Memorializing is a powerful and essential com- ponent of all religious traditions that focuses the memories, thoughts and senses of a faith’s adher- ent on the Creator, a holy person, event, place or devotional object (such as the hair and nail parings of the Prophet Muhammad, or a garment or personal effect of a pious person). Historically, holy men and women – those revered for their exemplary piety or learning or both – have been memorialized in many forms throughout the Islamic world in North Africa and Andalusia to the sub-continent and Southeast Asia from the first century of Islam to today. These figures include the prophets, the household, compa- nions and successors of the Prophet Muhammad, ascetics and mystics such as Hasan al-Basri (d.i 10/728), Rabi’a al- ‘Adawiya (d. 185/801), theologians such as imams al-Shafi’i (d. 204/820) and Abu Hanifa (d. 150/767), Sufis such as Ibn al-‘Arabi (d. 660/ 1240) and ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (d.561/ 1 166) and rulers such as Nur al-Din ibn Zengi (r.541 / 1 147569/1174) and Salah al-Din (Saladin) (r. 564/1169-589/ 1 193). The most common literary forms of memorializing include poetry, biographies, historical accounts and hagiographical collections, the most important of which are the biography of the Prophet Muhammad (Al-Sira Al-Nabawiya), Farid al-Din al-‘Attar’s (d. 61 8/1 221) Tadhkirat alAwliya ‘ (Lives of the Saints) and Abu Nu’aym al-Isfahani’s (d. 430/ 1038) HiIy at al-Awliya’ (The Necklace of the Saints) and al-Sha’rani’s (d.973/1565) al-Tabaqat al-Kubra (The Greatest Compendium).

Equally significant is the architectural setting for the memorializing process. Memory, an aspect of memorializing, can never be divorced from the physical context of the religious environment. Memory requires the emplacement of some event, a physical or symbolic link to a space or place. Simple and complex ritual acts such as pronouncing the divine blessing after the name of the Prophet, naming a mosque after a prophet or other holy person, and building a memorial over a tomb or other sacred place came to embody the active individual and collective memories of a generation, village, town, city, country and even the Umma. Ritual performances result in the emplacement of sacred space. In the mind of the believer, such places are imbued with baraka (blessing). Some examples of sacred centers of ziyara (pious visitation or pilgrimage) include the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, the remains of the house of the Prophet Muhammad in Mecca, the tombs of the Companions and Successors in the Baqi’ al-Gharqad Cemetery in Medina, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the shrines of 4AIi ibn Abi Talib (r.35/656-40/661) in Kufa, Husayn ibn ‘Ali (d. 60/680) in Karbala, and Mu’in al-Din Chisti (d.633/1236) in Ajmer, India, to name but a few examples from Islamic history. Such places are known by various names, including mosque (mosque), maqam (station), mashhad (place of witnes-sing, martyrdom), and turba (tomb), dargah (tomb) and mazar (place of pious visitation).
For the modern-day historian of Islamic civilization to discover and write that a historical source refers to the house of the Prophet in Mecca means leaving its story untold and its memory buried in the pages of history except to those scholars and “”ulama who have access to the often inaccessible written sources. Yet these sacred places are not the patrimony of books and manuscripts or of scholars and governments, but of the Umma. Documenting all known sacred sites in Islamic and non-Islamic histories is important. To that end we propose an international collaborative research project and to freely publish the results online. To restore the house of the Prophet, construct a memorial such as a museum, and to make available to visitors relevant historical accounts in a digestible and translated format means to revive the memory of that place and eternalize it. The most important memorial to the Prophet is his mosque in Medina, which also contains his holy remains. Also significant are the shrines of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib and Husayn ibn ‘Ali as well as the imams and the household of the Prophet. The onus of preserving the patrimony of the Umma rests with the ‘ulama and governments, such as Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and Iran. Jordan has successfully restored the shrines of the Companions and Successors of the Prophet and other holy sites.

Modern ideological debates have taken a stranglehold of the past and imposed themselves upon the sacred landscape. The root of the problem lies with a flawed interpretation of Muslim sacred history and the inability to distinguish between exclusivist ideologies and historical record. They are not one and the same. Humans are selective in what they choose to remember. An exclusivist ideology narrows down the choices to only one, namely that an exclusivist interpretation of the past is the only correct one and that the sources are corrupt or at least biased. Historical accounts frequently mention the efficacious qualities of holy places of ziyara: the presence of baraka, the descent of lights from heaven upon a sacred site, pleasant smells, God answering a believer’s supplication on behalf of the deceased, and the appearance of prophets and other holy persons in dreams. These occurrences frequently had a profound impact on Muslims to the extent that they often resulted in repentance, the embracing of Islam, or in the construction and endowment of mosques and shrines. These factors should give sufficient cause for reevaluating the historic role of sacred sites in Islam. One cannot simply dismiss as false the personal experiences and accounts of people from all walks of life, adherents of all schools of jurisprudence – commoners, scholars, theologians and rulers – who sought baraka from holy places.

