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Long Lost Aspects of Our Heritage: The Shi'a of Samarra

When my friend Imranali Panjwani began speaking of the heritage lost when the main dome of Al-Askariyya shrine in the city of Samarra, Iraq was bombed six years ago, I really felt his sadness. Imranali is one of the few people I know who is truly immersed in what he does. From his doctoral thesis to his research work to even his youtube presentations, everything has a common purpose. That is why I gladly attended the launch of the book, ‘The Shi'a of Samarra: The Heritage and Politics of a Lost Community in Iraq’ which Imranali edited.

This event was organised by the Centre of Islamic Shi'a Studies (CISS). It was held at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and was a very well organised event. There were three panellists altogether including Imranali himself, Sayed Fadhil Bahrululum (the director of both the CISS and the Ahlul Bayt Foundation) and a leading academic, Dr Andrew Newman, who gave us a lengthy account of Samarran history.

It turns out that Samarra has great importance for the Shi'a community, Dr Newman tells us. From the time the Abbasid caliph moved his capital from Baghdad to Samarra in 836, the city grew in significance during that time. The city became the home of one of the most important Shi'a shrines in the world when the Al-Askari mosque was built in 944 CE. The remains of the tenth and eleventh Shi'a imams, Ali Al-Hadi and Hasan al-Askari are buried there along with a few of their relatives. Also close by is the shrine where the twelfth and last imam, Muhammad Al-Mahdi entered his first minor occultation. One can see from these facts why the Shi'a consider this to be a place worthy of ziyarah or holy visitation.

Sadly, the obliterating fires of war know no sense of sentiment or mercy. This holy shrine was bombed in 2006 and again in 2007. However, as much as the fires of wars obliterate, they also forge a stronger resolve to rise from the ashes steelier than before. Such is the case with the people of Samarra. Imranali writes in his introduction that there is an atmosphere of optimism permeating the region. At the very least it has lead to the publication of this book which, even with a cursory reading, can be most informative.

The book itself is divided into three parts. The first part deals with the origin and history of Samarra. A historical account is given along with the account of the tragic events of 2006. Lastly in this first part, and in my opinion very fittingly, an account of the rebuilding of the shrine itself was included. The famous Alastair Northedge who is a world-renowned authority on Islamic Art and Architecture, is included in this first part.

The second part is most appealing to me, as a neophyte Islamicist – the life and legacy of religious figures in Samarra’s history. The political strife faced by the tenth and eleventh imams is articulated emotively here. The persecution faced by the Shia community is probably what gave them the strength of resolve all this time. There is also an account of one Mirza Shirazi, who was a noted Shi'a jurist based in Samarra.

The last section of this book deals with Samarra in the wider discourse of Iraq – dealing specifically with the issues of sectarianism, politics and citizenship. As Imranali lamented, the media’s fleeting attention only gave Samarra a cursory glance especially as more current issues such as the Arab spring have emerged. There is much to learn from Samarra and of course, the war in Iraq.

All in all, I would highly recommend this book as it enables the reader to get to know a lesser known aspect of Muslim heritage. Also for the cultural aficionado, Samarra represents an endangered culture and heritage and this book can definitely help you capture a bit of that.

You can purchase this book from amazon.co.uk by opening the website and searching for ‘Shi'a of Samarra’. I’d also recommend Imranali’s videos on youtube. Have a search for ‘Imranali Panjwani’. Don’t miss this opportunity to deepen your knowledge of Islamic culture.

Farouk A. Peru is a Phd Candidate in Islam and Postmodernism and teaches Islamic Studies at King's College, London.