Beyond Mecca and Medina: A Trip Around Islam’s Holiest Cities

Friday 4 November 201612:05 pm

Throughout human history, religions have been connected to monuments, sacred sites, and holy symbols. These sacred things can be different from one religion to the other. Customs, beliefs, and foundations vary. While some religions might emphasize material things, others might attribute more sanctity to spiritual and invisible phenomena.

Islam also has this idea of the sacred, though it has tended not to be very clearly defined. Throughout Muslim history, some places and individuals have been known for their higher moral standing and spiritual value. This lead to the appearance of what we call the sacred cities in Islam.

Mecca, Medina and Al Quds

[caption id="attachment_67906" align="alignnone" width="700"]Mecca Mecca[/caption]

In the two most important books of Hadith for Sunni Muslims, Sahih Al Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, it is reported that the Prophet Mohamed once said that there are only three destinations, the Great Mosque of Mecca (Masjid al Haram), the Mosque of the Prophet (Al-Masjid an-Nabawi), and the Al Aqsa Mosque.

Hence, these three mosques were given a sacred value for Muslims and became a destination for people to get blessings.

With time, their holiness expanded to include the cities where they are located. This is clear in the names of the three cities in question and their titles: The holy city of Mecca, Medina the enlightened city, and Aelia or Al Quds (Jerusalem) is the sacred house.

The special treatment these cities get have many reasons. Mecca was an important destination for Arabs, it was a center of their pre-Islamic religion. In the collective Arab memory it was associated with the prophets Abraham and Ismail. Medina became sacred after the visit of Mohamed, when it served as the first stronghold of Islam and its most protected fort.

[caption id="attachment_67907" align="alignnone" width="700"]Medina Medina[/caption]

As for Jerusalem, known as Aelia back then and will become Al Quds, it was sacred by association with two controversial points. The first one is that it is the place where the Isra miracle or 'the night journey' took place. A miracle that is still a matter of discussion between those who support this story and those who don’t. The second is related to the story of Omayyad Caliph Abdel Malek Ben Marwan, who wanted to build the Dome of the Rock in order to move the pilgrimage from Mecca to Al Quds. He wanted to profit from the money that comes with pilgrimage and to weaken his enemy Abdullah Ben Zubeir who controlled Mecca at the time according to the late historian Ben Teghri Baradi who died in 874 Hijra.

[caption id="attachment_67908" align="alignnone" width="700"]Al Quds Al Quds[/caption]

The Shiite sacred cities

Shiites and Sunnis are very different when it comes to the way they see the holiness of shrines and cities. Imami Shiites consider the Imams to be almost on the same level of sanctity as prophets, so their mausoleums and tombs become important sacred shrines.

Al Medina gains in sanctity for Twelver Shiites because four of their Imams are buried their in the Baqi’ cemetery: Al Hassan Ben Ali, Ali Ben Hussein, Mohamed Al Baqer, and Jaafar Al Sadeq.

Shiites are the only ones who visit the tombs of the four Imams reciting special prayers for their visit. This custom has led to several bloody confrontations between Shiite visitors and Saudi security forces, the most well known of which is the one that took place in 2009 and was known as the Baqi’ incidents.

Karbala, on the other hand, is one of the most important cities for the Shiite faith as it is related to the tragedy of Hussein Ben Ali, and his martyrdom on its ground on the 10th of Mouharrem 61 of Hijra.

Since that painful event for the Shiites, the city gained a growing importance. A big shrine for Hussein was built, and another one for his brother Abu Al Fadl Al Abbas. The Shiites have since visited these shrines in massive numbers.

As is usually the case with religious places, they have been often used in politics. Perhaps the latest episode is calls from some Shiite clerics to substitute the pilgrimage from Mecca o Karbala for Shiites in response to the media war that was taking place between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

[caption id="attachment_67910" align="alignnone" width="700"]Karbala2 Karbala[/caption]

Al Najaf city is also a sacred place for the Shiites. It is the burial place for Imam Ali Ben Abi Taleb, and it is where the Al Najaf Al Ashraf religious school is located, one of the oldest and most important centers of learning in the Shiite world. It was founded by the Shiite scholar Mohamed Ben Al Hassan Al Toussi, who died in 460 Hijra, and known as the Sheikh of the community.

The building of a mausoleum for Imam Ali started to be considered during the times of Harun Al Rashid, but it reached its peak when the Buyid Sultans took control of the Abbasid Caliphate. What makes Najaf even more sacred is the belief common among some Shiites that it is also the burial place of prophets Adam, Noah, Hud, and Saleh.

