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Occupied Arab World

Ulama continue to pay the price for speaking out in Saddam’s Iraq

Our Own Correspondent

Ayatullah Muhammed Sadiq al-Sadr was a marked man the moment he demanded that the Iraqi regime release 106 Islamic scholars jailed since the March 1991 uprising in Southern Iraq. He was gunned down together with his two sons - Mustafa and Muammal - in the holy city of Najaf on February 19, a week after his defiant call. He joined a long list of Iraqi ulama who have been martyred at the hands of the brutal Iraqi regime.

Few people believed Baghdad’s immediate claim that they were killed by western agents to destabilise the regime, and even fewer the regime’s later announcement that they had identified the killers, tried them and executed them. Many more people, inside Iraq and outside, are convinced that Saddam Husain himself is an agent of the west. He was financed, armed and supported for years. Even today, the west’s policy strengthens Saddam’s grip on power. Meanwhile it is the hapless people of Iraq who suffer when the US and Britain rain bombs and missiles from the air. They are also the victims of nine years of western-imposed sanctions while Saddam and his henchmen grow fat. For Saddam to send his murderous thugs to deal with those who dare question him is nothing new. Ayatullah Sadr is the third senior alim to be martyred within the last few months. Ayatullah Murtada Burujourdy and Ayatullah Ali Al-Gharawi were gunned down on April 22 and June 1, 1998 respectively in similar circumstances.

During his Friday sermon in the main Mosque of Kufa a week before his martyrdom, Ayatullah Sadr demanded that the jailed Islamic scholars be released. He said: “From this platform I ask that all the prisoners should be released immediately; all scholars of the hawsa and all the faithful. I have said, and I repeat, that the unjust arrest of anyone is the arrest of all of us. If they remain in prison until next Friday, then on that day in their sermons all the prayer leaders should demand their release. Now, I say to everybody: repeat after me three times, ‘We demand - immediately - the release of the prisoners’...”

The choice of Kufa was significant. It was while praying in the same mosque that Imam Ali, may Allah be pleased with him, was stabbed with a poisoned sword by a Kharijite, Abdur Rahman ibn Muljam in 40AH (661 CE). In Saddam’s Iraq, making demands of any kind is considered treason. Ayatullah Sadr was aware of the seriousness of his challenge and was prepared to lay down his life for it. He had worn a white shroud in a symbolic gesture of readiness to court martyrdom. Thousands of worshippers roared their approval for his call. The ulama have not been seen since their disappearance in 1991, but most people believe that they are alive.

Ayatullah al-Sadr, who was also the author of more than 15 books, was a cousin of Ayatullah Sayyed Baqir al-Sadr who was also martyred, together with his sister Bint al-Huda, in April 1980, by the same regime. Ayatullah Baqir al- Sadr was barely 45 when tortured to death but he had already written outstanding works on Islamic iqtisad and philosophy.

There were widespread protests to Ayatullah al-Sadr’s killing in Iraq. Even in Saddam City, the working-class Shi’a district of Baghdad, there were spontaneous demonstrations outside a mosque. The security forces dispersed the angry crowd by firing at them.

Najaf was sealed off by the Republican Guards. When people gathered at a small shrine in Nassariyah, a town on the banks of the Euphrates river, the regime’s forces shelled them with artillery, killing five.

While Saddam’s regime had tried to use Ayatullah Sadr to counterbalance the influence of the ulama of Iran, this backfired. Ayatullah Sadr, a highly respected alim, appointed prayer leaders in hundreds of towns and cities in Iraq. Tribal leaders sought his endorsement; he in turn urged them to follow Islamic law. He appointed judges and asked the people to go to them rather than the civil courts to settle disputes.

The Iraqi regime viewed all this as a challenge to its authority. Ayatullah Sadr also restarted the Friday prayers. This is significant in the context of the traditional Shi’a belief that congregational Friday prayers are not compulsory in the absence of the Twelfth Imam. In Iran, the Friday prayers were instituted immediately after the Islamic Revolution in February 1979. Ayatullah Sadr’s re-institution of the Friday prayers in Iraq indicated endorsement of the leadership in Iran.

Ayatullah al-Sadr also tried to revive the 50-mile walk between the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, where the shrines of Imam Husain and his companions martyred at Karbala by Yazid’s soldiers, are located. Saddam banned such marches 20 years ago.

A month before he was killed, Ayatullah Sadiq al-Sadr was visited by Mohammed Hamza al-Zubeidi, governor of the mid-Euphrates region. He was warned to cease his criticism. Far from being cowed, the Ayatullah chose to make his position public when he accused the regime of denying Muslims the right to worship and perform their rituals. He specifically criticised the decision to ban the Najaf-Karbala march. He was to pay for this courage with his life. Inna lillaahi wa inna ilahi raji’un.

Muslimedia: April 1-15, 1999

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 3

Dhu al-Hijjah 14, 14191999-04-01

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