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RELICS. The remains of holy persons may serve as a focus for devotional practices in Islam. These relics include the physical remains of holy persons-the prophet Muhammad, saints, and martyrs-and objects with which they were associated. It is commonly believed that contact with such relics may result in the transference of blessing (barakah). Purported relics of the Prophet-for example, hairs, teeth, and clothing-can be found in many parts of the Muslim world.

The veneration of relics is most commonly expressed in pilgrimage (ziyarah) to tombs. The model for this is the pilgrimage to the Prophet’s tomb in Medina, an act highly recommended by all schools of thought in Islam. Among Shi’i Muslims, ziyarah extends to pilgrimage to the tombs of the imams as well. Undoubtedly the most common form of tomb visitation in the Muslim world is ziyarah to the tombs of purported Sfifi saints. The great saints (awliya’) are understood to be the direct viceregents (khalffahs) of the prophet Muhammad and the spiritual governors of this world. Their tombs serve as their courts (dargah), where-like the Prophet in his tomb in Medina-they continue to exist in a spiritual state. From these dargahs they may intercede with God on behalf of their devotees, and so tombs are often seen as sites of miracles. People go to tombs for many reasons: to fulfill vows, to gain blessings for themselves or their families, to seek cures for illness or relief from misfortune, to obey a command by a living shaykh or a spiritual command received in a dream, or simply to show love and devotion to the person buried within.

Such devotion reflects a long tradition of personal allegiance in the Islamic tradition. From its onset Islam challenged people to give allegiance not only to the message of Islam revealed in the Qur’an, but also to its messenger. Love and devotion toward the prophet Muhammad was a necessary corollary of embracing Islam. That devotional allegiance extended logically to those persons seen as the legitimate successors to the Prophet. For the Shi is this means the imams and the Prophet’s family in general. Visitation to their tombs is therefore seen as an act of devotion and love toward persons loved by God and the Prophet. The Sunni tradition has maintained this tradition of devotional allegiance in the practice of visiting Sfifi tombs.

Visitation to tombs has long been a target of criticism by Islamic reformers. Scholars such as Ibn Taymiyah have objected to it as a form of shirk or the association of others with God, the most heinous sin in Islam. In the modern world numerous Muslim reform movements have maintained this criticism. In the nineteenth century Wahhabis attempted unsuccessfully to stop visitation even of the tomb of Muhammad. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood is critical of festivals (mawlids) at Sfifi tombs. In South Asia the reformist Deobandis, drawing on the writings of Shah Wali Allah, have counseled against this practice as well. Some Muslim reformers have objected to tomb visitation on the grounds that it is irrational and superstitious and an impediment to progress. Western scholars like Gustave Von Grunebaum have shared this perspective and criticized tomb visitation as a non-Islamic intrusion into Islam. However, it should be remembered that the Muslims who visit tombs do not see their devotions as non-Islamic.

Indeed, there are Muslim organizations, including the Barelwis in South Asia and numerous Sfifi orders (tariqahs), that explicitly defend tomb visitation on the basis of Qur’an and hadith.


Goldziher, Ignacz. Muslim Studies. Vol. i. Albany, N.Y., 1971. Goldziher’s discussion of tomb visitation, entitled “The Veneration of Saints in Islam,” is typical of the critical Western accounts.

Metcalf, Barbara D. Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900. Princeton, 1982. Provides an interesting discussion of a reformist group critical of tomb visitation, with material on the Barelwis.

Reeves, Edward B. The Hidden Government: Ritual, Clientelism, and Legitimation in Northern Egypt. Salt Lake City, 1990. Provides a detailed description of tomb visitation in Egypt.

Troll, Christian W. Muslim Shrines in India. Delhi, 1989. Contains excellent discussions of tomb visitation and its critics in the South Asian context.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/relics/

  • writerPosted On: July 16, 2017
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