CHAPTER 1 Husayn vs. Hussein
The most excellent jihad is the uttering of truth in the presence of an unjust ruler.1 —The Prophet Muhammad ONE NIGHT IN early 1971, my father came home at nine o’clock to find an urgent message from the governor of Iraq’s Karbala province, Shabib al-Maliki. He returned the call, and their conversation was brief, which made it either more ominous or less, I’m not sure. Governor Maliki wanted to see him right away. Nine o’clock was late for Karbala; in the Middle East lunch, not dinner, is the main meal of the day, and the first call to prayer comes at dawn. My father’s experiences over the previous ten years, and especially in the two and a half years since the Baath party had come to power, had taught us that a request for a late-night meeting could signal nothing positive. Two days earlier, a close friend of my father’s, Ayatollah Mohammad Shirazi, had fled the country after learning of a plot to assassinate him. Ayatollah Shirazi was one of Iraq’s most learned and trusted scholars of Islamic jurisprudence, a mujtahid, and he unflinchingly criticized the Baathists, a dangerous practice under an anti-Shia regime whose ideology and rule were based on consensus through fear. Baathist assaults frequently targeted the outspoken and the charismatic. The more influential the critic, the more savage the government’s response. It might start with legal harassment and escalate to overt threats. Then anonymous agents of the Mukhabarat, the secret police known as the “visitors of the dawn,” would knock on your door in the pre-waking hours when witnesses were few and the element of surprise high. If you were lucky, they administered a beating. If you were not, they took you to headquarters for interrogation, torture, or execution, depending on whether you told them what they wanted to hear. Detainees at Abu Ghraib, the British-built sixties-era facility where the Baathists held many of their political prisoners, experienced cruelty of the most imaginatively ghoulish varieties: scalding with boiling water in their most sensitive areas, branding, crucifixion, blinding with insecticides, feet-first insertion into an industrial grinder. They were dissolved in acid baths while their wives were forced to watch. Some simply vanished. Upon learning of his impending fate, Ayatollah Shirazi made the sensible decision to avoid torture or death and instead struck out for Kuwait under cover of darkness. He told no one of his plan. At the governor’s office soon after receiving the message, my father joined a secretary and Governor Maliki himself, who didn’t waste any time in revealing his agenda: Where is your friend Shirazi? Why did he leave? My father could take some comfort in the fact that Governor Maliki had seemingly called this meeting to discuss Ayatollah Shirazi and not his own criticisms of the regime, which were frequent. I don’t know where he went, my father said—and it was true; he did not—but I can tell you that Ayatollah Shirazi left because he feared for his life. Two years earlier, Ayatollah Hassan Shirazi, Mohammad’s brother, had written poems mocking the regime and openly denounced those in power as thugs and gangsters. He was arrested, tortured, and nearly executed. Only widespread public outrage at his treatment saved him. (He fled to Lebanon, where one of Saddam Hussein’s agents assassinated him in 1980.) Governor Maliki pretended for my father’s benefit that Ayatollah Mohammad Shirazi had overreacted. Shirazi was very safe in Karbala, he said. He had no reason to worry. You’re right, my father said, and the best proof of what you say is the two sheikhs, Ayatollah Shirazi’s associates, who were arrested at the doorstep of Imam Husayn’s shrine yesterday. (The shrine dated to Karbala’s very origins and powerfully symbolized the struggles for justice of all Shia Muslims.) Governor Maliki retorted that the Iranian sheikhs, who were Shia clerics, had been deported for lack of proper documentation. My father had known the governor, a Shia lawyer, for years before the Baathists came to power, and he knew he could not win this argument. Though not a Baathist himself, Maliki was accountable to them, and the future awaiting a governor who defied the regime would be dark, and short. The secretary left the room, and Governor Maliki fell silent. When he spoke again, his officious tone had disappeared. Sayed Mortadha, he said, I love you, and I don’t want you to get hurt. He shook his head. I should not give you this advice. My position requires that I not give you this advice . . . You will be next. If Shirazi had stayed, he would not be alive right now. You should go. The next morning my mother woke us up at four o’clock instead of the usual seven and told us there would be no school that day. We were going on a trip to Basra. I was six years old and so happy about not going to school that I didn’t think to question why we had to rise so early. We took only what we would need for