Attack on Shrine Is an Attack on Shiite Faith

David Patel, an Iraq scholar at Stanford University, explains the significance of Wednesday's attack in Iraq as well as its target, the Golden Mosque in Samarra.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

To better understand the significance of today's attack and its target, the Golden Mosque in Samarra, we are joined by David Patel. He's an Iraq scholar at Stanford University. Welcome to the program.

Mr. DAVID PATEL (Stanford University): Thank you very much.

BLOCK: We heard there in Jamie Tarabay's report that the Golden Mosque holds the remains of two imams. Can you explain their significance to Shiite Muslims?

Mr. PATEL: Well, one of the main difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims is the nature of religious and political authority after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Shiite Muslims believe that the divine spark in that political and religious leadership passed into the descendants of the Prophet. And most Shiites believe there 12 of them, 12 imams, who each in their own time were effectively a prophet. And this site that was attacked was the burial site of the Tenth and Eleventh Imam and the Twelfth Imam, who went into occultation, or hiding, the Mahdi, basically the messiah. This is the site of his occultation.

BLOCK: So if you're a Shiite Muslim, then, how would you see this particular shrine? How significant would it be?

Mr. PATEL: Well, there's 12 imams. There's burial sites for 11 of them. And this is where two of them are. It's one of the four major pilgrimage sites in Iraq, with Najaf, Karbala and Kazimiyah, near Baghdad. So it's an incredibly holy site for Shiites, but not for Sunnis.

BLOCK: How would Sunnis view a shrine like this?

Mr. PATEL: This particular site has no real significance for Sunni Muslims. Other shrine sites would for the majority of Sunnis, such as the burial sites of Hussein and Ali in Najaf and Karbala. But this site was from the imams of the 800s, and it has very little resonance. And in fact there's a strong current in Sunni Islam now, the Salafis, we assume this attack was done by Salafi jihadists who've come to Iraq, who say that visiting tombs and visiting shrine cities like this is un-Islamic, and they engage in something which is called takfir, which is basically Muslims branding other Muslims unbelievers. And an attack on a shrine like this is a statement that Shiites and what Shiites believe and what Shiites do is un-Islamic. So it's not just an attack on a holy site. It's also an attack on Shiite doctrine, Shiite belief and effectively what it means to be Shiites by this larger current within Sunni Islam called Salafi takfiris.

BLOCK: And so if you think about the reverberations within the Shiite community to have an attack on a shrine that is considered so holy, where does that take you? What does this mean?

Mr. PATEL: For the immediate short term in Iraq, I think it means that there will be no confidence on the part of the Shiites for the political and military establishment to keep these sites sacred and to keep them safe. And I think you'll see pressure from militia, such as the Jaish-i-Mahdi, Moqtada al-Sadr's militia, which is actually named after the Mahdi, the imam who will return to the site. I think you'll see increased pressure from them and from Badr and from other militias to take over protection of these shrines. And you could see increased clashes between Shiite groups as they fight to be the protectors of these sites, when the state clearly isn't capable of doing it.

It could also have reverberations outside of Iraq. There is this ongoing discourse in the Muslim world about takfiri Islam and Muslims who call other Muslims unbelievers, and this event clearly strikes to the heart of that. And I think how Sunni clerics outside of Iraq respond to this, and if they condemn it and the way they condemn it I think will be important for Sunni-Shiite relations across the Muslim world.

BLOCK: The golden dome on top of the Golden Mosque is said to be one of the biggest in the Islamic world. You've seen this structure, I take it, from the outside. It sounds like it must have been, since it's now been, the dome has now been destroyed, it must have been an amazing site.

Mr. PATEL: It is. It's hard to miss. Anyone going through the city will see it. It's right in the center of the city, and, like most of the large Shiite shrines in Iraq, Najaf, Karbala, Kazimiyah, it has a large golden dome covering it. And the site is actually two distinct structures. One is the mausoleum of the Tenth and Eleventh Imam, Ali Al-Hadi and Hassan Al-Askari, from which the mosque is named.

And next to it is a smaller mosque, where the Mahdi, the Twelfth Imam, went into occultation. And inside that mosque is supposedly a cave. And in the corner of that cave is a well. And in that well is where the Mahdi actually went into occultation. He's not dead, and he occasionally communicates with his followers, but he basically has ascended, similar to the way Jesus did. So you can compare this in some way to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, but it's not where he died. It's where he disappeared, and where he remains in hiding until it is safe, and until God chooses for him to return to earth and rid the earth of tyranny and establish justice.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

David Patel, thanks very much.

Mr. PATEL: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: David Patel is an Iraq scholar at Stanford University.

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