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Dale F. Eickelman
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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The Arabic term qubbah (a tomb surmounted by a dome) refers throughout the Muslim world to saints ’ shrines and mausoleums and places of special spiritual significance. These shrines are often associated with natural phenomena—in Indonesia, for example, they are frequently located in elevated spots and have their own water sources. In North Africa, the shrines of marabouts, or al-ṣāliḥūn (pious ones) dot the landscape so pervasively that they are rarely out of sight. Some are squat, whitewashed buildings. Others are elaborate. A visit to a shrine is thought to offer spiritual blessings. Every rural settlement has such a shrine, sometimes just a semiderelict, sporadically maintained structure in a cemetery. In western Morocco, there is roughly one shrine for every 6 square kilometers and 150 people. These tombs constitute a framework that concretely symbolizes social groups and their relations. As alliances change, derelict shrines can be restored or new ones constructed to reflect new identities.

In addition to these modest local shrines, there are elaborate complexes linked to major religious figures. Major shrines have annual mawsims (festivals) that draw tens of thousands of pilgrims annually and have full-time caretakers, often descendants of the saint or pious one. Jews in North Africa also have shrines, most of which have been maintained despite the diminution of the Jewish population since the 1950s. Indeed, some Jewish shrines have been relocated in Israel as their North African supporters have emigrated there. In Morocco, some shrines attract both Jewish and Muslim pilgrims. Morocco 's kings regularly visit the major shrines, showing their continued significance in national and regional identity. Likewise, in urban Cairo and towns elsewhere, there is a “politics of festivity” associated with major shrines that continue to play a wide range of social roles. In Java as in Egypt, even if modernist Muslims discourage visits to shrines, the texts and oral traditions associated with them continue to offer many faithful a spatial representation of their history and identity.

Shīʿī Muslims also have elaborate shrine complexes associated with the principal imams and religious centers, and many of these, such as Qom in Iran and Karbala in southern Iraq, have religious schools associated with them along with bureaucracies to accept donations, support humanitarian works, and administer the endowed properties (awqāf; sg. waqf) that produce revenue for their upkeep. Some of these shrines are big business, such as the shrine of Imam Reza, a revered ninth-century martyr, in Mashhad, northeastern Iran. Over twelve million Iranians, Iraqis, and other Shīʿī pilgrims visit the shrine annually. It is larger than the Vatican, and the business empire associated with it extends to pharmaceuticals, mines, agriculture, engineering, a textile factory, and construction projects elsewhere in the Muslim world.

The most important shrine complex in the Muslim world is that of the Kaʿbah and the Great Mosque in Mecca. Some Muslims believe that the Kaʿbah (literally, “cube”) was brought to Abraham by the angel Gabriel. At first it was white, but it turned black through contact with the impurities of the pre-Islamic period. Others say that Adam built the Kaʿbah and that he is buried there. The Kaʿbah is the most sacred space in the Muslim world, the point to which all Muslims turn to pray, and the direction to which the head is pointed in burial. It is the most important place of ḥajj (pilgrimage) and is distinguished from visits to local or regional shrines, known as ziyārahs. As the spiritual center of the earth, actions at the Kaʿbah, such as its circumambulation, are duplicated in the heavens and at the throne of God.

Shrines define sacred space, both for the Great Mosque in Mecca and for the local shrines throughout the Muslim world devoted to mythical figures, great scholars believed to have mystical powers, and persons of exceptional piety. Shrines in Indonesia are associated with the coming of Islam and also relate to sacred time. To obtain the most benefit, pilgrims often visit several shrines, calculating their arrival on the day most favorably associated with each shrine in complex, interlocking cycles of five- and seven-day weeks. Major shrines can have ten thousand to fifty thousand visitors on their most auspicious days. Some modernist Muslims have sought to ban visits to shrines, but such visits retain their popularity except in Saudi Arabia, where the Wahhābīs have forced their cessation, except to those in Mecca and Medina.

Shrines also separate sacred and secular space. People seek sanctuary in them and await the intervention of religious intermediaries to negotiate a truce or settlement. Oaths sworn at shrines are especially binding, because their violation incurs the wrath of the shrine 's marabout or walī. Some are known as centers for healing. Visits to the shrine of Bū Yā ʿUmār, located near Marrakesh, Morocco, are reputed to cure the mentally ill.

Gender divisions are often associated with shrines. The shrine for Lalla Ḥnīya, a daughter of Sīdī Mḥammad al-Sharqī in Boujad, Morocco, is visited almost exclusively by women seeking a remedy for infertility. Visitors tear strips of cloth from their clothing and affix it to the door of the shrine as a waʿdah (promise) to offer a gift or sacrifice if they bear a child. Such offerings are not made at Lalla Ḥnīya 's tomb, but at the nearby shrine complex of her father. Until recent decades, women in rural Turkey were largely confined to their homes, except for visits to local shrines on religious and secular festivals. Visits to shrines secure blessings for the household and can be used to signal changes in personal status—marriage, the birth of a child, or mourning. Women say prayers at these shrines and are more conscious than men of local sacred geography. Men occasionally visit shrines with women, but rarely do so on their own.

The sacred geography of shrines is not confined to supposed vestiges of the past, although shrines, such as that at Mecca, had pre-Islamic significance, and other shrines, as in Java, are not associated exclusively with Islamic figures. Instead, they constitute a physical representation of the sacred, defining not only relations of particular social groups and categories with the divine but also the relations among social groups and between genders. Thus, they offer a rich means of ordering the religious and social universes, and for many, they serve as a means of aligning one with the other.



  • Eickelman, Dale F.Moroccan Islam: Tradition and Society in a Pilgrimage Center. Austin, 1976. Describes a major shrine complex in Morocco and the practices associated with it. Find it in your Library
  • Esin, Emil. Mecca the Blessed, Madinah the Radiant. London, 1963. Beautifully written and illustrated account of Mecca and Medina as shrine complexes. Find it in your Library
  • Fischer, Michael M. J.Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution. Cambridge, Mass., 1980. Chapter 4, “Qum: Arena of Conflict,” describes religious and political action in a major Shīʿī shrine center. Find it in your Library
  • Fox, James J.“Ziarah Visits to the Tombs of the Wali, the Founders of Islam on Java.” In Islam in the Indonesian Social Context, edited by Merle C. Ricklefs, pp. 19–38. Clayton, Australia, 1991. Find it in your Library
  • McChesney, Robert. Waqf in Central Asia: Four Hundred Years in the History of a Muslim Shrine. Princeton, 1991. Remains the best account for the historical continuity and changing significance of a major shrine in Central Asia. Find it in your Library
  • Schielke, Samuli. “Mawlids and Modernity: Danger of Fun,”ISIM Review17 (Spring 2006): 6–7. Brief but excellent overview of the struggle for sacred space in Egypt. Find it in your Library
  • Weingrod, Alex. “Saints and Shrines, Politics and Culture: A Morocco-Israel Comparison.” In Muslim Travellers: Pilgrimage, Migration, and the Religious Imagination, edited by Dale F. Eickelman and James Piscatori, pp. 217–235. Berkeley and Los Angeles. 1990. Find it in your Library
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