Tazyeen 1443 H

Ashara Mubaraka 1443 H

Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah, Nairobi


Maulana al-Imam al-Husain AS was mercilessly slain upon the scorching plains of Karbala along with his kith and kin after being tyrannized for three days without food or water. After his shahādat, the wretched tyrants brutally raised Imam Husain’s AS blessed, severed head atop a spear, and subjected his sacred body to unspeakable atrocities and brutalities.

Following the tragic events of Karbala, Raʾs al-Husain (the sacred head of Imam Husain AS) was first taken to Kufa and then on to Damascus — the Umayyad capital — where it was kept for more than 200 years. With the advent of the Abbasids, the Raʾs Mubārak was secretly moved and interred in ʿAsqalān (Ashkelon, Israel), as if Fate had intervened and ensured that the Raʾs Mubārak would remain protected and hidden from those who wished it harm. Another two centuries later, during the Fatimi period, in order to subdue the onslaught of advancing crusaders, Maulana al-Imam al-Mustansir Billah AS dispatched the commander of his armies, Maulana Badr al-Jamali RA, to the coastal frontiers of the Levant. In this particular expedition Raʾs al-Husain was miraculously discovered after years of obscurity and anonymity. This auspicious revelation led Maulana Badr al-Jamali RA to construct a shrine for the Raʾs Mubarak which remained a pilgrimage site for Muslims for many centuries until it was demolished by authorities in the mid-20th century. Maulana Badr al-Jamali RA further commemorated the discovery by commissioning a masjid adjoining the shrine and erecting an elaborate, intricately-carved wooden minbar within it. Maulana Badr al-Jamali RA documented the discovery of the Raʾs Mubārak in a long inscription in Kufic that runs along the sides of the minbar, thus preserving its lore for generations to come. Though the shrine in ʿAsqalān is now lost, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin RA dedicated a small, open-air masjid at this location which is today within the confines of the Barzilai Medical Center. Providence would have it that Maulana Badr al-Jamali’s RA minbar be relocated to Hebron to the masjid at the Cave of Patriarchs near Ibrahim Nabi’s AS tomb, bearing testimony to the enduring legacy of Husain Imam AS and his descendants the Aimmat Tahereen AS.

Pilgrims flock to the the shrine of Raʾs al-Imam al-Husain in ʿAsqalān in 1943 prior to its demolition.

Maulana Badr al-Jamālī’s RA minbar originally built for the ʿAsqalān shrine but now found at the Ibrahimi Masjid in Hebron.

The ʿAsqalān shrine, and the sacred Raʾs Mubārak that was interred there, were looked after and protected by the Fatimi Aimmat AS. Maulana al-Imam al-Amir bi Ahkam Allah SA is chronicled as having dedicated gold and silver lanterns to the revered site. As the threat of the Crusaders grew, preparations began for the transfer of the Raʾs Mubārak to Cairo, Egypt. It is reported that al-Imam al-Amir SA not only initiated the transfer of the Raʾs Mubārak from ʿAsqalān but also had a chamber constructed for it adjacent to his masjid, al-Jāmiʿ al-Aqmar. Al-Dai al-Ajal al-Fatimi Syedna Idris ʿImaduddin RA provides a similar account in ʿUyūn al-Akhbār in which he informs us that the Alawid Caliphs transferred the Raʾs Mubārak from Bāb al-Farādīs in Damascus to Fatimi Cairo and how a great mausoleum stands to this day in Egypt in which the Raʾs Mubārak is interred.

A more detailed account of the transfer is found in a number of historical sources. Two decades after the seclusion of the 21st Imam, Maulana al-Imam al-Tayyib SA, a vizier named Ṭalāiʿ bin Ruzzīk (d. 1161 CE) serving under the Majīdī usurpers of the Fatimi throne, arranged for the transfer of the Raʾs Mubārak from ʿAsqalān to Cairo on the 8th of Jumad al-Ukhra, 548 H (September 1153 CE). Reports tell us that even at the time of this transfer, close to five hundred years after Imam Husain’s AS shahādat, the blessed blood of the Imam was fresh and the fragrance of musk emanated from the sacred head. A grand procession was organized to receive the Raʾs Mubārak upon its arrival to Fatimi Cairo and the city’s inhabitants took to the streets to welcome it. The Raʾs Mubārak was reinterred in the Quba Daylam near the Fatimi palaces.

