Historical Overview of the Shrine of Imam Hussein



Every architectural work is symbolic in a way. What matters is not the structural affiliation; whether it is a mosque, home, school, state capital, or a bank, there is always a particular function, other than just utilitarian. Carlsen (1982) points out that built environments have an attachment that is beyond them. According to Ajami (2007), they are a mirror of the tradition behind them and with time, such environments help in shaping the custom of a given area. For example, hospitals have a particular role within the healthcare culture just like schools do in the culture of education. In the light of this, Ajami (2007) agrees that religious architecture does not have any difference from other forms of structural surroundings apart from when accessed from the viewpoint of their species. As such, any religious structure, be it an auditorium, shrine, temple mosque, synagogue, or a church, reflects the spiritual narratives held by given religious groups. These buildings shape and nourish different cultures they are affiliated to. Even though religions are diverse in their culture, every one of them has a way of providing hope, inspiration, and guidelines. Besides, architectural buildings assist human beings to remember events within their life-cycle. This research paper about the historical overview of the Imam Hussein Shrine, which according to the Islamic culture serves as a spiritual and historical structure. In the analysis of the overview, the paper targets at establishing the roles that the Shrine of Imam Hussein plays within the Muslim culture, its significance, and design, as well as the general understanding of why it is the way it is presently.

Origin and History of the Imam Hussein Shrine

The Imam Hussein Shrine is an example of an architectural expression that cannot go without recognition (Carlsen, 1982). This shrine is among the oldest mosques known on the face of the earth. It is located in Karbala city in Iraq. Its location is strategic in that it was built on Hussein ibn Ali’s gravesite. According to Muslims’ faith, Hussein is Muhammad’s grandson. In fact, Hussein is number two on the list of Muhammad’s grandsons. The Imam Hussein Shrine was constructed after the battle of Karbala. Prophet Muhammad, according to Islam, died in 632 AD. According to Ajami, (2007) after the death of Prophet Muhammad, there was a heated debate that led to a conflict among the Muslim faithful regarding the succession of Prophet Muhammad as the Islam leader.

According to the Shiites, the leader should come from one of the descendants of the deceased prophet. However, just as the Sunnis pointed out, it was the duty of the community to identify one person within the community who would take over from Prophet Muhammad (Carlsen, 1982). The succession issue between the Sunnis and the Shiites became so complex that Islam broke into two factions: the present-day Shi’a and Sunni. As the conflict intensified, the two groups engaged in a fight that was known as the battle of Karbala. It was during that battle that Imam Hussein died alongside several followers. The Imam’s tomb has since become a pilgrimage site since according to Islam it is a holy place. Research shows that extreme devotees believe that any pilgrimage to the Imam Hussein Shrine can be compared to Hajj (Melton, 2008). The shrine was built in Karbala city that is considered a significant city in the Islamic faith.

The Shrine of Imam Hussein holds significant historical importance to the Shias and the Sunnis. However, the structure is more important to Shia Islam as it acts as a symbol from which their faith originated (Melton & Baumann, 2010). The death of Prophet Muhammad and the killing of Imam Hussein are two events that led to the appearance of Imam Hussein’s Shrine. As such, the shrine not only serves as a center for worship but also a remembrance of the roots of Shia Islam. According to research, it is evident that Shia Islam includes all Muslims who diverted from the Sunnis. The Shia Islam thus can be traced back to the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. The Islam institution is the Imamate, which takes into consideration the notion that anybody succeeding Muhammad ought to exude some characteristics in addition to being a political leader. The Imam ought to also have a strong spiritual background. The implication is that the chosen successor should be able to understand deeply the teachings of sharia and Quran as well as interpret them (Melton, 2008).

The invasion of Iraq by Kuwait in 1990 saw thousands of Muslim pilgrims enter Amman. They had been caught up in the invasion while on a holy journey to the holy shrines of Karbala and Najaf. When the war ended in 1991, several shrines had been destructed. Several enemies had attempted to destroy the shrine of Imam Ali because of the enclosure of the cleric Muqtada as-Sadr’s al-Mahdi militia. The Shiat-Ali did not agree with the Umayyad and, therefore, they developed their own doctrine based on protest and piety, whereby they swore not to agree with the Umayyad caliphs. The Shiat-Ali considered that their real leader in line with the Muslim question was any descendant of Ali. As a result, they chose Hussein as the successor of Prophet Muhammad. However, Hussein Ali was killed alongside his 72 followers by the army sent by Umayyad Caliph Yazid. This army murdered Hussein Ali and several of his followers in the city of Karbala.

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The killing of Imam Hussein Ali and his followers have since been the reason for remembrance. The killing of Hussein Ali is a symbol among the Shiites that represents crucial injustice that faces human life. Since then, Muslims have never agreed on the Caliphs. For example, the Shiites have no recognition for the initial three Caliphs. According (Melton & Baumann, 2010), Ali was the only one who was in the right position as Caliph and Imam. The Imam Hussein’s Shrine which was built to show respect to Imam Hussein serves as a reminder of the embedment of religious and political separation in the Muslim community.

