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Religion Library: Sunni Islam

Sacred Space

Written by: Nancy Khalek

It should be said that in the history of Sunni Islam, the issue of sacred space, in terms of ziyara, has been a contentious one. Pilgrimages of this variety have been an important aspect of life in Muslim society, from the Middle Ages to the modern era. But just as the early Christian cult of saints, relics, and icons had its detractors, so too has the Sunni world demonstrated a range of views on the legitimacy of these minor pilgrimages. Some even went so far as to consider them blasphemous, on a par with idolatry, especially the aspect of pilgrims supplicating or kissing a shrine or tomb.

Important medieval theologians like Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) eschewed these types of pilgrimages, as well as the festivals (usually celebrating a holy man or woman's birthday) that went along with them. In his view, the only legitimate pilgrimage was to Mecca. Others were diametrically opposed to this view, and espoused their belief that the physical location of a saint's tomb or biblical shrine (such as the cave outside Damascus where Cain supposedly slew Abel, called the Grotto of the Blood) was actually hallowed ground, that it contained more blessing than other land.

These latter authors and scholars, such as Muhammad ibn Suleyman al-Raba‘i (10th century) argued that prayers and supplications made at such loca sancta, especially in Jerusalem, were more efficacious than those made in ordinary spaces. Throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period, a literature known as fada'il or "religious merits" extended to include cities in the Islamic world that housed these types of monuments. From the 10th century on, even small towns and villages in Syria, boasting the tombs of prominent Prophetic Companions, capitalized on the idea that even large landscapes could be sacred.

In the end, theologians typically disagree and hold a range of views, but practice on the ground reflects its own version of reality. This reality is locally and culturally specific. In Pakistan, Sunnis flock to the shrines of local pirs, or holy men, on their birthdays, their mawlids. In Egypt, a large mosque in Cairo houses a shrine to Husayn, the martyred son of Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law. Many shrines to great figures from Islam's past are also venerated, including the tomb of Salah al-Din in Damascus, Syria.  Though visitation to the shrines of martyrs and holy people is an essential aspect of Shi‘i Islam, it has always been a part of the Sunni world, as well.

Study Questions:
     1.    Why is pilgrimage an important ritual to Islam?
     2.    What is ziyarat? Why has it been considered blasphemous by some segments of the community?
     3.    What cities are considered sacred within Islam?
     4.    How do relics fit into the local culture? Does this differ from Islam’s traditional understanding of sacred space?


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