Over time, a number of structures were built to commemorate the Raʾs Mubārak and the shrine became a center of religious pilgrimage and a place of congregation for those who grieved over the shahādat of Imam Husain AS and sought barakat from his zikr. Pilgrims paid their respects in a number of ways, including placing their foreheads on the hallowed threshold of the shrine as well as reciting the Holy Quran and other religious hymns. On the day of ʿĀshura, devotees flocked to the shrine from all across Egypt and other parts of the world to mourn Imam Husain AS. Goats and camels were slaughtered and meals were prepared for all the mourners.

Al-Dai al-Ajal Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin RA has described the miraculous barakat of the Raʾs Mubārak AS in one of his sermons:

There are countless virtues of Raʾs al-Imam al-Husain; its miracles are endless. Al-Maqrizi notes that when al-Malik al-Nasir Salāḥ al-Dīn Yūsuf (also known as Saladin, d. 589/1193) seized the Fatimi palaces, a steward of the royal household was presented before him. Saladin had been told that a particular servant was privy to the secrets of the palace and its hidden treasures. Upon being questioned about the whereabouts of the buried riches, the man denied having any knowledge of it. Saladin was not satisfied with his response and ordered for the man to be tortured until he divulged the whereabouts of the treasure. They forced a helmet upon his head that had been filled with flesh-eating beetles; a very lethal form of torture. The method was so excruciating, that a man could not survive even an hour with the helmet on his head since the beetles inside would start making their way into his skull. The sultan’s men put the device on his head, but he did not seem to be bothered nor did he divulge any information. They tried a second time and several more times afterwards, but their attempts remained futile and the servant remained unharmed, his head unscathed. Everytime the device was removed, the beetles inside were found dead. A bewildered Saladin, who was watching this episode unfold, asked the royal servant the secret behind this phenomenon. “Why is it that you remained unaffected by this vicious torture?” The servant replied, “By Allah! I am unaffected because I was one of those who had the honour of carrying the raʾs mubārak of Imam Husain upon my head when it was brought here, to Fatimi Cairo.”

Centuries later, the hallowed shrine continued to remain a venerated place of pilgrimage for the people of Egypt and all Islamic lands. When the Ottoman patron of architecture, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Katkhudā (d. 1190/1776), intended to expand the masjid connected to the shrine of Raʾs al-Husain in 1175/1761, some questioned whether the Raʾs Mubārak was actually buried there. In order to authenticate its presence, two Egyptian scholars descended into the chambers beneath the shrine. There, they found the Raʾs Mubārak placed upon a teak wood throne in a gold basin covered with a green cloth. The presence of the Raʾs Mubārak was confirmed and ʿAbd al-Raḥmān continued with the renovation and expansion of the masjid.

In the hallowed shrine, one level beneath where the ḍarīh mubārak has been placed, lies a chamber in which there is a small qabr mubārak. (This qabr mubārak was renovated and rebuilt in marble by Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin RA. Both he and Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin TUS have descended to this level for ziyārat. The Raʾs Mubārak is said to be placed at a level even lower than this chamber.) In 1358/1939, an architect and member of Cairo’s Committee for the Preservation of Arab Art, Hasan ʿAbd al-Wahhab, discovered a wooden cenotaph in this first lower level (where the qabr mubārak is today) immediately underneath the ḍarīh mubārak and had it removed. The cenotaph, or tābūt in Arabic was restored and then placed in the Museum of Islamic Arts in Cairo. Judging from its craftsmanship, structure, inscriptions, design and especially the content and style of the Quranic verses in Kufic script, art historians trace the cenotaph’s provenance to the Fatimi era. It was most likely constructed when the Raʾs Mubārak was transferred to Cairo and was, remarkably, preserved in the precincts of the shrine for almost 800 years.