The Significance of Karbala City to the Imam Hussein Shrine

Karbala city is about a hundred kilometers to the south of Baghdad. The city of Karbala did not have any spiritual or economic significance, to begin with, apart from being desolate. In fact, research establishes that Karbala was initially uninhabited without any constructional activities (Melton & Baumann, 2010). Since the Karbala Battle, Hussein’s death represents a tremendously powerful sign of religious liberation from suffering and oppression. That is why the tomb is celebrated to date. In 684 AD on top of Hussein’s tomb, a mosque was erected. Even though several tombs were built later, the original mosque is the only one that is so symbolic among the faithful of Islam. However, the initial mosque that was built on Hussein’s tomb was enlarged in size with the help of a dome but it suffered destruction in 787. Later, at around 977, Hussein’s sepulcher was erected, made from teak wood. It was at Imam Hussein’s inquiry of what the name of the city meant that someone said it meant Aqr that translates to ‘harsh’. After such a response, the Imam pointed: “we seek refuge from Al Aqr (Melton, 2008). On enquiring about the village’s name and finding that it was called Karbala, Imam Hussein named it the land of “torture and trial”. However, concerning the Shia’s faith, Muhammad received a complete narration of what Karbala means from Archangel Gabriel (Melton & Baumann, 2010). According to their belief, Karbala refers to the land destined to cause numerous afflictions and agonies. This city holds not only the grave of Imam Hussein but also those of his followers murdered alongside Hussein.

Presently, on top of Imam Hussein’s tomb, there stands a mosque that was erected by reconstructing the original walls of the first mosque and the dome. The image below shows Imam Hussein’s Shrine before it was renovated.

Shrine’s Design and Style

The construction of the Imam Hussein’s Shrine was initiated by Al-Mukhtar ibn Abu Ubaidah al-Thaqafi early in 684 by building an enclosure that surrounded the grave of Imam Hussein. The structure followed the architectural type of a mosque with a dome on top of the grave. Initially, the structure had two entrances. However, after the construction of a rooftop during Abul-Abbas al-Saffah, two more other entrances were included. Next to the top of the grave, there was an iron pillar which was a symbol for the pilgrims.

The shrine has attracted a lot of significance in the Muslim tradition as a result of the killing of Imam Hussein Ali alongside his followers. Several traditions among the Muslim society explain the origin and status of Karbala and Imam Hussein Ali. For example, according to Abu Huraira’s narration, Prophet Muhammad had declared war on anyone who would fight with Ali and his descendants, Imam Hussein among them. Besides, it is believed that the messenger of Allah had declared that Hussein was from him. As such, the shrine that was built in the honor of Hussein was a significant part of the Muslim faith since it acted as a link between the people and Allah. Apart from the shrine being a link to the Muslim faith, the Imam Hussein Shrine has several roles in this society all over the world. Outlined below are some of the roles played by Imam Hussein’s Shrine (Melton & Baumann, 2010).

Political, Spiritual and Economic Significance of Imam Hussein Shrine

The Shrine of Imam Hussein has several roles within the culture of Islam. The following are several areas where Imam Hussein’s Shrine is highly significant.

Center of Evolution of Early Islam into Shiite

After the shrine was erected, many Muslims went on pilgrimage to the city of Karbala since the city was considered a holy place for prayers. According to research, the ghulat groups gradually increased around the city of Karbala. Millions of people came on pilgrimage to the city and precisely to the Imam Hussein Shrine. On Arabs’ arrival to the Fertile Crescent, what they found was a city that had civilized citizens and religious systems that were sophisticated. At that time Iraq was known for its intense religious ferment. The Ghulat group adopted the family of Ali while the Shiite of Ali held a lot of suspicion on the ghulat. However, with time Ali’s family was considered a cultic significance in the Islam faith following the martyrdom of Imam Hussein Ali as well as the pathos of that time. It was the cultic significance that restored the Shiite back into a form of orientation based on religion. As such, it would appear that the shrine was the center for the evolution of Islam into Shiite.

However, the Sunnis on the other hand, view the Imam Hussein Shrine and the city of Karbala as such that are carrying potential threats. As a result, most Sunni rulers including Saddam Hussein barred people from going on pilgrimage to the shrine or even visiting the city of Karbala with intent to pray or commemorate the death of Imam Hussein. This explains why the shrine was damaged severely after reconstruction.

Imam Hussein’s Shrine: A Center for Pilgrimage

Many people since the death of Imam Hussein Ali along with his followers have been devoted to commemorating his death. Hussein Ali is considered an Imam who sacrificed his life for his religion. As such, Imam Hussein’s Shrine was built in his honor. According to the religious faith of Islam, the city of Karbala and the tomb where Imam Hussein Ali was buried are holy places. Numerous people visit this area for remembrance. The people on pilgrimage devote themselves entirely to the commemoration of the death of Imam Hussein (Agrama, 2010).

