June 19, 2013
Scott Ritter, a former Marine intelligence officer, served as a chief weapons inspector for the United Nations in Iraq from 1991 to 1998. He is author of “Target Iran” (Nation Books, 2006) and the forthcoming “On Dangerous Ground: Following the Path of America’s Failed Arms Control...
Scott Ritter: Calling Out Idiot America
Most respondents who have a basic understanding of Iraq will answer that Karbala is a city of significance to Iraq’s Shiite population. Baghdad is Iraq’s capital, with a mixed Sunni and Shiite population. If that is your answer, you fail.
Karbala is a holy city for the Shiites. Its status as such is based on the fact that Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad and son of Ali, the fourth caliph, was killed outside Karbala in a battle between Hussein’s followers and forces loyal to Yazid, son of Muawiyah, the fifth caliph. The two sides were fighting over the line of succession when it came to leading the Muslim faithful after the death of Muhammad in the year 632. Abu Bakr, a close colleague of Muhammad but not a member of Muhammad’s biological family, was elected as the first caliph after the prophet’s death, an act that many Muslims believed broke faith with a necessity for the successor of Muhammad to be from his family. Abu Bakr’s death brought about a quick succession of caliphs, all of whom met untimely deaths and none of whom were from the family line of Muhammad.
When Ali was elected as the fourth caliph, many Muslims believed that for the first time since the death of Muhammad the caliphate had been restored to one properly authorized in the eyes of God to lead the Muslim faith. In fact, upon Ali’s accession as caliph, one of his first acts was to seek to restore the Muslim faith to its puritanical origins, which Ali believed had been departed from by the merchant families closely allied with the third caliph, Othman. Ali’s efforts were bitterly resisted by merchant families in Damascus, which refused to recognize Ali as the caliph. The head of the Damascus rebels, Muawiyah, fought a bitter conflict with Ali, which weakened the caliphate and paved the way for Ali’s assassination.
Upon Ali’s death, the caliphate was transferred to his elder son, Hassan, but when this succession was challenged by Muawiyah, Hassan relented, transferring the caliphate to Muawiyah with the caveat that once Muawiyah died, the caliphate would be returned to the lineage of the prophet Muhammad. When Muawiyah died, the caliphate passed to his son, Yazid. This succession was challenged by Hussein, Hassan’s brother and Ali’s younger son, who believed that the succession, as dictated by Hassan when he abdicated, should have gone to someone within the direct line of the prophet Muhammad, namely Hussein. Yazid’s treacherous attack on Hussein and his followers, occurring as it did during prayer time, set the stage for the split in the Muslim faith between the Shiat Ali (Shia, or followers of Ali) and the Ahl-i Sunnah (Sunni, or the people who follow in the custom of the prophet Muhammad). Both Shiite and Sunni view one another as deviants from the pure form of Islam as taught by Muhammad, and as such functioning as apostates deserving death.
If you answered the quiz on Karbala in the above fashion, you would still be wrong. The split between Sunni and Shiite goes beyond simple hatred for one another. Not only did the religion split, but so too did the methodology of governance as well as the interrelationship between religion and politics.
There was a final chance at achieving unity within the Muslim world. In the year 750, at the battle of Zab in Egypt, nearly the entire aristocracy formed from the lineage of Muawiyah was annihilated when the Damascus-based caliphate clashed with predominantly Shiite rebels. Jaffar, a Shiite spiritual leader and the great-grandson of Hussein, was supposed to be elevated to the caliphate, thereby uniting the Muslim world, but was instead murdered by Al-Mansur, who established the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad. This final treachery created a permanent split between the Shiites and those who became known as Sunnis.
The Shiite faithful embraced rule by imams, infallible leaders who provide guidance over spiritual and political affairs. According to the majority of Shiites, there are 12 imams, originating with Ali. The 12th imam, also named Muhammad, is believed by many Shiites to be the Mahdi, or savior, who went into hiding at God’s command and will return at the end of days to bring salvation to the faithful. With the passing of the 12th imam, matters of spiritual and political concerns were dealt with by religious scholars, or the ulema. These scholars are products of religious academies, known as “hawza.” In Iraq, the city of Najaf is home to the most important hawza, the Hawza Ilmiya. Each hawza produces religious scholars, or “marjas,” who interpret religion and provide guidance over social matters to those who rally around their particular teachings.
The Najaf Hawza currently has four marjas, or grand ayatollahs, each of whom reigns supreme when it comes to matters of religion or state. The faithful look to their hawza for guidance in all they do, and the sermons given by the various marjas take on a significance little understood by those who aren’t born and bred into that society. To speak of creating a unified Iraqi state without factoring in the reality of the hawza and its competing marjas is tantamount to claiming one will seek to fly without factoring in the realities of lift and gravity.
So if you answered the question concerning the city of Karbala with anything remotely resembling an insight into not only the schism that exists between the Sunni and the Shiite but also how the development of the practice of the Shiite faith has led to an absolute insinuation of religious dogma into every aspect of social and political life in a manner that operates independently of any so-called central state authority, you would get a passing grade, enabling you to move on to the next city covered by the pop quiz: Baghdad.
Dig last updated on Mar. 23, 2007