4.1 Chaos and cosmos
In this new unit, we examine the relation between religious practices and the places in which they are performed. We begin by exploring the different ways in which space is imagined in human cultures, such as through the ideas of chaos and order. We study the example of a Sufi lodge in northern Pakistan to understand how space is made sacred in religious communities.
4.2 Spaces of hope
Each religious community has places that it considers holy, sacred, or special in some way. Such sites may be places of worship where believers gather to offer prayers. They may also act as places of hope and consolation. In this section, we examine the shrine of al-Sayyida Zaynab in Cairo as an example of a sacred space that offers strength, hope and comfort to those who come to pray there.
4.3 Community and continuity
A wide diversity of places of worship can be found in Muslim communities across the world. These places take different forms in different cultures and communities. As religious communities migrate, so do their places of worship. The imambargah of the Shia Ithna Ashari community in Toronto provides us with an example through which we can study the relation between space and continuity.
4.4 Centres of tradition and tolerance
This final section of the unit ends with a further exploration of the diversity of places of worship in the Muslim context. We conclude the unit by focusing on jamatkhanas in Ismaili communities, a place of prayer and gathering, and as centres of tradition and tolerance.
Chaos signifies disorder and lifelessness. The cosmos is that which has order, purpose and meaning in it. It is full of life and consciousness. In these kinds of creation myths, the world often becomes a site of struggle between good and evil forces. Angelic forces sanctify the earth, while forces of destruction corrupt it. Humans are seen as caught between these two aspects, becoming either agents of good or evil through the choices they make.
Sacred space in Muslim traditions
The Sufi lodge at Ghamkol Sharif
To begin our exploration of sacred spaces in Muslim traditions, we examine a Sufi lodge located in north western Pakistan, known as the Lodge of Ghamkol Sharif. It is to be found in a little valley outside the town of Kohat.
From wilderness into paradise
The lodge nestles in the valley … surrounded by hills on all sides, a series of stone buildings with internal courtyards, walled enclosures, walled orchards of apples, oranges, and lemons, well- tended vegetable gardens, and cattle and goat pens. Surrounding it is a perimeter wall running along he slopes of the hills, protecting the lodge from the leopards that come down from the mountains during the winter snows.
It is a lovely, prosperous, tranquil scene. The courtyards of the houses and hospices are surrounded by green lawns and bordered with flower beds and shady trees. The beautiful mosque is elaborately decorated in white, green, and dark red. Its three domes and delicate minarets set against the blue sides and the hills beyond. Two fountains of pure water splash into pools on either side of the entrance to the vast open courtyard, shaded by a giant banyan tree.
All is quiet apart from the sound of zikr echoing in the mountains, and the splashing of the water fountains. Because of the beauty and the abundance, visitors have associated Ghamkol Sharif with paradise.
It was not always thus. When the shaykh arrived in 1951, there were only the bare mountains. The darbar contains several key landmarks of the settlement in this ‘jungle’ (wilderness). Of these , one is the cave in which the Pir first settled, sent by the Prophet, where he spent three days and three nights without eating or drinking. Then God said to him, ‘I have not sent you here to close yourself inside a cave. Go out and meet the people.’
This cave, now just beyond the perimeter wall has been preserved as it was, apart from a lone electric bulb lighting the interior. It has become something of a shrine, and pilgrims to the lodge climb the hill and leave pledges of their requests in the form of pieces of cloth tied to the thorn-bushes outside the cave. From here, the pilgrim has a perfect view of the lodge and the valley below.
A second landmark is another cave at the heart of the lodge, which towers above the mosque and all the other buildings on the slope of the hill. The cave is reached by a steep staircase and has been converted into a windowless room … Outside this cave is the rock on which the shaykh sat and preached to his disciples for many years before mosque was built.
There were no roads, no orchards, no cattle, no electricity, at that time. Water was carried several miles from a spring on the other side of the hills on donkeys. Before the shaykh came, the area was the abode of a famous dacoit from the fierce Kabaili tribes that live beyond the hills. He was said to have robbed the British and stored his booty in one of the caves in the valley.
It has taken almost four decades to build the lodge to its present state of perfection. Virtually all of the laour that went into the building has been voluntary. Even the electricity and the digging of well were provided by the government free of charge. They were not asked for, they were simply given. But a good deal of the building work, the construction, the extension of water pipes, electricity, and sewage lines, the building and decoration of the mosque, the planting of orchards – all these have been achieved gradually, year be year, during the weeks preceding the annual Urs.
The khalifa who runs this arrangement has taken over the job from his father before him. He is also darban, the gatekeeper of the shaykh, who handles the guests and decides how long they will spend with him. He carries the keys to all the locked buildings, storehouses and gardens, supervises the preparation of the langar and meals for the guests and the feeding of the people during the Urs …
The murids arrive in groups, many of the helpers about three weeks before the Urs. There is a good deal of building going on, and rocks are being broken with sledgehammers by hand., and carried in baskets on the workers’ heads from the rocky hillsides. This year the murids are in the process of building a watchtower on the periphery to guard the lodge. The khalifa supervising the building work is an ex-army man from Jhelum District.
