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Atabat, literally means “thresholds,” more fully, ʿatabat-e ʿaliyat or ʿatabat-e (or aʿtab-e) moqaddasa, is “the lofty or sacred thresholds,” the Shiʿite shrine cities of Iraq—Najaf, Karbala, Kazemayn, and Samarra—containing the tombs of six of the Shia imams as well as secondary sites of pilgrimage.

Najaf[edit | edit source]

Najaf is the burial place of 'Ali b. Abi Talib, cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad, and first in the line of Shi'ite imams, who died in 661 C.E.

Karbala[edit | edit source]

Karbala is where Hussain, ‘Ali's son and the third imam, was martyred in a battle against the Umayyads (r. 661–750 C.E.) in 680 C.E. It is a cornerstone of Shi'ite belief that Hussain, courageous and principled, went to battle against all odds, and his demise prefigures and embodies the fate of all those who take an active stand against oppression and injustice. The site of Hussain's martyrdom had emerged as a Muslim holy site by the middle of the seventh century.

Kadhimiya[edit | edit source]

Kadhimiya entered the sacred landscape of Shi'ism in the ninth century, as the burial site of the seventh and ninth imams, Musa al-Kazim (d. 802 C.E.) and Mohammad al-Taqi (d. 834 C.E.). Kadhimiya is also the burial site of many a medieval Shi'ite luminary.

Samarra[edit | edit source]

Samarra, which lies at a distance from the rest of the ʻatabat, contains the tombs of the tenth and eleventh imams, Ali al-Naqi (d. 868 C.E.) and Hasan al-'Askari (d. 873 C.E.). The twelfth imam entered occultation in Samarra in 941 C.E.

Functions[edit | edit source]

Besides being the place of pilgrimage, the ‘atabat are also significant as centers of Shiʻite learning. Najaf has housed, since the time of the Shaykh al-Ta'ifa Abu Ja'far Muhammad Tusi in the eleventh century, several educational institutions whose scholarly and financial networks have played an important role in determining intellectual and political trends in modern Shiʻism.

Political and Religious Importance[edit | edit source]

Under Ottoman and later under Iraqi control, the 'atabat have served in recent history as havens against government persecution for those Iranian Shi'ite scholars of the Qajar and the early Pahlavi periods who have spoken out against the ruling establishment at home. Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, was exiled to the ‘atabat (Najaf) by Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlevi in 1963. However, it must also be borne in mind that since the 1980s, the Shi'ite community and religious leaders resident in the atabat were themselves targeted by the Ba’this government of former President Saddam Hussain in Iraq. Minority leaders, the ulema of the ‘atabat, especially of Najaf and Karbala, have been subjected to numerous incarcerations and assassinations, intensified in the wake of the first Gulf War (1991).

Another important feature in the social fabric of the ‘atabat, directly related to their centrality in settling doctrinal orthodoxy and implementing political agendas, is the vast network of patronage and the nature of finances in the shrine cities. These networks are comprised mainly of donations and religious dues provided by the Shi'ite communities worldwide, with significant portions from the merchant classes of northern India, to the maraji' al-taqlid who reside there.

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

  • Cole, Juan R. I. “Indian Money and the Shii Shrine Cities of Iraq, 1186–1950." Middle Eastern Studies 22 (1986): 461-480.
  • Litvak, Meir. Shiʻi Scholars of Nineteenth-Century Iraq, The Ulama of Najaf and Karbala. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Source[edit | edit source]