[caption id="attachment_67911" align="alignnone" width="700"]Imam Ali Shrine Imam Ali Shrine[/caption]

Al Najaf also contains many of the graves of symbolic and important figures of the Shiite faith especially in its early period such as Moslim Ben Aqil Ben Abi Taleb, the emissary of Hussein to Kufa, and Maytham Al Tamar one of the biggest companions of the fourth Caliph, and Mohamed Ben Al Hanafia the brother of Al Hassan and Al Hussein, and Al Mokhtar Ben Abi Obeid Al Thoqafi who took revenge for the killing of Hussein.

The resting place of Imam Zaid Ben Ali Ben Al Hussein is also located close to the aforementioned ones, which made the city sacred and an important destination for Yazidi Shiites as well.

Also in Iraq, you find the Kadhimiya suburb close to Baghdad which is no less sacred than the others.

Al Kadhimiya is attributed to the seventh Imam in the twelver Shiite dynasty, Imam Moussa Al Kadhim, as he was the first one to buy a land there and turn it into a cemetery.

After years of his burial there, the grandson of Al Kadhim, the ninth Imam Mohamed Al Jawad was buried next to him. This added to the sanctity of the city. It is common tradition for Shiites to visit both shrines to get blessings.

With the Safavid take over of Baghdad in the first half of the 16th Century AD, the interest in the two shrines grew and construction work started. The construction works and decoration were completed after the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent took over Iraq.

Samarra, is another sacred Shiite city in Iraq. Like Kadhimiya it is the burial place of two Shiite Imams, the first one is Ali Al Hadi, and the other one is his son, the eleventh Imam known as Al Hassan Al Askari. These are known as the shrines of the Askari Imams.

Even though Samarra was built by the Abbasid Caliph Al Mutasim to be the new capital of his state, and to house his new Turkish soldiers coming from central Asia, the identity of the city became Shiite rather than Sunni, and changed from a military organized place to a sacred religious one.

On the Persian side of the border, there are two sacred Shiite cities, the first one is Tus, the only Iranian city that has a shrine of an Imam. Imam Ali Reza is buried there, and also known as the stranger of Tus. There is also the burial places of the children of Moussa Kazem, and a number of important Shiite figures such as Sheikh Al Tusi.

The destiny of the city is tightly linked to the Imam Reza shrine, as it quickly flourished and grew with the attention the shrine received during the Safavid era. This was a time when the Safavid kings found in the shrine of Al Reza a confirmation of the Shiite Persian identity. The name of the city was changed to become Mashhad Al Reza, which is the name it is known by today. Millions of visitors come here annually to visit the shrine, which is one of Iran’s biggest touristic destinations.

The second sacred Shiite city in Iran is Qom, where the shrine of Fatima Masumeh, the sister of Imam Reza is located. Qom also hosts one of the major learning centers for the Shiite faith where many important scholars and thousands of students reside. [caption id="attachment_67912" align="alignnone" width="700"]Qom Qom[/caption]

Salamiyah: The sacred Ismaili city

Salamiyah is a Syrian city close to Aleppo. It is deeply connected to the history of Ismailis and to their present as well.

Ismaili writer Mostafa Ghaleb writes in his History of the Ismaili Message that after the escape of Imam Mohamed Ben Ismail and his son Abdallah from the Hejaz, for fear of the Abbasid Sultans, the Ismaili Imams went to the remote city of Al Salamiyah. There they started spreading their message and thought, sending preachers East and West and writing books about their faith and philosophy.

This secret city remained their capital until the last years of the 3rd century of Hijra, when one of the Ismaili Imams, Ubayd Allah Al Mahdi managed to go to Morocco and established the Fatimid state. The Ismailis then moved from the age of secrecy to being Caliphs.

After many years, and a lot of demographic changes in Syria, Ismailis in the modern era have once again gone to Al Salamiyah which is once more a center for their message. So much so that the father of the fourth Agha Khan is buried in it after being killed in a car accident. The Agha Khan himself also makes sure to visit the city on a regular basis.

The holy Sufi cities: Tanta and Desouk

There are many cities that Sufis consider holly or sacred for the shrines and tombs of those buried in them. In Egypt there are two such cities. The first is Tanta, located in the middle of the Nile delta. Since the Sufi known as Sayyid Ahmad al Badawi made the city his home at the beginning of the 7th century of Hijra, Tanta became a destination for Sufis.

After the construction of the Ahmadi mosque which is attributed to Al Badawi, there has been a yearly religious celebration that takes place there, known as the Mouled of Sayyid Al Badawi. The festivities take place in October of every year and are attended by hundreds of thousands of Sufis from 67 different schools from all around Egypt.

[caption id="attachment_67913" align="alignnone" width="700"]Ahmadi Mosque Ahmadi Mosque[/caption]

Desouk on the other hand is a city located in the North of the Delta. The city has been connected to Al Aref Billah Sidi Ibrahim Al Desouki, who is considered by Sufis to be the last of the 4 great poles. In October of every year, more than a million Sufis from 77 schools from within Egypt and from abroad visit the city to celebrate the Mouled of Desouki.

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