Obituary: Ayatollah Shaykh Murtada al-Burujirdi

AYATOLLAH SHAYKH Murtada al-Burujirdi, who was assassinated last month, was a leading religious scholar and jurist at Najaf in Iraq, one of the Shia Muslims' holiest cities since it contains the tomb of the first Shia Imam, Amir al-Mu'minin Ali ibn Abi Talib. Najaf is also the seat of the 1,000-year-old Hawza Ilmiyya, the oldest Shia university.

Burujirdi was born in Najaf in 1931 but his family originated from the vicinity of Burujird in Iran, some 140 miles south-west of the holy city of Qom. His father, Ayatollah Shaykh Ali Muhammad, was a jurist who had taught at the Hawza at Najaf and had then become a marja al-taqlid ("source of emulation") at Burujird where he died. At Najaf the young Murtada had done his intermediate studies under his father, but at the advanced level his principal teacher was the great jurist Ayatollah Abul-Qasim al-Khoi.

During this period, while still attending Khoi's lectures, Burujirdi became a mujtahid, (qualified to make independent juridical decisions), and taught at the Hawza. This was a feature of academic life at Najaf, where the most competent pupils of the leading ulema (religious scholars) were also teachers and scholars in their own right.

He published a 10-volume work which comprised detailed notes, complete with his annotations and comments, of Khoi's lectures on the monumental work of jurisprudence al-Urwa al-Wuthqa by Sayyid Muhammad Kadhim al-Yazdi.

In 1991, after the Shia uprising in southern Iraq, Burujirdi was imprisoned along with 70 other ulema but was released after three days. It had been his custom to say his daily prayers in the Rawda, the sacred enclosure of Imam Ali. The imam - the leader of the congregational prayers - Sayyid Muhammad Ridha al-Khalkhali, had also been put in prison, but since he was not released Burujirdi was appointed in his place.

The Baathist government, aware of the awe and esteem in which the Shia ulema were held by the people, had in the late spring of 1994 closed the Khadra Mosque in Najaf where Ayatollah Ali Seestani, today the principal marja in Iraq, was imam, on the pretext that essential repairs had to be carried out. They now asked Burujirdi to give up his post at the Rawda of Imam Ali. He refused vehemently.

Two years ago he was beaten up and a little over a year ago an attempt was made on his life when a hand-grenade was thrown at him. He suffered injuries to his legs and had to remain at home for two months. He still would not give up leading the prayers, however, although thereafter he never went to the Rawda alone.

What exacerbated matters even further was Burujirdi's decision to gain recognition as a marja and the subsequent publication, last year, of his own collection of fatwas, his risala amaliyya, in two volumes: Ayatollah Seestani had been virtually under house arrest for more than three years and the government was bent on promoting its own candidate Sayyid Muhammad al-Sadr (who is prepared to co-operate with it but who lacks the credentials for being a marja) as a rival to Seestani.

The spectacle of Burujirdi as a marja, readily accessible to his followers, in addition to his leading the prayers in the Rawda, was clearly the last straw. Burujirdi would have become a symbol of resistance to the Baathist government which has for the past 30 years pursued a policy of utter ruthlessness towards the Shia ulema. Recently he was visited by a delegation from the Ministry of Awqaf (Religious Endowments) demanding his resignation from leading the prayers.

Despite their abusive and threatening language he said that he would only agree if he received an order in writing from the government. He knew this would be unlikely since he had never got involved in any political activity.

On the evening of 21 April Burujirdi was shot dead, and two passers-by were injured, as he walked back home from the Rawda after the evening prayers. Next morning there was a funeral procession to the Rawda in which hundreds of people took part and there Ayatollah Sayyid Radhi al-Mar'ashi led the ritual funeral prayer over the deceased. Then the coffin was swiftly taken off in a car by security officers to the cemetery of Wadi al-Salam where the body was buried in haste with only Burujirdi's son, Shaykh Mahdi, and the gravediggers allowed to be present.

Murtada al-Burujirdi, religious scholar, jurist and imam: born Najaf, Iraq 1931; married Shawkat bint Mirza Ali al-Na'ini (one son, three daughters); died Najaf 21 April 1998.

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