An exhibit of wax statues depicting some of Shiite Muslims' most beloved clerics, aimed at paying tribute to this Iraqi holy city's contributions to culture, has been dipped in controversy as some Sunnis decry the figures as heretical.
The wax sculptures are due to be displayed at a museum in Najaf, but even before the exhibit opens, some Sunni Muslims — rarely shy about highlighting their religious differences with Shiites — are denouncing them as a violation of Islamic law. Even some Shiite clerics are a bit leery.
"Even those dead people whose statues are displayed (would have) disapproved of this," said Ali Bashir al-Najafi, a spokesman for one of Iraq's top Shiite clerics.
Some Muslim clerics of both sects interpret Islamic law as forbidding most depictions of people and even animals in art or other likenesses. They believe such likenesses could be perceived as false idols and, therefore, taboo.
The wax figures portray bearded clerics in turbans and politicians in freshly ironed suits. They include Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, who was beloved by Iraq's Shiites for encouraging Friday prayers during Saddam Hussein's regime. He was assassinated by Saddam's agents in 1999. Also depicted is Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, who was born in Najaf and was Lebanon's top Shiite cleric until his death in 2010.
All of the figures were either born, studied or buried in Najaf, located 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Baghdad. The city of roughly one million people is home to Iraq's religious Shiite leadership, called the marjaiyah, and holds the tomb of Imam Ali, who Shiites consider the Prophet Muhammed's rightful successor.
The exhibit is the brainchild of Sheik Ali Mirza, a Shiite cleric. He said he was inspired during a visit to a wax museum in Beirut that included a likeness of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Mirza said the figures in Najaf are so lifelike visitors sometimes "raise their hands to salute the statues as if they were alive." He said the statues are all Shiite because the exhibit will be in Najaf, which he called "the Vatican of Shiite Muslims."
The wax figures were originally intended to be part of festivities connected to the city being named the 2012 Islamic Capital of Culture. But the cultural arm of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation — the grouping of Islamic nations once known as the Organization of the Islamic Conference — announced recently that the festival has been canceled at the Iraqi government's request.
The event had already been beset by accusations of mismanagement and corruption. But the wax figures are not going to just melt away. Officials said the figures will still be displayed at a Najaf museum.
The cleric knows the likenesses won't be to everybody's liking.
"The museum is a new idea and people need time to get used to it," he said.
But some in Iraq's Sunni minority are not getting used to it, reflecting the religious divide that is never far from the surface here. Even more so than Shiism, Sunni Islam has historically frowned on depictions of the human form. Many Iraqi Sunnis look down on the country's Shiite majority because they allow depictions of Muslim figures in banners, flags or other religious paraphernalia. For Sunni extremists, this is just further proof of their accusation that Shiites are not true Muslims.
Sunni extremists have sharply criticized the statues and Shiites who visit them. "Believe it or not: wax museum for the turbaned in Najaf," sneered a headline on one Sunni website. "Idols reached Najaf," thundered another. "The pre-Islam era of paganism is returning," warned a comment on another website. A leading Sunni cleric was more diplomatic.
"It is not right to erect statues whether made of wax or of anything else. That is haram (religiously forbidden) because it is an emulation of God's creation," said Sheik Ahmed al-Taha who is the preacher of the Abu Hanifa mosque in Baghdad, a key Sunni house of worship. "It is similar to what heathens do."
Some Shiites are also uneasy. While Shiism allows more latitude for the depiction of faces or busts, the full-body wax figures are for many a step too far. Al-Najafi said it is OK to have half a statue but not the full body.
The hardline Shiite movement known as the Sadrists, followers of the late ayatollah, want the statue of al-Sadr taken down.
"The people behind this museum bear the responsibility before God," said Hakim al-Zamili, a senior Sadrist lawmaker.
Mirza is careful not to speak against the marjaiyah, whose edicts are practically law in this Shiite majority country. But he points out that various Shiite clerics have different ideas about the statues' appropriateness.
The statues have already become a hit with some Shiites. Curious onlookers have flocked to a religious school owned by Mirza where the statues are being kept until the museum opens.
"I am very impressed. I did not expect something like this. They seem so real," one visiting cleric, Sheik Muhsen al-Najafi, told Mirza during a visit.
An activist in Najaf, Qassim Abdul-Sadda, said he was not very religious but went to see the wax statues about a month ago out of curiosity.
He took pictures of himself next to the statues and posted them on the Internet. When some of his friends realized they were wax figures, they called the statues "haram," he said. But he likes them. "It is good to preserve the heritage of Najaf in this way by showing this generation and generations to come the scholars who had a great contribution to the history and culture of Najaf," he said.