Ziyarat originally referred to visiting the tomb of the Prophet

Tombs in the Aswan necropolis, 12th century. Photo: Sibylle Mazot/Islam Art & Architecture
Tombs in the Aswan necropolis, 12th century. Photo: Sibylle Mazot/Islam Art & Architecture

Muslims engage in a variety of practices to express devotion to God, Prophet Muhammad, and other holy persons. These practices include sacred music, religious literature and festivals, poetry, and pilgrimages.

In addition to the pilgrimage to Mecca, visitations to the tombs (ziyarat) of great Muslim saints (awliya-i Allah) have formed an important aspect of religious life in various Islamic cultures and are a means of earning baraka (blessing or grace). The shrines are repositories of the charisma associated with the person buried within.

Literally meaning “visiting,” ziyarat originally referred to visiting the tomb of the Prophet and the cities of Mecca and Medina. The awliya are believed to have “powers of intercession and the ability to affect life-transforming changes on those whom they encounter.”1

The Prophet is venerated by Muslims as a “continuing spiritual presence,” therefore, he “hears the heartfelt darud of pilgrims to his tomb.” Darud is “a formulaic blessing of the Prophet recited in Arabic, “often in conjunction with other prayers. It is commonly believed that the Prophet actually hears the darud of the devotees at his tomb (darbar) in Medina.”1

Mausoleum of Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III in Aswan, Egypt
Mausoleum of Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III in Aswan, Egypt

The ziyarat is also performed to the tombs of Sufi shaykhs and the Prophet’s family to express devotion. In the Shia interpretation, this devotion is directed toward the family of the Prophet (ahl al-bayt). 

Vernon James Schubel states that for many “the presence of the saint has reaffirmed devotional allegiance, both to the Prophet and the awliya, in a way that has reinvigorated their faith. They have also reaffirmed their belief in Allah, the ultimate source of the power of the saint.”At the tombs, pilgrims may recite prayers, Quranic verses, or simply sit in the presence of the holy person or saint.

Shrine of Sayyida Ruqaya. Photo: Archnet
Shrine of Sayyida Ruqaya. Photo: Archnet

When Imam al-Mu’izz transferred the seat of the Fatimid Caliphate to Cairo, he sent for the remains of his ancestors who were buried in North Africa, and had a mausoleum built for them inside the Fatimid palace. “From then on funerary mosques became a widely distributed type of building in Egypt.”

Funerary mosques were built for members of the Prophet’s family including Sayyida Ruqayya, the daughter of ‘Ali; Ruqayya was not Fatima’s daughter, however, but was born of another of Hazrat ‘Ali’s wives. “Ruqayya came to Cairo with her stepsister Zaynab. Along with Sayyida Nafisa, these women are traditionally considered the patron saints of the city. Ruqayya’s shrine is still used as an oratory, a place where people make vows and pray for the saint’s intercession. Miraculous interventions are still attributed to her.”

Sources:
1 Vernon James Schubel, “Devotional Life and Practice,” The Muslim Almanac edited by Azim A. Nanji, Gale Research Inc., Detroit, 1996
2Sibylle Mazot, “The Fatimids, Architecture,” Islam, Art and Architecture, Edited by Markus Hattstein and Peter Delius, Konemann
3Mashhad al-Sayyida Ruqayya,Cairo, Egypt, Archnet

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

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