An-Najaf: a brief history
BY Dr. Haytham Mouzahem — An-Najaf city is located southern of Iraq about 160 km south of Baghdad. Including the shrine of Imam Ali Bin Abi Talib (599-661 CE), the Shia’ called it the city of ”An-Najaf al-Ashraf” which means the holy city of An-Najaf. Imam Ali Bin Abi Talib is the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, the first one who believed in Islam, the ruler of the fourth Islamic caliphate, and for Shia’ he is the first Imam.
An-Najaf, remained the primary center of traditional Islamic learning for Twelver Shia, called Hawza in Arabic and, also the center of the Shiite religious authority, Marja’iyyah, where four of the top religious scholars [Marja’a] live such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The city includes around 40 religious schools, graduating Shiites’ scholars from various countries of the World.
There is a disagreement on how Najaf was given its name. Some say that Najaf means the knoll and place that no flood can go over it, adding that Najaf at the back of Kufah [located 6 miles west of Kufa] is as a dam preventing the flow of water from going over the houses of Kufa and its graveyards.
Other story says that Najaf was the seashore of Bahr al Milh (Sea of Salt) connected to Shatt al-Arab, and the place was called ”Nay” when the sea dried up, the place was, therefore, called Nay-Jaff, meaning ”the dried sea” which was in turn changed to ”Najaf” for easy pronounciation. Other common historical names of Najaf are Banqiya, Dahr al-Kufa (Back of Kufa), Al-Ghari, Al-Mashhad, Arrabwa, at-Tur, Wadi As-Salam (Valley of Peace), Al-Judi, the mountain mentioned in Quran where Noah’s ark landed, although some believe that the aforesaid mountain is located in Armenia.
But the history of an-Najaf is not connected only to Shias and Muslims but it is also related to the history of other religions and prophets since the dawn of human. According to Shiites, the prophets Adam and Noah are buried within the shrine of Imam-Ali.
As Many Shia and eve Sunni Muslims request that they be buried in the historic Wadi al-Salam cemetery, alongside the tomb of the Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib, in Najaf city, the cemetery was considered as one of the largest cemeteries in the world and it was added to the list of World Heritage Sites, including around six million tombs, among them the tombs of Prophet Hud and Prophet Salih.
According to some Shiite accounts, Noah’s Ark landed in Kufa which is located 6 miles of Najaf city, it is, also, believed that Noah’s Ark landed in the ancient location of the great mosque of Kufa.
After Imam Ali’s assassination while praying in the Kufa Mosque in 661AD, the Mosque became a pilgrimage site for visitors, as well as the house of Imam Ali and his Wife Fatima, few meters away from the mosque.
After discovering the tomb of Imam Ali in the 8th century AD, an-Najaf city witnessed increasing development in terms of construction until it became a populated city. The shrine experienced its first development during the reign of the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid in the 10th century AD. At the end of the same century the Shiite Buyids king had spent a lot of money in order to build a beautiful shrine over the tomb.
The upper side of the holy burial chamber was under number of repair and renovation works throughout the past centuries. The Dome, the Minaret and some of the Mosques gates were encased with gold and silver pieces, through donations from some kings of Iran during the eras of Safavid, Qajar and Pahlavi Family, in addition to contributions by Shiite visitors from various countries of the world.
A source at the Holy Shrine revealed to the Vice that the gold pieces that encased the Mosque’s Dome and its two Minarets reached 7777 pieces.
On the way to the Holy Shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf, a visitor can see hundreds of poor Iraqi people and foreigners staying in the outer courtyard of the Shrine of Imam Ali as they don’t have much money to spend in hotels. Near the Shrine there is a restaurant called “Al-Mudif”, providing free food to guests and poor people.
During the era of Muntherids, they made al-Hira their capital and took an-Najaf which was neighboring al-Hira as their resort. Muntherids is a Dynasty who lived in al-Hira before Islam between 268 DA and 633 DA, one of its Kings An-Numan bin Munther (403 – 431 DA) had converted to Christianity causing the spread of Christianity across the capital that witnessed the construction of monasteries; it is said that al-Hira included 33 monasteries and churches, recently, traces of these monasteries were found in an-Najaf.
