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Babylon & Beyond

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

Category: Usama Redha

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

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.

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