The Sacred Door Project

Within a religious context, ziyāra refers to visiting the burial sites of sacred figures within the Islamic tradition, especially those of the Prophet Muḥammad and his Ahl al-Bayt. As this activity became central to Islamic practice, the devotional texts associated with these sites also became known as ziyārāt.

There exists a plethora of legal discussions regarding the ziyāra ritual and the historical precedents for this practice in the lives of the Prophet and the Ahl al-Bayt. More recently, scholars in Western academia have approached ziyāra as a lived tradition in communities across the world through methods grounded in the fields of history, anthropology, sociology, and art history.

However, this article aims to offer an emic approach to ziyāra and seeks to provide some insight into the ways in which believers might understand the purpose behind performing ziyāra within the broader context of the Shīʿī-Imāmī tradition.

  1. Performing ziyāra in order to show gratitude and love (mawadda) to the Messenger of Allāh and his family.

The requirement of expressing gratitude upon receiving a favor is an ethical principle shared by many. Even animals of various kinds can be observed acting upon this principle when fed, protected, or rescued by another being. One of the innumerable favors humans enjoy is that of being guided toward their Creator. This was the primary task of the Messenger of Allāh as the Quran states, “Allāh is the one who sent His Messenger with guidance and the true religion” and “You (O Prophet) guide toward the Straight Path” (42:52).  Therefore, every Muslim has received the great favor of having been guided by the Messenger of Allāh and accepting his guidance. In exchange for this great favor, it is ethically incumbent on every Muslim to show gratitude toward this Prophet in a way that corresponds to the quality of the favor.

Consider the following example: a homeless man finds himself completely destitute without shelter, food, and clothing. One passerby hands him a dollar, to whom the homeless man responds with a mumbled, “thank you”. Later, another passerby decides to not only provide a home, food, and clothing for this homeless man, but also teaches him the skills required for a job and eventually hires him himself.  The second passerby has completely transformed the future of this homeless man. In front of such generosity, it would be insufficient and inappropriate for this once- homeless man to simply mumble the same ‘thank you’  that he uttered to the first passerby, as a means of showing gratitude.

In a similar vein, in exchange for the favor of the Messenger of Allāh’s guidance, which is not a luxury, but rather a necessity for every human being, the gratitude that the Umma must express should match the quality of this favor.  In the Quran, Allāh tells the believers how they can express gratitude in a way that is befitting for the Messenger of Allāh’s guidance. He states, “Say, I demand no recompense (for it) except the love (mawadda) exclusively for my near ones” (42:23)1. Therefore, it is incumbent on every Muslim to love the Prophet’s family, not only as a legal prescription in the Quran, but as an ethical principle of gratitude that governs all rational beings.

Performing the ziyāra of the Prophet and his Ahl al-Bayt is an incredibly effective way to express this love or mawadda.2 In fact, the element of love is often highlighted in narrations which encourage performing ziyāra of the Imams, especially that of Imam Ḥusayn b. ʿAli in Karbalāʾ. For example, a number of reports from Imams Jaʿfar b. Muḥammad al-Ṣādiq and his father Muḥammad al-Bāqir, state that those who visit Ḥusayn out of love for the Messenger of Allāh, Fāṭimah, and ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib are promised to be united with them on the Day of Judgement and enter paradise in their company.3

In another tradition, Imam Muḥammad al-Bāqir states, “Those who want to know if they will be among the inhabitants of Paradise should present our love to their hearts. If their hearts accept loving us (the Ahl al-Bayt), then they are believers. And those who love us should surely desire performing the ziyāra of the grave of Ḥusayn…”4 From such traditions, we may deduce that performing the ziyāra is a sign of one’s love for the Ahl al-Bayt, which is required from anyone who has ever benefited from the guidance of the Messenger of Allāh.

Ziyāra is a unique opportunity to physically manifest the love that resides in the heart particularly because of the personal effort it involves. For many, visiting the graves of the Imams is an arduous journey requiring financial, physical, and social sacrifices. Individuals leave their families, jobs, and the comfort of their homes in order to travel to the gravesites. Historically, believers often risked persecution and harassment when visiting the Imams and yet their perseverance is a testament to their love for the Ahl al-Bayt. It is in these moments of abandoning one’s own comforts and worldly attachments in order to visit these sacred sites,  that sincere love is truly manifest.

