In Iraq’s City Of Bookshops, Theology And Poetry Rub Spines

Najaf — In the covered alleyways of old Najaf in Iraq, poetry and philoso­phy books compete on laden shelves with economic treatises, the Quran and other theological tomes for stu­dents’ attention.

Since leaving his native Bangla­desh for the Shia holy city three years ago, religious student Moham­med Ali Reda has regularly frequented secondhand bookstores.

There are many like him in Najaf.

Some wear turbans–black for Syeds, the descen­dants of the Prophet Muhammed (Pbuh), and white for non-Syed religious scholars.

“I am still at the start of my apprentice­ship”, said Reda, in one of the dozens of bookshops in the city’s Howeish market.

Wearing a simple white robe and scarf, he speaks in hesitant Arabic, like his Ira­nian, Pakistani and Turkish student peers.

“For the moment, we have lessons in Arabic, law and Islamic morals”, he added. The 19-year-old avidly seeks advice on books on Islamic law, religious principles and other lessons of Shiism.

While Iraq is majority Shia, only a minority follow this strand of Islam in Reda’s homeland, like most of the rest of the Muslim world.

Several decades Reda’s senior, Mohan­nad Mustapha Jamal al Din–a religious student turned teacher–also feels at home among the bookstalls.

Najaf’s 750-year-old market helps make it a “city apart”, he enthused.

Located 150 kilometres south of Bagh­dad, the city welcomes millions of Shia pilgrims every year.

They come to visit the shrine of Imam Ali (AS).

Najaf-al-Ashraf “is like no other city in Iraq–[it’s] steeped in religion and literature”, said Ja­mal al Din, sporting the black turban.

Among the crowds of religious students, there are also poetry lovers.

Some, like Jamal al Din, have a foot in both camps.

“One can be versed in both fields–[knowl­edge of] one does not preclude the other”.

Iraqi poet Mohammed Mahdi al Jawa­hiri could be found in Najaf’s alleyways and bookstores in the 1920s, as he pro­gressed from strict religious instruction to militant journalism in Baghdad.

Twenty-one years after his death, his collections sit on shelves that heave with a splendid array of titles, stretching to the arcane such as “Islamic economy–Marx­ist or Capitalist?”

Other one-time students have found their calling in the maze of Najaf’s old city, and become famous in their own right.

Examples include the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shia majority, and Mohammed Baqir al- Sadr, a great Shia thinker.

Sadr was executed by former dictator Sad­dam Hussein’s regime, and was an uncle of political heavyweight Moqtada Sadr, whose electoral list won the largest number of seats in Iraq’s legislative elections in May.

Until the 1950s, secondhand bookstores held weekly meetings for students in Najaf, according to Hassan al Hakim, an expert in history and Islamic civilisation.

They “gathered near Imam Ali’s shrine and every Friday they sold works at auction, including many original editions”, said the professor of Kufa University, who has set up a heritage association for Najaf.

Famed British archaeologist Ger­trude Bell “visited the Najaf book mar­ket” in the early 20th century, Hakim added.

The academic contends that the city’s spe­cial status should not be threatened by the shift of much academic literature online.

“We want our students to view books as their primary source, ahead of the internet” for verified information, Hakim said.

And “by looking for a book, we can find others that interest us”, he noted.


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