Najaf is one of several shrine cities and a major learning center for Shi˓a Muslims. Located south of Baghdad, Iraq, on a trade route between Basra and Baghdad, Najaf has existed since the reign of Harun al-Rashid. Imam ˓Ali was buried here, and a shrine was built around ˓Ali's tomb in 979.
The city of Najaf began as a learning center in 1056, when Shaykh al-Ta˒ifa al-Tusi moved here after the Seljuks took over Baghdad. He advanced the work of his predecessors in the emerging rationalist school of Shi˓ite thought. During the Ilkhanid period (thirteenth to fifteenth centuries) its prominence was reduced with the emergence of Hilla and Aleppo as centers of Shi˓ite learning. In sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Najaf, Isfahan, and Mashhad were competing over prominence as shrine cities. The rise of the Safavids in the sixteenth century and their rivalry with the Ottoman Empire for hegemony over the shrine cities escalated. Safavids ruled over the shrine cities in 1508–1533 and 1622–1638, but for political reasons maintained Isfahan and Mashhad as the most important shrine centers.
The eighteenth century was a turning point in the history of the shrine cities. First, the fall of the Safavids in Iran drove many ulema to Najaf. Secondly, the shrine cities became economically more independent of the Ottomans and the subsequent rulers of Iran, and the number of pilgrims increased. Najaf, in particular, was positively affected by the pan-Islamic policies of Sultan ˓Abd al-Hamid after he came to power in 1876. Migrant Islamic scholars in Najaf gained prominence.
Around this same period, the Qajars of Iran were giving in to British and Russian colonial powers. While the Iranian religious centers were actively involved in everyday politics, centers in Iraq, such as Najaf, were not. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Najaf was drawn into anticolonial opposition by the ulema, who responded positively to a decree by Mirza Hasan Shirazi that banned tobacco in 1891 in protest to the shah's Tobacco Concession to the British and the 1905 Constitutional Revolution in Iran which limited the power of the Qajar monarchs.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Najaf had grown to a city of 30,000 inhabitants, with a large community of learned people who came from all over the Islamic world. The formation of a patronage system, which consisted of a network of students and funding sources across political boundaries, increased the flow of funds, making it more independent of the governments. In the twentieth century, Najaf regained prominence when one of its ulema, Ayatollah Tabataba˒i Yazdi (d. 1919), wrote al-Urwa al-wuthqa, a major work in applied Shi˓ite law which reflected the contemporary social and political condition and, with Qom, once again became an important center of Shi˓ite scholarship during the period from 1900 through 1979.
When the shah of Iran exiled Ayatollah Khomeini to Najaf in 1964, the city became an important political center as well. Najaf and Qom, however, were rivals for importance, as Khomeini praised Qom for being more active in the social life of the Shi˓a, and chided Najaf for its relative passivity. Violent repression by Saddam Hussein during and after the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988) forced many of the Shi˓ite ulema to leave Najaf and has resulted in its eclipse as a center of Shi˓ite learning.
Kazemi Moussavi, Ahmad. Religious Authority in Shi˓ite Islam:From the Office of Mufti to the Instituion of Marja. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: ISTAC, 1996.
Litvak, Meir. Shi˓i Scholars of Nineteenth-century Iraq: TheUlama of Najaf and Karbala. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
The capital of the Najaf Muhafaza (governorate) in central Iraq.
One of Iraq's two holy cities (the other is Karbala), al-Najaf (2003 pop. 500,000) lies on a ridge just west of the Euphrates River. The caliph Harun alRashid is reputed to have founded the city, whose growth occurred mostly in the tenth century, in 791 c.e. In the center of al-Najaf is one of Shiʿism's greatest shrines, the mosque containing the tomb of Ali ibn Abi Talib (c. 600–661), cousin and sonin-law of the prophet Muhammad, who was the fourth Muslim caliph (leader) and the spiritual founder of the Shiʿite sect. Al-Najaf also has schools and libraries that are valuable repositories of Islamic theology, especially Shiʿite jurisprudence.
Al-Najaf Muhafaza is a flat region extending over 10,615 square miles from the Euphrates River in the northeast to the Saudi Arabian border in the southeast. The governorate's population is concentrated near the river; the rest of the region is sparsely populated. Established in 1976, al-Najaf Muhafaza was formed from areas of the governorate of Qadisiyya in the east and the governorate of Karbala in the west.
Al-Najaf has long been a hotbed of Shiʿite resistance against the Sunni rulers in Baghdad, and in the twentieth century this resistance has been a source of tension between the Sunni-dominated government of Iraq and the Shiʿite government in Iran. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein by invading U.S. forces in April 2003 led to the return of open Shiʿite worship in the city, but the assassination of some of Iraqi Shiʿism's most important clerics, including the returned exile Ayatullah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim (1939–2003), who was killed by a bomb in August 2003, marred the new era.
see also hussein, saddam; karbala; shiʿism; sunni islam.
Batatu, Hanna. The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.
mamoon a. zaki
updated by michael r. fischbach