a few days: a change of clothes and some snacks for the car. Everything else, including my father’s extensive library, stayed behind. Before we left, my grandfather Ayatollah Mohammad Sadiq Qazwini stopped by the house, and my father knelt to kiss his hand. As they embraced, I sensed that it would be a long time before they saw each other again. A Mercedes-Benz cab pulled up after morning prayers and all seven of us squeezed inside: my father, my mother, my three older brothers, my one older sister, and me. A ten-hour drive away, Basra was the largest city in southern Iraq, a somewhat ragged old port town once known as the Venice of the Middle East for its extensive canal system. Founded as a garrison a few years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, it seemed to be continually caught in the middle of conflict, probably because of its strategic position on the Shatt al-Arab, the union of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, near the Persian Gulf. All of Iraq’s oil exports passed this way, and the borders of both Iran and Kuwait were less than thirty miles away. Later the city would be hit hard in the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War, and the Iraq War. The tone in the car was not at all somber. For my siblings and me, this was a field trip. My father, however, remained quiet throughout the drive, looking serious and preoccupied. Occasionally he paged through a Qur’an he held on his lap and whispered a few prayers. We stopped only for bathroom breaks, and those weren’t frequent enough. North of Basra, the road forks; one road leads downtown, and the other, the route we took, leads southwest to Safwan, a village near the Kuwaiti border. We all noted the change in plans, but none of us was brave enough to ask why we weren’t, in fact, going to Basra. The closer we came to the border, the quieter my father got. Iraq and Kuwait have a historically uneasy relationship. In the days when the Ottoman empire controlled southeastern Europe, most of the Middle East, and the Mediterranean coast of Africa, the two lands were one, though for centuries Kuwait had a semiautonomous sheikhdom. Iraq surrendered its claim to Kuwait when the former escaped British rule in 1932 but was unaware at that time of its neighbor’s vast petroleum reserves. When Kuwait shed its status as a British protectorate in 1961, Iraq’s prime minister, Abdul Karim Qasim, disputed the claim of independence and mobilized troops on the border. War appeared imminent. The British dispatched their military, backed by Arab countries, to defuse the situation, and Prime Minister Qasim backed off. As a well-known preacher and authority on Islamic principles, my father had traveled to at least half a dozen countries to speak; those engagements accounted for most of our household income. He refused to accept a salary for teaching at the seminary, believing that work to be one of his fundamental religious obligations. In a fortunate quirk of timing, he was already scheduled to speak in Kuwait in two weeks, so the idea that we were crossing as a family in advance of his lecture might have seemed plausible to officers manning the checkpoints. At the border, my father warned us to keep quiet and stay in the car. He strode to the office and got his passport stamped. We passed through a second checkpoint, then a third. Border guards would ask a few routine questions, compare faces with passports, and wave us through. Perhaps having a private driver lent the journey an air of legitimacy. Whatever the reason, we entered Kuwait without incident, without the rest of us even appreciating the risk involved. Later, at my uncle’s house in Kuwait City, I overheard my uncle telling my father, “You were right. You did the right thing, and you got out safely.” But if one of Saddam’s spies had observed our flight and called ahead to the border checkpoint . . . Governor Maliki, certainly an intelligent man, must have calculated that the government would attribute our disappearance to fear in the wake of Ayatollah Shirazi’s preemptive exile. Not only did the governor never face punishment for his tip to my father, he also became the minister of justice a decade later, when the name of that ministry held even fewer promises for those at odds with the regime. The border guards discovered too late that we were not supposed to leave the country, but what punishment they suffered for their oversight, I cannot say. BIRTH OF THE SHIA Whenever he deemed it useful, Saddam would kill Muslims, Christians, Communists, and anyone else without regard for their beliefs. In the 1950s he was so notorious as a hot-tempered gangster on the streets of Sunni-dominated Tikrit, a rough-and-tumble city to begin with, that the Baath party recruited him as an enforcer while he was still in his teens. A few years later, they chose him to lead the assassination of Prime Minister Qasim, who had gained power through a coup himself the year