Author Wassim Bassem Posted June 19, 2016

Shiite worshippers attend Friday prayers in Kufa mosque near Najaf, south of Baghdad, June 20, 2014. (photo by REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani)
Centuries-old Kufa mosque still holds religious, political significance

KUFA, Iraq — The Great Mosque of Kufa (aka al-Sahla) is located in the city of Kufa (97 miles south of Baghdad) and is considered one of the earliest mosques in the Islamic world. Built in 638, it was the birthplace of the Shiite religious and political ideology.

For the past 1,300 years, the Great Mosque of Kufa has served as a religious and political platform in Iraq, drawing the interest of both clerics and politicians.

Throughout Iraq’s tumultuous modern history, the mosque’s role changed according to the nature of the Iraqi regime. During the era of former President Saddam Hussein who fought political Islam, the Kufa mosque’s political significance was curbed, only to prosper after the fall of this regime in 2003 in the aftermath of the US invasion. The Kufa mosque was always an intellectual hub and a political starting point, but it became a center to oppose the US invasion of Iraq, then a platform for protests and sermons demanding the eradication of corruption.

The history of the Kufa mosque still resonates with the ideas that saw the light within its walls. In addition to being a place of worship, the mosque remained for decades a platform for political opposition and mobilizing the people.

In 1999, the Saddam regime closed down the mosque in an attempt to suspend the Friday prayers and gatherings attended by large numbers of Shiite Muslims, under the leadership of cleric Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, who was assassinated by the regime on his way back from praying at the Kufa mosque before it was closed in February 1999.

Following the fall of the Baath regime in 2003, the leader of the Sadrist movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, chose the mosque to deliver his first speech following the US invasion. Since then, Shiite parties have been competing to stand on the mosque’s minbar (platform), but Sadr kept a firm grip on it, using it to escalate his attack on the US occupation.

Ever since, the mosque has become a platform for rivalries between Shiites, but Sadr clung to it because the supporters of his father (Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr) would attend the political and religious events in this mosque and meet him there. Besides, the mosque has religious and historic importance for Shiites.

In 2004, US forces besieged Sadr, who retreated to the mosque, preventing a possible raid on it.

Aware of the mosque’s significance for Shiite Muslims, Sadr kept delivering his Friday speeches with political purposes from Kufa mosque’s minbar.

On a visit to the mosque, Al-Monitor interviewed cleric Abul-Hasan Yaseri who performs his Friday prayer there, coming from his hometown of Babil, 80 kilometers (50 miles) away. Speaking about the significance of the mosque, Yaseri said, “Muslim Caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib [599-661] said that praying at the Kufa mosque is rewarded as 1,000 prayers performed at other mosques.”

“The mosque is a place of great holiness for Muslims, especially Shiites,” Yaseri added, stressing “the importance of keeping political and party activities away from this historical mosque of special religious and historical significance.”

According to an information plate at one of the mosque’s entrances, the place can accommodate 50,000 people and stretches across an area of 12,000 square kilometers (4,633 square miles), with a 20-meter-tall (65-foot) perimeter wall supported by round-shaped pillars.

The Kufa mosque has a wealth of religious and historical remnants and monuments as evidence to the site’s historical significance. Yaseri pointed to an elevated place from which “the [Great] Flood originated, submerging Earth, during the time of the Prophet Noah.”

“It was in the mosque’s courtyard that the famous Noah’s Ark was built to save all living species on earth,” Yaseri claimed.

On the tour, Al-Monitor came across several symbols relating to historical religious figures, including the shrines of Prophets Abraham and Adam at the center of the courtyard.

In one of this vast mosque’s corners, dozens of visitors gathered at the place where Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib, who is also Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, was fatally wounded by a sword.

Living nearby the mosque, historian Makki Sultani spoke to Al-Monitor about what may be considered the most significant part of the mosque’s history. Sultani referred to the halls surrounding the mosque’s courtyard, saying, “This historical edifice saw the inception of the first teachings of the Shiite Jafari sect at the hands of Imam Jafar ibn Muhammad al-Sadiq [702-765], who conducted his Islamic teachings there.”

In regard to the scientific significance of the place, Sultani said, “It was here that the principle of Arabic nahu [grammar] was established by Abu al-Aswad al-Du’ali. Imam Ali himself also taught Islamic jurisprudence at this mosque.”

Sultani mentioned some of the incidents he has witnessed: “In 1958, former President Abdul Salam Mohammed Arif landed with his helicopter in the mosque’s courtyard, leading to death and injury of many as a result of the ensuing stampede.”

“The late cleric Muhammad al-Sadr held his Friday prayers as well as the large demonstrations he used to call for here. During the reign of Saddam, this mosque hosted the only platform in Iraq where the anti-regime movement was public,” Sultani added.

Sultani stressed, “Members of the opposition used to hold their gatherings and activities at the mosque, which led to several raids by security forces.”

Concerning the great significance of the Kufa mosque in the minds of Shiites, the head of Najaf’s provincial council, Khudayr Jabouri, told Al-Monitor, “What distinguishes the Kufa mosque is its proximity to the ruins of the Emirate Palace, the caliph’s palace during Imam Ali’s rule, as well as to Imam Ali’s family dwelling, which is still there. The provincial council is aware of the necessity of investing in this historical and religious site to promote religious tourism.”

Jabouri added, “The provincial council has been carrying renovation plans that include the mosque’s external gates, improving services, covering the mosque’s floor with stone and natural marble, and renovating Imam Ali’s mihrab [niche], to host the thousands of pilgrims who come here every month.”