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Aug 27, 2004 6:45 pm

Who Was Imam Ali?

Vanessa Gezari, in the St. Petersburg Times (Aug. 20, 2004):

Like the Iraqi and American fighters facing off around his shrine in Najaf, Iraq, Imam Ali was a warrior. In the seventh century, he fought at the prophet Mohammed's side, wielding a sword forked like a snake's tongue.

He was the prophet's cousin and son-in-law and the first male convert to Islam.

He was a sage, said by some to know everything.

I am the city of knowledge, Mohammed said, and Ali is the gate.

Some Shiites believe he was the last man to see Mohammed alive, lying by the prophet's side as he shivered and sweated with fever.

Ali is at the center of a rift that still divides Muslims, an old argument that gave birth to the Sunni and Shiite sects.

He was murdered in Kufa and buried in Najaf around 661 A.D. He was 63.

The 17th century shrine in Najaf, where fighters loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are holed up, is a gold-domed building with minarets. Inside, a breathtaking tile mosaic depicts flowers and geometric designs. The city around it is a center of Shiite learning.

Thousands of pilgrims visit the shrine, but non-Muslims are forbidden to enter.

"That's why Muqtada (Sadr) is hiding in there," said Dr. Michael Izady, professor of Middle Eastern and Western history at Pace University in New York. "He's hoping that with the entry of American troops into the shrine, the whole Muslim world would explode."...

Juan Cole, a professor of modern Middle East and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, said that Sadr and his followers are using the story of Imam Ali to tell a political story of their own.

Sixty-five percent of Iraqis are Shiites who believe Ali should have succeeded Mohammed, becoming the first caliph of Islam.

Instead, Abu Bakr, one of Mohammed's closest companions, was chosen to succeed him.

Succession is at issue in Iraq, too. Sadr wants power, and he's suggesting that he, like Ali, is entitled to it.

Sadr and his followers are implying that the interim government of Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi is like the disaffected rebel group that assassinated Ali while he prayed in the mosque in Kufa, Cole said.

And in this context, Sadr is playing the role of Ali.

For 1,400 years, the decision about who should have become the first caliph of Islam after Mohammed's death has divided Shiite Muslims from Sunnis.

Sunnis believe everything went according to plan. But Shiites - those to whom the shrine in Najaf is holiest - believe otherwise.

"There's an incident which Shiites claim occurred near a well, in which the prophet Mohammed is supposed to have said "You will be my successor when I die,' " said Dr. Arthur Goldschmidt, professor emeritus of Middle Eastern history at Penn State University. "But the problem is that (Mohammed) didn't expect to die as soon as he did, and he did not designate a successor."

Shiites add Ali's name to their prayers, calling him "a friend of God."

Ali is also holy to many Sunni Muslims, but they don't single him out for special mention....

Legends have grown around Ali like vines in a forest. There are as many versions of his life story as there are of the lives of Jesus and his disciples.

One story has it that Ali was the only person ever to have been born in the Ka'ba, a small stone structure in Mecca that is the holiest place on Earth for Muslims.

Some Shiites believe Ali was born prostrate in prayer. Others say that when Ali's mother walked out of the Ka'ba with the newborn in her arms, Mohammed was waiting to hold him.

Ali lived with the prophet and prayed with him from boyhood.

"The Holy Prophet brought me up in his own arms," Ali said, according to a translation of A Brief History of the Fourteen Infallibles on the Internet site of the Dar al-Hadith Research Center in Qum, Iran. "I followed him wherever he went like a baby camel following its mother."

When Mohammed set out to spread Islam, the historian Edward Gibbon writes that he began at home: with his first wife, Kadijah, his servant Zeid, his cousin and pupil Ali and his friend Abu Bakr.

He taught them there was only one God, and that he, Mohammed, was his prophet. Over three years, he converted 14 people. Then he threw a dinner party.

He asked for someone to be his companion, his lieutenant.

Silence. Then 14-year-old Ali spoke up. "O prophet, I am the man," Ali said. "Whosoever rises against thee, I will dash out his teeth, tear out his eyes, break his legs, rip up his belly."

And so he would, in battle after battle, as Mohammed and his followers fought to protect Medina, win back Mecca and subdue the tribes roiling around them.

Mohammed called Ali his brother. He said Ali would be to him as Aaron was to Moses.

Ali married Mohammed's daughter Fatima. Mohammed doted on their two sons, Hassan and Hussein.

Ali did become caliph, but only 22 years later. He reigned from 655 to 660 A.D., after the third caliph, Usman, was murdered.

"He's associated with chivalry. He's kind of got the aura that I suppose in the West we attribute to King Arthur - very fair, very ethical, very moral," said Cole, the University of Michigan professor.

Usman's relatives, angry at Ali for failing to find his killers, attacked him. Ali was winning when the rebels came forward with pages of the Koran on the tips of their swords and lances and forced him into a truce.

Ali went back to Kufa, near Najaf. It was there in the mosque that a rebel sneaked up behind him while he prayed and stabbed him with a poisoned dagger.

The mosque in Kufa is considered holy because Ali's blood was shed there. But his body was removed at night and buried in Najaf, a village 15 miles away. Ali's followers didn't want their enemies to find the body and dig it up.

In Najaf, Ali's body is in an underground room that most pilgrims don't visit.

Instead, they walk seven times around a gold and silver cenotaph in the center of the shrine. If they turn their backs to the cenotaph - a sign of disrespect - old gentlemen known as kilid dar, or key masters, hit them with switches cut from a cherry tree.

The old men are the shrine's guardians. They watch the pilgrims come and go, scanning the crowds for anything that might endanger the monument or offend Imam Ali's memory.

They will protect what remains of him, or die trying.

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