Wadi al-Salaam, the Valley of Peace, in Iraq is the largest cemetery in the world; more than five million people are buried there.
1,389 years ago, shortly before his death, Muhammad gave a sermon. As part of that sermon, he announced “anyone who has me as his mawla, has this Ali as his mawla.” The Ali he mentioned was ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. He was also either the second or the third person in history to convert to Islam. But just what Muhammad meant by “mawla” is a matter of dispute. In Arabic, it can be used to describe both a leader and a friend. Did Muhammad appoint Ali as his successor, or did he mean something else?
This so-called event of Ghadir Khumm led to the grand schism at the heart of Islam. Shia Islam sees Ali as the chosen leader and first Imam; Sunni Islam recognises him only as the fourth elected Caliph. The two major branches of Islam don’t even agree on where he’s buried. According to Sunni tradition, he was buried in Afghanistan, later the site of the mosque Hazrat Ali Mazar. In Shia tradition, Ali’s body was loaded on a camel and he was buried where that camel stopped. Later, a shrine and a city grew up around the burial site: Imam Ali Shrine, and the city of Najaf.
Najaf is about 30km south of Babylon and is today home to more than a million people. The shrine to Ali is one of Islam’s holiest sites and sees millions of pilgrims every year. Directly attached to the shrine, there is a cemetery. Wadi al-Salaam is huge – at least five million people are interred within its six square kilometre area. And more people added every year, more than a hundred every day.
It’s the Ali connection that makes this cemetery so popular. In Shia tradition, on the Day of Resurrection (Judgement Day) Ali will intercede on behalf of those buried in Wadi al-Salaam. As a result, the cemetery is packed with catacombs and mausoleums of the pious.