No city in the Islamic world has more embodied, or suffered more from, the endless blood feud between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims than Basra. Located close to the mouth of the Tigris-Euphrates River, Basra is historically where the Sunni and Shi’ite worlds meet. Subsequently it has been the scene of brutal fighting between the two groups ever since, from the Battle of Bassorah in 656 AD right until the 2006 bombing of the city’s Sunni shrines. Despite the city’s long, terrible history of infighting between the two factions, Basra has a long and colorful history as one of the most important cities and ports of the Islamic world. For over thirteen centuries it has also been home to the tombs of two of early Islam’s most prominent figures: Talha ibn Ubayd-Allah and Zubair ibn Al-Awan. These tombs are among the very few shrines that Sunnis hold in as high regard as the Shi’ites do the shrines of the Imams.
The city of Basra was the first great metropolis to be established by Muslims during the earliest days of the Islamic Caliphate. It was founded by the second caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattab in the year 636 AD on a site that had previously been occupied by a small Arab encampment. Basra subsequently served as one of Islam’s most important military bases throughout the remainder of Umar’s reign, as well as that of his two successors, Uthman and Ali. It was from here that the armies of the Islamic caliphate set out on their wars of conquest against the Arab Lakhmid kingdom of Mesopotamia as well as the mammoth Sassanid Empire to the east.
In 656 AD, Basra was the site of one of the most pivotal events in early Islamic history: the Battle of Bossorah, or as it is better known, the Battle of the Camel. In the summer of that year, Uthman ibn Affan, the 3rd caliph, was besieged in his home in Medina by rebels and assassinated. Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, succeeded him as 4th caliph. For many years, the Hashemite clan to which Ali belonged and the Umayyad clan to which Uthman belonged had been rivals for power in the Islamic caliphate. The rivalry, which had been kept in check in the reigns of Abu Bakr and Umar, was unleashed in the first true Muslim civil war.
Ali had many followers, the Shi’ites, who felt that he was the rightful heir to Muhammad and should have been the first caliph in Abu Bakr’s place. He also had the support of many others who did not care for the nepotistic bureaucracy established by Uthman. For some uncertain reason, Aisha, the third wife of Muhammad, opposed Ali’s rise to the caliphate. With the help of Talha ibn Ubayd-Allah and Zubair ibn Al-Awam, two of the Prophet’s closest companions, she raised an army and marched out against Ali. The two forces met at Basra, where they fought the Battle of the Camel, named in honor of the camel upon which Aisha. Ali’s forces were victorious, and Talha and Zubair were killed in the battle’s aftermath.
Talha and Zubair were two of the Ten Companions of the Prophet who were specifically promised paradise after they died. This incredibly elite group included the four Rashidun caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali. Talha and Zubair were in fact responsible for electing several of their comrades, and their deaths were a blow to Ali even though they had fought against him. It is likely that one of these would have followed Ali as the 5th caliph. Both men later had mosques built over their tombs, and these became among the most popular Sunni shrines in the world. Unfortunately, these were badly damaged or destroyed in revenge for the Sunni bombing of Shi’ite shrines in Najaf, Karbala, Baghdad and Samarra. The current state of Basra’s mosques, or its two most important tombs, is uncertain, though it is expected that the damage will be repaired in the near future.
The Masjid Talha ibn Ubayd-Allah was once the largest mosque in Basra, specifically the town of Al Zubair, a few miles southwest of Basra, before it was completely destroyed by bombs in the summer of 2007. The tomb of Talha, one of the Ten Companions of Muhammad, was inside. The exact state of the mosque at present, or the tomb for that matter, is unknown.
The city of Basra, approximately 265 miles southeast of Baghdad close to the Iranian border, is still recovering from years of sectarian violence. Still occupied by allied forces from the Second Gulf War, the fate of Basra and its shrines is uncertain. As of this writing, no visitor information was available. Web: www.tourism-iraq.com (official tourism website of Iraq)
Considering the current state of affairs in Basra, it would seem a miracle if there were another religious site worth seeing still standing in the city. Many of the city’s mosques have been destroyed or damaged in the last few years, including the Masjid Ashrah Al-Mubashrah. However, the magnificent, blue-domed Masjid Hasawiyah, considered by many to be one of the world’s most beautiful mosques, is still up and running.