The theme of devotion is always associated with the symbol that Hussein Ali redeemed his people from liberation and suffering. During such devotions at the shrine of Imam Hussein, the pilgrims sing all sorts of sad songs, laments, and publicly express grief and reenactment of the Imam’s murder. According to the Shiites, Ashura is considered an important day for a visit to the Imam Hussein Shrine. Ashura is celebrated every January according to the western calendar. This day was adopted as a time to remember the martyrdom of Hussein Ali. The Shiites during the Ashura holiday carry out bloody reenactments as well as public mourning in remembrance of the battle of Karbala. Besides, Imam Hussein’s Shrine is considered the right place for the elderly to die in.

The Muslims see the shrine as the heavenly gate. The elderly people, therefore, come here to die hoping that they will be united with Imam Ali upon their death.

Important Timelines for Imam Hussein’s Shrine

After the murder of Imam Hussein Ali, he was buried in the city of Karbala with a few but special constructions over his grave (Agrama, 2010). However, bigger and much higher structuring began later during the reign of al-Saffah though it was affected by a lot of opposition from the enemies of descendants of Ali. History has had some important dates concerning its buildup, development as well as reconstruction to its present date. Some of these dates have been considered to be highly important in the city of Karbala.

Outlined below are several such dates that are historically, politically, and spiritually significant to the faith of Islam.

  • October 10 680

According to history, this was the day when Hussein Ali was buried. When Ahl at Bait left, Bani Asad made an assembly at Imam Hussein’s grave. He then constructed a tent on top of the Imam’s grave while his Sheikh lit a candle at the gravesite. The candle according to the Islamic faith was a sign of liberation for a better future. Just some distance from the grave’s head, the Sheikh planted a berry tree, which was to be used as an indication of Imam Hussein Ali’s grave.

  • 684 CE

Mukhtar ibn Abu ‘Ubad at-Thaqafi erected a shrine on top of the grave of Imam Hussein. The structure followed the design of a mosque. Mukhtar also planted a green flag over the dome along with settling some families around the dome’s enclosure.

  • 787 CE

Destruction of the mausoleum and the cutting of the berry tree were carried out under the leadership of Caliph Harun ar-Rashid. Despite this destruction, people still visited Imam Hussein’s Shrine following tracks of the berry tree. When Harun realized that people still visited the gravesite, he gave the order for total uprooting of the tree which signified the gravesite of Imam Hussein Ali.

  • 808 CE

This date marks the reconstruction of the Imam Hussein shrine. The reconstruction was done as an advantage over Al-Amin. However, it was destroyed later in 850 CE with the grave of Imam Hussein plowed. Research has established that the shrine of Imam Hussein Ali has a record of four-time destruction since 232.

  • 861 CE

The shrine of Imam Hussein Ali was reconstructed by Caliph al-Muntasir with an inclusion of an iron pillar. A roof was also erected at the graveside. Caliphal-Muntasir also ordered the construction of several houses within the surrounding area of the shrine.

However, the Mausoleum was destroyed again in 886 CE by the council of Alid and rebuilt in 893 CE adding two entrances and minarets on the grave’s sides. However, it was destroyed by fire in 1016 CE.

The structure was rebuilt again by the vizier Hasan ibn Fadi and an-Nasir li-Din Allah renovated the sepulcher in 1223. Ever since the shrine of Imam Hussein Ali has been experiencing numerous attacks geared towards demolishing the shrine. As a rule, the attackers do not want the shrine to continue its spiritual and political significance in the Muslim community. Even though such attacks have been there, those who know the importance of the shrine in the history of Islam and Shiites have always repaired it to maintain that spiritual appeal exuded by the shrine. For example, the recent development for the shrine of Imam Hussein Ali was initiated in December 2007 following the January 5th, 2006 suicide bombing. In 2012, a roof was constructed that covered the whole shrine’s courtyard.

This roof was constructed to take care of the pilgrims who increase with each year.

The building of the shrine of Imam Hussein Ali, as stated above, followed the design of a mosque with two domes. In building this structure the main emphasis was put on the fact that it was to serve as a remembrance of the killing of a Muslim leader alongside his followers. The people affiliated with the descendants of Ali were grateful for the shrine since it bears spiritual significance. According to the Muslim faith, the successor of Prophet Muhammad was supposed to be both a political and a spiritual leader (Ahmad, 2003). Therefore, politically, the shrine of Imam Hussein signified the readiness of a political leader to die on behalf of his people. However, their enemies were not happy with the erection of the shrine. This dissatisfaction explains why Imam Hussein’s Shrine was constantly at risk of demolition.

Evidently, the shrine of Imam Hussein is not only a historical structure but also a spiritual one marking the liberation of the Muslim community. The present form and shape of the shrine are the result of the many reconstructions and renovations that have been done on it. They followed the continuous attacks from the enemies of Imam Ali’s descendants. The shrine, therefore, is seen as a place where people come to worship and remember the martyrdom of Imam Hussein Ali. Because of the historical background of Imam Hussein’s Shrine, one would be forced to think of the sacrifices that some leaders make in the name of their religious faith. Hussein Ali is an example of a spiritual and political leader who is ready to protect their subjects against persecution to the extent of sacrificing their lives (Agrama, 2010). Such is the sign that the Shrine of Imam Hussein has to the Islamic faith.

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