A Democratic Beacon in the Fractious Arab World
At noon, on a building site in Najaf, workers down tools to perform one of the five mandatory prayers of the day. They are a happy lot. For as their foreman explains after the prayer they are constructing what is intended to be the largest Shia Muslim seminary in the world which will take several thousand students. The site is located opposite the golden-domed mausoleum where, according to tradition, lie the mortal remains of Ali Ibn Abitalib, the fourth Caliph of Islam and the first Imam of Shiism. As a result, Najaf is the most sacred city for the world’s estimated 300 million Shias. Last year, over 12 million pilgrims visited the Shia shrines along a route that leads from Najaf in the south to Karbala, Baghdad and Samara in the north, making Iraq the top tourist destination in the region.
The new seminary is not the only building project in Najaf. In fact the holy city resembles a vast building site where hundreds of projects are taking shape. These include five-star hotels for rich pilgrims and bed-and-breakfast outfits for those with modest purses. There are also shopping malls, restaurants and cafés, not to mention hundreds of housing units across the price range. The unprecedented boom in property prices in Najaf has attracted billions of dollars in foreign investment from as far away as Brazil, where the Shia community has established direct links with Iraq for the first time. Other big investors come from neighbouring Iran, where Shias are a majority of the population, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and India.
More importantly, perhaps, after a hiatus that lasted six decades, Najaf is regaining its prestige as the heart of Shiism. Over the past few years thousands of clerics have moved to Najaf from the Iranian city of Qom, hitherto regarded as the principal centre of Shia learning. Unlike Qom, where the Khomeinist regime in Tehran tries to control everything through a mixture of bribery and violence, Najaf is a free and open space in which theological speculation can be developed outside partisan political considerations. In Qom, five ayatollahs appointed by the government and on its payroll are presented as the highest religious authority in the land — just below the “Supreme Guide”, who claims to be the sole leader of all Muslims. There are no such outlandish claims in Najaf. There, the hierarchy of religious authority is established through traditional mechanisms developed over centuries. This is why Najaf’s senior clerics, notably Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani, are emerging as de facto religious leaders of Shias everywhere, including Iran itself.