Another khalifa, from Faisalabad and also an ex-army man, is supervising the decoration of the lodge buildings and hillsides with elaborate coloured lights and neon signs, as well as the various extensions needed for the new buildings. Some of the lighting is already in place from Id al-milad al-nabi, which was celebrated last week. There are chains of moving flashing coloured lights, brightly lit coloured signs, spinning neon spoke wheels, and the Arabic inscription ‘Allah-hu‘ extended across the hillside.
Most spectacular, perhaps, is the decoration of the mosque, each of the three domes being lit with chains of light, which spin around it. Teams are setting up broad metal chappati grills and giant tandur pits for baking Nan, clearing the ground of rocks and stones for sleeping spaces, connecting new electricity and water lines, extending sewage lines and building sumps, and clearing areas for the coaches carrying the pilgrims.
The mosque is being cleaned and redecorated, and the elaborately designed iron gates are being repainted with blue and red flowers by a local ‘artist,’ another murid. One of the fountain pools flagging the entrance to the mosque is being whitewashed.
People at the lodge perform zikr at all times of the day and night. Even as they work, they perform the zikr. Some, especially the khalifa supervising the arrangements, have not slept for many nights, yet still they continue with labour, performing the zikr as they work. The hills echo with the melodic sound of ‘La ila-ha-il-Allah, La ila-ha-il-Allah.‘
The shaykh comes out to inspect the work’s progress, accompanied by a group of khalifas. Nothing happens in the lodge without his knowledge. He is the ultimate planner and decision maker.
We met two young men From Birmingham, here to attend the Urs. They have many wonderful tales of the karamat, miracles, associated with the shaykh. One tells a story about the zikr.
‘The people here do zikr all the time. Even when they ace working, they do zikr. When I came here for the first time, I insisted that I wanted to do some work. So they gave me an area to clean. I was cleaning one of the rooms when I heard someone doing zikr in one of the other rooms. But when I looked into that room, there was no one there. But still I kept hearing the zikr. Then I looked up and saw that there was a pigeon sitting on the edge of the roof doing zikr. I had heard that the pigeons do zikr here.’
The cooking areas are being prepared with pots, towers of utensils, and wood piled high The organisers rush around madly, making sure everything is working.
Every where zikr is being sung. People sing zikr on the trucks when they arrive, sometimes fast – ‘Allah-hu, Allah-hu’ – sometimes slow and melodious – ‘La ila-ha-il-Alla; La ila-ha-il-Allah.’ What they sing also depends on the driving speed or the work tempo. From time to time, other prayers are [recited] over the sound system, but the sermons have not started in earnest yet.
… [The current shaykh ] told me:
‘When I first came here, the land was barren and hostile, and it had never witnessed the name of Allah. Yet look at it today, a green and pleasant land …. all owing to the faith in Allah of one man. No one had ever worshipped here since the creation of the world, it was a wild and dangerous place, a place of lions (my own son saw a lion). Now the earth is richer in religion than many other places. One man is the cause of it all, One man came here and did and this place became a place of habitation.’
‘When a man starts loving RasuI-i Pak, then everything starts loving him. Every part of the every part of the universe – the water, the flowers, the morning dawn, the moon, the roses, the green plants – everything starts loving that man. And this is the love of Rasul-i Pak, which has given beauty to the flowers, and beauty to the whole of the world. And whatever s present here is due to the love of Rasul-i Pak and the love of Allah.’
… another speaker, a well-known maulavi, speaking in Urdu, told the congregation:
‘ … I would like to say clearly that nothing in the universe is equal. Everything has its own status and honour … Even the piece of land where we are sitting now has different honours. For example, not every peak of a mountain is the peat of Tur. And not every piece of land is the land of Madina Sharif. And not all stones have been honoured to become the House of Allah, the Kaba. And not every domed mosque is al-Aqsa. And not all hills could be the hills of Ghamkol Sharif.’
- Allah-hu – ‘God is (present)’. .
