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Religion Library: Shia Islam

Sacred Space

Written by: Anna Akasoy

Like Sunnis, Shiites attend mosques for prayer. Like Sunnis too, Shiites consider the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in one's lifetime one of the five pillars of Islam. An even greater significance for displaying and celebrating the collective identity of the Shiites is the pilgrimage to shrines in Iran and Iraq that are connected to events in the early history of Shiism. The pilgrimage rites resemble those used during hajj to Mecca.

Among the Shiite shrines is the spot near Kufa that the sixth Imam identified as the place where Ali was buried. Shiite pilgrims visited it as early as the 8th century; eventually it turned into the Shiite center of Najaf. This did not prevent "discoveries" of Ali's grave in the 12th and 15th centuries in Mazar-i Sharif (modern-day Afghanistan). The city's Blue Mosque is the most significant center for pilgrimage in Afghanistan, and the Persian New Year (Nowruz) is celebrated here.

Apart from Najaf, the most important Shiite shrines in Iraq are found in Karbala, in Kazimiyya north of Baghdad (where the Imams Musa al-Kazim, the seventh Imam, and Muhammad al-Jawad are buried), and in Samarra, where Hasan al-Askari is buried and the Twelfth Imam disappeared. In Iran, the traditionally most significant shrine is in Mashhad where the eighth Imam, Ali al-Rida, is buried and where many descendants of Ali and Fatima live. In the Shiite tradition, Musa al-Kazim reports that according to the Prophet one pilgrimage to Mashhad is worth seventy visits to Mecca. In the course of the 20th century, Mashhad was replaced by Qom, which is the intellectual center of the Islamic Republic.

The institutions around these shrines, which include mosques, centers of learning, Sufi convents, and places for pilgrims to stay and eat have been opportunities for Shiite—and occasionally Sunni—rulers to present themselves as generous patrons. This patronage sometimes had a crucial impact on the standing of individual places. Thus the Nawab who resided in Lucknow (the capital of Oudh [=Awadh]) and the Qajar dynasty (1794-1925) supported the development of Najaf. The Safavids had initially sponsored shrines in Iraq, but the territory was then lost to the Ottomans. Once under foreign rule, the shrines in Iraq (known as 'thresholds', 'atabat') offered a safe place for scholars from Safavid Iran, while the Safavids directed their patronage toward Mashhad and Qom. Consistent with their effort to create a proto-national Persian, Shiite identity, the shahs were also buried in these cities. The end of Ottoman rule in Iraq meant a decline for these shrines since they depended on external funds that they no longer received under the rule of the British and the Iraqi monarchy. In the 20th century, the Iranian shrines have been places for political and religious revival—for example, the constitutional revolution of 1906 (tomb of Shah Abdolazim) and preparations for the Islamic revolution of 1979 (Mashhad and Qom).


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