AMONG HIS PEOPLE: Why the ‘father of Iraqi sociology’ is buried on a busy Baghdad street

By Mustafa Jamal Murad in Baghdad

Usually graves are located in cemeteries, those special oases of calm, far from the hustle and bustle of the living. The grave of Iraqi sociologist Ali al-Wardi violates this rule though. It is as if al-Wardi, known as the founder of modern Arab sociology, did not want to leave behind the people he wrote about, even after death.

That is why there is a black marble plaque on the sidewalk near Baghdad’s Buratha mosque bearing his full name – Ali Hussein Mohsen al-Wardi – and indicating that this is where he was buried after his death in 1995.  

The location of al-Wardi’s grave might seem a little odd. Thousands of cars and hundreds of people pass by here daily. But maybe this was al-Wardi’s wish, that he never be far from the people of the city he spent his life studying.

Al-Wardi was born in Kadhimiya, Baghdad, in 1913, to a religious and traditional family. But as he grew up, he defied his family by pursuing a more intellectual path. His family wanted him to learn a craft or a trade rather than reading books.

Al-Wardi finished high school and won various academic prizes, then worked as a teacher before winning a scholarship to the American University of Beirut. He graduated from there with a bachelor’s degree in 1943. A few years later, al-Wardi was able to travel to the US, where he eventually gained a PhD from the University of Texas. He then returned to Iraq to work as a professor of sociology at the University of Baghdad.

Al-Wardi also began writing the books that eventually established his reputation as the father of modern Iraqi, and Arab, sociology. He has written 18 books and hundreds of research papers, theorizing on everything from nomadic society and civil society to the hypocrisy of Arab intellectuals who were too close – in his opinion – to society’s most influential. His work often looked at the differences between urban and rural life in Iraq and how that led to deep divisions in Iraqi society.

According to one of al-Wardi’s relatives, Abu Ali al-Saghir, the famous sociologist had a plan for where he wanted to be buried and this was written into his will.

“My aunt’s husband specified in his will three [possible] places for him to be buried,” al-Saghir said. The courtyard of the Al Kadhimiya mosque or in the vicinity of the Buratha mosque were two of his choices.

Al-Wardi was suffering from cancer and had been transferred to Jordan for treatment because sanctions on Iraq at the time prevented him from being able to access the appropriate medications. As a result, he died in Amman, Jordan, in July 1995.

When his body was returned to Baghdad, local authorities refused to allow his burial in the Al Kadhimiya Mosque. However, one of his distant relatives was the well-known religious scholar, Hussein Ali Mahfoudh, and he gave the order that al-Wardi could be buried by the Buratha mosque. Therefore his last wish was fulfilled.

The Buratha mosque dates back to 645AD and may have originally been a Christian monastery. Al-Saghir thinks that al-Wardi chose this as his final resting place because he would visit the mosque often as a child.

“He loved the mosque,” ​​al-Saghir explained. “It was considered one of the most important scientific and religious centers of the past. He even mentioned it in his book, ‘Psychological Insights from Modern Iraqi History’, saying how he used to go to the mosque every Friday, sit in one of the corners, listen to the sermons and just read books.”

It seems likely he also wanted to be buried here so friends and relatives who lived nearby could visit his grave. And no doubt, al-Wardi also wanted to be buried in a place that symbolizes knowledge and faith, al-Saghir added.

Al-Wardi’s family recalls how a large crowd participated in the funeral and that the attendees were people from all walks and all levels of Iraqi society. A memorial service for al-Wardi was held inside the mosque itself.

However, his grave hasn’t always been treated with such respect. During the US occupation of Iraq, al-Wardi’s grave was blocked off by concrete security barriers and cars drove over it. A lot of Iraqi intellectuals and fans of al-Wardi’s seminal work were very upset about this, al-Saghir recounted.

Since then, the Baghdad city council has removed the barriers and also refurbished the grave site.

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