Islamic history, Lebanon, religion, Syrian history

Ashshams: the mixed blessing of the Shi’ah mosque

The history of the remains of the Ra’s al-Imam al-Hussayn Mosque in Baalbek, East Lebanon is tentative but it now commemorates the death of the third Shi’ah Imam Hussayn ibn Ali, son of the first Imam Ali ibn abi Talib and the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. Hussayn was slaughtered in Karbala, Iraq, in AD680 by order of Yazid, son and newly appointed heir to the second Umiyyad ruler Mu’awiyah. Hussayn and some of his family had travelled from Medina to Iraq to defend the bloodline of the Prophet Mohammed and thus, the rightful succession of to the Caliphate (or Muslim empire). Hussayn’s death is uncontested and a source of deep regret for all Muslims. However the shrines commemorating his passing are a mixed blessing.

The Imam Hussayn ibn Ali Mosque at Karbala has its gremlins as, over the centuries, the city has undergone many transformations. By the early 20th century seventy five per cent of Karbala’s population was officially Iranian. In 1924 the British protectorate sought to Arabise the region and introduced what amounted to a forced naturalisation programme under the Iraqi Nationality Act. This was consolidated by a series of new measures, which curtailed the rights and privileges of non-citizens and non-Arabic speakers. The Holy Shrine regulations of 1949 and 1950 ensured that their administration was conducted only by Iraqi nationals, a move that ended the Iranian sphere of influence. The situation was reversed by the Western invasion of Iraq in 2003 and now the shrine at Karbala provides an alternative to the pilgrimage to Mecca. The political differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia made this necessary, as many Shi’ah are refused visas for Mecca by the Saudi authorities; requiring them to resort to alternative destinations.

The controversial history of the Ra’s Imam al-Hussayn Mosque is matched by the political intrigue surrounding Baalbek’s Sayyidah Khawla Mosque and its sister, the Sayyidah Zainab Mosque in Damascus. Accounts vary but both Mosques are said to be erected on pre-existing shrines and were completed around 1990. Importantly they are fashioned in the Iranian architectural design similar to that of the Imam al-Hussayn Mosque in Karbala. The Zaynab Mosque has attracted vast numbers of Shi’ah pilgrims to Damascus and as the Mosque is a symbol of solidarity in Islamic society, it is regarded with suspicion by many Syrians.

Throughout the Syrian conflict, its presence has fed into the rhetoric of holy war as the mainly Sunni population is suspicious of Iran’s intentions in the region. The Khawla Mosque stands on the main road leading into Baalbek and adjacent to the ancient Phoenician site. It is not used for prayers and though it does attract visitors, it is doubtful the Khawla Mosque will be the site of pilgrimage, as the origins of its namesake are mythologised, whereas Zainab was Hussayn’s sister. Further Shi’ah politicians are part of a coalition government rather than the ruling party and it is doubtful the Lebanese government, as a whole, would agree to such an inflammatory action.

This is a short extract from a chapter of a book I’m working on.



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