How Shia Islam is opening up to other communities – Bridging faiths


SHAFAQNA – At such a time when Islam is sitting in the eye of a furious, its faith battered by allegations its people abide by a paradigm of violence and intolerance, Shia clerics have endeavored to open up their hearts and holy sites to better bridge communities and offer friendship where they were prejudice.

In the holy city of Najaf, such interfaith efforts have translated into a new open-door policy to other religious communities. One of the most revered cities of Shia Islam, Najaf carries much spiritual significance for the Islamic world, a place where guidance is offered, a place where directions are taken from.

It is exactly because Najaf holds such a prominent position within Shia Islam that cleris chose to turn the city into a new beacon of hope and tolerance for religious communities across the world.

In keeping with Islamic tradition of tolerance, brotherhood and respect for others’ difference, Najaf has become somewhat of an interfaith hub, an oasis for those in search of divine spirituality.

In a report published earlier this December the Economist recalled how “Inside the bejewelled Imam Ali Shrine, the holiest place for Shia Islam, a turbaned cleric was leading a delegation of women representing what remains of Iraq’s colourful sectarian make-up. The party included Melkite and Orthodox Christians, Sunni Muslims and members of smaller religious minorities, such as Yazidis and Mandeans. They also visited an 11-story academy for inter-religious studies, under construction opposite the shrine’s gates. And in an apparently unprecedented gesture, a Grand Ayatollah, one of four clergy of that rank in Najaf, invited them in for a bite to eat.”

Those are the stories best representative of Islam’s spirit – when clerics come to welcome men, not based on the condition that they accept Islam, but out of a desire to abide by God’s commands of mercy and guidance.

Islam’s imams are just guide to their communities … they carry Islam in all their interactions and exchanges. Their responsibility does not stop at their communities’ borders, it carries to all regardless of one nationality, social status and faith.

Islam is always best explained in its compassion.

Here is another story which speaks of the quality of Shia Islam’s clerics – the example they offer to others.

“Jawad al-Khoei, a Shia cleric who is preparing the new study centre, reacted in a rather unexpected way when a Christian bishop was about to enter the Imam Ali Shrine and discreetly tried to hide his crucifix in his cassock. “I told [the Christian prelate] he could only enter if he kept it [in view],” recalls Mr Khoei, a senior lecturer at the Shia seminary in Najaf and a follower of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered leader of Shia Islam. He adds that he is discussing a papal visit to Najaf with the Vatican. Another of Mr Sistani’s followers in Lebanon gives sermons in Beirut’s Christian churches.”

For centuries, Iraq’s multi-faith tradition has been preserved under Sunni leadership; now, as Sunni fanatics assault that tradition, the Shia clerics of Najaf are keen to emphasise their openness to others.

The access enjoyed by outsiders to the Imam Ali Shrine marks a contrast with many other holy places. Only Muslims may visit Mecca; the Ottoman system of granting permits to non-Muslims was stopped when the Saudis took over the place. Iran restricts non-Muslim entry to Fatima Masumeh, the holiest shrine in its theological centre of Qom. As part of a delicate balance, Israel curbs the access of non-Muslims to Islam’s third holiest shrine, al-Aqsa in Jerusalem.

But Najaf’s clerics pride themselves on their open-door policy. “Holy places are for all believers,” says Ezzedin al-Hakim (pictured, below), a son of another Grand Ayatollah.

Set to open next spring, the al-Balaghi Interfaith Academy is named after an ayatollah who learned Hebrew with the rabbis who once taught at the prophet Ezekiel’s tomb, a sacred site located half an hour’s drive away at Dhul-Kifl (pictured, below). The centre is aimed at the 13,000 Shia seminarians studying in Najaf, and will house seven auditoriums, a library for 1.5m books and a Turkish bath; its teaching staff, says Mr Khoei, will be predominantly non-Muslims.

“We want Yazidis to teach the Yazidi faith, Sabaeans to teach about Sabeans, and Christians to teach Christianity,” he says. Another inter-faith programme is already up and running at the Faculty of Islamic Law at Kufa University, Najaf’s largest college. “We want to turn Najaf into a meeting place of religions,” says Walid Farajallah al-Asali, the faculty dean and a turbaned cleric, speaking after a lecture on the Bablylonian Talmud, the compendium of Jewish law compiled in the Sura Academy, once located nearby. “All Iraqi students know about Judaism is the conflict with Israel. We have to explain the beliefs of Judaism.”

At a book fair at the back of Imam Ali Shrine, Lwiss Saliba, a lecturer from Saint Joseph, Beirut’s Jesuit university, mans a stall of holy texts he has translated and published in Arabic, including scriptures from the Bahai faith, which are formally banned by an Iraqi law from the 1970s as well as in Iran. “The ayatollahs are resolute in their determination to see equal rights for all, regardless of sect,” says Mr Khoei. “If the people elect a Christian as leader, he should lead.”

Critics complain that the ayatollahs’ openness has yet to percolate down to their devotees, a charge the clerics say they are addressing. At an evening gathering at Najaf’s Writers’ Union, some of the Yazidi and Mandean women dispensed with their scarves and, from the podium, told off Iraq’s education ministry for failing to amend the school textbooks which deride religious minorities, calling the Yazidis Satan-worshippers and berating the Sabeans for bowing to stars. The women received such an enthusiastic reception from the hall that a Christian woman from Baghdad pronounced she would move to Najaf with her family.


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