The Fatimi-era cenotaph of Raʿs al-Imam al-Husain AS.

Rectangular in shape, the wooden cenotaph measures 1.85 m long, 1.32 m wide and 1.35 m tall. Three sides are fully decorated while the side facing the wall is bare suggesting that the cenotaph was designed to be placed against a wall, and was not constructed for carrying the Raʾs Mubārak but rather for its safekeeping and dignified preservation. The selection of verses from the Quran Majīd, which highlight the preeminence of the Ahl al-Bayt AS, and the unique floriated Kufic script, a contribution to Islamic art by the Fatimi Imams AS and a hallmark of the Fatimi era, strengthen the argument for the cenotaph’s Fatimi provenance.

The cenotaph’s inscriptions and designs resemble examples of other woodwork from the late Fatimi period, including the minbar built by Maulana Badr al-Jamali RA for ʿAsqalān. Fatimi woodwork, like other forms of Fatimi art, incorporate a number of geometrical shapes, particularly stars and hexagons. Alongside interweaving hexagonal forms, the cenotaph incorporates a number of six-pointed stars and one large, central seven-pointed star which is prominently placed on the cenotaph’s front side. The number six and seven, described as the Complete Number and the Perfect Number respectively by Maulana al-Imam Ahmed al-Mastur AS in the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, feature regularly in Fatimi theology and philosophy. The number six, for instance, signifies the Nabi Mohammed SAW who was the 6th in the line of prophets. The septets of the Imams AS could also be signified by the seven-pointed star, suggesting that even after severing his radiant Raʿs Mubārak from his sacred body, the imamate, seven after seven, will continue in the progeny of Imam Husain AS, as will their Duʿat AS in the period of satr.

A panel from the cenotaph that features hexagons and intricate scrollwork.

In another parallel with the minbar of ʿAsqalān, the cenotaph ingeniously incorporates rich vegetal scrollwork featuring palmettes within the geometric forms. The scrollwork is especially rich in the square that contains the seven-pointed star suggesting once again that it was given a prominent place among all the other patterns and enclosures on the surface of the cenotaph. In the context of Fatimi philosophy, the rigidity of the geometrical shapes can be interpreted as the robustness of the exoteric aspects of the sharia. The organic, floral patterns within these fixed boundaries, represent the esoteric meanings found inside these exoteric actions. The combination illustrates the importance of both zāhir and bāṭin and how meaning compliments action within the Fatimi Islamic tradition. It also suggests that adherence to the sharia gives way to understanding and wisdom which in Fatimi lore is often represented as the flowers and fruits of a verdant garden depicted here through vegetal scrollwork. The unique floriated Kufic script found across the cenotaph suggests similar connotations through its combination of the angular script and its organic, floral extensions.

A seven-pointed star with vegetal scrollwork, surrounded by a border of Kufic Quranic inscriptions.

In addition to the floriated Kufic, a beautiful band of thuluth has been used in multiple bands on the cenotaph. A number of the Quranic verses inscribed in both these scripts signify and allude to the high stature of the Ahl al-Bayt AS, once again reinforcing the notion that it was built for the sacred head of Maulana al-Imam al-Husain AS. Verse 11:73, “May the mercy of Allah and His blessings be upon you, People of the House” refers directly to the Ahl al-Bayt AS. Āyat al-Nūr and Āyat al-Kursī, both of which allude to a number of esoteric meanings in Dawat texts, also feature on the cenotaph as do a number of other verses. ‘Al-Mulk li Allah’ (Sovereignty is for Allah) and a number of similar phrases are also inscribed in Kufic around hexagons on all three sides.

A Quranic verse in floriated Kufic script on the cenotaph.

This year’s ʿAshara Mubāraka tazyeen has been inspired by the sacred cenotaph that served the shrine of the Raʾs Mubārak for close to eight centuries. The backdrop behind the takht mubārak features a similar cenotaph and incorporates a number of texts and designs of religious and historical significance.

