Samarra: the Open Wound

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There are those who would like us to pass off February 22, 2006 as one more day in the pain-ridden history of Shi’ism, one more dark episode pushed to the depths as it were. Such that when we turn to look back in 5 years or 50 years time, there are no lessons to be derived – there is only a reaffirmation of the living insignia of oppression and suffering. This kind of reaction, subsumed in a palpable fatalism, achieves nothing except to multiply the oppression. – The depths of time safeguard dark and bitter stories of oppression and suffering. Safeguard, I say, in the hope that humanity would one day be intelligent enough to pay heed. It is not altogether unusual for the virtuous to be slain at the hands of vengeful seekers of power and might, for such is the overwhelming burden that Man has pressed upon the heart of time.The brilliance of solitary stars which sparkle from the depths was not attained in ease and comfort. It is in the valleys of oppression and suffering rather, that the nursery of stars is found. Even after death, they remain oppressed. The stars, however, do not fade, but their radiance is ever more resplendent.

Four years ago, the blessed shrines of the Tenth and Eleventh Imams (peace be upon them) were heinously targeted in Samarra in what was an intentional and calculated strike at one of the most potent symbols in Shia Islam. Putting to one side questions pertaining to perpetrators and motives, it is fitting to ask after due lapse in time about the nature and quality of our response, and the lessons we have learnt from the shattering scenes witnessed on that day.

There are those who would like us to pass off February 22, 2006 as one more day in the pain-ridden history of Shi’ism, one more dark episode pushed to the depths as it were. Such that when we turn to look back in 5 years or 50 years time, there are no lessons to be derived – there is only a reaffirmation of the living insignia of oppression and suffering. This kind of reaction, subsumed in a palpable fatalism, achieves nothing except to multiply the oppression. 

The attack on the blessed shrines emerged from a particular context from which we can derive both specific and general lessons. Not wanting to ring alarm bells aloud, the present situation and context is not dissimilar to that of February 2006. It is therefore incumbent upon us to closely analyze the conditions of our recent past, following which, we can begin to sketch some of the responsibilities that we must shoulder. Here are some points to consider:

1. Marjaiyyah: the Source of Strength

We live in a world today in which the individual is raised above social groupings and communities. Any sort of religious authority is especially shunned by a mindset that claims it seeks to liberate man – even from God the Almighty. For more than a century now, the efforts of certain powers have been focused on ‘doing away’ with the primary institutions of authority and legitimacy in the Muslim world. Packaged in the name of modernization (if not Westernization) and progressive labels, the “success” of such efforts has had devastating effects – most visible in the rise of violence-driven currents within the Muslim fabric who interpret Islamic law to suit their whims. 

In the aftermath of the attacks in Samarra, one of the most notable lessons to be learnt has to do with the centrality of the institution of the Marjaiyyah. The very existence of a well-defined religious authority that enjoys unanimous legitimacy within Shia Islam is not only a point of distinction, but in fact serves as a fortified line of defense. Shia scholars from Iraq all the way to Southeast Asia echoed the same message of the Maraja, which in effect botched the agendas of those who hoped to see an open civil war in Iraq, and wider Sunni-Shia tensions across the Muslim world.

It would not be an exaggeration to state that the continuity and strength of Shia Islam lies in the institution of the Marjaiyyah. It is of paramount importance, especially for those of us who are geographically distant from the Hawza, to consistently reinforce our ties with the wider institution of the Marjaiyyah. 

2. Myth of the Sunni-Shia Divide

Looking back into recent history from the vantage point of wisdom gained by the passage of time, one cannot help but notice the sheer breadth of the sectarian conspiracy that had gripped the Muslim world before and shortly after 2006. Many of those who thought, or perhaps deceived themselves into thinking, that Western interference in the Muslim world was aimed at the “bearded fanatics” of Tora Bora have been proven wrong.

One can safely state today that the systematic demonization of Islam and the targeting of Islamic symbols – with the shameful caricatures marking the climax – have exposed the real target of those ‘noble’ interventions. Shortly after the February bombing in Samarra, a grizzly war was waged by Israel against the Shias of southern Lebanon – over four million cluster bomblets were rained over Shia towns and villages in the last 72 hours of the war. 

Following the war, a senior Israeli associate of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA), Dr. Mordechai Kedar, speaking at a conference in late 2006, stated in no unclear terms: “Israel is fighting against 1,400 years of Shia history.”

The deadly instruments of war are once again being prepared for an attack on the Islamic Republic of Iran to take the war “against 1,400 years of Shia history” to its next major target, with a renewed aggression on southern Lebanon also on the cards. 