- banyan – a tree with hanging branches found in South Asia
- booty- stolen goods
- chappati – thin flat bread made of whole meal flour
- dacoit – an armed robber
- darbar- place of gathering where ceremonies are conducted
- elaborately -in detail
- enclosures – a spare surrounded by walls
- flagging – decorating
- hospices- lodgings for travellers
- inscription- writing
- labour – work
- langar- special food prepared for pilgrims and travellers
- nan – a type of bread cooked in an oven
- neon signs – signs lit-with bright colours
- nestles – lies half hidden
- orchards – land planted with fruit trees
- pens – an enclosed place for keeping cows and goats
- perimeter – outer boundary
- pledges – tokens
- prosperous – successful, doing well
- sewage – waste matter
- sledgehammers – large, heavy hammers used to break stone
- sumps – pits for waste matter
- tandur- a clay oven
- tranquil – peaceful, quiet
- wilderness- a wild, uninhabited place
- zikr – dhikr, remembrance of God
- al-Aqsa – a mosque in Jerusalem near the Dome of the Rock
- banners – long strips of cloth with writing on them
- barren – not producing any vegetation
- congregation- a gathering of people
- convoys – groups of vehicles travelling together
- dedication – devotion to a special task
- habitation – a place of living or dwelling
- la-llaha-il-Allah – ‘There is no god but God’
- maulvi- a religious scholar
- processions – people walking together in groups at a ceremony or festival
- Rasul-i Pak – ‘the Pure Prophet’ a title of Prophet Muhammad
- sarralising – making sacred
- sermons – religious talks
- tempo – speed, rate of activity
- traversing – travelling across
- Tur– Mount Sinai
Reflecting on the text
Before the Sufi lodge was built, what kind of place was Ghamkol Sharif? What was it used for?
When the shaykh arrived there and prayed in the cave, what did he realise he had to do?
Describe in your own words the lodge that now exists at Ghamkol Sharif. What impression do you get of this place from the account?
What makes this place important to the murids who live and work here? Why?
How do the followers of the pir celebrate the Urs? What draws them to the lodge?
What makes the site where the lodge is located sacred to the murids?
Places of transformation
We learn from the account that the land where the lodge is situated was previously barren- It became transformed because of the faith of one person. The ‘chaos’ that had previously existed there was turned into ‘order’, a place ‘richer in religion’.
In many religious traditions, places are made sacred by prayer and ritual. The natural or human world becomes connected with the divine. Believers find inner peace, solace and strength in such sites.
Sacred places can be viewed as sites of intersection where the human and the divine meet. These are places where the divine reveals itself to the believers. Sacred sites are places full of meaning for believers. These places help, worshippers to express their inner faith.
What is the ‘centre of the world’ for you? Why? What might it be for other people?
Shrines and rituals
Shrines in Muslim traditions
The Ahl al-bayt, the members of the Prophet’s family, hold a special place in the hearts of the Egyptians. Like many Muslim communities, the Egyptians look upon the Ahl al-bayt with reverence. One of the most important shrines in Cairo is that of Imam Husayn. Another belongs to al-Sayyida Zaynab, the sister of Imam Husayn.
Al-Sayyida Zaynab is viewed with special respect by Muslim communities in Egypt. She was present with Imam Husayn at the battle of Karbala and witnessed the death of her family members. She took care of the women and children who survived, and protected them from Yazid and his soldiers. Egyptian Muslims believe that she travelled from Arabia to Fustat the old town by the Nile near Cairo. She is thought to have died there in the seventh century. A mosque was built in Cairo in memory of al-Sayyida Zaynab.
The mosque of al-Sayyida Zaynab is visited by many women from Cairo, and from other towns and villages in Egypt. They come to pray here, and to seek for help and guidance. In the following account, we find out more about the mosque as a sacred place and what meaning it has for those who use it.
The mosque of al-Sayyida Zaynab
[Nearby] is the imposing building of Dar al-Hilal, a large publishing house, which produces monthly and weekly magazines, in addition to books. Dar al-Hilal’s bookshop is situated in the same building. Beit al-Sinnari, a centre for the revival of traditional Egyptian arts, is also in Midan al-Sayyida … Madraset al-Sanniya, the largest and oldest girls’ state school in Egypt, established at the end of the nineteenth century, is also situated in al-Sayyida quarter.
The quarter is also self-sufficient. It has its department stores, banks, chemists, doctors’ clinics, bookshops and boutiques. It is surrounded by markets selling fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, poultry, pulses and herbs, and where poor-quality clothing is sold from pushcarts at reduced prices.
The quartet also has restaurants and patisseries, and is particularly famous for Egyptian specialty dishes, such as menbar (sausage filled with rice, mincemeat and herbs), kaware (lamb knuckles) and other dishes such as lamb’s head. Its patisseries sell pastries throughout the year, but these are particularly sought after in the month of Ramadan, the month of fasting…
The quarter surrounds the central square, which is adorned by a fountain at its centre surrounded by flowers and plants. Banks and commercial outlets are situated on one side of the square, with the mosque on the other, dominating the square…
Unlike other parts of Cairo, the population of al-Sayyida Zaynab quarter is exclusively Muslim. Its social life does not cater for Western tastes or ways of life. Its coffee-shops and restaurants do not offer fast foods … Nor does the quarter have tourist hotels or bazaars to sell Egyptian souvenirs.
