EMĀMZĀDA i. Function and devotional practice

"Sites where divine favor and blessing occur, where mercy and grace descend; they are a refuge for the distressed, a shelter for the despondent, a haven for the oppressed, and a place of consolation for weary hearts, and will ever remain so until resurrection.”



i. Function and devotional practice

In Mafātīḥ al-janān (p. 562), the best known contemporary manual of Shiʿite devotions, Shaikh ʿAbbās Qomī (d. 1319 Š./1940) rhapsodically describes emāmzādas as “sites where divine favor and blessing occur, where mercy and grace descend; they are a refuge for the distressed, a shelter for the despondent, a haven for the oppressed, and a place of consolation for weary hearts, and will ever remain so until resurrection.” This listing of functions corresponds, no doubt, to the actual experience of Shiʿite believers in Persia, and it is therefore remarkable that no general injunction to visit emāmzādas has been attributed to any of the Twelve Imams. There are, however, traditions concerning some of the most frequented emāmzādas, which might be taken to imply the general advisability of the practice. Thus, Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq is said to have foretold the death and burial at Qom of Fāṭema Maʿṣūma, daughter of Imam Mūsā al-Kāẓem and to have promised paradise to all who should visit her tomb; Imams ʿAlī al-Reżā and Moḥammad al-Taqī also placed great emphasis on the meritoriousness of such pilgrimage (Majlesī, Beḥār CII, pp. 265-67; idem, Toḥfa, pp. 418-20; Qomī, p. 562). Furthermore, when Imam ʿAlī al-Naqī (or Imam Ḥasan al-ʿAskarī, according to Majlesī in Beḥār CII, p. 269) was informed by an inhabitant of Ray that he had just returned from a pilgrimage to the shrine of Imam Ḥosayn at Karbalāʾ, he told him that he might equally well have visited the tomb of Shah ʿAbd-al-ʿAẓīm (q.v.), a descendant of Imam Ḥasan in the fourth generation, at Ray, thus saving himself the hardships of travel, an indication that considerations of distance might make it permissible to substitute an emāmzāda for the shrine of an Imam as a goal of pilgrimage (Majlesī, Toḥfa, p. 421; Qomī, p. 565). This is confirmed by a recommendation from Imam Mūsā al-Kāẓem that those unable to visit the tombs of the Imams should make pilgrimage to “the righteous among our followers,” a term that may be taken to include descendants of the Imams, in order to gain the same merit (Majlesī, Toḥfa, p. 422).

What is certain is that from the 5th/11th century onward, Shiʿite scholars granted recognition to pilgrimage to emāmzādas as a valid form of devotion. Thus, Shaikh Mofīd (d. 413/1022) composed a text (zīāra) for recitation at the tombs of descendants of the imams, the wording of which suggests the devotional purpose of all such pilgrimage: “I have come to you as a pilgrim (zāʾeran), entrusting you with my needs, as I entrust to you my religion, the outcome of my deeds, and all of my hopes until the end of my allotted span” (cited by Majlesī, Beḥār CII, p. 272, from the Meṣbāḥ al-zāʾer wa janāḥ al-mosāfer of Sayyed ʿAlī b. Ṭāwūs, d. 664/1265). By the 6th/12th century at the latest, pilgrimage to emāmzādas, as well as to shrines of the Imams, had become so integral a part of Shiʿite devotional life that it attracted the attention of Sunnite polemicists, who accused the Shiʿites of being “tomb worshippers” (gūrparast) and of elevating such pilgrimage over the ḥajj. To this the response was given that the adornment of the Kaʿba and of the Prophet’s mosque in Medina justified similar care being lavished on the shrines of the Imams and their descendants; that kissing the threshold of the shrines represented a mode of approaching God; and that at least some of the emāmzādas, notably those in Qom and Qazvīn, were visited by Hanafites and Shafiʿites as well as by Shiʿites (Qazvīnī, pp. 576, 588-89). Comparable reproaches were made by Ebn Taymīya (d. 728/1328) with his characteristic acerbity; he accused the Shiʿites of falling into polytheism (šerk) through the veneration of their shrines (I, pp. 130-31).

