The gold-plated mosque shelters the tomb of Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad who is revered as a martyr and a saint by Shi’ites.
After the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD, a conflict broke out over who should succeed him as leader of Islam. Some (later called the Shi’ites) said it should be the Prophet’s descendants, while others (the Sunnis) argued that the community should choose a leader. As in all conflicts the matter was complex, but this was the essential difference that led to the separation between Shi’a and Sunni Islam that has endured to this day.
The gold-plated mosque shelters the tomb of Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad who is revered as a martyr and a saint by Shi’ites. Najaf has been an important place of pilgrimage for Shi’ites since Ali’s death in 661 AD.
In the course of the conflict, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, Imam Ali, was killed at Najaf in 661. Ali was the Prophet’s closest relative and the one whom the Shi’ites saw as the Prophet’s true successor, and he is regarded as a great saint and martyr.
The tomb of Ali has been honored at Najaf since as early as 750 AD, although it is possible he is actually buried in Afghanistan. Najaf became an important place of pilgrimage and a center of Shi’a religious learning. In the 20th century, the latter role has shifted more to Qom in Iran.
The tomb of Imam Ali is said to have been discovered at Najaf around750 AD by Dawood Bin Ali Al-Abbas. A shrine was built over the tomb by Azod Eddowleh in 977, but later burned down. It was rebuilt by the Seljuk Malek Shah in 1086, and rebuilt yet again by Ismail Shah, the Safawid, in about 1500.
Throughout its most of its history Najaf tended to avoid politics, but in the 1970s it took up the cause of the Iranian ayatollahs in their religious and political revolutionary movement. Ayatollah Khomeini lived in exile in Najaf from 1965 to 1978, where he led the opposition to the Shah in Iran.
Most of the Najaf shrines have been damaged and pillaged by the Iraqi government, which was predominantly Sunni until the recent Iraq War. Many suspect that gold and jewels stolen from the shrine of Ali personally enriched the family of Saddam Hussein. However, after his army brutally recaptured Najaf after a rebellion in 1991, Hussein made a great show of repairing damage to the shrines.
In February 1999, Najaf’s senior cleric, Muhammad Sadiq as-Sadr, was murdered along with his two sons in Baghdad. The Iraqi government claimed to have caught and executed the killers (all Shia), but one of these was reportedly in prison at the time and many blamed the killings on Saddam’s regime.
Najaf has played a significant role in the current Iraq conflict. It was captured by United States forces on April 3, 2003. On August 29, 2003, a car bomb exploded during prayers outside the Imam Ali Mosque just as weekly prayers were ending, killing more than 80 people. Nobody claimed responsibility, and Hussein denied any involvement in a taped message from his hiding place.
Najaf again became a battleground during the Mahdi Army uprising of summer 2004, with some damage to shrines as a result. On August 10, 2006, a suicide bomber blew himself up near the shrine, killing 40 people.
What to See at Shrine of Imam Ali
The central focus of Najaf is the Imam Ali Mosque (also known as Meshed Ali or the Tomb of Ali), located in the city center. The mosque was built over the tomb (whether actual or symbolic) and shrine of Imam Ali, Muhammad’s martyred son-in-law.
The shrine of Ali is the third holiest in the world for Shi’a Muslims and a major place of pilgrimage. Many Shi’a bring their dead to the tomb of Ali, carrying the coffin around the sarcophagus before burial.
The mosque is resplendent in gold, with 7,777 tiles of pure gold covering the dome and two 35-meter high golden minarets each made of 40,000 gold tiles. Inside, the mosque is decorated with the opulence typical of Shi’a mosques, with neon lights reflecting off mirrored tiles and hammered silver walls. Sheltered in the mosque is an often-looted treasury of precious objects donated by sultans and other devotees over the years.
Najaf includes several other shrines, including a mosque marking the spot where Ali was martyred. There are also cells for Sufi mysticsthat have formed monastic communities there.
North of the Imam Ali Mosque is the Wadi as-Salam (“Wadi of Peace”), the largest cemetery in the Muslim world – and perhaps the entire world. It contains the tombs of several prophets, along with millions of Shi’a Muslims who have buried here so they might be raised from the dead with Imam Ali on Judgment Day.