The pictures from Abu Ghraib won’t just change the course of the war, writes Ali Eteraz — they may transform Islam.

The nameless, hooded prisoner crucified with wires at Abu Ghraib has already joined the list of great martyrs killed in the region now known as Iraq, a list that includes Hussain, the son of the Prophet Muhammad, and al-Hallaj, one of the founders of Sufism. If the revolutionary movements associated with these two martyrs are any indication, the American crucifixion at Abu Ghraib may have unwittingly given to the world of the disaffected a new symbol of defiance. The prisoner at Abu Ghraib, in fact, represents the most vivid and flammable mixture of the qualities of the two most famous historical Iraqi martyrs.

The Saga of Hussain

Charismatic, handsome, and honest, Hussain was the son of Ali, the Fourth Caliph of Islam, and more importantly, the last grandson of the founder of Islam, the prophet Muhammad. While Muhammad lived, the community of believers united under him. But the prophet left no male heir, and he gave no clear order as to who should rule the world of Islam after his death in 632 C.E.

Within fifty years, countless political sects tore Islam apart, and the community of believers became ripe for the emergence of tyranny. It came in the form of the Umayyad family, a wealthy Meccan tribe, which declared itself to be the vanguard of Islam. The dynasty’s founder, Mu’awiya, survived assassination attempts, grew ever more austere, and attempted to impose his son Yazid as supreme autocrat of the Muslim world.

Yazid’s opponents put Hussain forward as the alternative. His supporters convinced him to leave Mecca, where he had sought sanctuary, to travel to Kufah, a city in Iraq. They assured him that they would meet him there and unite under his flag.

Forty miles outside of Kufah, Yazid’s army stopped Hussain and his extended family on the desert plan of Kerbala. All but three members of Hussain’s family were killed. Soldiers put Hussain’s head on a spear and carried it to Yazid.

The martyrdom of Hussain translated into a powerful political message that eventually led to the overthrow of the entire Umayyad regime. It would also become the backbone of Shi’ite Islam, with which the United States first became acquainted through Ayatollah Khomeini. The intellectual force behind the Iranian revolution, Ali Shariati, a Sorbonne-educated sociologist who worked with Frantz Fanon, argued that the death of Hussain added a revolutionary and socially radical element to Islam. Shariati suggested that the martyrdom of Hussain to provide an “example” that Iranians could follow to overthrow the shah — whom he likened to Yazid.

Centuries later, the very idea of Hussain’s blood, spilt on the Iraqi plains of Kerbala, still stands for the struggle of freedom against oppression; the struggle of the liberator against the tyrant; the struggle, to put it in terms relevant to those inclined to view the prisoners at Abu Ghraib as modern martyrs, between rebel and empire.

The Saga of al-Hallaj

During the 9th-century rule of the Abbasid caliphs, Baghdad become the center of the world, brilliantly rich, opulent, and decadent. Many of the great legal minds were on the Abbasid payroll. Nepotism was rife. Harems thrived, filled with Greek and Persian concubines. Islam itself had become a means of control and social manipulation, rather than a source of spiritual and psychological freedom.

Mansur al-Hallaj, the founder of Sufism, was a well-traveled man who stressed an intimate and personal connection with God above all earthly allegiances. He began to attract thousands of followers, many of whom came to him because he offered hope to the disenfranchised and the exploited.

The leaders of the Abbasid empire had him arrested. He would spend eleven years in a prison in what is now Iraq, during which he endured brutal torture. In the end, the regime crucified him.

Word of his death spread. His crucifixion incited passion amidst the populace, leading to the popularization of his brand of Islam, until Sufism became a firmly entrenched alternative to Abbasid orthodoxy.

The Prisoner at Abu Ghraib

We know nothing about him, nothing but what we see. But that is enough: The man in the picture possesses many of the qualities that made Hussain and al-Hallaj so influential. The first, of course, is that he appears to be crucified. Until al-Hallaj, the crucifixion had not meant much in the Muslim world; after, the cross became a part of the Islamic imagination. Since then, the thought of crucifixion has been equivalent to oppression — not redemption.

Many are also wont to liken the prisoner of Abu Ghraib to Hussain. Both were victims of a much more powerful military force. Both were humiliated and defiled before the people they loved — Hussain, literarlly, the prisoner by the promise made by his captors to show these pictures to his family.

Hussain, at the time of his death, had not turned to insurgency; in fact, he often had to be reminded by others that he needed to rebel. Similarly, Hallaj, for most of his life, was nothing more than a wandering spiritual teacher, eccentric but harmless. Most recently, human rights groups have revealed that 70-90% of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib were either innocent or in for petty crimes, such as driving without registration.

The most significant shared fact of these three martyrs is that they died from Iraq. Iraq links the world of Arab Islam to the world of non-Arab Muslims. The demographic composition of Iraq — with its tri-partite division between Sunnis, Shi’ite and Kurds, links it to the Arab states to the West, the Persian-Shi’ite state to the East, and to the Turkic and Central Asian people to the North. Many Islamic figures are often localized, particularized within a certain region, but not so with those that emerge in Iraq. Hussain and al-Hallaj are revered and respected from Indonesia to America.

The prisoner of Abu Ghraib with his arms pointed to either direction will be seen by many as representing Iraq, pulling Muslims from all sides into himself.

In the cases of Hussain and Hallaj it was years before they took on political import. But in our image-oriented, consumerist world, a man who has been made into an object hanging on the wall can become immortal almost instantly, especially when he is anonymous, literally meaningless as anything but a symbol. The prisoner has no history save as a victim; he cannot be reclassified as a villain, or even as individual with specific story. The hood that hides his face makes him everyman. As he stands in Iraq, the center of the world of Islam, his awful silence spreads much like the cries of Hussain at Kerbala, and the ashes of Hallaj in Baghdad; the myths and the martyrs of Iraq travel in all directions.

Ali Eteraz is a free-lance writer and a law student in Philadelphia. He is currently working on a novel.

Read more about martyrdom in Islam:

“From the Moment of Death,” by Nancy Updike, Malia Zoghlin, and Michael Wean

“Suicide, Martyrdom, and the Rules of War in the Koran,” by Daniel P. Tompkins

“The Islamic Legitimacy of the ‘Martyrdom Operations,'” by Br. Abu Rugaiyah

“The Concept of Martyrdom in Islam,” by A. Ezzati

“Murder and Martyrdom,” by Adrian Karatnycky

“Suicide U.: Iran registers volunteers for martyrdom”

“Iman Husain and his Martyrdom,” by Abdullah Yusuf Ali

“The Culture of Martyrdom,” by David Brooks

Further reading on Abu Ghraib:

“Pictures from an Inquisition,” by Jeff Sharlet

“The Mirror and the Leash,” by Jeff Sharlet

“Our Lady of Minor Hostilities,” by Peter Manseau

“Regarding the Torture of Others,” by Susan Sontag

“Tourists and Torturers,” by Luc Sante

The Taguba Report