3. The Power of Concepts

Whenever any attempt is made to question our level of response to the Samarra attacks, a barrage of objections to the effect “What can we do?” (and related variants, added for good measure) often follow. The pages of history speak of many past nations and communities who raised such questions, yet history never speaks well of those who employed these as pretexts to evade responsibility.

One of the greatest theological features of Shia Islam, which separates us from other schools of thought in Islam, is in our understanding of concepts such as predestination and divine decree. Since the beginning of the Prophetic mission, Islam always stood against any form of slavish fatalism. The message of Islam in its essence underlined the freewill of human beings, and gave emphasis to the sense of responsibility that the provision of this gift naturally entailed. Human beings were not only capable of changing the realities that surrounded them, but as divine vicegerents, it was their responsibility to establish justice and equity.

Today, it is amongst our foremost responsibilities – both as individuals and communities – to refine our conceptual understanding of Islam; concepts such as patience are today distorted in order to justify inaction and communal passivity, whose end result is nothing other than a vicious cycle of degeneration. Our scholars continue to stress on this aspect, especially in their addresses to the youth. Brief works, such as Discourse on Patience written by Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, provide testimony to their importance. 

4. Awareness: the Stepping Stone for Action

Any attempt to fulfill one’s responsibilities in the absence of proper awareness is akin to embarking on a blind journey – possessing neither a clue as to the final destination nor the path that ought to be traversed. 

Evidently, awareness in our context pertains to an array of diverse subjects whose implications influence our respective communities, either in part or as a whole. As such, this responsibility is one that each one of us must critically apprise for ourselves. 

Nevertheless, there is one particular subject that I would like to raise whose awareness we cannot shirk away from: the plight of Muslims in general, and Shias in particular, around the world. 

Anyone who claims to follow the religion of the Holy Prophet and of those great personalities who showed us, practically – by carrying sacks of bread in the dark of night in the alleys of Kufa and Medina until their backs were bent from the heavy loads – about the importance of the Prophetic tradition: “One who gets up in the morning and is not concerned about the affairs of other Muslims is not a Muslim”. For those of us who claim allegiance to such leaders, our lack of awareness, and at times, sheer negligence, towards the affairs of our fellow Muslims is totally inexcusable. 

Projects to raise awareness on the plight of fellow Muslims should be regarded as a communal responsibility, and as such congregations must ask, and if need be pressure, their leaders to keep their respective communities up-to-date on these matters. We must also learn to be proactive instead of satisfying ourselves with the usual knee-jerk reactions of protest and disgust. As we speak right now, the Masjid Al-Aqsa is being exposed to greater threat with every passing day. Where, may I ask, is our response to the daily sacrilege? What about those Shia families who struggle to put together one meal a day in Iraq and elsewhere? When will the time be right to finally witness our response?

5. Networking and Coordination

It is irreconcilable to acknowledge the reality of Shia children in parts of Africa and Asia not having access to books and pencils, whilst at the same time maintaining pretensions of well-networked structures within the wider Shia community. Furthermore, it is all-too-convenient to blame heads of communities for such shortcomings when the community at grassroots level is itself sunk in apathy. 

Community initiatives increasingly need to dispense with self-imposed constraints – particularly geographical. With vast means of communication and technology available at our disposal, there really is no point juggling around with grand-sounding excuses for the apparent lack of coordination. Leaders and concerned members of our community should find ways through which we can tap into the vast untouched resources within the wider Shia community. Through wise leadership and proper coordination, we can begin to rise up to the many challenges that confront us today.

Whilst speaking about the Day of Reckoning, the late Shaheed Muhammad Baqir Al-Sadr noted that there shall be two types of accounting: the individual record of deeds for each one of us, and a collective accounting that brings to account the (mis)deeds of communities and societies as a whole. We should therefore be under no illusions about the responsibilities that we must bear not only as individuals but also as communities.

To be followers of Imam al-Hadi and Imam al-Askari is to emulate their lives and to act upon their lofty instructions. It is they who should be our guides in our daily affairs, and it is to them we should turn to find answers to the challenges we face. Those who seek to destroy the shrines of the Ahlul Bayt will never succeed, for to do so, they must first eradicate the love that exists in our hearts for the Prophet and his Pure Household.

Through commitment, sincerity, and unity of purpose, much can be achieved to further the goals of the Ahlul Bayt. But we must be prepared to take serious steps before the fruits of our efforts can be tasted.

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