In a report narrated within both Shīʿī and Sunnī traditions, the Messenger of Allāh states, “A slave (of Allāh) is not considered a believer unless he loves me more than himself and he loves my family more than himself and his own family.”5 Embarking on the journey toward the graves of the Ahl al-Bayt often produces circumstances in which the believers prioritize the Messenger of Allāh and his Ahl al-Bayt over the things they love most. The believers detach themselves from the preoccupations of their lives in order to focus on those whom they are visiting. In the Imams’ instructions on how to perform the ziyāra, special emphasis is placed upon avoiding vain talk and quarrels on the way to the gravesite. 6 By emptying their hearts from worldly distractions, believers have taken the first step toward that exclusive love for the Prophet and his family that God has required from them. Imam ʿAlī b. Ḥusayn expresses this very reality in the supplication he taught to his companion Abā Ḥamza al-Thamālī. He addresses Allāh saying:

“O my Master, expel the love for this world out of my heart, and unite me with Muṣtafā (the Messenger) and his progeny, the choicest of your Your creation and the seal of Your prophets…”7

In this statement, it is after asking God to remove the love for this transient world from the heart that the supplicant asks to be united with the Prophet and the Ahl al-Bayt. Thus we might conclude that distancing oneself from the demands of this world is a prerequisite for spiritual proximity to the Prophet and his family. Ziyāra offers a remarkable opportunity for this proximity and love because inherent within the visitation is detachment from worldly distractions at least on a physical level by leaving one’s home. It is perhaps in this light that we might understand the aḥādith that outline great rewards and spiritual purification for those who intend to perform the ziyāra, from the point of their first intention and for every step taken on the journey thereafter.8 Each step toward the ziyāra is perhaps meant to be one step away from the distractions of the temporary world and toward that which is better and lasting (khayrun wa abqāʾ).

In this way, the journey of ziyāra serves as an incredible medium to express the exclusive love toward the Messenger of Allāh and his family that God has obligated upon every believer.

  1. Performing Ziyāra to Fulfill the Rights of the Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt over the Believers

Imam ʿAlī b. Mūsā al-Riḍā is reported to have said, “There is a binding contract on every Shīʿa (follower) toward his Imam and the most perfect and beautiful way to fulfill this contract is to go to the grave of that Imam.”9

A believer’s obligations toward the Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt stem from their divinely-appointed relationships with their followers. In a report narrated in a number of early sources, the Messenger of Allāh tells ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib, “I have a greater right over the believers than they have over themselves. After me, you [ʿAlī] have a greater right over them than they have over themselves. After you, Ḥasan has a greater right than they have over themselves…” The Messenger of Allāh continues to list all twelve Imams in this way.10 We learn from such reports that the Quranic statement, “The Prophet has a greater right over the believers than they have over themselves” (33:6) extends to every appointed Imam who acts on behalf of the Prophet.

What is the right described in this verse? This was a question posed to Imam Muḥammad al-Bāqir, who explains that the verse describes the Imam’s right of being obeyed in every command11 since they are the representatives of God on earth. Thus, in order to fulfill this right of obedience, the followers of the Ahl al-Bayt must follow their teachings, which command toward the worship of Allāh.

This requirement of obedience stems from the relationships that Allāh has created between the Ahl al-Bayt and the creation. A comprehensive discussion of these relationships far exceeds the brevity of this article. However, at the minimum, with respect to their role in guiding their followers, they hold the right of the teacher over the student.12 Moreover, with regard to their care and love for their followers, they hold the right of the father toward the child. In fact, in a lengthy description of Imamah, Imam Ali b. Mūsā al-Ridā describes the Imam as the soft-hearted compassionate father toward his child.13 The Messenger of Allāh also describes himself and ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib as the fathers of this nation. Visiting one’s teachers and biological parents both during their life and after their death is a well-established meritorious deed within the Islamic tradition. Based on this ethical value, it is perhaps expected that a believer would visit the Imams who have these same relationships with their followers in matters that exceed the duties of parents and teachers in this world. The Imam is the teacher in matters of spiritual guidance and the father who saves his child from the dangers of his own soul and the terrors of the day of judgment.

