ʿATABĀT  “thresholds,” more fully, ʿatabāt-e ʿalīyāt or ʿatabāt-e (or aʿtāb-e) moqaddasa “the lofty or sacred thresholds,” the Shiʿite shrine cities of Iraq—Naǰaf, Karbalā, Kāẓemayn, and Samarra—containing the tombs of six of the imams as well as secondary sites of pilgrimage.

Naǰaf, 10 km to the west of Kūfa, is revered as the place of burial of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭāleb (d. 41/661), although a saying attributed to imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq ascribes its excellence to primordial times: The land of Naǰaf is a part of the mountain on which God spoke to Moses, sanctified Jesus, and chose Abraham as His friend and Moḥammad as His beloved (Abu’l-Ḥasan Daylamī, Eršād al-qolūb, quoted by M. Š. Rāzī in Ganǰina-ye dānešmandān VII, Tehran, 1352-54 Š./1973-75, pp. 224-25). There are also traditions to the effect that Adam and Noah were buried in Naǰaf (EI1III, p. 815, art. “Nadjaf”). The tomb of ʿAlī was first marked with a dome in the late 3rd/9th century by Abu’l-Hayǰāʾ, the Hamdanid ruler of Mosul; this early structure was expanded by ʿAżod-al-dawla the Buyid in 369/979-80 (Ebn al-Aṯīr, VIII, p. 518). The special qualities of Karbalā are likewise said to antedate the martyrdom and burial there in 61/680 of Ḥosayn b. ʿAlī, together with his half brother, ʿAbbās, and his son, ʿAlī Akbar. Again according to a saying of Imam Jaʿfar-al-Ṣādeq, the soil of Karbalā is superior to the ground on which the Kaʿba stands, and it was in recognition of the inherent excellence of Karbalā that God caused Ḥosayn to be buried there (Šayḵ al-Ṣadūq Ebn Bābawayh, al-Amālī, quoted in Rāzī, Ganǰina-ye dānešmandān VI, p. 317). Karbalā swiftly became a center of Shiʿite pilgrimage, the first recorded veneration of Ḥosayn’s tomb being that performed by the Tawwābūn in 65/684 (S. H. M. Jafri, The Origins and Early Development of Shiʿa Islam, London and Beirut, 1979, p. 231 ). Endowments were settled on the shrine by Omm Mūsā, mother of the ʿAbbasid caliph Mahdī (Ṭabarī, III, p. 752), but it was temporarily destroyed in 236/850 by Motawakkel, who had the site flooded (Ṭabarī, III, p. 1407). By the end of the 4th/10th century, the shrine had been restored and expanded by ʿAżod-al-dawla (Ebn al-Aṯīr, VIII, p. 518).

From the Buyid period onward, Naǰaf and Karbalā had a common destiny, receiving patronage from the successive rulers of Iraq. Malekšāh the Saljuq visited and bestowed gifts on both shrines in 479/1086-87 (Ebn al-Aṯīr, X, p. 103). Spared by the Mongol invasion, Naǰaf and Karbalā prospered under Il-khanid rule: buildings connected to the shrines and serving the needs of pilgrims were constructed by ʿAlāʾ-al-dīn ʿAṭā-Malek Jovaynī Ṣāḥeb-e Dīvān in 666/1267 (ʿA. ʿAzzāwī, Tārīḵal-ʿEraq bayn eḥtelālayn, Baghdad, 1354/1935, I, pp. 263, 310) and by Ḡāzān Khan in 703/1303 (Rašīd-al-dīn Fażlallāh, Tārīḵ-emobārak-e ḡāzānī, ed. K. Jahn, London, 1940, pp. 191, 203, 208). After his conquest of Baghdad in 803/1400, Tīmūr made a pilgrimage to Naǰaf and Karbalā and presented gifts to the shrines (ʿAzzāwī, Tārīḵal-ʿErāq II, p. 240).

