Imam Ali Mosque

Najaf is a Shi’a Muslim holy city in southern Iraq, about 160km south of Baghdad. For Shi’a Muslims, the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf is the third holiest shrine in the world after Mecca and Medina.

In the middle of the city there is the Shrine of the Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib [cousin of the Prophet] with its resplendent golden dome and minarets. Great quantities of priceless objects, gifts of potentates and sultans, are treasured in the mosque. Historians say the tomb of Ali at Najaf was very likely built by Azoud ad Dowleh in 977; that it was burnt later and rebuilt by the Seljuk Malik Shah in 1086; and rebuilt yet again by Ismail Shah, the Safawid, in about 1500. No doubt numerous other hands have tinkered with it since. The tomb has the same style as those of Kerbela, Samarra and Kadhimain.

The first four successors to the Prophet Muhammad as head of the Muslim community were known collectively as the “Orthodox” or the “Rightly-Guided” or “Patriarchal” caliphs (al-khulafa’ al-rashidun). They served as temporal leaders of the emerging Muslim community from 632, following the death of the Prophet Muhammad to 661 AD. They were four of the Prophet Muhammad’s Companions, closely related to him either through blood or through marriage, and assumed the title of Khalifah or Caliph (literally, “he who follows” or “successor”).

Ali is considered the leader of the Shia. He was the cousin and the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed. And after the Prophet Mohammed died, Shiites thought that he should be the successor after the Prophet’s death because he was married to the Prophet’s daughter, and he was assigned by the prophet to be the carrier of the message after Mohammed’s death. He was murdered in the doorway of his recently completed mosque at Kufa by Mu’awiyah, the founder of the Umayyad/Umayyads dynasty (the dynasty of Caliphs ruling from 661 (41H) to 750 (132H)) moved the administrative capital from Medina in Saudi Arabia to Damascus in Syria. Under the Umayyads, the contours of the Islamic world extended from the Atlantic in the west to India and central Asia in the east.

In 1991, Saddam damaged the Imam Ali Mosque because most of the people who rebelled and were part of the uprising against Saddam Hussain’s government, were hiding in that mosque and they were taking it as a place of leadership. And so the Republican Guards fought the people, damaged that mosque and killed all the people who were inside. General Wafiq Al Samarae [the former director of the Iraqi Intelligence Service] admitted in his book (Eastern Gate Ruins) that Saddam’s regime used chemical weapons against Iraqi people in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala to crush the popular uprising of March 1991 which followed the defeat of Saddam in invading Kuwait.

Shi’a groups report capturing documents from the security services during the 1991 uprising that listed thousands of forbidden Shi’a religious writings. Since 1991 security forces had been encamped in the shrine to Imam Ali in Najaf, one of Shi’a Islam’s holiest sites, and at the city’s Shi’a theological schools. The shrine was closed for “repairs” for approximately 2 years after the 1991 uprising.

On August 29, 2003, a car bomb exploded outside of the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf during Friday prayers killing at least 95 people including the Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir Hakim.

On 24 May 2004 apparent mortar fire hit the Imam Ali shrine, damaging gates which lead to the tomb of Imam Ali. It was unclear which side was responsible for the damage, but US military spokesman Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said coalition forces had no involvement in damage to the shrine. He said he had heard differing accounts, including that the damage may have been caused by fighting between rival Shi’ite factions or by al-Sadr militia firing at the shrine to provoke outrage so they could blame it on the coalition.

Fighting around the Shrine of Imam Ali was intense during early August 2004, and the guerrillas used the nearby cemetery as their main staging point. US troops attacked the position from the ground and the air, and there have been reports that the holy site has been damaged in the fighting. On 08 August 2004 Lieutenant Colonel John Lewis Mayer, the commanding officer of U.S. ground combat operations in the area, accused al-Sadr’s fighters of launching more than 100 mortar rounds at U.S. forces from within the compound of the city’s Imam Ali Mosque.

What to See at Shrine of Imam Ali

The central focus of Najaf is the Imam Ali Mosque (also known as Meshed Ali or the Tomb of Ali), located in the city center. The mosque was built over the tomb (whether actual or symbolic) and shrine of Imam Ali, Muhammad’s martyred son-in-law.

The shrine of Ali is the third holiest in the world for Shi’a Muslims and a major place of pilgrimage. Many Shi’a bring their dead to the tomb of Ali, carrying the coffin around the sarcophagus before burial.

The mosque is resplendent in gold, with 7,777 tiles of pure gold covering the dome and two 35-meter high golden minarets each made of 40,000 gold tiles. Inside, the mosque is decorated with the opulence typical of Shi’a mosques, with neon lights reflecting off mirrored tiles and hammered silver walls. Sheltered in the mosque is an often-looted treasury of precious objects donated by sultans and other devotees over the years.

Najaf includes several other shrines, including a mosque marking the spot where Ali was martyred. There are also cells for Sufi mysticsthat have formed monastic communities there.

North of the Imam Ali Mosque is the Wadi as-Salam (“Wadi of Peace”), the largest cemetery in the Muslim world – and perhaps the entire world. It contains the tombs of several prophets, along with millions of Shi’a Muslims who have buried here so they might be raised from the dead with Imam Ali on Judgment Day.

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