How do they choose the holiest sites in Islam?

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June 13 2007 7:04 PM

Top-Ranked Shrines

How do they choose the holiest sites in Islam?

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The Golden Mosque in Samarra, Iraq, was bombed for the second time in just over a year on Wednesday, its minarets reduced to rubble. News reports described the mosque as one of the four most-revered Shiite shrines in Iraq. How do the holiest sites in Islam get ranked?

According to their historical and spiritual importance within a sect or region. There is a hadith (one of the collected sayings and deeds of the Prophet Mohammed) that says, "Do not prepare yourself for a journey except to three Mosques, i.e. Al-Masjid-Al-Haram, the Mosque of Aqsa (Jerusalem) and my Mosque." Those mosques are located in Mecca, Jerusalem, and Medina, and are widely accepted as the holiest Islamic sites.

But the holiest places for Shiite Muslims within Iraq itself are where Shiite imams (religious leaders descended from Mohammed) are entombed. These include Najaf, the burial site of the first Shiite imam, Ali bin Abi Talib, and Karbala, the burial site of his son Hussein, the third Shiite imam. (Kufa, where the Imam Ali based his Caliphate, is also pretty holy.) The district of al-Kadhimiya in northern Baghdad is the burial place of the seventh imam, Musa al-Kazim, and his grandson the ninth imam, Mohammed al-Taqi. Samarra rounds out the top four shrines, with the tombs of the 10th imam, Ali al-Hadi, and his son the 11th imam, Hasan al-Askari. Shiites also believe that the 12th imam, Imam al-Mehdi, went into hiding in Samarra, and that he will someday return there to offer salvation to Islam.

Holy cities revered among Sunnis include Baghdad, which along with Damascus served as the imperial capital of the Muslim world. Cairo and Timbuktu—centers of Islamic growth and study—are vastly important for African Muslims. Chinguetti, a city in Mauritania, bills itself as the "seventh holiest city in Islam" for Sunnis, but that's just a local claim that's not widely recognized.

Ranking of holiness is determined by popular devotion, not by any official list. And since Islam isn't very centralized, what's holy to one sect may not be as important to another. For example, some Muslims think Imam Ali wasn't even buried in Najaf, but in Mazari Sharif, Afghanistan. So they'd choose to visit Ali's shrine in Mazari Sharif before the one in Najaf. And Ismaili Shiites do not believe Musa was the seventh imam; they think it was his brother Ismail. So why bother going to Musa's tomb? 

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Explainer thanks Khaleel Mohammed of San Diego State University and Frank Peters of New York University