before. Saddam failed (and took a bullet in the process), but not for lack of effort. Religion did not matter much to him, except as a tool to manipulate the pious or as a threat to his secular rule. It was this second consideration—principles, not theology—that bred his special hatred for the Shia. He rarely trusted Shia with any significant responsibility in his regime because Shia believe that it’s better to divide for truth than to unite in error, an article of faith that dates to the seventh century. The full tale is long, and some of it has been disputed or lost to history, but it began at an oasis outside Mecca after the Prophet Muhammad’s last trip there, known as the Farewell Pilgrimage, two months before his death. (Though a visionary and shining ethical model, the Prophet Muhammad was mortal.) The Prophet Muhammad already had become remarkably influential and won many admirers in the region. By the end of his life, he held sway over the entire Arabian Peninsula, and he was able to unify Arabs under his leadership. For those who had religious or ethical questions, he was there to provide guidance and further define the faith. But as the Prophet grew visibly weaker toward the end of his days, the question of who would succeed him loomed large, and he knew that for the sake of his community and Islam’s future, he would have to answer it. He did this following the Farewell Pilgrimage at Ghadir Khum, a small stream marking the crossroads between Mecca and Medina where pilgrims parted company with their fellow Muslims. The Prophet Muhammad sent word to those far ahead to return and waited for the stragglers to catch up, so that by the time he began speaking, more than 100,000 of his followers had gathered around him. At the climax of his speech, he said: It seems the time approaches when I shall be called away [by God] and I shall answer that call. I am leaving for you two precious things and if you adhere to both of them, you will never go astray after me. They are the Book of God and my progeny, that is, my Ahlul-Bayt. The two shall never separate from each other until they come to me by the Pool [of Paradise].2 The Prophet then reminded his people that he would be watching over them, and he raised the hand of his cousin and son-in-law and said, “Whoever I am his master, Ali is his master. O God, love those who love him. Be hostile to those who are hostile to him. Help those who help him. Forsake those who forsake him. And keep the truth with him where he turns.”3 This was a momentous proclamation, but not surprising. The Prophet Muhammad’s cousin was his closest male heir and almost universally respected as a pious, fair, capable, and deeply intellectual leader. We call him Imam Ali, “imam” being a reverential term for the early line of Shia leaders. Imam Ali’s father, Abu Talib, had been the head of a small but influential clan in Mecca and had taken care of the orphaned Prophet Muhammad for much of his childhood; the Prophet returned the favor almost three decades later by taking in Imam Ali when Abu Talib could no longer afford to care for him. When the Prophet Muhammad turned forty and began receiving messages from God about Islam, Imam Ali was the first person to convert after the Prophet’s own wife. He was the only one permitted to enter and leave the Prophet Muhammad’s house at will and the only male who prayed behind the Prophet Muhammad in the Kaaba, the rectangular stone edifice that now stands draped in black curtains at the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Both of the Prophet Muhammad’s sons had died at a young age. If there was any doubt about the significance of the Prophet Muhammad’s speech at Ghadir Khum, he eliminated it with a final statement, a Qur’anic verse revealed to him at the time: “This day have I perfected for you your religion and completed my favor on you and chosen for you Islam as a religion.”4 The Prophet Muhammad asked all of the tens of thousands present, including a prominent Muslim named Abu Bakr, to swear an oath of allegiance to Imam Ali. Narratives from Islamic tradition tell us that Abu Bakr congratulated Imam Ali on his new role. “Well done, Ibn Abi Talib!” he said, referring to him by his last name (literally, “son of Abu Talib”). “Today you became the leader of all believing men and women.” Not everyone accepted this announcement without complaint. Different clans vied against one another for power, and it was apparent to all that whoever succeeded the Prophet Muhammad as leader of the Muslim people would be powerful indeed. If anyone in the Hashim, the tiny clan of the Prophet Muhammad and Abu Talib, succeeded the Prophet, the balance of power would skew heavily toward the Hashim and set the scene for a string of Hashemite leaders. Even worse, some contenders aspiring to succeed the Prophet Muhammad feared, if Imam Ali became the successor, the position could become hereditary, forever locking them out of the Muslim leadership.