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Imāmzādah

By:
Peter Chelkowski
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Imāmzādah

Literally “offspring or descendent of an īmām,” imāmzādah, in Iran, is most commonly applied to a shrine-tomb of a descendent of the Shīʿī īmāms. Imāmzādahs are the centers of popular Shīʿī devotion and the objects of pilgrimages. Many of them are regarded as possessing miraculous and healing properties. The source of veneration of imāmzādahs in Iran is to be found in geopolitics. The ziyārah (pilgrimage to īmāms ’ tombs) constitutes a principal aspect of Shīʿī popular worship. However, only one of the Twelver Shīʿī īmāms, ʿAlī al-Riḍā, is buried in the vast territory of Iran. His shrine-tomb grew into a large shrine city called Mashhad (sepulcher) in northeastern Iran. The other īmāms are buried in central and southern Iraq and in Medina.

The most important Shīʿī tombs, those of Imam ʿAlī at Najaf and Imam Ḥusayn at Karbala, are situated in present-day Iraq. Making a pilgrimage to those holy tombs was often physically, politically, and financially difficult for Iranian Shīʿīs. Hence, the basis for the veneration of the descendants of īmāms in Iran sprung from a practical necessity before becoming a part of popular piety. “These shrines (called Imamzadas) are to be found in large numbers in Iran, especially in the areas around Qumm [Qom], Tehran, Kashan, and Mazandaran, which have been Shiʿi from the earliest times, and, therefore, tended to be a refuge for ʿAlids, who were often being persecuted in other parts of the Muslim world” (Momen, 1985, p. 182). From the time that Shiism became the state religion of Iran (beginning in the sixteenth century), popular beliefs and rituals played a very important role in the spread of Shiism. Going on pilgrimages and paying homage to the descendants of the īmāms at their tombs has been one of the most popular activities of the Iranian Shīʿīs. They have been encouraged by the Shīʿī ʿulamāʿ (community of religious scholars) to participate in these pilgrimages in order to acquire merit and blessings. Shah ʿAbbās (1571–1629), the Ṣafavid king, however, encouraged the pilgrimages to imāmzādahs within the boundaries of Iran for economic reasons—it reduced the outflow of money from the country.

As the pilgrimages to the tombs of the imams and their descendants became increasingly elaborate activities, many guidebooks to such visitations were written. One of the most important manuals for Shīʿī pilgrims is Tuḥfat al-zāʿirīn (A Present for Pilgrims), written by one of the most powerful and influential members of the ʿulamāʿ of the late Ṣafavid period, Muḥammad Bāqir Majlisī (d. 1699). In this guidebook, Majlisī writes: “In all the cities there are many tombs attributed to imāmzādahs and other relations of the Imams. The graves of some of them, however, are not marked, and in the case of others, there is nothing in particular that is known of their lives. It is advisable to visit all of them whose tombs have been identified. Honour shown to them is equivalent to honouring the Imams” (Donaldson, 1933, p. 264).

The rituals connected with visitations to the tombs of imāmzādahs reflect the rituals of the pilgrimage to Mecca, the ḥajj. The most important part of the ritual is the recitation of the prayer of visitation, known as the Ziyārat-Nāmah. Each shrine has its own visitation prayer. As the imāmzādah shrines brought prestige and even economic benefits to a locality, some of the tombs of holy men who were not descendants of the īmāms fell under the rubric of imāmzādah. Many of the pilgrimages to imāmzādahs have been adapted into seasonal rituals and become embellished with colorful observances. Imāmzādahs, like mosques, traditionally have enjoyed the status of extraterritoriality in which basṭ (asylum) could be sought.

Among the most famous imāmzādah shrines of Iran is that of Shāh ʿAbd al-ʿAẓīm in Ray on the outskirts of Tehran. During the late Qājār period (1796–1925), many famous men, including Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (1838–1897), fled to there seeking refuge. And during the Constitutional Revolution (1905–1911), many constitutionalists took refuge there. The first railway built in Iran was the five-mile stretch between the shrine of Shāh ʿAbd-al-ʿAẓīm and the capital city of Tehran. This shrine was also the site of the assassination of Nāṣir al-Dīn Shāh Qājār in 1896. The mausoleum of Fāṭimah, venerated as Maʿṣūmah (The Innocent), in Qom should be the most famous imāmzādah in Iran, as Fāṭimah was the daughter of Imam Mūsā Kāẓim and the sister of Imam ʿAlī Riḍā. However, since only male descendents of the imams are accorded the title imāmzādah, the shrine of Fāṭimah, though visited daily by thousands, does not belong to this category.

People are drawn to the imāmzādahs in search of intercession. At the imāmzādah shrines people can unburden themselves of their personal problems and misfortunes. Women can pray for the conception of children and men for success in their professional endeavors. The upkeep of the imāmzādahs is paid by either awqāf (religious endowments; sing., waq   f) or the donations of pilgrims.

Among the Shīʿīs of southern Iraq, the veneration of the descendants of the īmāms is of secondary importance, since the main īmām tombs are situated in close proximity. The Shīʿīs of India, however, face even greater difficulty than the Iranians in visiting the tombs of the īmāms because of their great distance from them. In India, the visitation and veneration of the īmāms ’ tombs has been substituted by the building of replicas of these tombs, which are carried in processions during the month of Muḥarram. These replicas, known as taʿziyah, in reality bear little resemblance to the original tombs and have become the end product of an act of the artists ’ piety. Solid, artistic replicas of the īmāms ’ cenotaphs (ẓarīḥ) are housed in the imāmbārahs and ʿashūrkhānahs. The creation of these edifices by the Shīʿī communities of India solved the problem of local devotion and visitation. Together with the dargāhs, which contain what is believed to be the personal effects of the īmāms (such as ʿalam [standard] or a sword), taʿziyah have come to serve as the local centers of pilgrimage and devotion. The construction of the “local Karbalas,” cemeteries where people and taʿziyahs are buried, further alleviated for the Indian Shīʿīs the need for pilgrimages to the actual tombs of the īmāms or their descendants.

See also IMAM; KARBALA; MASHHAD; NAJAF; QOM; SHRINES; TAʿZIYAH; and ZIYāRAH.

Bibliography

  • Ayoub, Mahmoud M.Redemptive Suffering in Islam. The Hague, 1978.
  • Donaldson, Dwight M.The Shiʿite Religion. London, 1933.
  • Lambton, Ann K. S.“Imāmzāda.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 3, pp. 1169–1170. Leiden, 1960–.
  • Ya'ocov, Yehoiakin Ben. Concepts of Messiah: A Study of the Messianic Concepts of Islam, Judaism, Messianic Judaism Christianity. West Bow Press, 2012.
  • Majlisī, Muḥammad Bāqir. Tuḥfat al-zāʿirīn. Tehran, 1857.
  • Momen, Moojan. An Introduction to Shiʿi Islam. New Haven, 1985.
  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, Hamid Dabashi, and Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, eds.Shiʿism: Doctrines, Thought, and Spirituality. Albany, N.Y., 1988.
  • Von Grunebaum, G. E.Muhammadan Festivals. New York, 1951.
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