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Religion Library: Sunni Islam

Sacred Space

Written by: Nancy Khalek

Kaaba: photo courtesy of m0h via C.C. License at FlickrSacred space in the Islamic world is most obviously found in mosques and in Mecca, the holiest city in Islam. In addition to the major pilgrimage called Hajj, which takes place in Mecca at a particular time on the Islamic calendar, lesser pilgrimages abound in the Sunni world, and have for centuries. These minor pilgrimages, called ziyarat (literally, visitations), are usually to the tomb or shrine of a historical figure who was important in the history of Islam, and whose importance is usually construed in terms of saintliness.

Praying at Mt Arafat during the annual pilgrimage (hajj):photo courtesy of aljazeeraenglish via C.C. License at FlickrThe word ziyara (the singular form of ziyarat), which means "visitation," corresponds to "minor pilgrimage" (as opposed to the Hajj to Mecca, a major pilgrimage.) Pilgrims to the shrine of a local holy man or woman (a great shaykh or mystic/Sufi) literally visit the person who is entombed. They consider the place to be particularly blessed. Often pilgrims will approach a tomb or shrine reverently, kissing the doorway or kneeling at the tomb itself to make supplication. There is even a branch of literature called adab al-ziyarat, the "etiquette of ziyara," that discusses proper behavior for visiting a shrine or tomb.

Taj Mahal in Agra, India, built during the Mughal Empire (completed ca. 1653): photo courtesy of vinish via C.C. License at FlickrArchitecturally, tombs are usually topped by a dome or cupola. These shrines are richly adorned and often lavishly decorated. Pilgrims occasionally leave notes of supplication or pieces of cloth at a shrine, as a votive symbol of their visitation. Often, money is left for the upkeep of the shrine.

Shrines may also exist within larger buildings, such as the shrine to John the Baptist. The shrine looks like a small domed building, but it actually sits inside the main hall of the Great Mosque of Damascus. In other cases, such as the Eyyup shrine outside Istanbul, a massive mosque and school complex developed around the shrine, in this case the tomb of the Companion Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, who died during an unsuccessful siege against Constantinople in the 7th century. Holy spaces such as this one beget other holy spaces: a miraculous healing fountain is said to have sprung up near Ayyub's tomb, and was visited by Muslims and Christians in the Middle Ages.


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