In Legacy of a Revered Martyr, Saudi Shiites Find Sustenance

Shiites portray the killing of Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, Islam's founder, to mark the holy day of Ashura in Qatif, Saudi Arabia. Ashura is one of the holiest days for Shiite Muslims, and his name represents the fight for justice.
Shiites portray the killing of Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, Islam's founder, to mark the holy day of Ashura in Qatif, Saudi Arabia. Ashura is one of the holiest days for Shiite Muslims, and his name represents the fight for justice. (Photos By Hasan Jamali -- Associated Press)

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By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 31, 2007

QATIF, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 30 -- Fawzia al-Hani dropped her black veil over her face and wept softly on Sunday, enveloping herself in the sadness of the last days of Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad and Shiite Islam's most tragic and revered martyr.

The women in the packed community center commemorating Ashura, the anniversary of Hussein's death in A.D. 680, watched on a projection screen as a turbaned cleric described how Hussein set out with a small band of family and followers to confront a large army, then was filled with anguish when his favorite son was slaughtered before he himself was killed.

Beside the cleric, men huddled on the floor with their heads bowed, dabbing at their eyes with tissues.

To many of the region's historically persecuted Shiites, the death of Hussein in what is now Karbala, Iraq, the event that triggered the schism between Sunnis and Shiites, remains central to their lives. Shiite belief that Hussein and his descendants were robbed of their rightful succession as rulers of the Islamic world heightens their sense of persecution and victimization.

The story of Hussein, who chose to confront an enemy army with only a small band of men rather than bow to an oppressive leader, permeates Shiite life from childhood, Hani said.

"You cannot understand Shiites if you don't understand the lessons of Hussein's death," the 44-year-old author added. "Hussein taught us not to fear death because you can achieve victory even through death, as long as you fight injustice and stay true to your principles."

That lesson has not been lost on Saudi Arabia's long-suppressed Shiite minority, a 2 million-strong community living mainly in the oil-rich Eastern Province. Shiites here have only recently been granted greater religious freedoms, including the right to commemorate Ashura publicly. But fears in the Arab world of growing Shiite clout have raised concern among local Shiites that sectarian tensions could roll back some of the progress.

Shiite Iran's increased regional influence, Iraq's newly dominant Shiite majority and the push for more power by Lebanon's Shiites have led to a closing of Sunni ranks in many countries of the region and calls for quashing a Shiite revival.

Shiites, who make up less than 15 percent of the kingdom's 16 million citizens, are considered heretics by the Wahhabi Sunni ideology practiced in the kingdom.

Emboldened by Iran's 1979 revolution, Saudi Shiites began staging demonstrations during Ashura demanding more rights and freedoms. This led to a brutal government crackdown that resulted in scores of deaths, hundreds of arrests and tense relations in the 1980s.

The situation improved after Shiite exiles returned in 1994 following a truce with the government. And several years ago, reform-minded King Abdullah launched a policy of openness, allowing the community to build mosques and once-illegal community centers called husseiniyas. Shiites have also been granted a small measure of political power with wins in local municipal elections in 2004. But many complain that they still face severe discrimination in government positions, in the military and in schools.

Now, after a lull, Wahhabi clerics have again started issuing fatwas, or religious edicts, labeling Shiites infidels who are more dangerous to the faith than Christians and Jews. Abdullah ibn Jebreen, a prominent Saudi cleric, wrote on his Web site last week that Shiites should be expelled from Sunni lands.


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