In the past it was inhabited by well-to-do middle-class people … Life in the quarter inspired Yahya Haqqi to write the novel Qandil Umm Hashim, and al-Hakim dedicated his novel Usfur min al-Sharq to al-Sayyida Zaynab, his patron saint…
Life begins at al-Sayyida Mosque when the call for the dawn prayer is made… Wonen … enter the mosque enclosure through the small side-door on the western side of the mosque witch leads to the marble courtyard. This entrance is usually the gathering place for male and female beggars, and vendors of books of Quranic verses, copies of the Burda, incense and prayers printed in green on white paper of varying sizes.
For women, the entrance to the marble courtyard constitutes the first threshold at which they remove their shoes; they then go down two steps, where two attendants are seated to look after the shoes in return for a small fee …
If they have food to distribute, this is done in the courtyard. This usually consists of loaves of bread filled with ful es-sit garnished with salt and cumin seeds .. . The ingredients of this food offering express different levels of meaning. Bread is aysh, life. The sprouting beans express fertility, renewal and growth.
Women then enter the mosque itself from the big southern wooden doors, which are decorated with brass inscribed with Quranie verses. This constitutes the second threshold and leads to the western section of the mosque, which, during women’s hours, is separated from the rest of the mosque by a wooden partition engraved with floral designs …
To the south of this section, a big door and a narrow step lead to the shrine and constitute the third threshold. The shrine is surrounded by a Maqsura, a fence made of bronze and silver railings which surrounds the tomb and carries a dome made of wood … A sanduq al-nudhur (vows box) is placed in front of the shrine, where women may deposit money when their vows have been fulfilled.
Opposite the shrine is the western window which illuminates both the shrine and the Quranic inscriptions on it, notably the verse on ‘divine light’ (Quran, 24:34). The shrine has a door which is opened the day before the Mawlid begins, so that the white cloth covering the tomb may be replaced by a new one. On this occasion, important women visitors may be allowed in, so that they may participate in the blessings of al-Sayyida …
A second sanduq al-nudhur is placed to the south of this section of the mosque. Both men and women have access to this box, where they deposit their donation…
Women visitors to the mosque come from different locations for different reasons, Women who visit al-Sayyida on ordinary days – usually live nearby, or come from the provinces that are close to Cairo …When women have read the Fatiha at the shrine, they may also perform the prayers of teheyet al-masjid, which is composed of two prostrations to show respect for the mosque as a place of worship.
Afterwards they are free to do what they like. If they are literate, they may sit down on the floor to read the Quran … Those who are illiterate may ask a literate woman to tend a particular chapter of the Quran to them …
Pilgrims to al-Sayyida, who have to travel from distant parts of Egypt, and take the trouble of leaving their homes and families behind, paying travel fares and suffering stress on their Journeys, make these sacrifices only for the serious purpose of making a vow and asking al-Sayn’ida for her mediation, or to honour al-Sayyida because a vow has been fulfilled,
To accomplish their mission, they perform the rituals meticulously … The different stages leading to their presence at al-Savyida’s shrine are marked by the performance of rituals which indicate their respect, love and humility. Ablution is performed outside the mosque, and food is distributed at the entrance to the courtyard … They then kiss the threshold which leads to the mosque When they reach the threshold leading to the shrine, they also kiss it ….
They knock on the wall before they enter the section of the mosque containing the shrine, as they would knock on any door in everyday life. As soon as they glimpse the shrine, they ululate. This is a thrill sound produced by wagging the tongue very quick1y and is an essential part of celebrating happy occasions …
Women ululate at the shrine to express their joy at having arrived safely after a long journey to greet heir mother. They hold the railings of the shrine, while, as custom demands, they recite the Fatiha to al-Sayyida, hoping that this opening chapter of the Quran will make her also ‘open up’ to them …
In their appeals, women refer to al-Sayvida as Ammaha or Ummi or Mama, expressing their need for her motherly attention. They also address her saying, ‘Umm Hashim, wake up, do not sleep’, and ‘Umm Hashim, give me a nazra (lookf, which is another way of asking her to keep an eye on them. Some women address her in heart-rending terms. For instance … a simple woman from the country was appealing to al-Sayyida as follows:
O God, heal us, make us recover from the illness from which we suffer: O God, O God, take away the ahe from our heads, take away the weariness from our hearts for the sake of the Prophet, for the sake of Sedna al-Husayn. You, whose grandfather is the Prophet, O Sit (Lady) give us a look! …
Another woman from the country was making the following invocation:
O Sit, – be kind to me, and to everyone who is ill. I want to look after my children. Please God, please God, strengthen me so that I can look after them. Please God, guide me, You who are light upon light … May God praise the Prophet May God praise the
Prophet. My beloved al-Sayyida, for the sake of the Prophet, give me a look! May the Prophet be praised?’