In the 10th/16th century, Iraq became an object of dispute between the Ottomans and the Safavids, with the result that both sides patronized the shrines of Naǰaf and Karbalā during their periods of control. Shah Esmāʿīl bestowed gifts on the two shrines during a pilgrimage in 914/1508, and Sultan Solaymān followed his example after the Ottoman conquest of Iraq in 941/1534 (ʿAzzāwī, Tārīkal-ʿErāq III, pp. 316, 341, IV, pp. 29, 36-37). In 1032/1623, Iraq and the ʿatabāt returned to Safavid control for fifteen years, a period that saw a further expansion and enrichment of the shrines. Iranian control of the ʿatabāt was established for the last time in 1156-59/1743-46 by Nāder Shah, under whose auspices a Sunni-Shiʿite dialogue took place in Naǰaf (see Shaikh ʿAbdallāh Sowaydī, al-Ḥoǰaǰ al-qaṭʿīya le ettefāq al-feraq al-eslamīya, Cairo, 1905). Nonetheless, royal Iranian patronage of Naǰaf and Karbalā continued throughout the nineteenth century; this accounts for the largely Iranian appearance of the shrines in the present age. Āqā Moḥammad Khan, Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah, and, most importantly, Nāṣer-al-dīn Shah (who visited the ʿatabāt in 1287/1870), all commissioned much substantial work in both Naǰaf and Karbalā (H. Algar, Religion and State in Iran, 1785-1906: The Role of the Ulama in the Qajar Period, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1969, pp. 42, 48, 104, 167). Donations were also made by Indian Shiʿite princes (J. N. Hollister, The Shiʿa of India, London, 1953, pp. 107, 112, 162-63).

Kāẓemayn, the third of the ʿatabāt, originally a place of burial for the Qorayshite nobility of Baghdad, entered the spiritual geography of the Shiʿites with the burial there of the seventh and ninth imams, Mūsā al-Kāẓem (d. 186/802) and Moḥammad al-Taqī (d. 219/834). (According to certain traditions, it had already acquired merit from a tomb attributed to Joshua and from the presence in a mosque at Kāẓemayn of a white stone on which Mary had supposedly given birth to Jesus; see Rāzī, Ganǰīna-ye dānešmandān VI, pp. 297-98). Situated on the right bank of the Tigris opposite Baghdad, Kāẓemayn did not escape the Mongol conquest unscathed, and it was extensively damaged by fire in 656/1258. Most existing structures in Kāẓemayn date from the time of Shah Esmāʿīl, who was particularly generous with his patronage in Kāẓemayn because of his putative descent from the seventh imam. Extensions and restorations of his work were carried out both by the Ottomans and the Qajars. The major courtyard at Kāẓemayn was built in 1298/1880 by Farhād Mīrzā. In addition to the two imams, various of their descendants as well as the Shiʿite scholars Šarīf Rażī (d. 406/1015), Šarīf Mortażā (d. 436/1044), and Ḵᵛāǰa Naṣīr-al-dīn Ṭūsī (d. 672/1274) are also buried in Kāẓemayn.

Samarra, situated geographically apart from the remainder of the ʿatabāt, contains the tombs of the tenth and eleventh imams, ʿAlī al-Naqī (d. 254/868) and Ḥasan al-ʿAskarī (d. 260/873). The tombs were first surmounted with domes by the Buyid Moʿezz-al-dawla in 335/946-47. The present state of the shrine in Samarra dates largely from the time of Nāṣer-al-dīn Shah, who provided for the reconstruction and gilding of the dome over the tomb of Ḥasan al-ʿAskarī, making it the largest of the golden domes of the ʿatabāt (Rāzī, Ganǰīna-ye dānešmandān V, pp. 272-73).

The ʿatabāt occupy an important place in the devotional life of Shiʿite Islam. They are above all places of visitation, for numerous traditions stress the expiatory value of pilgrimage to the tombs of the imams (see Moḥammad-Bāqer Maǰlesī, Beḥār al-anwār, Tehran, 1388/1968, CI and CII; both volumes are devoted to the topic of such pilgrimages). Pilgrimage (zīārat) consists primarily of circumambulating the tombs while reading a series of prescribed formulae (zīārat-nāma) and caressing the grills that enclose them. Typically vows will also be made on the occasion of zīārat. The pilgrim to the ʿatabāt will frequently take home with him a quantity of the soil of Karbalā, which is believed to possess special properties; diluted in water, it yields a beverage (āb-e torbat) that is given to the sick, the dying, and women in labor to imbibe (H. Massé, Croyances et coutumes persanes, Paris, 1938, I, pp. 38, 96). The dust that gathers on the tomb of Ḥosayn is also collected for its curative properties and for making prayer stones; it is sometimes used by Indian Shiʿites as a lining for their tombs (Hollister, The Shiʿa of India, p. 67).

