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.