Imamzada

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IMAMZADA is a shrine believed to be the tomb of a descendent of a Shiʿite Imam. In addition to Imamzada, such structures are also known as astana (lit., threshold), marqad (resting place, mausoleum), boqʿa (revered site), rawza (garden/tomb), gonbad (dome), mashhad (place of martyrdom), maqam (site/abode), qadamgah (stepping place), and torbat (dust, grave). pilgrimage to Imamzadas play a central role in the Shi’ite popular culture.

Function and Devotional Practice[edit | edit source]

In Mafatih al-janan [1], the best known contemporary manual of Shiʿite devotions, Shaykh ʿAbbas Qomi (d. 1319 /1940) rhapsodically describes Imamzadas 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 Imamzadas has been attributed to any of the Twelve Imams. There are, however, traditions concerning some of the most frequented Imamzadas, which might be taken to imply the general advisability of the practice. Thus, Imam Jaʿfar al-Sadeq is said to have foretold the death and burial at Qom of Fatima Maʿsuma, daughter of Imam Musa al-Kazem and to have promised paradise to all who should visit her tomb; Imams ʿAli al-Reza and Muhammad al-Taqi also placed great emphasis on the meritoriousness of such pilgrimage. [2] Furthermore, when Imam ʿAli al-Naqi (or Imam Hasan al-ʿAskari, according to Majlesi in Behar CII, p. 269) was informed by an inhabitant of Ray that he had just returned from a pilgrimage to the shrine of Imam Hussain at Karbala, he told him that he might equally well have visited the tomb of Shah ʿAbd-al-ʿAzim (q.v.), a descendant of Imam Hasan 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 Imamzada for the shrine of an Imam as a goal of pilgrimage.[3] This is confirmed by a recommendation from Imam Musa al-Kazem 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.[4]

History[edit | edit source]

What is certain is that from the 5th/11th century onward, Shiʿite scholars granted recognition to pilgrimage to Imamzadas as a valid form of devotion. Thus, Shaikh Mofid (d. 413/1022) composed a text (ziara) 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 (zaʾeran), 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”.[5]

Majlesi’s role in the matter of Imamzada visitation was that of a codifier or at most an elaborator. After warning against the danger of false Imamzadas, 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-Kadhdhab, a brother of Imam Hasan al-ʿAskari who laid claim to the imamate, descendants of Imam Hasan who rose up in his name without authorization, and, by definition, all Zaydi sayyeds.[6] No set text exists for recitation at an Imamzada; 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”.[7] To these various prescriptions Shaikh ʿAbbas Qomi [8] 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.

Polemics against pilgrimage to Imamzada[edit | edit source]

By the 6th/12th century at the latest, pilgrimage to Imamzadas, 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” (gurparast) and of elevating such pilgrimage over the hajj. 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 Imamzadas, notably those in Qom and Qazvin, were visited by Hanafites and Shafiʿites as well as by Shiʿites.[9] Comparable reproaches were made by Ibn Taymiya (d. 728/1328) with his characteristic acerbity; he accused the Shiʿites of falling into polytheism (sherk) through the veneration of their shrines.[10]

It was but natural that such polemics should resurface when the Safavids imposed the profession of Shiʿism on most of Persia. The degree to which the cult of the Imamzada 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 Fatima Maʿsuma [11]; Shah ʿAbd-al-ʿAzim and Sayyed Hamza, a son of Imam Musa al-Kazem, at Ray; Sultan-’Ali, a son of Imam Muhammad al-Baqer, near Kashan; Abu ʿAbd-Allah Hussain, a son of Imam ‘Ali al-Riza at Qazvin; Fazl and Solayman, both sons of Imam Musa al-Kazem, at Ava near Sava; Qasim b. Musa al-Kazem at Shusha, a village near Hella in Iraq [12]; and Ahmad, popularly known as Shah(-e) Cheraq, another son of Imam Musa al-Kazem, in Shiraz.[13] Further Imamzadas were no doubt established, and certain cases of misidentification occurred: the tomb in Qazvin of the Sufi Ahmad Gazali (d. 520/1126) was transformed into the Imamzada Ahmad [14] and that of a certain Abu Hamed Tabrizi near Sorkhab became erroneously known as an Imamzada.[15] There is, however, no reason to assume that a wholesale and deliberate appropriation of Sufi or other tombs took place. The great Safavid scholar, Molla Muhammad-Baqer Majlesi (d. 1111/1700), despite the indiscriminate fervor often attributed to him, warned against the automatic validation of every tomb reputed to be an Imamzada.[16]

Most important, the notion that the Safavids, drawing on precedents in Shiʿite tradition, sought to emphasize pilgrimage to shrines of the Imams and Imamzadas to the detriment of the hajj [17] must be regarded as untenable. Traditions such as that attributed to Imam Jaʿfar al-Sadeq which extols the soil of Karbala as superior to the Kaʿba are anomalous.[18] Moreover, the repeated efforts of the Ottomans to restrict and isolate the flow of Persian pilgrims to Mecca (hojjaj) through their territories themselves bear witness to the tenacity with which Persian Shiʿites of the Safavid period sought to fulfill the obligation of hajj despite the dangers they frequently faced.[19]

