Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Ali al-Wardi & The Angry Sheikh
Ali al-Wardi, the man who introduced Iraq to sociology, made a lot of enemies by virtue of his academic work. When writing about Iraq's history, culture and faith he made sure to take off his Shia cap and analyse even the most sensitive Shia doctrine through objective lenses. Naturally, because he himself came from a Shia family, many of those intellectual enemies came from the Shia ranks that saw him as a traitor to their faith. Even today, when I mention his name in front of hawza students or Shia clerics I can see them flinch. It works almost every other time.
Many of them cannot disagree that he was one of the best scholars Iraq produced in the 20th century but their praise is withheld because his religious beliefs were 'messed up' and he was 'confused' and/or had really bad experiences with men of religion in the past and that his work was his special way of getting back at them. On his hit-list was not just religion, but communism and pan-Arabism too, the three strongest movements during his era. He was a rebel.
One thing for certain is that he did have bad experiences as a result of his work and the following incident is just one example narrated to me by an eyewitness. It is also a testament to the good manners and strong character of Wardi.
It was a hot summer's day in the early 1970's and Sheikh al-Waeli had just given a lecture on Imam al-Mehdi, the 12th Shia Imam, in the Hashimi mosque in Kadhimiya, Baghdad. A group of men sat down in the courtyard of the mosque after the lecture had finished discussing religion and politics, and probably also complaining about the weather like they do today.
At the head of the group was Hussain al-Sadr and Ali al-Wardi. During their discussion a young Sheikh had just walked in and sat down at the back of the group. The Sheikh was known for his die-hard Shia identity and some jokers in the group decided to have some fun with him. They told him all about Wardi and his blasphemous beliefs.
The Sheikh was already filled to the brim with love for all things Shia, which can also mean hatred for all things anti-Shia. He was especially in love with the Mehdi, and his friends would constantly tease him when ever they saw him and ask "So, any news from the Mehdi?"
However the Sheikh had no idea who Ali al-Wardi was let alone what he looked like so after the men in the group had finished winding him up one of them pointed to the man sitting next to Sadr and said "That's Ali al-Wardi!"
Sadr and Wardi meanwhile have no idea what is going on and while Sadr was in the middle of a sentence the angry Sheikh stood up, walked to the front, and shouted "Are you Ali al-Wardi?". Wardi, whose fingers are interlocked over his walking stick and who is resting his chin on his fingers, ignores the question and gestures to Sadr to continue. Before Sadr could speak the fuming Sheikh went on a rant. "How dare you speak against Imam al-Mehdi? How dare you deny his existence?"
Arabs are very particular and delicate when it comes to hospitality and guests. In this instance, for example, Wardi is a guest of Sadr and if a guest is insulted by a third party in the presence of the host, it is the host who is responsible. Sadr is therefore embarrassed but before he can do anything to stop it the young Sheikh gathers saliva in his mouth and spits extremely hard on Wardi's face. A grave insult by any standards.
Sadr jumped up and began to apologise to Wardi for the outrageous behaviour and everyone in the courtyard was shocked at what they had just witnessed. Even the men who had just wanted to have some fun by telling the Sheikh about Wardi stopped smiling. The joke was over.
Wardi calmly took out his handkerchief, wiped the spit off his face and said to Sadr "Sayyid continue" as if nothing had happened. Sadr was still shocked and again apologised several times but Wardi cut him off and said "It's okay, he is a simple man, please Sayyid continue"