When women have completed their rituals at the shrine, and have put donations in the vows box, they bid al-Sayyida farewell, while holding the railings of the shrine, and pointing a hand towards the tomb in order to ensure communication with her. Then they put that hand on their hand on the way out, or else, to simulate shaking hands with her, they hold the silver handle of the door of the shrine, and afterwards walk backwards until they have reached the threshold leading to the entrance of this section of the mosque.
In contrast to women’s behaviour at al-Sayyida’s shrine, where solemn rituals are performed the courtyard … is a place where women socialise, female beggars gather and children play …
Women who come for picnics with their relatives and friends first visit the shrine to recite the Fatiha for al-Sayyida, then leave the shrine and go into the courtyard. They may sit on the marble floor and spread out an old newspaper or a piece of cloth to put their food on . . . The food they bring with them may be chicken, fish, menbar, snuffed vine leaves, stuffed cabbage, spaghetti, boiled eggs, olives, cheese and lettuce.
Part of the women’s activities in the marble courtyard is to console, advise and support one another. They also contribute to maintaining standards of behaviour at the shrine. They criticise those who deviate from established rules of conduct, and instruct them in the correct ones …
Women must leave the courtyard and the women’s section of the mosque before the Maghreb (sunset) prayers. Women, who have a long way to go, leave shortly after they have had their picnic. This gives them just enough time to negotiate their way back home in the pandemonium that reigns in the streets of Cairo.
When the mosque gets quieter, the courtyard is swept and with the sun softer, everything is bathed in a golden glow The courtyard is then pleasing and has a calming effect. It is at this time that regular devotees of al-Sayyida. who live nearby in the quarter, come for their daily visits …
Most of al-Sayyida’s regular devotees are widows or single women; they are friends … They come to meet and exchange news … Some of them say that the purpose of their visits is to ‘serve’ their mother …This Khidma (service), however, is remunerated by donations from the visitors of the shrine. As part of their service, they sweep the floor of the women’s section and clean the silver work surrounding al—Sayyida’s tomb with rose-water.
Afterwards, water mixed with distilled orange blossom is distributed to all women present; this is followed by the distribution of fresh mint which symbolises fertility and growth …
- adorned – decorated
- boutiques –a small shop selling clothes and related items
- exclusively – consisting only of
- imposing – impressive, standing out
- middle-class – people who are neither very rich nor poor; for example, those who own businesses or are professionals
- patisseries – a shop where pastries are made and sold
- patron-saint – the protecting or guiding saint of a person
- poultry- chickens and other domestic fowls as sources of food
- pulses – food such as chickpeas, lentils, and beans
- quarter– a part of a town or city
- revival – the giving of new life or energy
- self-sufficient – able to supply its needs; independent
- souvenirs – objects acting as reminders of a place
- ablution – the act of cleansing the body before prayer
- ammaha, ummi, mama – words for addressing one’s mother
- Fatiha – The opening verses of the Quran
- loral – referring to flowers
- ful es-sit – Egyptian broad beans that have been boiled
- garnished – spiced, made tastier
- handicapped – suffering from a physical or mental disability
- heart-rendering – very distressing: causing deep sadness
- inscriptions – words
- invocation – prayer for help
- literate -able to read, educated
- mediation – help, assistance
- meticulously — very carefully
- oppressed – people suffering from cruel treatment or injustice
- partition -a wall or panel separating two areas
- simulate – pretend, imitate
- threshold – entrance. boundary between two areas
- ululate – make e shrill, vibrating sound with the mouth
- vendors -sellers, traders
- vows – solemn promises
- weariness – tiredness
- console – comfort
- deviate – turn aside; depart from
- devotees – devoted followers
- distilled orange blossom- the essence or liquid extracted from orange flowers
- pandemonium – noise, confusion
- remunerated- paid for services given
- socialise – interact with ethers; mix socially
Reflecting on the text
In which kind of area in Cairo is the mosque of al-Sayyida Zaynab located? What kinds of shops and facilities can be found in this area?
Describe the main parts of the shrine. What are they used for?
What kind of people are to be found at the entrance which leads into the marble courtyard?
What three thresholds have to be crossed in order to enter the shrine?
Describe in your own words some of the rituals that the women perform at the Shrine. What meanings do they give to these rituals?
Why do you think the women visit the shrine? What do their prayers tell us about how they view al-Sayyida Zaynab?
How is the shrine maintained? How might the donations be used for this purpose?
What are some of the roles that the shrine has for the different types of people described in the account?
Between the human and the divine
Shrines of holy people can be viewed as sacred places that mediate between the human and the divine. The believers who use these places seek intercession and mediation as a means of asking for God’s forgiveness, guidance and help. They call upon the name of a saint or holy person no intercede on behalf of them.
