly for Iraq, largely motivated, despite their grievances and persecution, by Iraqi patriotism.

But after the 1991 Gulf War, inspired by calls for an uprising from Washington, Shiites finally erupted in furious rebellion. That the expected U.S. assistance never came has hardly been forgotten.

Nobody knows how many people were killed in Saddam’s savage reprisals for the uprising, but the number is at least in the tens of thousands. One mass grave of those slaughtered has alone yielded more than 3,000 bodies, and hundreds of such graves have been unearthed. Ironically, the Baathist’s savagery helped unify the diverse Shiite community. In the 1990s, even while cracking down viciously on Shiite religious leadership, Saddam made attempts to bolster his support among religious conservatives by encouraging such Islamic practices as the veiling of women, the segregation of the sexes in schools and the prohibition of alcohol. (Gestures to appease Shiites included repairs to shrines and a manufactured family tree tracing Saddam’s ancestry back to Ali.) But while the measures helped revive traditions, they produced no corresponding support for the dictator.

Toward the end of the decade, Shiites found a leader in the person of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, a teacher from Najaf and a distant relative of the resistance leader executed in 1980. Initially encouraged by the regime because of his denunciations of the United States, Sadr II, as he is often called, set up a network of followers across southern Iraq and in Baghdad. Late in 1998, though, he began wearing the white martyr’s shroud while denouncing Saddam’s regime to growing and enthusiastic crowds. In February 1999, while driving home in Najaf, Sadr, along with two of his sons, was duly machine-gunned to death by state security agents.

Today, portraits of Sadr II, who is invariably depicted as a humble ancient with a snow-white beard, adorn walls and billboards around Iraq. These frequently share space with bearded, turbaned portraits of other Shiite leaders, many of them dead—testimony to the high mortality rate in Shiite religious politics. A few hundred yards from the site of the al-Sadr murder, for example, is a green-domed tomb, still under construction, that contains what few remains could be collected of the late Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al- Hakim, founder and leader of a political party called the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. He was the victim of a massive car bomb that exploded as he was leaving Najaf ’s Imam Ali shrine on August 29 this year.

Hakim was almost certainly killed by former members of Saddam’s security services now active in the resistance and determined to eliminate anyone, like Hakim, who cooperated with the Americans. However, at the funeral ceremonies, attended by hundreds of thousands of Hakim’s followers, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, his brother and successor as leader of the party, bitterly denounced the occupation forces for their failure to protect Hakim. It seemed that at least some Shiites were finding reasons to criticize their new rulers.

I viewed the massive destruction caused by the Hakim bomb during a trip to the shrine to see where a man I once knew had also been murdered. Last April, Abdul Majid al- Khoei, the son of a grand ayatollah, had just returned to Najaf—with the blessing of coalition forces, who appreciated his energy and liberal views—after 12 years of exile in London. Just inside the courtyard of the Ali shrine, a mob attacked him. Two companions were stabbed to death, but Khoei managed to escape and run the 50 or so yards that brought him to the front door of a house belonging to Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite extremist, who is a son of the martyred Sadr II. Khoei pleaded for shelter, but although there is little doubt that Muqtada was inside, the door did not open. Ashopkeeper finally took Khoei in, but the mob followed, dragged him down the street and round the corner, and knifed him to death.

Muqtada has always denied having had any role in the killing, though no one in Najaf that I talked to doubts his responsibility. Khoei not only believed in cooperation with the occupation but also stood for the separation of church and state, as opposed to the Iranian system of clerical rule, which Muqtada has endorsed.

On the day I retraced Khoei’s desperate flight, Muqtada’s well-guarded door was open and his front room crowded with petitioners seeking his help or advice. Three clerics sat at a table collecting wads of bank notes contributed by the faithful. Six months after the invasion that toppled his father’s killer, Muqtada was embroiled in an escalating conflict with the coalition forces and seemed to welcome any opportunity to confront them or, for that matter, other Shiite groups. Muqtada certainly enjoys a large amount of support among the poorer Shiites, most particularly among young unemployed men in the great Shiite slum of SadrCity in Baghdad. In the week following the peaceful 15th Shaban celebrations in Karbala, Muqtada’s gunmen attempted to take over the Hussein shrine in a shootout with supporters of a rival leader that left several dead and wounded on both sides. A few days later, they fought a U.S. patrol near the shrine, killing three Americans. (There were reports of a U.S. crackdown on Muqtada as we went to press.)

Opposing Muqtada in Karbala had been a shrine protection force loyal to perhaps the most important and revered Shiite leader in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Sistani, 73, was born in Iran but moved to Najaf more than 50 years ago to study. He spent much of the 1990s under the baleful surveillance of Saddam’s security forces. Yet from his house, he maintained an extraordinary moral authority over the Shiite masses. When, in mid-April, there was an erroneous radio report that Sistani’s house was under siege by followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, the news spread like wildfire. “I was sleeping in a village near Basra that night,” recalls Hussain Shahristani. “Suddenly I saw the villagers grabbing their guns and preparing to rush to Najaf, hundreds of miles away. ‘Sistani is under attack,’ they told me. That was all they needed to know. The same thing happened all over Iraq.”

Though he has denounced violence and the proliferation of firearms in Iraq, Sistani himself has command of a far more potent weapon—the immense authority of his fatwas. Last July he addressed the fundamental question of how he wanted the constitution for Iraq to be written. The occupation authorities had endorsed a plan by which their handpicked governing council would appoint a committee that would in turn devise the new constitution. In a fatwa written in graceful classical Arabic, Sistani declared that this approach was “unacceptable” because there was no guarantee that a constitution produced in this way would “represent the (Iraqi) National identity of which Islam and the noble values of society are an integral part.” (Sistani has always rejected Khomeini’s thesis on direct clerical rule.) Instead, he insisted, anyone writing a constitution would have to be elected. A constitution devised by any other means, he made clear, would be “illegitimate.”

The story goes that when Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, sent a message to the venerable religious leader suggesting that the two men cooperate on the constitution, Sistani sent a message back: “Mr. Bremer, you are an American and I am an Iranian. I suggest we leave it up to the Iraqis to devise their constitution.”

Few in Iraq believe that a constitution denounced by Sistani would stand a chance. But any fair election would almost certainly deliver a Shiite-dominated constitutional assembly. The underdogs and rebels would at last be in power—a sea change for a group that has so long defined itself through resistance to oppression. Will the Shiites still celebrate martyrdom when they are, themselves, in power? And who will judge them if they prove unjust?


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