Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

« Previous Post | Babylon & Beyond Home | Next Post »

IRAQ: Baghdad mosque breaks with Islamic tradition to display religious paintings

May 24, 2010 |  5:11 pm

The Zulfiqar Mosque's minaret rises over Sadr City, curving at the top into the shape of the double-tipped sword from which it takes its name, the sword of Imam Ali.

But its unusual minaret is not all that distinguishes the mosque in this Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad. Inside, worshipers gaze up at something that was illegal under Saddam Hussein's rule and even now could put the mosque at risk: paintings.

Zilfiqar mosque On the walls hang two huge canvases depicting the battle of Karbala in the 7th century in which Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was killed, eventually leading to the split between Shiites and Sunnis. Shiites mourn the death of Imam Hussein in a yearly commemoration called Ashoura.

On one canvas, Imam Hussein clutches the body of his son against a red sky. In the second, Hussein's half-brother, Abbas, looks out serenely from atop his steed as the battle rages behind him.

"To place the drawing in a mosque is a genetic mutation,” said the artist Baqer Sheik, who painted both pieces. “There is some kind of evolving in the Shiite religious culture and understanding.”

Most mosques throughout Islamic history have been decorated with geometrical designs and arabesques, often using mosiacs of faience. Painting living creatures, and especially humans, is extremely controversial in Islam and banned completely by some sects.

Shiite clerics have generally been more tolerant of depicting human figures, and images of Imam Hussein are ubiquitous during Ashura in places such as Iran and Lebanon. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, these illustrations have become more common in Iraq, but Abu Yaser, one of the financiers of the mosque, said most of these icons are cheap and poorly done.

Boy painting “The paintings available in the market may offend the imam, because they have been made for commercial reasons, and Imam Hussein is painted in miserable way,” he said. “This is the first time an Iraqi artist paints Imam Hussein, the same way as famous artists like Michelangelo" who painted the Sistine Chapel.

Abu Yasser, who chose not to use his real name for security purposes, said he has commissioned a total of 11 paintings for the mosque.

Worshipers said the paintings represent increased religious freedom for Shiites as well as a less rigid approach to spirituality and art.

“I spent a lot of time just looking at [the painting] and recalling the events of that day, and I feel like it happened today, not 1,400 years ago,” said Abu Sattar, 42.

Salam Mahdi, 25, said the paintings made him feel closer to his faith.

“When I see these paintings I imagine myself at the battle,” he said. "I have no problem to have such paintings in the mosque because they are a symbol for Imam Hussein.”

Usama Redha in Baghdad and Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photos top to bottom: Artist Baqer Sheik puts the finishing touches on one of 11 paintings commissioned for the Zulfiqar Mosque; the Zulfiqar Mosque's unique minaret; a boy stands next to the first two of 11 commissioned paintings. Credit: Usama Redha