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Religion Library: Shia Islam

Sacred Space

Written by: Anna Akasoy

Among the number of places that claim to preserve Husayn's head, Damascus is probably the most widely accepted one since Yazid resided there, in the Umayyad capital, and the prisoners captured at Karbala were taken to him. A shrine in the northeastern corner of the Umayyad mosque—where according to the Christian tradition the head of John the Baptist is kept—marks the spot where the head of the Imam was put. Another shrine in Damascus is dedicated to Ali's daughter, Zaynab. In Saudi Arabia, four Imams are buried in the Baqi cemetery in Medina.

Kufa too occupies an important place in Shiite sacred topography. On the one hand, the local followers of Ali appear—in the medieval sources—as unreliable and cowards because of their failure to assist Husayn. On the other hand, due to the frequent revolts in the first centuries of Islamic history, the city assumed the reputation of a city of martyrs. That Kufans defend—according to Shiites—the just cause is reflected in apocalyptic traditions such as "accursed Baghdad will be destroyed and Kufa will be queen of the world, after having been a dwelling of exile and waiting for true believers." Other places too have developed their sacred geographies. According to a legend that Pinault cites in his The Shiites, while in Karbala, Husayn offered to exile himself in India. This established India's future role as a safe haven for Shiites.

A peculiar Shiite institution on the local level are the community centers or club houses where the Muharram ceremonies are prepared and where some of the lamentations are performed. During the Ashura festival, these centers as well as everyday places are transformed into sacred spaces through symbolic and dramatic reenactments of the events in Karbala.

Centers of Shiite pilgrimage have often been targeted by their Sunni opponents. In the 9th century, the Abbasid caliph Mutawakkil, who pursued an exceptionally hard line against the Shiites, had the shrine in Karbala destroyed in order to stop Shiite pilgrimages there. In 1802, Karbala was attacked by the Sunni Wahhabis, who distinguish themselves among other things by their opposition to Shiism and what they consider heterodox forms of Sufi devotional practice (e.g., visiting the graves). In 1804, they damaged the graves of the second, fourth, fifth, and sixth Imams at the Baqi cemetery in Medina. In modern Iraq, the Askari shrine in Samarra (which includes the site where the twelfth Imam disappeared) has been repeatedly bombed, its golden dome suffering destruction in 2006 and two minarets collapsing in 2007. Pilgrims during their processions are also targeted. For modern Shiite communities the historical suffering thus merges with their own victimization.

Study Questions:
1.     Name some of the key Shiite shrines and their significance.
2.     What purposes do Shiite shrines serve in the community?
3.     What is the political component to the centrality of shrines in the Shiite community?


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