It was but natural that such polemics should resurface when the Safavids imposed the profession of Shiʿism on most of Persia; it was in particular alleged that pilgrimage to the tomb of the founder of the family, Shaikh Ṣafī-al-Dīn (d. 735/1334), in Ardabīl, effectively classifiable as an emāmzāda thanks to the forged imamite genealogy bestowed on him, was seen as more meritorious than the ḥajj (Eberhard, p. 102). The degree to which the cult of the emāmzāda was promoted by rulers and religious scholars of the Safavid period should not, however, be exaggerated. Most of the more important shrines had already existed for several centuries before the Safavid accession to power; such was the case with the tombs of Fāṭema Maʿṣūma (Qomī, pp. 191 ff.); Shah ʿAbd-al-ʿAẓīm and Sayyed Ḥamza, a son of Imam Mūsā al-Kāẓem, at Ray; Solṭān-ʿAlī, a son of Imam Moḥammad al-Bāqer, near Kāšān; Abū ʿAbd-Allāh Ḥosayn, a son of Imam ʿAlī al-Reżā at Qazvīn; Fażl and Solaymān, both sons of Imam Mūsā al-Kāẓem, at Āva near Sāva; Qāsem b. Mūsā al-Kāẓem at Šūša, a village near Ḥella in Iraq (Qazvīnī, p. 588; Yāqūt, Boldān, Beirut, III, p. 372); and Aḥmad, popularly known as Šāh(-e) Čerāḡ, another son of Imam Mūsā al-Kāẓem, in Shiraz (Ebn Baṭṭūṭa, I, p. 212). Further emāmzādas were no doubt established, and certain cases of misidentification occurred: the tomb in Qazvīn of the Sufi Aḥmad Ḡazālī (d. 520/1126) was transformed into the Emāmzāda Aḥmad (Lambton, p. 1170) and that of a certain Abū Ḥāmed Tabrīzī near Sorḵāb became erroneously known as an emāmzāda (Ebn al-Karbalāʾī, I, p. 176). There is, however, no reason to assume that a wholesale and deliberate appropriation of Sufi or other tombs took place. Ebn al-Karbalāʾī, an author by no means sympathetic to the Safavid enterprise, remarked that “the rank of descendants of the Imams is too elevated and lofty for their places of birth and burial to remain unknown” (p. 176), and the great Safavid scholar, Mollā Moḥammad-Bāqer Majlesī (d. 1111/1700), despite the indiscriminate fervor often attributed to him, warned against the automatic validation of every tomb reputed to be an emāmzāda (Toḥfa, p. 421; he cast doubt specifically on the tombs of ʿAlī b. Jaʿfar and Moḥammad b. Mūsā in Qom). Most important, the notion that the Safavids, drawing on precedents in Shiʿite tradition, sought to emphasize pilgrimage to shrines of the Imams and emāmzādas to the detriment of the ḥajj (as suggested by, for example, Amir Arjomand, pp. 168-70) must be regarded as untenable. Traditions such as that attributed to Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq which extols the soil of Karbalāʾ as superior to the Kaʿba are anomalous (Ebn Qawlawayh, p. 267). Moreover, the repeated efforts of the Ottomans to restrict and isolate the flow of Persian pilgrims to Mecca (ḥojjāj) through their territories themselves bear witness to the tenacity with which Persian Shiʿites of the Safavid period sought to fulfill the obligation of ḥajj despite the dangers they frequently faced (Faroqhi, pp. 127, 134-39).

Majlesī’s role in the matter of emāmzāda visitation was that of a codifier or at most an elaborator. After warning against the danger of false emāmzādas, he specifies that the descendant of an Imam to whom pilgrimage is contemplated should be of known moral probity and correct belief; excluded, therefore, would be individuals such as Jaʿfar al-Kaḏḏāb, a brother of Imam Ḥasan al-ʿAskarī who laid claim to the imamate, descendants of Imam Ḥasan who rose up in his name without authorization, and, by definition, all Zaydī sayyeds (Beḥār CII, pp. 273-75). No set text exists for recitation at an emāmzāda; if the scholars have composed one for a specific shrine, that may be recited, failing which whatever prayer or recitation is made at the tomb of any believer will be entirely appropriate. If it is desired to accord the descendants of the Imams some special status, words may be used that enumerate their virtues and permit the believer to seek their intercession and that of their ancestors, for “to venerate them is to venerate the Imams” (Majlesī, Beḥār CII, p. 277; Toḥfa, p. 421). To these various prescriptions Shaikh ʿAbbās Qomī (p. 562) adds that the devotee should acquaint himself with whatever is known of the life and pronouncements of the descendant of the Imam before embarking on pilgrimage to him.

