Wax museum spurs sticky situation among Iraq’s Sunni, Shiite sects
By Rizwan Khatik - Thu Mar 22, 2:55 am
NAJAF: An exhibit of wax statues depicting some of Shia Muslims’ most beloved clerics, aimed at paying tribute to this Iraqi holy city’s contributions to culture, has been dipped in controversy as some Sunnis decry the figures as heretical.
The wax sculptures are due to be displayed at a museum in Najaf, but even before the exhibit opens, some Sunni Muslims rarely shy about highlighting their religious differences with Shias are denouncing them as a violation of Islamic law. Even some Shia clerics are a bit leery.
”Even those dead people whose statues are displayed (would have) disapproved of this,” said Ali Bashir al-Najafi, a spokesman for one of Iraq’s top Shia clerics.
Some Muslim clerics of both sects interpret Islamic law as forbidding most depictions of people and even animals in art or other likenesses. They believe such likenesses could be perceived as false idols and, therefore, taboo.
The wax figures portray bearded clerics in turbans and politicians in freshly ironed suits.
They include Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, who was beloved by Iraq’s Shias for encouraging Friday prayers during Saddam Hussein’s regime. He was assassinated by Saddam’s agents in 1999. Also depicted is Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, who was born in Najaf and was Lebanon’s top Shia cleric until his death in 2010.
All of the figures were either born, studied or buried in Najaf, located 100 miles south of Baghdad. The city of roughly one million people is home to Iraq’s religious Shia leadership, called the marjaiyah, and holds the tomb of Imam Ali, who Shias consider the Prophet Muhammed’s rightful successor.
The exhibit is the brainchild of Sheik Ali Mirza, a Shia cleric. He said he was inspired during a visit to a wax museum in Beirut that included a likeness of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Sunni extremists have sharply criticized the statues and Shias who visit them.
”Believe it or not: wax museum for the turbaned in Najaf,” sneered a headline on one Sunni website.
”Idols reached Najaf,” thundered another.
”The pre-Islam era of paganism is returning,” warned a comment on another website.
A leading Sunni cleric was more diplomatic.
”It is not right to erect statues whether made of wax or of anything else. That is haram (religiously forbidden) because it is an emulation of God’s creation,” said Sheik Ahmed al-Taha who is the preacher of the Abu Hanifa mosque in Baghdad, a key Sunni house of worship. ”It is similar to what heathens do.”
Some Shias are also uneasy. While Shiaism allows more latitude for the depiction of faces or busts, the full-body wax figures are for many a step too far. Al-Najafi said it is okay to have half a statue but not the full body.
The hard-line Shia movement known as the Sadrists, followers of the late ayatollah, want the statue of al-Sadr taken down.
”The people behind this museum bear the responsibility before God,” said Hakim al-Zamili, a senior Sadrist lawmaker.