WASHINGTON, Sept. 7 (UPI) -- Editor's note: This is the first installment of a UPI series on the theological and political significance of Najaf, the holiest city of Shi'a Islam and scene of the worst terrorist attack since the beginning of the current Iraq war.
You might call this city of 3,000 clerics the Vatican of the world's nearly 150 million Shiites. If you think of it as a blood-soaked town of martyrs you are right, too. And if you view it as the navel of a crescent of huge oil fields, all worked primarily by people belonging to this junior branch of Islam, you are also correct.
While Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, kept its Shiite majority down and its foreign brethren out, this crescent was, in a sense, cracked. But now it is re-established. The chaos in Iraq notwithstanding, fervent Shiite pilgrims are once again free to converge on Najaf from East and West and North and South.
They come in vast numbers from Iran, whose most famous holy place, Qom, is no longer the premier site of pilgrimage because Najaf and Karbala, suppressed under Saddam, have regained their old precedence. The pilgrims come from Hassa province in Eastern Saudi Arabia, from Bahrain and of course southern Iraq. And if you look at these places you will find that they have two things in common -- lots of Shiites and immense amounts of oil.
Two thousand pilgrims pour into Najaf every day, which they were not allowed to do under Saddam's reign. Many bring their dead to bury them near Imam Ali's tomb. Ali was Mohammed's son-in-law whom the Shiites revere as his legitimate successor. The prophet had given him Fatima, his favorite daughter, and because of her influence almost 1,400 years ago Shiite women have more rights than their sisters belonging to Islam's Sunni majority.
To be assigned to preach on Fridays by the side of Ali's tomb in a mosque in central Najaf is just about the highest honor a Shiite cleric can receive. Ayatollah Mohammad Baqr al-Hakim, who died last week in a terrorist attack that killed at least 95 people, held this pulpit, from which historically Shiite theology and political direction are defined.
Al-Hakim, who used this pulpit to denounce the looting and destruction in post-Saddam Iraq as sinful, received this position from the Hawza, the venerable Shiite theological seminary in Najaf. It is the power center of the "most noble city," as the faithful call Najaf.
Within this seminary, two Shiite traditions compete with each other, the activist and the quietist. Currently, the latter still seems to prevail because it is the line followed by Iranian-born Ayatollah Ali Sistani, 73, the Hawza's most senior figure.
But he is opposed by the young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, 31, whose looting mob of followers hail chiefly from the poorest elements of Shiite Muslims. Al-Sadr urges them to oppose the U.S. occupation of their country. He stops short of inciting them to violence but hints at the need for resistance.
In the streets of Najaf, there are whispers that Muqtada might have been behind the gentle al-Hakim's murder, which he vigorously denies. But then, there is a long tradition of bloodshed between rivaling clerics in Najaf. In the 19th century, for example, gruesome wars were fought between two sets of Shiite theologians, the Akhbari, who were traditionalists, and the Usuli, who were rationalists.
Blood has an extraordinarily important place in Shiite piety, more so than in most other religions. As the second installment of this series will show, bloodshed marked this faith's history ever since the Imam Ali was murdered in 661 A.D.
The Shiite religion, though in other ways gentle and even socially progressive -- very much like the murdered Ayatollah al-Hakim -- is one of martyrdom and self-sacrifice but also of systematic terror; the first "assassins" were, literally, a secret Shiite society. And one of the highest rituals in the Shiite year is Ashura, a time when Shiites flagellate themselves with iron chains to do penance for their ancestors' abandonment of Husayn, who was martyred in 680 A.D.
He is buried in Karbala, the Shiites' second most holy site -also in Iraq, their spiritual homeland.
Next installment: Najaf's 1400 years of holy suffering.