Intercession is an important concept in all religious traditions. Many people do not feel they are able to approach God directly. The gulf between God and human beings for, such people is too vast. They feel they are able to approach God directly. The gulf between God and human being for such people is too vast. They feel a need for a human form of mediation to which they can relate. This kind of mediation helps to make their relationship to God more personal, instead of remote and abstract.
In the account we have read, al-Sayyida provides this human interface to Egyptian women. They call her with fondness as ‘mother’ because they feel a special nearness to her. It is this closeness that makes them offer their prayers to God with deep feelings.
How are sacred spaces viewed as source of hope and support in Muslim communities?
WORDS TO LOOK UP
7th century: Al-Sayyida Zaynab, the sister of Imam Husayn.
Find out more about the members of the Ahl al-bayt in Prophet’s time, and their relation to one another.
Find out more about the role of shrines in different religious traditions. What kinds of religious practices are performed in these places?
What role does intercession have in your faith tradition? How do the religious practices of your community reflect this aspect?
diversity. In the central Friday mosque of a city, Muslims of different backgrounds pray together. Local mosques in towns and cities cater to different Sunni groups, depending on their religious orientation and their cultural background. Sufi tariqas gather at khanqahs, ribats, tekkes and zawiyas where they practise dhikr. lthna Asharis Shias have lmambargahs and huseynbaras where they commemorate the tragedy of Karbala during the month of Muharram, while Ismaili Shias come together as a community at jamatkhanas.
The imambargah of the Shia Ithna Asharis
As Muslim communities expand or migrate, new places of worship are built. In recent decades, many Muslim communities have settled in North America and Europe. In the towns and cities in these regions, Muslim communities have built or set up their own places of worship. In many places, the migrant communities have had to make use of existing school halls, community centres, churches and other facilities. In some cases, new buildings have been constructed by the communities in these environments.
In the following account, we read a description of an imambargah built in Toronto by the lthna Ashari Shia community. We discover some of the features in the imambargah which give it a Shia identity. We also find out the role it plays in commemorating the tragedy of Karbala. The account helps as to reflect on the sense of continuity and identity a space of worship provides to a community.
The foundation stone of the Jaffari Centre was laid on the day of Ghadir Khumm. For Shia Muslims, this day marks the event when Prophet Muhammad, at Allah’s command, appointed Imam Ali as the first mawla (lord) of the believers.
The Jaffari centre is located among other places of worship, including a Chinese Buddhist temple and a Jewish synagogue. Both of these places provide extra parking for the centre during Muharram.
On its main level, the centre contains a large hall for majlis and a masjid. At the end of the hall, there is a large archway connected to a sky lighted alcove. This archway forms an open boundary between the hall and the masjid. Upstairs are a library and a large room for women with children.
The importance of sacred names and words is reflected throughout the building. The majlis hall is flanked on one wall by ten arches with stained glass. The rear wall contains four more arches. On top of each arch is inscribed the word ‘Allah’, and one of the names of the fourteen masumin. The masumin (those protected from error) consist of Prophet Muhammad, Hazrat Fatima, and the twelve Imams of the Ithna Asharis.
Ornate pieces of Arabic calligraphy decorate various parts of the centre. At the mihrab, there is a piece containing many of the ninety-nine names of God. In the hall itself on either side of the archway leading to the masjid, here are two large pieces of calligraphy. One depicts the hadith in winch the Prophet designated Imam All as his successor. The other is a Quranic verse that is said to refer to Imam Husayn.
All these objects serve to remind believers of their allegiance to the ahl-bayt. The physical features of building constantly refer to Karbala, Karbala is always present within imambargah. During the first ten days of Muharram, the presence of Karbala is strengthened through the performance of devotional rituals.
Large crowds of people come to the centre for the Muharram activities. As many as three thousand people may attend on Ashura day on the tenth of Muharram. They come to take part in the religious performance called majlis, when they remember and mourn the deaths of Imam Husayn and his family at Karbala.
The people assemble in the majlis hall. Immediately before the actual majlis, poetry (marthiya) recalling the deeds of Imam Husayn is recited in Urdu. The zakir, or person who delivers the majlis, sits upon the mimber. The mimber is a wooden staircase of about six or seven steps that serves as a pulpit near the qibla.
The last portion of the majlis is the gham, in which the story of the sufferings of the Prophet’s family is recited. During each of the first ten days of Muharram, the zakir relates one specific incident that took place at the battle of Karbala. For many people, the gham is the most important part of the majlis.
On the last four days of these rituals, a small procession takes place within the imambargah. Symbols that reflect the stories of the martyrs of Karbala are carried through the crowd in the majlis hall, such as a standard bearing the five-fingered Fatimid hand. This standard stands for the five members of the Ahl al-bayt.
The ceremonies conclude with the whole community taking part in the sharing of food and drink before the people disperse.
