Depending on who you ask, Ali ibn Abu Talib was either the 4th Caliph of Sunni Islam or the 1st Imam of Shi’ite Islam. Either way, he was the last man to rule over the Islamic Caliphate in its entirety. Ali was both a cousin and son-in-law of Mohammed, and a member of the Prophet’s inner circle of followers. His tomb is revered among Shiites, which regard it as one of their holiest shrines. Interestingly, several other cities also claim to be home to the true Tomb of Ali, but geography, history and the sheer number of visitors to Najaf suggest that this is the correct site. The Imam Ali Mosque is the southernmost of the four major shrines along the Shi’ite corridor that runs through central Iraq from Najaf to Samarra.
The city of Najaf was little more than a tiny village prior to the advent of Islam, and remained so for more than a century after Islam had advanced into Mesopotamia. However, the area around Najaf was an early theological forward base for the expansion of Islam eastwards into Persia, and may have even been so during the early Rashidun period. Najaf’s religious importance was not established until sometime around 662 AD, when the body of Ali ibn Abu Talib was brought here for burial by his Shi’ite followers.
Ali, the 4th Caliph, is one of early Islam’s most controversial figures. As the Prophet’s closest living relative, many Muslims, specifically Shi’ites, believe that he was Muhammad’s natural successor. Whatever he himself believed, Ali, in humility, chose to place others of the Prophet’s chief followers before himself when it came to leadership. Because of this, even those who did not believe in the right of family succession certainly regarded Ali with great respect, and even among Sunnis he is regarded as one of the four Rashidun, or ‘rightly guided’ Caliphs. Nevertheless, he still had political enemies, and in 661 he was assassinated.
During the late 7th and early 8th century, the Tomb of Ali received many visitors, but it was many years before a shrine was built to accommodate the huge influx of pilgrims to Najaf. At some point in the 790s, the Caliph Haroun Ar Rashid decided to develop Najaf into a major city. Originally a waystation for caravans traveling between Arabia and Persia, the expansion of facilities led to a vast increase in the number of pilgrims. Even so, it would be another two centuries before a major mosque was constructed at the tomb. As Najaf grew, it unofficially became one of Islam’s most sacred cities, especially for Shi’ites.
During the Middle Ages, Najaf and its shrine came under the control of the Ottoman Empire for the better part of six centuries. Throughout this time relations between Sunnis and Shi’ites generally but not always improved, and pilgrimages to Najaf became an important Shi’ite tradition. During the British colonial era the city of Najaf was incorporated into Iraq and remained so after independence. Since that time, relations between the Sunnis and Shi’ites of Iraq have not been good, and Najaf is periodically wracked with violence right up until the present day. This does not seem to deter hordes of enthusiastic Shi’ite pilgrims from descending upon this holy site every year.
While the Masjid Imam Ali is not the largest or grandest of the major Shi’ite shrines, it is one of the most important and among the most visited. The original structure was built in the 10th century, with considerable reconstruction and restoration in the 11th and 16th centuries. Most of the current building dates from the early 1500’s. Frequently damaged during the last years of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the ongoing insurgency, every effort is being made to keep the mosque under repair.
The front façade of the mosque is one of the most memorable in all Islam, as nearly every square inch is covered in gold, including an immense golden entry archway and a pair of golden minarets. The dome is similarly gilded. The Tomb of Ali ibn Abi Talib is generally considered to be the second most famous and sacred mausoleum in Islam after that of Muhammad in Medina. The tomb itself lies within the main sanctuary directly beneath the great gilded dome.
The massive Masjid Imam Ali is located in the heart of Najaf, approximately 90 miles south of Baghdad. As of this writing, major renovations on the mosque were still ongoing, and no further visitor information was available. Presumably the mosque is open (at least in part) for visiting pilgrims, though it is likely heavily restricted to non-Shi’ites and completely off limits to non-Muslims. Web: http://imamali.net (official website)
As with many other Muslim holy sites, it is believed that to be buried near the Tomb of Ali will expedite one’s entry into Heaven after the Judgement Day. However, in Najaf this has been taken to an unbelievable extreme, and much of the city’s area is now incorporated into the Wadi Us Salaam Cemetery, one of the world’s largest graveyards. Hundreds of thousands are buried here, including many Islamic political and religious leaders.