Many reports mention that the one who performs the ziyāra of the Ahl al Bayt is guaranteed the intercession of the individual visited, as well as the intercession of the Messenger of Allāh. In this way, through their compassion, the Imams aid their followers in the time of greatest difficulty which the Quran describes as a day, “…when no parent will be of any benefit to their child, nor will a child be of any benefit to their parent.” (31:33)14

It is in this sense that we can understand the numerous aḥādīth which describe ziyāra, especially visiting Imam al-Ḥusayn, as obligatory. The duty to visit perhaps derives from these relationships between the Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt and their followers. This obligation might then be understood not in a strictly jurisprudential sense, but as the ethical expectation from someone who considers the Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt to be his/her teachers and spiritual fathers in this world.

Ziyāra is so integral to establishing one’s relationship with the Ahl al-Bayt, that many traditions and ziyāra texts exhort believers to perform the ziyāra even from afar. Some reports offer methods through which a sort of physical aid can be used to direct one’s focus toward the sacred figure being addressed. For example, one ziyāra text to be recited when addressing the Messenger of Allāh from afar advises devotees to draw a grave on the ground, while other texts suggest performing the ziyāra of Ḥusayn from on top of one’s roof. These alternative methods, although not substitutes for physically visiting the gravesites, highlight how important and effective the ziyāra is as a tool for achieving spiritual proximity to God through revering His chosen representatives.

  1. Ziyāra as a Means of Embodied Theology

Ziyāra also  produces the opportunity to engage with the theological tenants that are central to the Imāmī tradition through the transmitted ziyāra texts. The compilation and proliferation of ziyāra texts in the form of aḥādīth particularly between the tenth and thirteenth-centuries serve as evidence for the centrality of ziyāra rituals to the Imāmī Shīʿī practice. These texts often appear as aḥādīth attributed to the Imams that instruct devotees on how to visit the graves of the Ahl al-Bayt and provide specific statements to be recited throughout the visitation. These are often paired with prescriptions for the believer’s etiquette when entering and exiting the shrine space such as performing ghusl (ritual bath), applying perfume, walking with a humble disposition, not turning one’s back to the grave(s), etc.

Central to the logic behind ziyāra texts is the understanding that those buried at the gravesites are not truly dead in the eyes of God. This is rooted in the Quranic verse, “And do not speak of those who are slain in Allah’s way as dead; rather, (they are) alive, but you do not perceive.” (2:154). It is based on this understanding that the Messenger of Allāh and the Imams from his family are addressed directly at their gravesites and are considered to continue to spiritually affect this world. In a text cited in al-Kafʿamī’s Miṣbāḥ al-zāʾir that pertains to what should be recited when seeking permission to enter (Idhn al-dukhūl) the gravesites of the Imams, precisely this understanding is conveyed:

“O Allāh… I know that Your Messenger and Your representatives, may peace be upon them, are alive with You, sustained by You, and they observe my standing in this place and hear my speech and return my greetings. You have drawn a veil between my hearing and their speech, while opening the door to my understanding with the delight of intimate discourse with them.”15

The very existence of a specific text for seeking admittance before entering the inner quarters of the gravesite in itself suggests that the Imams have an active relationship with their devotees in spite of their worldly death. Thus, the ziyāra is a means of acknowledging the continued relevance of the Ahl al Bayt in our lives by  directly communicating with them at their graves.

In terms of content, the general contours of the ziyāra texts include salutations to the Ahl al-Bayt by describing their merits, testifying to their relationship with Allāh and with the believers, supplications for their intercession and aid, and the believer’s dissociation from their enemies paired with a testament to their loyalty to the Prophet and his family. These texts, similar to other supplications transmitted from the Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt, offer a delicate means of conveying important theological tenets pertaining to the rank of the Imams and their relationship with their followers. Unlike a ḥadīth in which an Imam describes his merits to his companions, communicating this information in the context of a liturgical text that is recited,  produces an opportunity that is ripe for learning. On one hand, the individual who is visiting the Imam has taken steps to spiritually and physically purify him/herself and is actively engaged in an act of worship. As was previously mentioned, the soul is likely less preoccupied with the demands of the mundane world whilst performing ziyāra and is perhaps more receptive to knowledge transmitted in this particular state. On the other hand, since this knowledge is enshrouded in a ritual text, it may have been historically advantageous in protecting and upholding particular views regarding the Imams from religio-political opposition. Opponents to the Imamate during the rule of the later Umayyads and the ʿAbbāsids would likely not perceive the content of a supplicatory text as particularly important or threatening. Thus, the ziyāra texts also serve as fertile ground for the transmission and survival of delicate knowledge about the Imams to their community while safeguarding them from religious and political censorship.

