Citation for Najaf

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Sachedina, Abdulaziz . "Najaf." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. May 20, 2022. <>.


Sachedina, Abdulaziz . "Najaf." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed May 20, 2022).


A religious center of the Shīʿah since the eighth century, Najaf is located in Iraq, south of Baghdad and six miles west of Kufa. It is the site of the mashhad (tomb/shrine) of the first Shīʿī imam, ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭalīb, whose gravesite was revealed to the public in the early ʿAbbāsid period by Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq (d. 765 CE) during one of his visits to Kufa. Under al-Ṣādiq and his disciples, Najaf also became heir to the Shīʿī learning that had flourished in Kufa, where in the grand mosque, al-Ṣādiq's ḥadīths (reports on the behavior and sayings of the Prophet) were disseminated among some nine hundred teachers of traditions.

Muslim armies entered the Najaf region in 633 CE Four years later they chose the adjacent city of Kufa as a garrison city. The army took up permanent residence in Kufa and its environs in the direction of Najaf (then called the “Back of Kufa”). The main mosque in Kufa was built in 637, and the Arab tribes soon began to gather around it. Kufa flourished after the Prophet's son-in-law ʿAlī took up residence in 656 CE ʿAlī found the city agreeable and moved the seat of the caliphate from Medina. According to Muslim tradition, the prophets Adam, Noah, Hud, and Ṣāliḥ are buried in Najaf. At one stage ʿAlī informed his household of his impending martyrdom and gave instructions to have his body buried at a specified place in the valley. His sons, al-ḥasan and al-ḥusayn, buried him in that spot, which now lies inside the city of Najaf.

Following the founding of Baghdad (754–775), a number of Shīʿī scholars from Kufa migrated to this new capital. Some others chose the mashhad at Najaf as the base from which to teach and spread Shīʿī traditions. Although Kufa retained its importance as the locus of Shīʿī activities until the fifteenth century, Najaf gradually replaced it. During this transition, Najaf's mashhad and the madrasah (seminary) attached to it found much-needed patronage from Shīʿī rulers. The ruler of Tabaristan, Muḥammad ibn Zayd al-ʿAlawī (d. 900), ordered the construction of the dome and the Ṣūfī zāwiyah (cells). The Būyid sultans added the arched halls and hospices that provided residence for the students who came to study there. During his visit to Najaf in 1336, Ibn Bāṭṭūṭah noted the existence of a number of madrasahs, hospices, and Ṣūfī convents attached to the shrine.

In the eleventh century, Shaykh al-Ṭāʿifah al-Ṭūsī (d. 1067), a great Shīʿī scholar and leader of the community, migrated from the Karkh section of Baghdad to Najaf in 1057, following Sunnī-Shīʿī riots and destruction of his library, and established his own school based on a text- oriented Shīʿī curriculum. The present-day Shīʿī mujtahids (authorities exercising independent judgment) regard themselves as the intellectual heirs of al-Ṭūsī's madrasah, but in the twentieth century, Najaf lost its leadership of Shīʿī learning. With the establishment of Shiism as the state religion of Iran under the Ṣafavids in the early 1500s, there was a flow of Shīʿī scholars from Iraq and Lebanon to Isfahan and other places in Iran. Nineteenth-century Iraq and Iran witnessed the modernization of educational and political institutions along with the development of an intense nationalism that created a different challenge for the mujtahids in Iran. Under the leadership of Ayatollah ʿAbd al-Karīm Hāʿirī Yazdī (d. 1937), the religious hierarchy in Iran found it appropriate to establish a madrasah in Qom that would respond to the growing needs of the times and would equal and even surpass Najaf as the hub of Shīʿī religious sciences. Moreover, the highly centralized religious leadership of the marjaʿ al-taqlīd (source of emulation) had passed to prominent mujtahids in Qom, overshadowing the apolitical leadership of Najaf in the growing turmoil of the 1950s and 1960s. It was not until the rise of Ayatollahs Khomeini (d. 1989) and Muḥammad Bāqir al-Ṣadr (executed 1980) that Najaf reversed its tradition of shunning politics and actively sought to combat the secular ideology of the Bathists in Iraq. Today Muqtadā al-Ṣadr wields enormous political influence among the downtrodden in the city, whereas Ayatollah Sayyid ʿAlī al-Sīstānī remains influential among secularists and well-to-do Iraqis.

There are several historical sites in the vicinity of Najaf that form an important part of Shīʿī piety. One of the most sacred is the grand mosque of Kufa where ʿAlī was assassinated. In Shīʿī estimation, the Kufa mosque is equal in status to the mosques of Mecca and Medina. The other important pilgrimage site is the Ṣalāh mosque, where the Shīʿah believe that the twelfth imam appears every Tues-day evening to perform the sunset prayer. Accordingly, a large crowd of pious Shīʿah assembles in Ṣalāh that evening in the hope of meeting the Hidden Imam. The environs consist of tombs and sanctuaries, including ʿAlī's house. One of the most extensive cemeteries in the Muslim world, Wādī al-Salām (the valley of peace), is located in Najaf on the way to Karbala, where every day hundreds of Shīʿī and Sunnī Muslims are brought for burial.



  • Algar, Hamid. Religion and State in Iran, 1785–1906: The Role of the Ulama in the Qajar Period. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969. Covers Najaf and its religious establishment, and the politics of the ʿulamāʿ and Muslim powers.
  • Ayoub, Mahmoud M.Redemptive Suffering in Islam: A Study of the Devotional Aspects of ʿĀshūrāʿ in Twelver Shīʿism. The Hague: Mouton de Gruyter, 1978. Discusses mashhad rituals in Shīʿī piety.
  • Mottahedeh, Roy P.The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985. Covers the curriculum and methodology of the religious sciences at the madrasah in Shīʿī centers of learning.

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