In 1216/1801, adherents of the Wahhābī sect of Najd attacked and plundered the shrine of Imam Ḥosayn at Karbalāʾ, claiming thereby to have destroyed a manifestation of polytheism (šerk), and when the conquest of the Ḥejāz by the Saʿūdī family in 1343/1924 led to an imposition of Wahhābī doctrine across the Arabian peninsula, tombs of several of the Imams and their descendants in the Baqīʿ cemetery facing the Prophet’s mosque in Medina were leveled to the ground. Despite the hostility thus displayed toward Shiʿism, a number of Persian writers came under the influence of Wahhabism and criticized, inter alia, the frequentation of emāmzādas. Moḥammad-Ḥasan Šarīʿat Sangalajī (d. 1362/1943), who imbibed Wahhābī ideas through the works of Salafī writers such as Moḥammad ʿAbdoh (d. 1323/1905) and Rašīd Reżā (d. 1354/1935) as well as witnessing first hand the acts of destruction wrought by the Wahhābīs in the Ḥejāz, proclaimed it impermissible to build tombs not level with the ground; to construct new shrines or to repair existing ones; to offer prayers at the shrines of the Imams and their descendants; or to regard them as intermediaries with God, for this would imply that God is an irascible sovereign who needs to be placated through recourse to His courtiers (pp. 138, 155-56). Similar views were advanced by ʿAlī-Akbar Ḥakamīzāda in Asrār-e hezār-sāla, a pamphlet published in 1322 Š./1943, the same year as Sangalajī’s work. Aḥmad Kasrawī (d. 1325 Š./1946), a thinker of somewhat different stamp from either Sangalajī or Ḥakamīzāda, made many of the same points in his polemic against Shiʿism, Šīʿagarī, which also appeared in 1322 Š./1943. He criticized the practice of visiting the Emāmzāda Dāwūd, located in what he called “a filthy village” near Tehran, for the sake of having one’s prayers fulfilled, and the general belief that pilgrimage to emāmzādas is a meritorious act (pp. 37, 60).

All three men were answered—Sangalajī and Ḥakamīzāda directly, Kasravī by unmistakable allusion—in Kašf al-asrār (1323 Š./1944), the earliest published work of Ayatollah Rūḥ-Allāh Ḵomeynī (pp. 60-64). He dismissed as nonsensical the notion that the building of emāmzādas or making pilgrimage to them constitutes šerk for, he asserted, not a single Twelver Shiʿite could be found who worships the personages buried there. Indeed, the adornment and frequentation of emāmzādas fulfill the recommendation implied in the Koran (“Whoever hold in honor the emblems of God acts from piety of the heart”; 22:32), for the building of splendid mosques and shrines makes manifest the abstract splendor of Islamic teachings. Justification for surmounting tombs with domes was also to be found in the Koran, where mention is made of houses that “God has permitted to be raised high for His name to be mentioned therein” (24:36). Although the views of Kasrawī have retained a certain clientele down to the present, the criticisms advanced by him and his associates have had no measurable impact on the popularity of the emāmzāda cult.

Recitations form the essence of pilgrimage to an emāmzāda; it is no accident that the word zīāra denotes both the act of visitation and the words recited during it, especially in Arabic. Bodily expressions of devotion, especially the placing of the hands on the grille (żarīḥ) enclosing the tomb and circumambulation, with a pause at each corner of the tomb, are also permitted (Ḥorr ʿĀmelī, II, p. 81). In addition, the tying of votive rags or cloths and the deposit of gifts at emāmzādas can be frequently observed even in contemporary Persia. Although emāmzādas have always functioned primarily as places of pilgrimage, at least the most famous among them served as places of refuge (bast, q.v.) during both the Safavid and Qajar periods (Massé, Croyances II, p. 407). Many emāmzādas are in addition the points of assembly and departure for the mourning processions during the first ten days of Moḥarram as well as the places where the associated paraphernalia are stored during the rest of the year.

Finally, it may be remarked that so ubiquitous in Persia is the phenomenon of the emāmzāda that even in Sunnite regions of the country the tombs of Sufi saints are unthinkingly designated as such (personal observation, Ṭāleš, July 1994).



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(Hamid Algar)

Originally Published: December 15, 1998

Last Updated: December 13, 2011

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