Charity for the Imam and Guns for Iran: Cash Collection at the Holy Sites of Kerbala
About two days ago, on the Iraqi media outlet "Noon", there was a story carrying an apology from the minister of Muslim Trusts in the Kerbala regionate concerning the use of funds collected at the Two Holy Mosques in Kerbala, those housing the remains of Shi'i Islam's Third Imam, Hussein, and those housing his half brother Abbas, both killed in Ashura by the caliph Yazid. If you want more on the deaths of these two, see this earlier post but suffice it to say, these are extremely revered figures in Shi'i Islam and their deaths all but define so much of what Shi'ism is about. Anyway, in his remarks and his later apology, I found much worthy of discussion on this site, concerning modern manifestations and applications of the shari'a.
What the Minister of Trusts, وزير الاوقاف for those who know Arabic, was apologizing for was an earlier remark where he said that the money that was being left at the tombs was not being collected by state officials but rather militias operating outside the law who had made these collection sites a "grazing ground for the Iranian spy services." The term "grazing ground", مرتع was the Arabic term he used, sort of refers to a place where one makes free use of the resources to his content.
Now it's not hard to see why the Governor and other members of the Regionates Ministries were so upset with him that they made him apologize publicly, while they stood beside him as he made his remarks. Huge amounts of money are deposited in the tombs on a daily basis. People routinely make requests of Hussein or Abbas to deliver them a son, or bring their wayward husband back, or provide work, or any other number of things (reciting ones I have heard personally). Sunni Muslims tend to be disturbed by these things, many regarding them as a form of polytheism, in that the idea that Hussein can give you a son sounds like he is almost Divine. The Shi'a tend to regard it as a form of intercession with God, you ask Hussein for a son like you ask Moses to part the Red Sea, the fact that he can do it just means he's well connected with the real source of power, not that he has it himself. All works for me as a Shi'i, though some of the folk as you listen to them make their requests start to blur that fine distinction.
Anyway, the last thing that the Kerbala governate wants to do is create the impression that the money is being misdirected to Iranian spy services, or militias or whoever. It clearly threatens the funds. Presumably some, perhaps even most, are going to drop the money no matter what you tell them, they want a child and figure Hussein will make use of the ten dinar note and deliver, but certainly not everyone thinks this way. I remember as a child wanting fervently to drop money in the tomb (I don't remember what I wanted, though I do remember it wasn't much different from the time I wanted to drop a penny in the shopping mall in Ohio). My deeply religious grandfather strictly forbade it. I still remember my paternal grandfather explaining, "what you do is ask Imam Hussein for his intercession here, and then promise him you will give some money in charity somewhere else in his name." My grandfather's logic was I think largely unassailable, this was Ba'ath Iraq, and who knew where that money went, though as a child I couldn't see any fun in giving money to a poor guy in Baghdad when I could just throw a coin at a tomb, so the lesson was largely lost,or stored for another time at least.
So while suspicions concerning use of the money are not new, and while no jurist actually says you have to donate money to Hussein at his tomb, meaning that I don't personally actually know anyone who has ever left money at the tomb given suspicions, it is fair to say that the more questions are raised, the less money received.
And hence the grand apology, with the Minister indicating he misspoke. What he meant to say was the complete opposite of what he did say (politicans will be politicians). In fact all of this money was being put to supremely good use, as per the law it was being collected by Iraqi state employees and given by the government to what is known as the Shi'a Waqf, a Muslim trust required to use the money for religious purposes and largely overseen by religious authorities to ensure this is being done. Nothing is going to Iran, he insisted, these are all Iraqis doing this good work.
But the obvious (and historic, this isn't very new or in any way unique to Iraq) combination of religious and state authority in the Waqf does raise some awkward questions too it seems. Why is the Minister so insistent that this is an intra Iraq process, when so much of this money comes from pilgrims from abroad--Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon etc.? What is the justification for having the national authorities play any role in the disbursement of cash that really has nothing to do with the nation state? Wouldn't it be better to just let the religious authorities, the Grand Ayatollahs, decide what to do with this and even perhaps build religious sites everywhere?
I don't have a clear answer. Part of it is the religious authorities will exercise as much influence over the disbursement of these funds as they could possibly want, and they might not want entire control. Surely they'd prefer someone else to deal with actually expanding the Najaf mosque rather than being responsible for it themselves. Part of it is no doubt to placate more nationalist forces, Sunnis and secular Shi'a in particular, who would be concerned about where all of this money is headed if there is no government oversight at all. Charges respecting Iranian influence would then multiply surely, and even the US might then have its hackles raised. And part, no doubt, is inertia. This is how Sunni dominated governments throughout the region deal with their religious sites, through waqfs that they effectively control through funding. It is how Iraq used to do things under Sunni dominance. It's just part of the broader Sunni Arab model of coopting the religious authorities into the state.
Though Shi'a religious authorities are not controlled this way, they are funded separately through tithing by the pious and are therefore independent, the longstanding waqf structure seems to work for the limited purposes for which it exists. It lets the religious authorities take as much control as they might want, placates those concerned about religious control or Iranian influence, and keeps everyone comfortable through continued use of a system that has some familiarity in Iraq and throughout the region.
The only real question is now that we've injected nationalism into the shari'a, in this matter as in so many others, might the next Iranian pilgrim grandfather tell his grandchild not to put any money in the tomb of Hussein? Might he tell that child to wait and donate the money to the poor in Hussein's name when he returned to Iran, given that the collection is done by Iraqi officials acting under Iraqi law? Or given the growing influence of the Shi'i model will the actual practice of the waqf and its future rhetoric be so divorced from the nation state that it won't really matter? Only time will tell how the shari'a makes its way through these issues in our times.