Although the tābūt has the same dimensions as the original, the material and surface decorations are different. The ʿAshara Mubāraka tābūt features Fatimi motifs, and is made predominantly of wood but also has elements made of silver, gold, glass and embroidered fabric.

The cenotaph in the backdrop features three main types of text: 1) the blessed names of Awliyāʾ Allah AS, 2) verses from the elegiac poems composed by the Duʿat Mutlaqeen AS, and 3) excerpts from historical works authored by the Duʿat Mutlaqeen AS regarding the Raʾs Mubārak. The names of Panjatan Pāk AS, and those Imams AS and Duʿat RA whose names are Husain, along with Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin’s TUS name have been inscribed in gold-plated and bejewelled silver plates installed inside various six-pointed stars and hexagons. Portions of a verse from al-Dai al-Ajal Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin’s RA marthiya mubāraka ‘Fulk al-Husain bi Karbala’ surround the seven-pointed star while portions of a verse from al-Dai al-Ajal Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin’s TUS marthiya mubāraka ‘Zikr al-Husain khair zād al-Zākirīn’ are inscribed in panels on all three sides of the tābūt (cenotaph). Both selections describe the Raʾs Mubārak, the atrocities committed against it and the radiance and barakāt it provides the faithful. Finally, an excerpt regarding the transfer of the Raʾs Mubārak to Cairo due to the efforts of Aimmat Fatimiyeen AS quoted by al-Dai al-Ajal Syedna Idris Imaduddin RA in his historial work ʿUyūn al-Akhbār has been inscribed in a running band that moves along the contours of the rectangles on all three sides of the tābūt. Additionally, an excerpt from al-Dai al-Ajal Syedna Taher Saifuddin’s RA risāla sharīfa in which he describes his ziyārat of the Raʾs Mubārak has been inscribed in the same way.

Multicolour lighting fixtures within the tābūt allow its colour to be changed from white, at the beginning of the waʿz mubārak, to green when Syedna al-Dai al-Ajal TUS recites the ḥamd ʿibārat, to red when Maula TUS begins the gham bayān.

A silhouette of the Raʾs al-Imam al-Husain ḍarīh mubārak in embroidery and glass functions as the backdrop for the tābūt. A large arch above incorporates this year’s āyat sharīfa, “[I]n which he has from every fruit” (2:226) and the names of the Imams AS and Duʿat AS.

In keeping with the tradition of placing the Holy Quran in the shrines of the Ahle Bayt AS, a 200-year old handwritten Quran Majīd has been placed above the cenotaph, which although originally from India, has been in the African continent for the last 100 years. The old manuscript had recently been restored in Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah and was recited from by Syedna al-Dai al-Ajal TUS in the Pehli Tarikh Majlis in Iwan-e-Burhani on the eve of the new hijri year of 1443 H.

Although the cenotaph is a material object, its essence has been imbued with the spiritual blessings of Imam Husain AS. In this way, material objects and structures act as vessels for untold barakat and divine emanation. It is a great honour for Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah that al-Dai al-Ajal Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin TUS has chosen its Nairobi campus — in which the design and structure of each building in itself is a receptacle of Fatimi philosophy — as the site for this year’s ʿAshara Mubāraka. Indeed, he is Imam Husain’s AS dai and a repository for Imam’s radiance and barakāt. His very being embodies the sakinat of the remembrance of Imam Husain AS. His esteemed forefathers, Duʿat Mutlaqeen RA, have spent their lives in this noble remembrance, and his being is the culmination of their tears and their mourning. Surely, by the virtue of the timeless blessings inherent in the zikr of Imam Husain AS and his Dai TUS, the edifices of Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah and the souls of all those who remember Imam Husain AS within its confines, are prosperous and will continue to prosper for ages to come. May Allah Taʿālā grant al-Dai al-Ajal Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin — the very being of Aljamea personified — a life in health and happiness until the Day of Qiyāmat.