WASHINGTON, Sept. 12 (UPI) -- Editor's note: This is the second 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.
In Najaf it just goes with the territory that Shiite holy men get slaughtered. Saddam Hussein was but the latest despot to massacre clerics. And whoever assassinated Ayatollah Mohammad Baqr al-Hakim, who died two weeks ago in a terrorist attack that killed at least 95 people, stood in a 1,342-whole tradition of shedding blood here. Before al-Hakim, whole dynasties of ayatollahs were wiped out.
This bloody cycle began in 661 A.D. when Imam Ali, the Prophet Mohammed's son-in-law, was stabbed to death during prayer near Najaf, where he is now entombed. His murder was part of a power struggle over who was to be Islam's spiritual and temporal head.
Shiites share the fundamental faith of Sunni Muslims, but differ with them over the issue of spiritual leadership. Unlike the Sunnis, Shiites believe that Mohammed established a hereditary line of succession by creating the position of Imam.
In the Sunni tradition, the imam is simply the man who leads a local mosque congregation in prayer. But to the Shiites, God has chosen the Imam through the Prophet. An Imam must possess outstanding general and religious knowledge and the ability to interpret the inner mysteries of the Koran and the Shari'a law. He must be free of sin and error.
There have been twelve Imams in all, at least as far as the mainstream Shiites are concerned. The 12th Imam, Shiites claim, never died but disappeared from earth in 939 AD. He will remain hidden until God commands him to manifest himself in this world as the Mahdi or Messiah.
The term Shiite derives from the Arabic expression Shiah Ali, or Ali's partisans. The first Imam was Mohammed's young cousin. He lived with the Prophet since the age of six. Shiite teaching holds that Ali was the first person to profess his faith in Islam. He fought in all but one of Mohammed's battles, and the Prophet gave him Fatima, his favorite daughter, as wife, and proclaimed him Imam.
Their son, Imam Husayn, perished in combat in 680 A.D. and was buried in Karbala, which became Iraq's second holy city. Ever since, Shiites have bemoaned their 7th-century ancestors' failure to come to Husayn's rescue.
Only martyrdom, some feel, can make up for this historic display of cowardice. Thus developed the Ashura ritual involving huge processions of bare-chested men flagellating themselves with whips and iron chains and gashing their foreheads with swords. Leading Shiite authorities have forbidden this practice, however.
It is one of the great ironies of the Iraq crisis that Saddam Hussein, the bloodiest ruler of the region, also prohibited such bloody expression of piety. Not that the sight of blood displeased him; he just feared that such display of religious passion might quickly turn into general unrest. After all, the Iranian revolution of 1979 had started during the Arbain festival of mourning involving Ashura, or self-flagellation.
According to the Ashura website, the feast "makes us aware of the people, then and now, who tried to destroy Islam and the family of the Prophet and all that they stood for -- as well as those who watched, listened and did nothing."
No sooner was Saddam gone than the Shiite majority in his country resumed this cult of martyrdom, especially in Najaf and Karbala, the two holy cities. But in its tow, something else evidently resumed, as the world found out when Ayatollah al-Hakim and 94 others were assassinated -- the lethal rivalry that has plagued this religion for over 1,300 years.