Despite certain theological differences, Shi‘i and Sunni Muslims share a number of core beliefs, including devotion to the Prophet Muhammad and members of his family, the ahl al-bayt. For Shi‘i Muslims in particular, this is at the core of their belief system and has inspired various spaces of worship and ritual practices. Most notably, this included several shrines, some more elaborate than others, that were built in dedication to significant figures in Shi‘i history and continue to be some of the most visited sites in the Muslim world today.
Reverence for the Prophet’s Family, Ahl al-Bayt
The fourth of the Rightly Guided Caliphs in Sunni Islam, and the first of the Shi‘i Imams; Ali b. Abi Talib remains a significant figure for Muslims who has largely influenced Islamic thought, culture, and spirituality. According to the Shi‘i tradition, Imam Ali was the divinely appointed successor to the Prophet Muhammad. This appointment formed the foundations of a specifically Shi‘i political philosophy that future Shi‘i dynasties espoused.
Similarly, the spiritual legacy of Ali permeated the Sunni tradition through the numerous Sufi orders (tariqas) that trace their spiritual genealogy directly to Ali. The short caliphate of Ali (656-661 CE) was marked by civil wars within the newly formed Muslim community, and concluded with his assassination at the congregational mosque in Kufa. It is said that the Imam’s burial place was initially kept secret until the fifth Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid, announced that he was buried in the town of Najaf. Subsequently, a sanctuary was erected that would later be expanded and adorned. Today, millions of Shi‘i Muslims visit the site in Najaf each year as a form of pilgrimage, otherwise known as ziyara, which is used in the Shi‘i context for visits to sites associated with the Prophet and the ahl al-bayt.
As is the case with many shrines that inter notable figures, there is an alternative site that also claims to be the resting place of Imam Ali. Some believe that his body was moved from Najaf to a secret tomb near Balkh, which was rediscovered in the village of Khawaja Khayran in present-day Northern Afghanistan in the early 12th century. Seljuk rulers built a shrine at the location (1136 CE), which was expanded by the Timurids in 1480-81, representing most of the structure today. Following restorations and extensive extensions in the mid-twentieth century, the shrine draws thousands of Shi‘i pilgrims throughout the year, especially during the celebration of New Year (Nawruz).
Following the death of Imam Ali and the abdication of his eldest son Hasan, the partisans of Ali in Kufa called upon Husayn ibn Ali to claim the caliphate from the Umayyads. Ambushed en route, the Prophet’s grandson was killed and beheaded at the Battle of Karbala in 680. The death of Husayn marks a historical tragedy in the Shi‘i tradition that gave birth to rituals of grief and remembrance. To this day, the events of Karbala unite Shi‘i communities around the world in mourning of Imam Husayn. Specifically, Shi‘i pilgrims travel to Imam Husayn’s burial site in Karbala to mark the anniversary of his death on the tenth day of the holy month of Muharram. While the shrine in Karbala inters the body of Imam Husayn, it is believed that at the time of his death Husayn’s head was taken to Damascus to be kept at the Great Umayyad Mosque, and later secretly moved by the Abbasids to Ascalon, Palestine, so as to minimise the reverence paid to this sacred relic. In 1153 the head of Husayn was reinterred in Cairo near the Great Eastern Palace of the Fatimid Imam-caliphs. Today, the Mosque of Sayyidna Husayn in Cairo that is believed to contain Husayn’s head is one of the most sacred sites in the Egyptian capital.
The martyrdom of Imam Husayn also inspired spaces of worship beyond the mosque and the shrine. These spaces take on various names, including husayniyya (named after the person who inspired them), imambara, ashurkhana and takiya. Each structure, depending on what part of the world they exist, accommodate various rituals of grief to commemorate the death of Imam Husayn, and are predominantly used by the Twelver Shia community, the largest of the Shi‘i groups. These rituals can range from passion plays that re-enact the events at Karbala to the creation of replicas of Imam Husayn’s tomb as part of local processions. In northern India somewhat larger spaces such as imambaras occupy the landscape.
While the mosque-tomb may seem like the most familiar space in which religious figures are revered, in reality Muslim communities across the globe have generated a variety of spaces devoted to the ahl al-bayt.
The sheer diversity of these vibrant spaces should serve as a reminder of the multiplicity of interpretations and practices that have characterised Islam throughout the centuries until today.
More on the Web:
Shrine of Imam Ali Rawze-i Sharif in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan.
Shrine of Imam Husayn, Masjid al-Husayn in Cairo, Egypt.
Shrine Complex of Imam Riza in Mashhad, Iran.
Large complex of Bara Imambara in Lucknow, India.