In 1216/1801, adherents of the Wahhabi sect of Najd attacked and plundered the shrine of Imam Hussain at Karbala, claiming thereby to have destroyed a manifestation of polytheism (sherk), and when the conquest of the Hejaz by the Saʿudi family in 1343/1924 led to an imposition of Wahhabi doctrine across the Arabian peninsula, tombs of several of the Imams and their descendants in the Baqiʿ cemetery facing the Prophet’s mosque in Medina were leveled to the ground.

Forms, decorations, and other characteristics[edit | edit source]

In terms of general design, shrines can be divided into two categories: single-buildings, also known as tomb-towers, and shrine complexes (astana). Many single-building shrines are located in rural areas, small towns, and their environs. Shrines built as inter-connected units or complexes, such as large astanas, are fewer in number and almost always located in cities. The size of these complexes depends on their importance in the public eye and their location. In most cases the various sections were added at various times. Structures such as porticos (ayvan, q.v.) and courts, for examples, were gradually added to the core units of the shrines.

In form, tomb-towers are domed squares with four alcoves (Chahar soffa-ye Shahneshindar), polygons, stars, or circles. Some scholars have traced their origin to Palmyra towers and others to the dome-shaped tents of Central Asian nomads. There is no doubt, however, that shrine construction over the grave of Imams and their descendants is a popular Shiʿite tradition, particularly in Persia. According to the Sunnites, graves should be at the same level as the earth around them and undecorated.

The exterior view of the complex determines the design of many elements, including the height and pitch of the domes, the ayvans, portal arcades, and minarets. Tall portal arcades, along with vast courts and large ayvans, occupy most of the space outside the tomb area. In most cases, the design of the courts follows that of mosques: they have four ayvans, one in front of each side of the building. In most cases, a large pool in the middle of the court provides water for pilgrims’ ablutions. These pools are carefully placed to reflect the ayvans, domes, and the minarets. Troughs and water stands (saqqa-Khana) are also found in the courtyard.

Complex shrines other than single buildings or tomb-towers may have developed over the centuries around a core section. Following the addition of mosques and porticos, many of these shrines have attracted devoted Muslims for religious practices, such as Friday prayer, Koran recitation, or mourning rituals during the months of Muharram and Safar. Occasionally, the establishment of a madrasa nearby has turned these shrines into active centers for training religious scholars or into important religious institutions such as the seminaries (hawza-ye ʿelmiya) at Najaf, Karbala, Qom, and Mashhad.

Decorations and furnishings. The decoration of Imamzadas depends on the size and different units of the structure or complex, on the style of construction, and on the period and region of construction. Single buildings or tomb-towers can be constructed of mud brick, baked brick (plain or decorated), stone, or wood. While simple at first sight, the manner in which bricks are laid together is subtle and attractive. Most shrines have a simple or elaborate band (qatarbandi) that separates the base of the structure from the dome (e.g. Imamzada Moḥammad near Babol). In the case of tomb-towers built on a star-shaped design with projecting flanges and brick pilasters, the addition of these bands (which may even contain inscriptions) enhances the striking effect. Domes are covered with plain or glazed bricks, which are usually turquoise. Conical moqarnas domes (rok varchin) typical of Khuzestan and Lorestan are covered with a fine, white layer of stucco.

Tiles have also been used to decorate the exterior of tomb-towers, either as strapwork (doval) or mosaic (moʿarraq) tile. In the late Saljuq and Il-khanid periods, cut tiles were often set in bands or panels or around the upper arch of the main façade. In shrine complexes of the Il-khanid and later periods, the portal arcades, ayvāns, domes, minarets, and arcades around the court were often richly decorated with three kinds of tile decoration: tile mosaic (moʿarraq), polychrome (haft-rang), and a style in which pieces of tile are inserted between the bricks (maʿqeli, also known as bannaʾi). In the central Kavir regions, in such cities as Isfahan and Yazd, the huge tiled domes of shrines create beautiful aerial sights as the shining of colors contrast with the surroundings. Other notable examples of exterior decoration are found in such important shrines as those of Najaf, Karbala, Samarra, Mashhhad, and Qom, where enormous domes and prominent minarets are covered with gold.

On the interior, Imamzadas can be decorated with tile, mirror work (aʾina-kari, q.v.), stucco (gachbori; q.v.), and fresco (negara). The latter two are the oldest. Stucco decoration comprises two types: inscriptions and other decorations such as frescoes. The oldest and most attractive inscriptions are done in Kufic script, especially when they are colored and have floral designs. These inscriptions were usually placed at the base of the dome as bands on the upper parts of the Imamzada’s walls. An interesting example is Imamzada Yaḥya in Varamin. Other stuccoes show geometric and floral subjects. The latter was used in mehrabs and around inscriptions, while the former was usually applied on floral designs as hexagonal or octagonal frames. The addition of color to stucco decoration, particularly in prayer niches (mehrab), was thought to increase the visual appeal.

