Deep beneath the Umm al-Qura mosque in Baghdad, locked away in a secret vault, is an object that can only be described as a theological paradox – an object so blasphemous Islamic law dictates it must be destroyed, but so inherently holy that it can’t be. This is the Blood Qur’an, a copy of the Islamic holy book written entirely in the blood of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
The Blood Qur’an was commissioned by Saddam on April 28, 1998 on the occasion of his 61st birthday.
The dictator had recently re-embraced his Islamic faith after his son, Uday Hussein, narrowly survived an assassination attempt on December 12, 1996. In an official letter published in 2000, Saddam explained that the book was intended as thanks to God for bringing him safely through many ‘conspiracies and dangers’ throughout his long political career: “My life has been full of dangers in which I should have lost a lot of blood…but since I have bled only a little, I asked somebody to write God’s words with my blood in gratitude.”
To write the book, Saddam commissioned calligrapher Abbas Shakir Joody al-Baghdadi. Over the next two years a nurse drew a total of 27 litres of Saddam’s blood and delivered it to al-Baghdadi, who after treating it with chemicals to stabilize it, used the liquid to write out the 114 chapters and 6000 verses of the Islamic holy book. Completed in 2000, the finished book runs 605 pages and is written in lettering two centimetres in height with borders decorated in intricate blue, red, and black designs. The pages, mounted in gold-edge frames, were displayed in a dedicated pavilion in the heart of Baghdad’s Umm al-Ma’arik or “Mother of All Battles” Mosque. The mosque, begun around the same time as the Blood Qur’an and completed in 2001, was built by Saddam to celebrate his supposed victory over Coalition forces in the 1990-1991 Gulf War, and features minarets designed to resemble Scud ballistic missiles and the barrels of Kalashnikov rifles. The pavilion housing the Qur’an pages was largely kept locked and only opened for special guests of Saddam.
Right from the start, the Blood Qur’an set off storms of controversy among Islamic clerics. According to Islamic law or Sharia, human blood is considered Najis, or ritually unclean, and anything it touches is also rendered unclean. To write a Qur’an – the holy word of God – in blood is therefore especially forbidden or haraam. Abbas al-Baghdadi, the book’s creator, was well aware of this, but could not refuse for fear of reprisals by the Saddam regime. In an interview in 2003, al-Baghdadi, who now lives in the US state of Virginia, stated: “I don’t like to talk about this now. It was painful part of my life that I want to forget about.”
Controversy also surrounds the total amount of blood Saddam contributed to the project, and how much was actually used to write the book. In most parts of the world, the maximum amount of blood a person is allowed to donate in a year is between five and six units – or around three litres. At this rate it would have taken Saddam nearly nine years to donate 27 litres rather than only two. This has led some to speculate that the blood came not from Saddam but from an underling or even from political prisoners. However, as the few eyewitness accounts of the actual process are wildly conflicting, this is a question that is unlikely to ever be answered.
The Blood Qur’an remained on display until April 2003, when US forces captured Baghdad. As fighting enveloped the city, the mosque’s caretakers removed the book from its pavilion and hid it away for safekeeping. Among them was Sheikh Samarrai, who even hid pages in his own house. Samarrai now serves as one of the primary caretakers of the Blood Qur’an, which is kept hidden away in a vault beneath the mosque – now renamed Umm al-Qura or “Mother of All Cities” – behind three sets of locked doors. As Sammarai explained in 2010: “I knew this would be much sought after and we made the decision to protect it. But to see this now is not easy. There are three keys and none of them are held in the one place. I have one, the police chief in the area has another and there is a third in another part of Baghdad. There has to be a decision of a committee to let you in.”
The Blood Qur’an is almost never shown to visitors, kept out of sight as clerics and politicians debate just what to do with it. While the method of its creation makes it unclean and blasphemous, the Blood Qur’an is nonetheless a Qur’an and thus according to Islamic tradition cannot be defaced or destroyed. The book thus presents a serious theological quandary for Iraq. As Abdul Kahar Al-Any, professor of Islamic thought at Baghdad University, explains:
“Saddam is not a holy man, so his blood is dirty. But some of the scholars say it is okay because in one of his battles, Muhammad’s warriors gave thanks for victory with the blood of the enemy on their clothes.
