Dates for assembly

3rd February 2006 at 00:00
February 9 Ashura: a Shi'a Holy Day

The martyrdom of Husain ibn Ali, the Prophet's grandson, in ad 680 explains the division between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims

Outline script

Until recently, Magda's home was in Samarra, a town north of Baghdad in Iraq. Because there were insurgents nearby, American soldiers moved in and used it as a shelter from which to fire at them. When the Americans left, the insurgents returned to use it as their base. By now, almost all Magda's belongings were smashed, the house a ruin.

Magda is a teacher. When Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, she was not allowed to teach because she was a Shi'a Muslim. Now the more numerous Shi'as are in control, things should be better. But they're not because they dislike the fact her husband is a Sunni Muslim. With her children, Magda moved into the countryside where the family was unknown.

Divisions between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims go back 1,400 years. Following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, some people opposed those chosen to be leaders of the faith and who wanted the Prophet's grandson Husain ibn Ali to be khalifah, or caliph. Eventually, there was a battle at a place called Kerbala, or Karbala, on the banks of the River Euphrates, south of where Baghdad now stands. Ali was killed and his headless body buried there.

His supporters became known as the Shi'at-Ali, "the party of Ali". They continued to be a strong group within Islam, now known as Shi'a Muslims.

Every year, they remember the battle of Kerbala on the day called Ashura and many make a pilgrimage to Kerbala.

Like Shi'as, Sunni Muslims follow the teachings of the Prophet and both groups believe the Qur'an shows them the way to live. Most Sunnis now also agree Ali was a good and holy man. Magda hopes that, before long, Sunnis and Shi'as will live in peace in Iraq; she can return home and, one day, start teaching again.

Follow-up

Discuss whether a job applicant's religion should matter. Create a map of Iraq showing the towns mentioned and places that figure in news from that country. Illustrate with newspaper cuttings.

Groups familiar with the plot of Romeo and Juliet could retell it as if it were set in Northern Ireland, Iraq or on the West Bank.

An account of Ashura in Iraq is at www.electroniciraq.netnews1381.shtml

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