In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Shi‘i Shrine Cities

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historiography of the Shrine Cities
  • Ritual Practices and Physical Descriptions of the Shrine Cities
  • Pilgrimage and the Shrine Cities
  • Religious Learning and the Shrine Cities
  • Politics and the Shrine Cities
  • Center-Periphery Dynamics of the Shrine Cities
  • Symbolic Interpretations and Usages of the Shrine Cities
  • Contemporary Cultural Studies of the Shrine Cities

Islamic Studies Shi‘i Shrine Cities
Robert Riggs
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0212


Visiting the tombs of venerated figures has been widespread in most world religions. The devout believe that through the visitation, prayers said by the tomb, and votive offerings, the supplicants can obtain the help and intercession of the saints with God on their behalf. In Shiʿi Islam the imams (and some of their family members) have emerged as the most highly venerated saints among Shiʿi believers, and their tombs have become the sites of shrines that serve as symbolic spaces for culture, religion, politics, and national identities, due to their sacred and holy status to believers. These religious pilgrimages are not confined to any specific time of the year. There are, however, a number of special dates in the Shiʿi-Islamic calendar when the visitation to one or all of the shrines of Najaf, Karbala’, Samarra’, Kazimayn, and Mashhad is particularly auspicious. Among the shrines, those of Najaf and Karbala’ (where the tombs of ʿAli and his son Husayn are believed to be found) carry the highest importance. Shrines comprise buildings that often house the tombs of the imams and other notable clerical figures, prayer rooms, courtyards for prayer, guidebooks, and other religious paraphernalia. The shrines in Shiʿi Islam often become the center of the city surrounding it, with concomitant businesses that cater to the thousands of religious tourists by selling souvenirs and providing lodging, food, and tour guides of the shrine and surrounding areas. The shrines also serve as hawzas—religious educational centers where leading clerics live and teach students topics such as Islamic jurisprudence, theology, philosophy, and history. The clerical families have formed a religious elite class within the societies of the shrine cities. These religious leaders collect religious offerings from pilgrims and redistribute this money to the various services offered to religious students and their families, thus furthering their networks of influence. Political ideologies and events have affected the shrine cities, which periodically have become centers of rebellions and uprisings. In some cases, political leaders have patronized shrine cities, even utilizing them as national symbols and sources of revenue. Politicians often visit religious leaders to garner support for their campaigns or regimes. This article examines the shrine cities of Najaf, Karbala’, Samarra’, Kazimayn, Qum, Mashhad, and Sayyidah Zaynab in Syria, the burial sites for at least one imam or one of their family members.

General Overviews

Various studies look at the shrine cities either in comparative perspective or as a group. al-Mahbubah 1986 and al-Turayhi 2002 give an overarching analysis of Najaf and its nuances. Al-Gharawi 1994 looks more closely at the learning institutions of Najaf, but also includes many details of life there. Berque 1962 and Litvak 1998 provide important comparative studies of Najaf and Karbala. Northedge 2012 provides one of the few individual studies of Samarra’ as a shrine center. Algar 2012 and al-Khalili 1987 are overarching studies of the shrine cities as a group, although al-Khalili 1987 goes into much greater detail, as it is a multivolume work. al-Salihi 2004 looks at the religious learning centers that surround each shrine cities, giving details of notable teachers and events.

  • Algar, Hamid. “ʿAtabāt” In Encyclopaedia of Islam. 2d ed. Edited by P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C. E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, and W. P. Heinrichs. Brill Online, 2012.

    An overview of the primary shrine cities of Shiʿi Islam, including anecdotes and historical information taken from primary sources and Arabic biographical dictionaries. Addresses issues of ritual, pilgrimage, historiography and symbolism. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Berque, J. “Hier à Nağaf et Karbalā’.” Arabica 9 (1962): 325–342.

    Gives overview of populations, demographics, layout, and geography of Najaf and Karbala’. Notes that these holy cities were also integral to economic growth and industry in mid-20th-century Iraq. Describes practices and rituals of holidays and pilgrimages observed in each locale. Offers a brief discussion of the rich cultural, religious, political, and economic histories of Najaf, focusing on the 19th and early 20th centuries.

  • al-Gharawi, Muhammad. al-Ḥawzah al-‘Ilmiyyah fī al-Najaf al-Ashraf. Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Adwaʾ, 1994.

    Focuses on the various aspects of the hawza in Najaf, including its history, students, teachers, the role of the Shrine of Imam ʿAli, burial practices and pilgrimage, and the most important publications that proceeded from these learning centers.

  • al-Khalili, Jaʿfar. Mawsūʿat al-ʿatabāt al-muqaddasah. Beirut, Lebanon: Muʾassasat al-Aʿlami lil-Matbuʿat, 1987.

    This multivolume work (Encyclopedia of the holy shrines) contains volumes on the various shrine cities of Iraq, including major intellectual figures and geographical and historical details of the cities from their origins to the time of publication. Gives detailed accounts of the centers of learning, the ritual commemorations, and pilgrimages to each of the shrine cities.

  • Litvak, Meir. Shiʿi Scholars of Nineteenth-century Iraq: The ʿUlamaʾ of Najaf and Karbalaʾ. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    Provides a study of the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Analyzes the institutionalization of religious leadership surrounding the shrines in these two cities and investigates the role played by competing political regimes of the time, as well as the financial underpinnings of these cities.

  • al-Mahbubah, Jaʿfar Baqir. Maḍī al-Najaf wa-ḥāḍiruhā. Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Adwaʾ, 1986.

    A comprehensive study of the history of Najaf, including its origins, development as a center of shrine pilgrimage and Shiʿi learning, political movements, and ritual practices. Addresses the interplay between religion and politics as well as the economic forces that applied pressure to Najafi society in the 20th century.

  • Northedge, Alstair. “Sāmarrāʾ.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam. 2d ed. Edited by P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C. E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, and W. P. Heinrichs. Brill Online, 2012.

    Detailed article on the history of Samarra’, with section on the ‘Askariyya shrine and its significance for the Shiʿa. Includes physical description of the shrine and pilgrimage practices. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • al-Salihi, ʿAbd al-Husayn. Al-Ḥawzah al-ʿIlmiyyah fī al-Aqtār al-Islāmiyyah. Beirut, Lebanon: Bayt al-ʿilm lil-Nabihin, 2004.

    A general study of the various centers of religious learning, with sections on the shrine cities and their various notable teachers and students, as well as geographical information and descriptions of ritual practices, including an exhaustive chapter about the hawza zaynabiyyah (the Sayyida Zaynab centers of learning) in Damascus.

  • al-Turayhi, M. K. al-Najaf al-Ashraf Madīnat al-ʿilm wal-ʿumrān. Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Mahdi, 2002.

    Focuses on the history of Najaf as a center of shrine pilgrimage and religious scholarship and culture. Includes sections on notable clerics and intellectuals, the shrine rituals and commemorations, and the relationship between religion and politics in Iraq.

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