A Brief Glance at Ziyarat in History

A Brief Glance at Ziyarat in History

Vinay Khetia

The martyrdom of Imam al-Husayn b. Ali (A.S.) in 61 A.H. would become the inspiration for several political and religious movements in Iraq and elsewhere in the Muslim world. In the wake of the tragedy of Karbala’ there rose several groups who lamented the death of Imam al-Husayn (A.S.) and sought out his Umayyad killers. The death of Aba ‘Abdillah sent shockwaves through the Islamic world; from it arose a sacred culture of mourning and the composition of devotional liturgies in the form of ziyarat and marathi/nashid (poetic eulogies). These compositions can be found in the earliest hadith and historical texts dating back to the period of the infallible Imams themselves. One need only to look up the terms “ziyarat” or “mazar” (a visitation site) in the 28 volume bibliographic compendium of the late Agha Buzurg Tehrani entitled, al-Dhari’ah ila tasanif al-shi‘a and one will discover a list of dozens upon dozens of books dealing with the merits, and rites of ziyarat. Many of these texts were compiled well before the ghaybah of the twelfth Imam (A.T.F.). Therefore, it can be asserted that the act of visiting and reciting special devotional liturgies at the graves of the infallibles was something enshrined during the lives of the Imams well before the famous books of ziyarat compiled by Muhammad b. Ya’qub al-Kulayni, Shaykh al-Saduq, Ibn Qawlawayh al-Qummi, and Shaykh al-Mufid, all of whom were responsible for the establishment of Twelver Shiite tradition during the occultation in the third to late fourth century A.H. In fact, these eminent personalities may be described as the vanguards of the school of Ahl al-Bayt (in the areas of theology, law, history, and hadith), some of whom were even blessed with guidance from the Twelfth Imam (A.T.F.) himself.   Nevertheless, we possess enough documentary evidence in the various classical bibliographic indices to assert that several kutub al-mazar (books of ziyarat) were compiled by companions of the Imams’ themselves, well before al-Kulayni who himself included an entire section dealing with ziyarat in his book, al-Kafi. An example of a pre-ghaybah (occultation) ziyarat text has been attributed to Abi Sulayman Dawud b. Kathir al-Raqqi who died shortly after Imam al-Rida (A.S.) in the early years of the third hijri century (200-300 A.H.). Another example of a pre-ghaybah ziyarat text can be found in the kitab al-mazar of Abi al-Hasan ‘Ali b. Mahzayar al-Dawraqi al-Ahwazi, an eminent companion, wakil (representative), and reporter of hadith from Imams al-Rida (A.S.), al-Jawad (A.S.), and al-Hadi (A.S.). These are just two examples among many.

Unfortunately the books of ziyarat from the period of the Imams have not survived the vicissitudes of time; however, reference to them and transmission from them confirms the historical validity of their existence. I cannot overemphasize how important the act of ziyarat was to the Imams and their Shia; it truly was counted among the greatest of identity markers for the lovers and followers of the infallible Imams of Ahl al-Bayt (A.S.). It is for this reason that the 11th Imam, al-Hasan al-‘Askari (A.S.) states in a famous authentic tradition found in al-Saduq’s Man la yahuruhu al-faqih that ziyarat (of Aba Abdillah al-Husayn b. ‘Ali (A.S.)) on the day of ‘arba‘in (the fortieth day after Ashura) is among the 5 signs of a believer (‘alamat al-mu’min). Furthermore, when we venture in the earliest sources of traditions and history, we discover that the first person to visit the grave of Imam al-Husayn (A.S.) was Jabir b. ‘Abdullah Ansari, who, according to some sources, encountered the women and children of the Imam who stopped at Karbala’ as a detour during their return to Madina from the prison of Yazid b. Mu’awiya in Damascus. As time progressed, the companions of the Imams and the Imams themselves would visit the grave of Imam al-Husayn (A.S.) in Karbala’; due to the nature of the calamity that took place on the plains of Karbala’, it was given an uncanny degree of spiritual attention at the very least by the period of the fifth and sixth Imams (A.S.) and their followers. For instance, both Shaykh al-Mufid and al-Tusi report in their Amali via a complete chain of transmission that the first person to recite a eulogy (at the grave of Imam al-Husayn (A.S.)) was ‘Uqbah b. ‘Umar al-Sahmi (a contemporary of the sixth Imam (A.S.)), who poetically describes his ziyarat to Karbala’ in the following way: “I visited the grave of al-Husayn (A.S.) in Karbala’ (marartu ‘ala qabri al-husayn bi-karbala’) And a river of tears gushed over it (fa-fada ‘alayhi min dumu‘i ghazizaha).” He then continues to describe the flow of years, which gushed forth from his eyes as he looked upon the grave of Imam al-Husayn (A.S.).

The objective of this short piece has been to demonstrate that the practice of ziyarat is part and parcel of the tradition of the Imams and the practice of their companions, and to assert otherwise goes against the most obvious and voluminous evidence. I will end with one (among hundreds) of hadith traditions regarding the importance of visiting Imam al-Husayn (A.S.). Shaykh al-Tusi has reported in tahdhib al-ahkam in volume 6:42-43 with a complete chain of transmission attested to by both classical and contemporary scholars of hadith reaching Muhammad b. Muslim who reported the following from Imam al-Sadiq (A.S.):

“Our Shia perform the ziyarat of al-Husayn- for flocking to his grave increases sustenance, extends one’s lifespan, blocks misfortune. And visiting it/attending to it is an obligation[1] (itanahu mufataradun) upon every believer who believes that his [al-Husayn’s] Imamate was given to him by God.”


[1] The term “obligation” has been understood by ‘Allamah al-Hilli and our contemporary mujtahids to be indicative of an act which is exceedingly recommended (al-sunna al-mu’akkada)