Urban development, occupation and abject neglect brought about by dire economic circumstances are key factors that historically have contributed to the physical destruction and erasure of the holy sites and pilgrimage places from the memory of the Umma, particularly in Palestine and the Arabian Peninsula. Today, Muslims all over the world little realize the historical significance of these places and the holy persons associated with them. Perhaps, they cannot be bothered to reflect upon and ponder their importance in defining the identity of the Umma. Alternatively, the histories of the holy sites are summarily dismissed as folktales and the backward beliefs of misguided individuals and people from the past. On the contrary, they are very much signifi- cant in the present since the memory of them abides strongly in the Umma. Few of the Muslim holy sites remain that the physician Tewfik Canaan recorded in his extraordinary gazetteer of Muslim holy places in Palestine compiled during the British Mandate. The sacred has been callously and quite calculatingly transformed into the profane: roads, settlements, dwellings and tourist accommodations.
In the Hijaz, Muslim patrimony is threatened by the spread of hotels and other modern conveniences. Keeping pace with economic growth and pilgrim traffic should not result in the destruction of the sacred topography of a holy city. The house in which the Prophet Muhammad was born and where he received the Revelation prior to his emigration to Medina is just one notable example mentioned by the Saudi architectural historian Dr. Sami Angawi. One also has only to read the splendid detailed account of the journeys of Andalusian traveler Ibn Jubayr (d.614/1217) to understand that we display a lack of reverence for our sacred past. Ibn Jubayr and others mention the house of the Prophet. Reading their pages makes one feel connected to the sacred history. It was the custom of both learned and unlettered Muslims before the rise of the Wahhabi movement in the 18th century to regularly visit these sites for baraka, to contemplate death and the hereafter, and to make supplications on behalf of the deceased. Lamentably, the proponents of such frenetic building activity today cite the need for progress and modernization and more practically, the need to provide the increasing numbers of Hajj pilgrims with adequate facilities.

An equally significant factor is the fear of idolatry at such places. However, our ancestors believed that preserving the memory of such places was a duty upon the Umma. Conserving a site to memorialize it and those associated with its history does not necessarily lead to idolatry, polytheism and bid’a (heretical innovation). The ‘ulama of the seven schools of jurisprudence (the four Sunni, the Shi’i Ja’fari, Zaydi and Ibadi) are responsible for teaching the performance of proper ritual practices and reverence for holy places and preventing the occurrence of irreligious behavior. Starting in the 11th and 12th centuries, pilgrimage sites proliferated in the Islamic world due to the rise of Sufi orders and increased patronage and construction of shrines by rulers and others. Leaders such as Nur al-Din, Salah al-Din and the Mamluk Sultan Baybars (r.658/ 1260-676/ 1277) were active in repairing, building and endowing the tombs and shrines of prophets, saints and other holy persons. Not only did the rulers and their descendants endow such places, they also visited them and sought the council of holy men who were imbued with baraka borne of their exemplary learning and piety. The objection that Islamic sacred sites have in the past turned into places of idolatry or have the potential to do so ignores the role of memorializing in the lives of Muslims.

Notwithstanding the very real objections of medieval Hanbali theologians such as Ibn Taymiya (d.728/1328), Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziya (d.751/1350) and the Maliki scholar Ibn al-Hajj al-‘Abdari (d.737/1336) to Muslims converting tombs, mosques and other holy sites into places of idol worship and heretical innovation, they and other Muslim theologians throughout history have generally agreed that the primary role of sacred places, such as tombs, is to remember and supplicate God on behalf of those buried there, and to reflect upon death and the hereafter. Many Muslims have lost sight of these fundamental tenets of the faith by needlessly turning discussions of sacred sites into pointless ideological debates that demean the memory of holy persons associated with them. Somewhat ironically Ibn Taymiya’s tomb in Damascus became the object of ziyara.


The claim to history of Iraqi ascetic and preacher ‘Ali ibn Abu Bakr al-Harawi (d.61 1/1215), a little-known councilor and ambassador of Salah al-Din and his sons to the Crusaders and Byzantines, is that he produced a unique pilgrimage guide for the sacred and profane sites of the entire Muslim world and the Mediterranean. Al-Harawi’s Kitab al-Isharat Ua Ma’rifat al-Ziyarat (Guide to Pilgrimage Places, translated as A Lonely Wayfarer’s Guide to Pilgrimage) is not a conventional pilgrimage guide, but rather an aidememoire. His work is a meditation on place; he visited many of the sites he mentions and preserved the memories and oral and written traditions concerning these places at a pivotal moment in history when the Crusaders effaced, destroyed and desecrated a number of Muslim shrines in the Holy Land and geographical Syria. Indeed, it may be said that were it not for al-Harawi’s work, mention of many of the pilgrimage places of the Islamic world would have been unknown from other sources.

Like his predecessors, al-Harawi was keenly aware that humans often act irreverently by abandoning and neglecting sacred places. Throughout his guide he reflects on this theme. He states:

In most of these places, I did not see what they mentioned; no doubt their tombs were obliterated, their traces wiped out and their graves allowed to fade from memory. Yet the memory of themselves remained, and the one who visits their sites does so out of sincere intention and genuine belief. The chroniclers mentioned other lands, places and itineraries that are now unknown because of the passing years and changing times.

More precisely, the Kitab al-Isharat represents, at its core, the mental map of an octogenarian that combines the physical with the symbolic and draws upon the earliest traditions concerning the burial places of the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, martyrs and the first generations of Islam. It is also a map of fragmented memories with a clearly delineated geographical order. Such an order does not necessarily indicate itineraries that al-Harawi may have traveled either within or outside of a given locality. Moreover, the guide does not indicate journey times or distances between places. The historian Ibn al-Wardi reports that alHarawi’s tomb was built in the semblance of the Ka’ba, perhaps as a visual reminder of the significance the Holy Mosque played in the sacred history of the Umma and in order to remind visitors of their duty to perform the Hajj.

The preservation of sacred sites of historical importance to the Umma is a duty upon individuals, governments and international organizations concerned with the patrimony of the Islamic world and humanity.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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