- allegiance – loyalty
- designated – appointed
- disperse – depart; go in different directions
- flanked – placed on bath sides
- martyrs – people who have suffered or died for a cause in which they believe
- masjid – place of prayer
- mehrab – a niche in a wall indicating the direction at Mecca
- monetary – to do with money
- mourn – express deep sorrow for the dead
- ornate – highly decorated
- pulpit – place from where a religious talk is delivered
- qibla – the direction at Mecca
- skylighted alcove – a space or niche in the ceiling that opens to the sky
- stained glass – dyed or coloured glass
- standard – an upright support
- synagogue – Jewish place of worship
Reflecting on the text
What is the Jaffari centre, and how has its architecture been designed?
When was the foundation stone of the centre laid? Why is this date important to the community?
What are the main parts of the centre and for what are they used?
What are some of the ceremonies that take place in the centre during Muharram? What is the significance of these ceremonies?
How does the centre help to create a sense of community among the Ithna Ashari Shias of Toronto?
How is it used to create a sense of continuity with the community’s past?
Places and meaning
How religious communities perceive space and the meanings they give to certain places, form an important part of their religious beliefs and practices. Rivers, mountains, caves, even places in a crowded city can all become sites of meaning. The sacred reveals itself to human beings in all kinds of places.
How do places of worship act as centres of continuity and tradition for Muslim communities?
WORDS TO LOOK UP
7th century: The battle of Karbala in the year 580 CE.
Places of worship are to do with both the here and the hereafter. Discuss why each of these aspects is important to religious communities. How do places of worship act as a bridge between these two aspects?
The Sunni and Shia Muslims had their own mosques, and within each
of these branches, there were further divisions. For example, within the Sunnis, the Hanafis and the Shafiis attended separate mosques. Special places of prayer also emerged that were used by the different orders or tariqas of the Sufis. These places were known as khanqahs, zawiyas, rjbats and tekkes, depending on where the Sufi groups were located. The Sufi groups practised their tariqa in their places of worship. Only those people who had given their baya (oath of allegiance) to the shaykh or pir of a tariqa were allowed to participate in
the rituals performed in a Sufi place of gathering. These places were used for following a spiritual discipline that required a life-long commitment on the part of the murids to their shaykh or pir. In the modern age, the diversity of places of worship among Muslim communities has increased. They reflect the variety of interpretations of Islam that are upheld by these communities.
Ismaili Jamat Khanas
In the following account, we read passages from a speech made by Mawlana Shah Karim al-Husayni, the 49th and present Imam of the Ismaili community. This speech was delivered by the Imam at the opening of the Ismaili Jaunatkhana and Centre in Houston, USA, in 2002. In his speech, the Imam emphasises the role of the jamatkhana as a place of peace and prayer, of search and enlightenment.
A place of search and enlightenment
… It is a great pleasure to be here to day to welcome one and all to the inauguration of the Ismaili Jamatkhana and center at Houston.
Islam does not deal in dichotomies but in all encompassing unity. Spirit and body are one, man and nature are one. What is more, man is answerable to God for what man has created. Since all that we see and do resonates on the faith, the aesthetics of the environments we build, and the quality of the interactions that take place within them, reverberate on our spiritual lives.
As the leader of a Muslim community, and particularly one that now resides in twenty five countries in four, the physical representation of Islamic values is particularly important to me. It should reflect who we are in terms of our beliefs, our cultural heritage, and our relation to the needs and contexts in which we live in today’s world.
But this is a very important finding in itself. It shows that trying to establish a norm would be counter productive, because it would stifle that strength which comes from the diversity and pluralism of Muslim societies, past and present, and the creativity of those who will build around us in the years ahead. Unfortunately, there arc forces at work in the Islamic world that seeks to establish just such a norm. This makes it all the more important that we strive to counter such efforts by employing all the means of intellectual discourse – research, discussion, celebration of innovative projects, and the commissioning of freshly conceived, but well researched, new buildings.
As Shia Muslims. the Isnailis are united by their recognition of Prophet Muhammad’s appointment of his cousin and son-in-law Hazrat Ali, as the first Imam, and his declaration entrusting his authority to his progeny through Hazrat Ali and his wife Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter.
In 1957, 1 was still a student at Harvard when I inherited the responsibilities of the Ismaili Imamat from my grandfather, Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah. It seemed inconceivable then that there would ever be substantial communities in the West, The Ismailis were too deeply rooted in their ancestral homes, indeed frozen there by the cold war in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
But dislocations in the wake of decolonialisation, and more recently the collapse of the Soviet Union and the prolonged difficulties in Afghanistan, have caused a number of Ismailis to seek new lands and homes. These migratory movements over the last half century have resulted in a substantial Ismaili presence in Russia, in Western Europe, the United Kingdom and Portugal, and particularly in the United States and Canada.
