The Shii Shrine Cities of Iraq Revisited

The Shii Shrine Cities of Iraq Revisited

At the beginning of the 19th century, the Shii shrine cities of Najaf, Karbala, and Kadhimain continued under the spiritual infl uence of religious scholars, the maraji al-taqlid (marja al-taqlid, sing., “the source of emulation”; a religious leader of such erudition that individual Shiis follows his teachings), or the mujtahids (Islamic legal authorities).

But beginning in or around the 1780s, changes had occurred in Najaf and Karbala that brought external infl uence to bear on the cities’ social, economic, and political composition. The fi rst had to do with what has been called the remission of “Indian money” to the shrines, especially those in Najaf and Karbala. Briefl y, the Oudh Bequest, set up by the Shiis ruler of Awadh (Oudh) in British-controlled India, channeled close to £10,000 a year to the leading Shii clergy in Iraq.

Spent on badly needed infrastructural projects, such as canal building and irrigation works, as well as for money contributions to the leading mujtahids, the bequest cemented ties between Najaf, Karbala, and northern India. After the British annexation of Awadh in 1856, when the bequest began to be distributed by the British agent in Baghdad on behalf of the nawab of Awadh, it further shored up ties between the shrine cities and the British.

However, because of the complicated situation of the Shii cities, in which autonomy movements were played out against the background of imperial Ottoman centralizing rule and rival Persian and Indian infl uences, little concrete change was affected between the Shii leadership and British economic and political interests in Iraq.The second change occurred with the imposition of a more centralized administration in Karbala. Up to the early 20th century, all of the shrine cities of Iraq were in theory administered by Ottoman governors and tax collectors and kept in check by Ottoman troops.

By the 1820s and 1830s, however, the localization of power had affected more than the religious clergy; it had brought about the emergence of a class within a class of merchants and city “bosses” who had usurped power from the older landholding families and begun to control the city’s wards. This “mafi a” (to use Juan Cole’s terminology) consisted of youth gangs, small merchants, and laborers, with the occasional vagabond journeyman or thief thrown in.The unique status of Karbala, with its self-governing hierarchy of clergy, landholders, and urban gang leaders, irked the Ottomans.

After repeated military feints against the city, which had become dangerously independent in Ottoman eyes, the governor of Baghdad, Najib Pasha, sent an army to conquer Karbala and bring it back within the Ottoman fold. In January 1842, the die was cast. Breaching a strategic wall of the city, the Ottoman army attacked. After a fi erce fi ght in which more than 5,000 of Karbala’s forces were killed while only 400 government soldiers lost their lives, the Ottoman troops succeeded in reining in the local elements and conquering the town and its environs.

On January 18, Najib Pasha entered Karbala and made straight for the sanctuary of Imam Husayn, where he and his military commanders prayed and gave thanks. After that, the governor spelled out the dimensions of Karbala’s defeat: A Sunni governor was appointed over Karbala, Sunni judges were sent to the city to administer the court system, and a Sunni preacher was brought in to lead the Friday prayers, at which the Ottoman sultan’s name would be ritually mentioned as a symbol of dominion (Cole 2002, 118).

While Karbala’s fi re was extinguished and its spirit broken, the structure of Ottoman power remained a facade. By the early 20th century, all the city’s powerbrokers—the local mob leaders, smaller clergy, and merchants—had returned to assume their places in the great game of autonomous rule versus renewed imperialism in the context of late Ottoman Iraq.