Ziyara texts also guide the visitor through the gravesite, sometimes instructing to stop in a courtyard or a portico, face the grave, kiss the grave, throw oneself on it, face the qibla, perform two units of prayer, etc;. The combination of the words of the text and this physical movement within the gravesite allows for believers to experience both their collective history (in recounting the life and martyrdom of the Imam being visited) and theology (in uttering the ziyāra texts addressed to the Imam) in a very visceral sense. In this way, ziyāra produces the opportunity for the physical embodiment of beliefs regarding the Imams that are foundational to the Imāmī tradition whilst anchoring the community of believers to a sacred geography defined by the location of the Imams’ gravesites. This sacred geography can also be interpreted in a metaphysical sense, to describe devotees’ spiritual proximity to the Imams.

This article presents three ways in which believers might understand the performance of ziyāra within a larger Islamic ethos of loving and obeying the Messenger of Allāh and his family. While these are not the only ways in which the rationale behind ziyāra can be approached, they help frame some of the values that undergird the significance and necessity of this ritual for the believer.

  1. قُل لَّآ أَسْـَٔلُكُمْ عَلَيْهِ أَجْرًا إِلَّا ٱلْمَوَدَّةَ فِى ٱلْقُرْبَىٰ ۗ
  2. Ibn Qūlawayh (d.368/978-9) mentions this in his introduction to Kāmil al-ziyārāt.
  3. Ibn Qūlawayh al-Qummī, p. 268.
  4. Ibn Qūlawayh al-Qummī, p. 311.
  5. لا يؤمن عبد حتى أكون أحب إليه من نفسه ، وتكون عترتي أحب إليه من عترته ، ويكون
  6. See footnotes in Abbas Qummi, Mafatih Al-Jinan: A Treasury of Islamic Piety, trans. Ali Quli Qarai, vol. 2, 2019, p.13
  7. سَيِّدِي أَخْرِجْ حُبَّ ٱلدُّنْيَا مِنْ قَلْبِي
  8. See, for example, Ibn Qūlawayh al-Qummī, p. 252:
  9. Ibn Qūlawayh al-Qummī, p. 236-7.
  10. مسندا عن الحسين بن علي ( عليه السلام ) قال : قال رسول الله ( صلى الله عليه وآله
  11. عن أبي حمزة ، قال سألت أبا جعفر ( عليه السلام ) : ما حق الإمام على
  12. Mirzā Muḥammad Taqī al-Iṣfahānī elaborates upon these relationships as they pertain to the Twelfth Imam in his Mikyāl al-Makārim:
  13. الامام الأنيس الرفيق، والوالد الشفيق، والأخ الشقيق، والام البرة بالولد الصغير،
  14. يَـٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلنَّاسُ ٱتَّقُوا۟ رَبَّكُمْ وَٱخْشَوْا۟ يَوْمًۭا لَّا يَجْزِى وَالِدٌ عَن وَلَدِهِۦ وَلَا مَوْلُودٌ هُوَ جَازٍ عَن وَالِدِهِۦ شَيْـًٔا ۚ إِنَّ وَعْدَ ٱللَّهِ حَقٌّۭ ۖ فَلَا تَغُرَّنَّكُمُ ٱلْحَيَوٰةُ ٱلدُّنْيَا وَلَا يَغُرَّنَّكُم بِٱللَّهِ ٱلْغَرُورُ
  15. See Abbas Qummi, Mafatih Al-Jinan: A Treasury of Islamic Piety, trans. Ali Quli Qarai, vol. 2, 2019. (Narrated from al-Kafʿamī)

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