Other important features of major astanas are gold- and silver-covered doors and steel grilles. They have been made since the Safavid period, especially during the Qajar period and the last few decades, by Persian, especially Esfahani, craftsmen. Floral designs or nastaʿliq inscriptions embossed on gold or silver plates are masterpieces. Doors with enameled decorations in cartouches can be seen at Astan-e qods-e razawi, Karbala, Najaf, Shahzada Hussain in Qazvin, Shah-e Cheraq, and Shah ʿAbd-al-ʿAzim, south of Tehran. In a very few instances, e.g., Astan-e qods from the Fath-’Ali Shah period, the doors were studded with jewels.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. p. 562
  2. Majlesi, Behar CII, pp. 265-67; idem, Tohfa, pp. 418-20; Qomi, p. 562
  3. Majlesi, Tohfa, p. 421; Qomī, p. 565
  4. Majlesi, Tohfa, p. 422
  5. cited by Majlesi, Behar CII, p. 272, from the Mesbah al-zaʾer wa janah al-mosafer of Sayyed ‘Ali b. Tawus, d. 664/1265
  6. Beḥār CII, pp. 273-75
  7. Majlesi, Behar CII, p. 277; Tohfa, p. 421
  8. p. 562
  9. Qazvini, pp. 576, 588-89
  10. I, pp. 130-31
  11. Qomī, pp. 191 ff.
  12. Qazvini, p. 588; Yaqut, Boldan, Beirut, III, p. 372
  13. Ebn Battuta, I, p. 212
  14. Lambton, p. 1170
  15. Ebn al-Karbalai, I, p. 176
  16. Tohfa, p. 421; he cast doubt specifically on the tombs of ‘Ali b. Jaʿfar and Muḥammad b. Musa in Qom
  17. as suggested by, for example, Amir Arjomand, pp. 168-70
  18. Ebn Qawlawayh, p. 267
  19. Faroqhi, pp. 127, 134-39

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

  • S. Amir Arjomand, The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam, Chicago, 1984.
  • M.-J. Dādḵᵛāh Šīrāzī, Kasr-e Kasrawī yā šekast-e Kasrawī, Shiraz, n.d.
  • E. Eberhard, Osmanische Polemik gegen die Safawiden im 16. Jahrhundert nach arabischen Handschriften, Freiburg, 1970.
  • Ebn Baṭṭūṭa, Reḥla, ed. K. Bostānī, Beirut, 1384/1964.
  • Ebn al-Karbalaī, Rawżāt al-jenān wa jannāt al-janān, ed. J. Sol ṭān-al-Qorrāʾī, 2 vols., Tehran, 1349 Š./1970.
  • Ebn Qawlawayh, Kāmel al-zīārāt, Najaf, 1356/1937.
  • Ebn Taymīya, Menhāj al-sonnat al-nabawīya fī naqd kalām al-šīʿa wa’l-qadarīya, 4 vols., Cairo, 1322/1904.
  • “Imamzada” in A. Ḥājj Sayyed-Jawādī, K. Fānī, and B. Ḵorramšāhī, eds., Dāyerat al-maʿāref-e tašayyoʿ II, pp. 392-94.
  • S. Faroqhi, Pilgrims and Sultans: The Hajj under the Ottomans, London and New York, 1994.
  • ʿA.-A. Ḥakamīzāda, Asrār-e hezār-sāla, Tehran, 1322 Š./1943.
  • Ḥorr ʿĀmelī, Wasāʾel al-šīʿa, 20 vols, Qom, 1376-89/1956-69.
  • A. Kasrawī, Šīʿagarī, new ed., San Jose, Calif., n.d.
  • R. Ḵomeynī, Kašf al-asrār, n.p., 1323 Š./1944.
  • A.K.S. Lambton, “Imāmzāda” in EI2 III, pp. 1169-70.
  • Mollā Moḥammad-Bāqer Majlesī, Beḥār al-anwār, 110 vols., Tehran, 1376-92/1956-72.
  • Idem, Toḥfat al-zāʾer Tehran, 1261/1854.
  • ʿAbd-al-Jalīl Qazvīnī, Ketāb-e naqż, ed. J. Moḥaddeṯ Ormavī, Tehran, 1358 Š./1979.
  • Shaikh ʿAbbās Qomī, Mafātīḥ al-janān, Tehran, 1381/1961.
  • M.-Ḥ. Šarīʿat Sangalajī, Tawḥīd-e ʿebādat (Yaktāparastī), Tehran, 1322 Š./1943.

Source[edit | edit source]