More efficacious than such use of the dust from Karbalā is, in the view of all Shiʿites, burial at the ʿatabāt. Interment at Naǰaf is particularly desirable because according to certain traditions whoever is buried there will be spared the torment of the grave and interrogation by Monker and Nakīr (Rāzī, Ganǰīna-ye dānešmandān VII, p. 225). Accordingly, to the northwest of Naǰaf, on the road leading to Karbalā, has grown up a vast cemetery known as Wādī al-Salām where Shiʿites have traditionally sent their dead for burial, from as far afield as India. This cemetery also contains tombs attributed to the prophets Hūd and Ṣāleḥ, as well as the resting places of many prominent Shiʿite scholars (Rāzī, Ganǰīna-ye dānešmandān VII, pp. 239-43).

The ʿatabāt have also been important in the intellectual life of Shiʿism, Naǰaf enjoying preeminence in this respect as well. An uninterrupted tradition of Shiʿite scholarship has existed in Naǰaf since the time of Šayḵ-al-ṭāʾefa Abū Jaʿfar Moḥammad Ṭūsī, who moved there after the burning of his library and the pillage of his house in Karḵ in 449/1057-58 (Ebn al-Aṯīr, IX, p. 637). The ʿatabāt were somewhat overshadowed by Isfahan and other centers of learning in Iran during the Safavid period. However, in the eighteenth century, after the Afghan sack of Isfahan, many Iranian Shiʿite scholars took refuge in the ʿatabāt, and it was there—especially in Karbalā—that the long-standing dispute between the Oṣūlī and Aḵbārī schools of feqh was settled in favor of the former (H. Algar, “Shiʿism and Iran in the Eighteenth Century,” Studies in Eighteenth Century Islamic History, ed. T. Naff and R. Owen, Carbondale, Illinois, 1977, p. 300).

Centers of religious learning revived in Iran during the Qajar period, but the ʿatabāt retained their primacy as centers of religious authority; most leading scholars either resided and taught there, or studied there for a time before returning to Iran. In 1287/1870, Samarra came temporarily to overshadow Naǰaf, when Mīrzā Ḥasan Šīrāzī, soon to become the sole marǰaʿ-e taqlīd of the day, moved there from Naǰaf to escape various pressures to which he was subject (Āḡā Bozorg Tehrānī, Mīrzā-ye Šīrāzī, Tehran, 1362 Š./ 1983, pp. 40-41). When the successors of Mīrzā Ḥasan Šīrāzī, in Naǰaf and Karbalā, opposed various policies of the Iranian government and supported the cause of the Constitutional revolution during the first decade of the twentieth century, the location of the ʿatabāt on Ottoman territory served to put their activities largely beyond the reach of Iranian authority. Later, too, many of the chief marāǰeʿ-e taqlīd, notably Abu’l-Ḥasan Eṣfahānī (d. 1365/1946), continued to reside in Naǰaf and influence events in Iran from afar. Āyatallāh Rūḥallāh Ḵomeynī’s period of exile in Naǰaf, from 1965 to 1978, revived the role of the ʿatabāt as a center of clerical opposition generally immune to official Iranian wishes. The expulsion from Iraq of large numbers of people of real or alleged Iranian origin after the triumph of the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79, the severance of the pilgrim traffic as a result of the war launched by Iraq in September, 1980, and the killings carried out by the Baʿathist rulers of Iraq among the learned families of the ʿatabāt, have together resulted in an unprecedented isolation of the ʿatabāt from Iran.

Despite the importance of the ʿatabāt in Shiʿite history and devotion and their association, indeed, with the whole course of sacred history, deriving from various traditions, the ʿatabāt are remarkably absent from the eschatological predictions of Shiʿite Islam; although it was at Samarra that the Twelfth Imam entered occultation, it is at Mecca that he will reemerge, and it is Kūfa that will be his seat of government (A. A. Sachedina, Islamic Messianism, Albany, N.Y., 1981, pp. 159-60).



See also H. ʿE. Eṣfahānī, Tārīḵ-e ǰoḡrāfīāʾī-e Karbalā-ye moʿallā, Tehran, 1326 Š./1947.

J. B. Āl Maḥbūba, Māżī al-Naǰaf wa ḥāżerohā, Naǰaf, 1955-57, 3 vols.

ʿA. K. Āl Ṭaʿma, Tārīḵ al-Karbalāʾ wa ḥāʾer al-Ḥosayn ʿalayhe ’l-salām, Naǰaf, 1387/1967.

J. Ḵalīlī, Mawsūʿat al-ʿatabāt, Baghdad, 1382-92/1969-72, 4 vols. M. M. Roknī, Šawq-e dīdār, Mašhad, 1362 Š./1983.

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(H. Algar)

Originally Published: December 15, 1987

Last Updated: August 17, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. II, Fasc. 8, pp. 902-904