Echoes from the cradle of dissent

February 16, 2007

Andrew Petersen traces the central role Iraq has historically played in Islamic Arab culture and its bearing on the current disastrous situation.

Most people in the West, including many of our leaders, have only a superficial understanding of Iraq's place within Arab and Islamic culture. Most analyses concentrate on the history of the past 15 years (or, at a stretch, the past 50) and then skip to the pre-Islamic past when the rise of the Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian dynasties led to Mesopotamia being the cradle of civilisation. What is missing is the Islamic era (7th century AD to the present), which is not only relevant to many of the current problems but was also the case when Iraq was pre-eminent as a centre of Islamic, Arab and even world civilisation.

In the 8th and 9th centuries, Iraq was the centre of a world empire. The ruling dynasty, the Abbasids, were known throughout the world. The capital Baghdad was home to more than a million people of myriad nationalities, while the wealth of the nation drew in imports from around the globe.

Most Arabs will be aware of Iraq's unique importance during this period, but for non-Arabs this period is virtually unknown. Perhaps the best way for us to appreciate Iraq's significance is to say that, for Arabs, Baghdad was the historical equivalent of ancient Rome, in cultural and religious terms. During this period, many features of Muslim culture were developed; examples include geometric and stylised vegetal motifs that form the basis of Islamic art, the minaret, which became a symbol of religious orthodoxy, scientific investigation, medicine, literature and poetry.

But within this intellectual and cultural ferment, there were also the seeds of today's religious and political dissent. Most people are aware that Shia and Sunni represent different Muslim sects, but they do not appreciate Iraq's pivotal position in the genesis of these different interpretations of Islam.

For Shia, the central figure is Ali, son-in-law and nephew of the prophet Muhammad, who was killed by Iraq's political rulers in the 7th century at a battle in Karbala. The tomb of Ali now forms the centre of a Shia pilgrimage network in Iraq that includes Najaf, where Hussayn, Ali's lieutenant, was buried at Khadhamain, a suburb of Baghdad, and Samarra, where the Shia imam (spiritual leader and reincarnation of Muhammad) disappeared and, like the Messiah, may one day return. According to a Sunni Muslim I met in Lebanon, the Shia hold the Sunni - all of them - personally responsible for the death of Ali.

In contrast to the bitter sectarian rivalries within Islam, there was a degree of harmony between the three monotheistic religions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity that has been rarely achieved elsewhere until modern times. While Iraq was a centre of Muslim civilisation, it was also home to the oldest Jewish community in the Middle East, and shrines such as Nabi Kifl (to the prophet Ezekial) near the site of ancient Babylon were shared by Muslims and Jews. Iraq was the major centre of Jewish learning in the early Middle Ages: it was here that the Babylonian Talmud was created.

The strength of Iraq's Jewish community has survived to the present day, and Jewish Iraqis in Israel still feel a strong sense of loyalty to what they regard as their natural home.

The experience of Christians in Iraq during the Islamic period is different. The main significance of Iraq to early Christianity was that it was in the East and outside the Byzantine Empire. Thus, under the Sassanians (the pre-Islamic Persian rulers) and subsequent Muslim rulers, the indigenous Iraqi Christians were beyond the authority of the Orthodox Church. This means that a variety of non-orthodox Christian sects have survived in Iraq, including the Nestorian, Assyrian and Armenian. One of the more interesting recent archaeological discoveries was of a cave-dwelling early monastic community near Kufa that may be a link between Buddhist monasticism and early Christianity. Within Iraq, Christians made important contributions to the emerging culture, including theological concepts that were incorporated into religious debates. Christians had the status of a protected minority during the Islamic period, a situation that continued under Saddam Hussein.

As well as offering an insight into the formation of the present-day communities in Iraq, the history of the Islamic era provides interesting parallels to the current situation. One of the most striking is the city of Baghdad itself. When the capital was founded in 750AD as Madinat al-Salam (City of Peace) it comprised the Round City, a circular walled area containing the palace, administrative offices and markets, and an outer suburb (al-Karkh). But within a few years of its construction, security concerns led the rulers to ban civilians from the Round City and move the markets outside to al-Karkh, in effect creating the prototype of the present-day Green Zone.

Concern for security led to another, perhaps more surprising, act by the Abbasid rulers in the 9th century. Like the current Iraqi Government, the Abbasids entrusted their security to foreign troops, in this case Turks from Central Asia. But contemporary chroniclers reported that there was constant friction and violence between the people of Baghdad and the foreign troops. The 9th-century solution was to move the ruler and his foreign troops to a new capital in the desert north of Baghdad. The new city, Samarra, covered a vast area and was made up of palaces and barracks laid out in a rigid grid plan reminiscent of the modern US military bases to which the Americans plan to withdraw once they are able or willing.

How does this help us understand the current disastrous situation? One obvious conclusion is that Iraqis have a fierce sense of identity and independence and dislike foreign troops in their country. The second point is that Arabs and Muslims worldwide regard the US presence in Iraq as an offence to their sense of identity, already battered by more than 50 years of conflict in Palestine.

For most of their history Iraqi Shia, Sunni, Christians and Jews have co-existed peacefully. When there has been conflict, it has been because of interference from outside powers, as during the 17th century when Ottoman Turks (Sunni) and Safavid Iranians (Shia) fought to incorporate Iraq within their respective empires. Perhaps the current conflict will also subside once foreign countries allow Iraqis to control their own security.

Andrew Petersen is a lecturer in Islamic archaeology, University of Wales.

His publications include Towns of Palestine under Muslim Rule and Dictionary of Islamic Architecture .

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