I don’t accept this. Such a book has never been written in the time since the Prophet, so why should Saddam do it? But there are no guidelines – who among the scholars since would have thought it necessary to write rules for such a thing?”
But the Blood Qur’an is controversial not only theologically, but politically as well, with many members of Iraq’s current government fearing that it and other relics of the Saddam era could serve as rallying point for Ba’ath party revivalists and should therefore be destroyed. In the words of Ahmed Chalabi, former head of the National Deba’athification Commission: “The best talent in Iraq was ordered to produce monuments which are designed to suppress the people. This is very destructive for the psyche of the Iraqi population. This is a clear reminder of the consequences of totalitarianism and idealizing a person that embodies evil. They have brought nothing to Iraq. They are not worth celebrating. They have nothing aesthetic to offer. I am for removing them.”
Others are not so certain, including Mowaffak al-Rubaie, the former national security adviser who escorted Saddam to his execution in 2006: “He was there and he ruled and he impacted on the world, but he was a part of our history. He was a bad part of our history, but he made a huge difference, whether we like it or not. We need not bury the legacy of that period. We need to remember it, all what is bad and what is good and learn lessons. And the most important lesson is that dictatorship should not return to Iraq.”
Further complicating the issue is the burning down of the National Library and Archives in April, which destroyed huge swathes of Iraq’s artistic and literary heritage and left the Blood Qur’an as one of the few remaining examples of native Islamic calligraphy.
Sheikh Samarrai, the book’s caretaker, is rather more equivocal: “It says a lot about [Saddam]. It should never be put in a museum though, because no Iraqi wants to see it. Maybe in the future it could be sent to a private museum, like memorabilia from the Hitler and Stalin regimes.”
In the meantime, as the debate rages on, the Blood Qur’an remains hidden away behind its three locked doors, one of the most confusing and frustrating relics in the Islamic world and among the strangest and most long-lived legacies of Saddam Hussein’s 24-year rule over Iraq.
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Speaking of Saddam, in 1980 America, the Cold War was still very much hot, Ronald Reagan was elected President, and the United States’ Olympic hockey team shockingly upset the USSR in what would be dubbed “The Miracle on Ice.” Oh, and the new president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, was given a key to the city of Detroit.
How did this come to pass?
Honoring an individual with a key to the city is actually a more tangible variation of another practice known as “Freedom of the City” or, if conferred onto the military, “Freedom of Entry.” More commonly called this in Europe, the practice traces back to ancient Rome and their honoring of the sacred boundary known as the “pomerium.”
The pomerium, Latin meaning “behind the wall,” was the open space just inside of the old city’s’ walls. This space was dedicated to the gods as gratitude for protection. Besides the religious significance, the authority of a Roman general was only valid outside the pomerium and not within the city’s walls. No military affairs were allowed beyond the pomerium. In fact, any soldier or general who crossed that line lost all military power and became simple civilians. The only exception was during victory celebrations, in which generals and soldiers entered the city in honor to celebrate their success in battle. In other words, they had the “Freedom of the City.”
It was in medieval Europe when physical keys started being used, around the sixth or seventh century. When a monarch or ruler came upon a city or town, the leaders would greet him and hold a celebration in his honor (with dancing, food, wine…lots of wine). They would, then, present him with a real key to the city’s gate, allowing this ruler unlimited access. There was also a related custom of giving such keys to certain respected merchants and tradesmen, who could enter the city without needing to pay a tax or toll.
It seems the first time such an honor was given in the United States was in New York City on June 27, 1702. Mayor Philip French (mayor of New York City for only one year) gave the Viscount Cornbury, Edward Hyde, the British governor of New York and considered the most powerful man in the colonies, “Freedom of the City.” Additionally, Mayor French declared that all those in the city who were too poor to purchase their own freedoms were given “Freedom of the City Gratis” for the day.
