In a rural area between Babel and Karbala, where a road going to farms branches off the main highway, there is a large sign bearing the name of a religious shrine: Sayida Sharifa Bint Al-Hassan. Every week hundreds of vehicles drive down this road to the shrine, which is surrounded by palm trees. But the drivers of these cars do not go there for the beauty of the shrine, or the scenery.
Today at the entrance to the shrine, under the shade of a palm tree, you will find Salem Awad Khairallah, a man in his forties. Together with members of his family he watches the other visitors to the shrine. Some of them are younger couples, chasing each other among the trees. But Khairallah’s purpose here is altogether more serious.
He has driven hundreds of kilometres from his hometown in the province of Diyala. He has been ill for more than two years and modern medicine has been unable to cure him. So Khairallah is here at the shrine for the third time, hoping for a miracle.
Sayida Sharifa Bint Al-Hassan was the daughter of Karbala’s famous Imam Hussein and one of the grand daughters of the Prophet Mohammed. The Sharifa shrine is well known as being the place to visit if you’re ill – a sign reading “doctor” hangs in the entrance.
There are also many other signs near the entrance – banners, posters, postcards and notes, all of them expressing gratitude for their “cure”. However most of the writers have not signed their real names and only a few of the notes include family names. There are some suspicions that the signs are fake.
Locals believe that miracles are happening at the shrine – mostly they seem to base this on the number of visitors coming here. “It’s not normal,” says one of the residents of this area, Akram Haider Mahdi.
Mahdi truly believes the shrine has some healing powers and he tells a story about a woman who was apparently mad, left there by her family. When they returned she had been cured and was completely normal. He also tells tales of infertile women getting pregnant and sufferers of incurable diseases becoming healthy. And Mahdi doesn’t believe that locals making profit from the shrine’s increasing popularity – for example, the store owners – might be putting up the signs and banners about the shrine themselves, in order to increase the shrine’s popularity.
“If it was that easy to make up stories about the shrine’s healing powers, then surely other shrines would have done the same thing,” Mahdi reasons. “But not all shrines can do what this shrine does. That’s why not all of them get so many visitors as this one.”
However Karbala psychologist Fadel Jawad Razzak believes there may be other reasons as to why the shrine – and others like it – are so popular. Unfortunate economic conditions, trade sanctions, several wars and political deadlocks are all circumstances that have contributed to a deep malaise among many ordinary Iraqis – in particular, he says, they are looking for something to believe in.
Additionally, Razzak says, there really are not many official organisations able to take care of Iraqis’ everyday problems and ill health.
“In countries where there are well developed systems people will turn to them to help solve their problems. The health care system is just one example. However in Iraq there isn’t any such thing,” Razzak explains. “So if an Iraqi wants to buy a car and has no money to do so, he doesn’t go to a bank – he goes to a shrine to seek help and be blessed.”
Razzak also tells of visiting the shrine of Sayida Sharifa Bint Al-Hassan and seeing all the signs expressing gratitude for a cure. Razzak says he thinks the majority of the signs are probably fake but that they still play an important role. They are used to attract visitors to the shrine and the visitors provide employment for hundreds of people living in the area – so they are not altogether bad things. As to whether the shrine actually cures people, Razzak only says, “if it was that easy many sick people would be completely healthy.”
Local clerics also don’t think the shrine is a huge problem. Instead they say it helps locals overcome mental anguish. “We should believe that God is capable of anything, even if we think it would be something impossible,” says local cleric, Waji al-Asadi. “Visiting a shrine like this helps people be more peaceful. They don’t go to a specific shrine because of a specific individual [like the Sayida Sharifa Bint Al-Hassan] but because they wish to be closer to God.”
“If these shrines were not important they would have been abandoned by Muslims a long time ago,” says al-Asadi, who believes that some of the shrine’s visitors were cured simply because of the strength of their devotion.
As for Khairallah, the sick man from Diyala, he has decided to make one more sign to hang near the entrance of the shrine. He feels as though he has no other hope now. “I’ve visited a lot of doctors in Baghdad and in other cities and all of them cannot cure me,” he explains. “The only hope I have now is to pray.”