Originally appeared in the January/February 2009 Atlantic.
Mullah Masood Akhundzada, guardian of the Shrine of the Blessed Cloak of the Prophet Muhammad, in Kandahar, is wary of guests. When his brother was the guardian, 13 years ago, he accepted an insistent visitor. Today, a youngster with a Kalashnikov shadows Mullah Masood around the shrine, just in case the visitor, Mullah Omar, or any of his friends return.
The mosque itself is a modest cube with filthy blue-and-gilt mosaics. But in a poor city, it is an outpost of opulence and safety. When Masood and I relax in the courtyard, sipping imported packets of Iranian cherry juice, it seems as if we’re at the estate of a country lord. Its most aggressive resident is the goat that mows the lawn. Aside from the bodyguard, there’s little hint of the dangers outside: the area’s main boulevard is Khuni Serok, or “Bloody Road”; on the way to the shrine, I passed the blackened divot left by a suicide bombing.
Pilgrims visit here to revere the cloak—a camel-fur garment said to have been woven by the prophet Enoch and presented by God to Muhammad after his Night Journey to heaven. Ahmad Shah Durrani brought it from Bukhara in 1768 and appointed the Akhundzada family as its guardians. Since then, the Akhundzadas have guarded the cloak mostly from politicians like Ahmad Shah. When he wanted to be entombed with it, they cried blasphemy, and he relented, powerless before clergymen with a scrap of cloth. The cloak’s prestige has, for the most part, kept the Akhundzadas safe and prosperous, as custodians of both the garment and the endowments that exist for its upkeep.
The cloak has no seams, Masood tells me, and no color. When on display, it can cure disease, convert the faithless, and end national disasters. The guardians allowed viewings during a cholera outbreak in the 1930s, and the cloak arrested the epidemic. Decades later, it quenched a drought.
Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, visited the shrine in 1996, shortly after seizing control of southern Afghanistan. “He came and asked to see the blessed cloak,” says Masood, who is 33. “We told him that there are conditions: shave your armpits, shave your head, and wash yourself.” Omar came back, clean and hairless.
But Omar wasn’t satisfied. “The next time, he wanted to show it to the public,” Masood says. “We were sort of annoyed.” The guardians demanded a bigger sacrifice. Omar slaughtered 500 cattle and, over the guardians’ objections, transported the cloak to a building on the city’s outskirts and waved it from the rooftop before an adoring crowd. With his arms in the prophet’s sleeves, Omar pronounced himself amir al-mu’mineen, “prince of the faithful,” the title of the caliphs, the successors of the prophet.
Notwithstanding Omar’s insistence, the guardians of the shrine have rarely permitted more than a peek at the cloak. But they allowed Gul Agha Shirzai, a U.S.-backed warlord, to see it, and welcomed five visits from President Hamid Karzai (although he apparently never saw the cloak itself). The Taliban have noticed the Akhundzadas’ openness to the current government. Masood became the custodian last year, after his brother—who was one of Kandahar’s senior clerics—was shot dead in a market. The city has suffered a killing spree of prominent citizens this year, in what many observers think is the Taliban’s attempt to sow fear among influential Kandaharis.
Uneasy sleeps the mullah who keeps the cloak. Masood believes the current situation in Afghanistan merits drastic measures: “It’s a suitable time now to show the cloak to the general public and have collective prayers with it.” But he worries that the garment and its admirers would make irresistible bombing targets. “I’m afraid a public viewing must not happen, because of terrorist attacks,” he says. “I am scared of incidents. There was an explosion in a mosque. Who did it? Taliban denied it, the government denied it, foreigners denied it.” The cloak might cure disease, end hunger, and anoint kings. But bringing security to Kandahar may be beyond its powers.
Graeme Wood is an Atlantic staff editor.