Kufa, Iraq by John Ericson

Kufa, in Iraq, is one of the so-called “garrison cities” built to house the soldiers of the caliphate and their families in newly conquered territory. Like the other garrison cities, Kufa was built near existing settlements, during the reign of Umar and only 2 years after Muhammad’s death. Of the garrison cities, Kufa perhaps plays the biggest role in Islamic history, becoming a hotbed for what would become Shia Islam.

Islam itself, and the rapid expansion of the caliphate, together formed a major upheaval in the Arab social order. Islam placed new prestige on the date of ones conversion, which for example gave a claim of prestige to the ansar, or original residents of Medina who had taken in Muhhamed after he was kicked out of Mecca. Soldiers were also paid according to the importance and length of their service, a related phenomenon as conversion to Islam was required to join the Caliphate’s army. Naturally, neither of these sources prestige inherently coincided with that accorded in the old Tribal hierarchy. Yet at the same time the rise of Islam and the caliphate was in no small part enabled due to the conversion and alliance of existing elites.

Much of the army was drawn from the Bedouin, who due the rigors of nomadic tribal warfare had also formed the backbone of the army in previous Arab states. Much of the army also was drawn from regions far from the front. Together this meant that the residents of the garrison cities were frequently living utterly different from before. All this set the stage for the residents of the garrison towns to be less attached to the old tribal system. Nowhere was this trend more visible than Kufa. The conquest of Iraq was a “side-show” compared to that of Syria and Egypt, as the area was judged less valuable, and it’s conquest likewise less important and lucrative (Kennedy, 65). Thus, fewer members of the dominant tribes opted to fight on that front. This only fed the belief in Kufa that the patronage of pre-Islamic tribal elites was a major threat to their status as veterans in wars of secular and religious importance.

The second and especially third caliphs, Umar and Uthman, sided with the traditional tribal elites. The forth, Ali, was more receptive to other claims of prestige mentioned. Kennedy relates Ali in fact gave up his first opportunity to be caliph after Umar’s demise, because he wouldn’t swear promote the interests of the powerful Meccan Quraysh tribe (of which it must be mentioned that Muhammad was a member, if a from a mid-ranking branch) (Kennedy, 70). Particularly, Ali was sympathetic to the ansar of Medina. But as Medina was also the capital of the Caliphate, it was by this time filled with the existing elite, and Ali, shortly after his ascension as caliph feared for his safety. He thus left for Kufa, where tensions with the Quraysh and their allies were already on the rise, and were he could find as supporters seasoned military men. To cut the story short, Ali after some limited skirmishes and diplomacy was eventually assassinated in Kufa, and Umayyad dynasty, the Umayyad being a powerfully clan within the Quarysh.

It is therefore ironic that Shia Islam would come to advocate leadership drawn from Muhammad and Ali’s direct descendants, given the origin of their disagreement in resentment over tribal, and thus hereditary status. Furthermore, during Ali’s stay in Kufa he had contend with various factions not always giving him support. But the continuous dissatisfaction with the status quo Kufa that eventually solidified as Shia Islam, combined with Ali’s assassination there, ensured Kufa would remain important both as a location of immense Shite history in general, and a pilgrimage site for Ali’s death in particular.

Materially, Kufa is importantly largely in ways common to all the garrison cities. They together pioneered the tradition in Muslim cities of building an adjoined mosque and palace, with the surrounding area formed the trade district or Souq. In a sign of lingering specter of tribal strife, the residential parts of the cities was separated in districts according to tribe. The garrison cities were set near but separate from existing settlements, so the newly converted armies would be less likely to assimilate with the local populace. However, later cities with a more pluralistic vision would borrow the idea of tribal quarters in instituting quarters based on religion.

Lastly, archaeology of the garrison cities proved critical in dispelling certain notions of the Islamic city, and their evolution from classical antecedents. Earlier Western historians, heavily biased by the North African cities which first became colonial possessions, saw the Islamic city as a chaotic and claustrophobic construction in stark contrast to the regulated elegance of the classical city. Archaeology of Byzantine sites demonstrated that the encroachment of buildings onto wide classical thoroughfares in older cities, and the winding streets of newer towns predated the rise of Islam. On the flip side, the garrison cities had quite square gridiron plans showing clear classical influence. Thus it was demonstrated that at least until later in the Islamic period, the presence of regular city plans simply represented a distinction between the planned and unplanned, not Classical and Islamic.