So that’s how the custom of giving a key to the city started and how it made its way to the United States. So why was Saddam Hussein given such an honor by the city of Detroit?
Hussein became President of Iraq on July 16, 1979. Six days later, he ordered the execution of twenty one Iraqi government officials (including five ministers) who were accused of being “traitors.”
Hussein was technically a Sunni Muslim, though religion doesn’t exactly seem to have truly been huge part of his belief system, later blood Qur’an or not. What Hussein did value was loyalty and political support. So, when Reverend Jacob Yasso of the Chaldean Sacred Heart in Detroit, Michigan publicly congratulated Hussein on his rise to power, the compliment didn’t go unnoticed. Jacob Yasso was born in Telkaif, Iraq and after high school, was recruited to Rome where he completed his masters degree in Philosophy and Theology. In 1960, he was ordained a priest in the Chaldean Catholic Church. Chaldean Catholics are Catholics whose ethnicity stems from the ancient area of Mesopotamia, more specifically northern Iraq, southeast Turkey, Syria, and northwest Iran. In 1964, he was appointed to serve the growing Chaldean community in Detroit.
In response to Yasso’s congratulations, Saddam sent the church $250,000. This came as a surprise to Yasso considering this regime had actually criticized Yasso for questioning their nationalization of Iraqi schools. According to an interview Yasso gave in 2003 with the AP, Saddam Hussein was making donations to Chaldean churches across the world at that time, so giving money to his church wasn’t necessarily out of the ordinary for Iraq’s president. Plus, Detroit had the largest Chaldean population in the United States, who predominately supported the rise of Hussein in Iraq.
Yasso and Hussein kept in touch, and about a year later, in 1980, along with about twenty five people from the Detroit Chaldean community, he was a guest of the Iraqi government and arrived in Baghdad. Then, he was led into Saddam’s palace. In the same interview, Yasso states “We were received on the red carpet.” At some point during the celebration, Yasso presented Saddam Hussein a gift from then-mayor of Detroit, Coleman Young, a key to the city, which of course at this point in the practice of giving keys out didn’t unlock anything, but was merely a symbolic honor.
This act of honoring of a man today generally thought of as having been a ruthless tyrant, didn’t happen in a vacuum. In the late 70s, the United States employed the well-known philosophy, “an enemy of our enemy is our friend.” Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was engaged in a war against Iran. Considering the US’s own issues with Iran, the State Department very much supported Iraq in the war. In fact, there is some evidence that the State Department actually encouraged Detroit mayor Coleman Young to ask Rev. Yasso to present a key to the city of Detroit to Hussein.
In Baghdad, Saddam graciously accepted the honor and asked Yasso, “I heard there was a debt on your church. How much is it?” Yasso said yes there was, approximately for $170,000. Saddam gave him a check for $200,000 dollars, enough to pay the debt and build a new recreation hall.
In the 2003 interview, Yasso went on to say that Saddam was an American puppet and once the US government didn’t need him anymore, he was no good. However, he did admit that while Saddam Hussein may have been a “good person” at some point, to quote him, “money and power changed the person.”
Expand for References
Iraqi Leader’s Koran ‘Written in Blood’, BBC World News, September 25, 2000, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/world/monitoring/media_reports/941490.stm
Qur’an Etched in Saddam Hussein’s Blood Poses Dilemma for Iraq Leaders, The Guardian, December 19, 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/dec/19/saddam-legacy-quran-iraqi-government
Chulov, Martin, Searching for the Koran Written in Saddam Hussein’s Blood (Audio), BBC World Services, December 21, 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/mobile/news/2010/12/101221_saddam_koran_wup_sl.shtml
Pappas, Stephanie, Bio-art: ‘Blood Quran’ Causes Controversy, Live Science, December 21, 2010, https://www.livescience.com/9186-bio-art-blood-quran-controversy.html
Najis Things: 5. Blood, Islamic Laws, https://www.sistani.org/english/book/48/2130/