From Body to Shrine: The Construction of Sacred Space at the Grave of `Ali ibn Abi Talib in Najaf Public Deposited

Downloadable Content

Download PDF
Last Modified
  • March 19, 2019
  • Aslan, Rose
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Religious Studies
  • This dissertation analyzes medieval Muslim constructs and perceptions of sacred space from the ninth to fourteenth centuries using `Ali's grave as point of departure. It delves into three themes--sacred body, sacred space, and sacred ritual--all of which shed light on ways in which Shi`i scholars helped mold communal memory and identity, as well as how Sunni scholars contested Shi`i claims to legitimacy based on their distinct memories of the past. This dissertation seeks to understand how and why scholarly representations of `Ali's body, grave, and connected pilgrimage rituals impacted the development of normative Shi`ism. This dissertation makes three main arguments. First, by establishing `Ali's walaya, Shi`i scholars could elevate the status of Najaf through contact with the praesentia of `Ali's sanctified body contained within it. Second, by examining often conflicting Shi`i and Sunni narratives of `Ali's burial and location of his grave as found in geographical, historical, and hagiographical texts. By claiming the legitimacy of `Ali's grave, Shi`is could uphold Najaf's reputation as a pilgrimage destination, as well as retain control over the city, despite being persecuted minorities in a majority Sunni environment. Some Sunni scholars saw Shi`i-controlled Najaf as a threat in addition to their general distrust of Shi`i scholarship and doctrine. Third, the ritual practices and supplications recommended by scholars in their pilgrimage manuals guided pilgrims through a reenactment of pilgrimages scholars claimed were performed by the Imams when `Ali's grave was hidden. I suggest that scholars contributed to the growing genre of pilgrimage manuals in order to bolster the communal Shi`i identity and create a setting where Shi`is could express their religious devotion in a sacred space away from the domination of the Sunni majority. I argue that for Muslims, the grave of a sanctified figure such as `Ali could function as a symbolic site allowing for the reenactment of rituals of piety, the persistence of historical memory, and the strengthening of communal identity.  
Date of publication
Resource type
Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • Safi, Omid
  • Ernst, Carl
  • Ochoa, Todd
  • Kadivar, Mohsen
  • Bigelow, Anna
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2014
Place of publication
  • Chapel Hill, NC
  • This item is restricted from public view for 2 years after publication.

This work has no parents.