In these settings, Ismailis have found themselves rejoicing with new opportunities, but also confronted by new challenges. Bolstered by a long tradition of self-reliance, and a strong system of community organisations, Ismailis have established themselves quickly as productive members of society in their new homelands …
The Center will be a place of peace, humility, reflection and prayer. It will be a place of search and enlightenment, not of anger and of obscurantism. It will be a center which will seek to bond men and women of this pluralist country, to replace their fragility in their narrow spheres, by the strength of civilised society bound together by a common destiny It is already a symbol of the hopes of people who lived through change and turbulence, and have ultimately found security and opportunity here in the United States, the majority of whom have chosen the State of Texas.
Thank you for sharing this important occasion with us.
- aesthetics – referring to beauty
- commissioning- ordering of a building to tee constructed
- conceived – thought, planned, expressed
- contemporary- modern
- counter-productive – not useful; having the opposite effect of ‘chat is desired
- dichotomies – divisions into two parts
- eminent, distinguished- of high standing, famous
- encompassing – surrounding
- ethics – moral principles
- inauguration – opening
- norm – model, standard, rule
- representation – giving form to
- resonates – reflects
- reverberate – echo
- seminars – conferences, meetings
- stifle – suppress, kill
- wrestle – struggle hard
- ancestral – related to one’s ancestors
- affirms – states strongly
- bolstered – strengthened
- bond – bring together
- clarity – clear guidance
- comprises – is made up of
- confronted by – faced by
- congregation – people gathered for prayer
- decolonisation – the end of colonial rule
- dislocations – shifts or displacements from one’s place of living
- entrusting – giving responsibility to a person whom one trusts
- fragility – weakness
- inconceivable – unthinkable
- in the wake of – following
- multiplicity — a great number
- nine eleven – the attacks that took place in USA on 11 September 2001
- obscurantism – opposition to knowledge and progress
- productive – producing or contributing much
- progeny- descendants
- prolonged – lengthy
- scarred – wounded, injured
- self-reliance – relying on one’s own resources
- substantial – of large size
- turbulence – disturbance, difficulties
Reflecting on the speech
Where is the new jamatkhana located and when was it opened?
What instructions were given to the architects about the design of the building? What two aspects needed to be balanced?
What aspects does the Iman wish to see reflected in the ‘physical representation of Islamic values’?
Why is there no single definition of Islamic architecture? What does this reveal about the Muslim world?
What observations does the Imam make about the Ismaili community? What recent events have had an impact on their choice of places of settlement? How does the Imam describe the role of the jamatkhana?
What are the key messages that the Imam stresses in his inauguration speech?
Places of worship in religious communities often serve multiple functions. Their main use may be related to prayer and the performance of practices. They may also serve a wide range of other functions.
One of the common uses of places of worship is for education. Religious education may be provided here, as well as information relevant to the community. In some centres, communities may organise exhibitions, conferences and workshops.
Places of prayer may also be used for social purposes. They provide a meeting place where people can come together. Such spaces may be used for celebrations, such as religious festivals and weddings.
Places of worship may also be used for fund-raising within the community These fends may be for humanitarian projects, such as the assisting of people in need who suffer from poverty, illness, lack of food or shelter, or other basic necessities. The funds may also support community-related projects, such as the building and upkeep of places of worship, schools, and hospitals.
How can places of worship act as symbols of respect and tolerance between traditions?
WORDS TO LOOK UP
Find out some of the ways in which places of prayer are used as means of creating greater understanding between people of different traditions.
Places of worship are important symbols of the traditions of different communities that need to be respected.
1.1 Chaos and cosmos
- What are some of the ways in which space is represented in religious traditions?
- How is sacred space understood by believers of a religious community?
- What do we learn from the example of the Sufi lodge of Ghamkol Sharif about how space becomes sacred to a community?
- What does this example teach us about the relation between space and the faith of believers?
- How would you describe sacred space in your own words?
1.2 Spaces of hope
- Why are shrines, tombs and mausoleums important to some religious communities?
- What kind of religious practices are performed in places?
- What do we learn from the example of the mosque of al-Sayyida Zaynab about the role of sacred spaces?
- What meaning do the women give to the practices they perform in the mosque?
- What do you understand by the term intercession? What place is given to intercession in religious traditions?
1.3 Community and continuity
- In what ways do places of worship act as spaces for communities?
- How do places of worship help communities to express their tradition and beliefs?
- How does the imambargah of the Ithna Ashari community reflect the Shia tradition and their continuity with their past?
- Why do the Ithna Ashari community connect the imambargah with Karbala?
- What do we learn from, this example about the relation between place and meaning?
1.44 Centres of tradition and tolerance
- In the past, how have religious communities viewed places of worship of traditions other than their own?
- What kinds of issues do we find today that concern the relation between communities and places of worship?
- What are some important messages we find in the speech of Imam Shah Karim about the role of the jamatkhana for the Ismailis?
- How can places of worship act as centres of tolerance, respect and understanding among communities in the modern world?
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