Following the Islamic Conquest of Iraq in 636 DA, Christians and their churches remained in An-Najaf. It is narrated that Caliph Ali Bin Abi Talib in Hirah when he came upon a monk who was ringing a church bell, he explained to his companions that the church bell is saying ”There is no god but Allah, really, really, truly, truly…”
In January 2013, a mass was held in the monastery of Abdul-Masih Ben-Baqila al-Rabed in al-Hira. The mass was attended by Pope Benedict XVI’s special envoy to Middle East, Giorgio Lingua and number of monks and faith representatives.
Former Director of the Department of Antiquities in Najaf, Mohammed Hadi Mayali stated that Al-Hirah was once the Vatican of Christian antiquities so it is not surprising that over 33 convents, places of worship and churches were discovered by archaeologists in Najaf soil, since the 30s of the 20 century.
Al-Kufa, which is one of the cities of Najaf province, is located 10 kilometers of Najaf city. The city was built after the Islamic conquest in 636 DA. After the battle of al-Jamal (the Camel battle) in 657 DA, Imam Ali lived in Kufa making it the capital of Muslim Caliphate for four years until his assassination while praying in Kufa Mosque.
However, the two cities of Najaf and Kufa are connected, intricately, to each other and separated administratively. The two cities have common factors in terms of culture and history, united under Imam Ali who lived, ruled, prayed in Kufa and engraved in Najaf that he loved for being the shrine of prophets Adam, Noah, Hud and Salih, where he used to visit and pray.
Historically, Kufa was known as the city of science, literature, poetry and philosophy. The Kufic is the oldest calligraphic, deriving from it the rest of the four Arabic scripts. Also, Kufa was known by its linguistic-grammatical school vis-à-vis the school of al-Basra. In addition to that, Najaf was famous by its writers and poets in the modern era, among them the best Arab modern poet, the late Mohamed Mahdi al-Jawaheri, and also the poet Mustafa Jamal Eddine.
Nevertheless, Najaf visitor could observe that the city lacks of interest by officials in terms of infrastructure, as the road from airport to the city is bad and unclean.
Vice asked number of Iraqi Researchers and Professors about the achievements of the successive Governments in Najaf city in terms of development, during the eleven past years, since the fall down of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Some justified that during the US occupation Najaf witnessed internal conflicts besides its resistance to the occupation, while others said that due to corruption the rulers failed to make achievements for the city.
Regarding the role of religious authority [Marja’eya] in improving the situation of Najaf city, a religious scholar asked for anonymity stated to Vice, that the Marja’eya has not enough money to meet the requirements, and this is because of the Fatwa by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani who allowed his followers to spend their Khums (religious obligation to contribute one-fifth of his annual income to charity) and Zakat immediately on poor people and orphans, while Ayatollah Abul-Quassem al-Khoueiy refused to allow immediate dealing between the contributor and the people in need.
Sheikh Jihad Assadi, a religious scholar at Najaf’s Hawza, stated to Vice that currently, there are no Jewish families living in Najaf. Instead, there is a narrow street called ”Jewish”, as it is said that a Jewish lived with his wife in that street in the past century and that he was a textile seller. Jewish were minorities living among Christian communities at certain period of time. Long time ago, an-Najaf included a synagogue which later turned into shops.
Jewish reached 2.6% of Iraq total population in 1951, they used to settle in main cities such as Baghdad, Basra and Mussel in addition to, Sulaymaniyah, Hillah, Nasiriyah, Amarah, Al-Diwaniya, Aziz, al-Kifl, Erbil and Tikrit.
The Iraqi Researcher Batoul Moussawi has deeply regretted the forced immigration of Jewish from Iraq during 1950s and 1960s of the 20 century, stating to the Vice that the governments are responsible for the immigration of Jewish from Iraq, considering that their presence would contribute in improving Iraq’s Economy. Moussawi pointed out that Jewish have been contributing in Iraq’s construction, as in 1921, Iraq’s first minister of finance, Sir Sassoon Eskell, was a Jew.
The Majority of Najaf inhabitants are emigrants. In the 1980s of the past century large number of displaced from different southern governorates, affected by the Iraq-Iran eight years’ war, have settled in Najaf. Also, Najaf receives families from Iranian, Hindi, Pakistani, Afghani, Bahraini and Lebanese origins who lived there, as well as foreign students in Hawza living with their families, and the admirers of Imam Ali who want to spend their lives near his shrine and be buried in the ”Peace Valley’s” cemetery.