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Building over graves

The Shrine of the Holy Prophet (s) in Medina.

Building over graves (Arabic: البناء على القبور) means building any construction or structure over graves. There is a disagreement among Shia and Sunnis with Wahhabis about the Islamic ruling for building over graves. Islamic schools, especially Shia, have built constructions over the graves of great people and Islamic leaders and some Islamic scholars. This – with a conceptual expansion Wahhabis make – has a history and dates back to early Islam. According to historical evidences, it was not encountered with any objection from the Prophet (s) or the Followers. Wahhabis believe that building over the graves makes the grounds for worshiping them and polytheism in worshiping.


Meaning of Building over Graves

Building over graves, due to the many discussions related to it in fiqh, kalam and history, has become a term. It refers to any construction over graves including qubba (dome), buq'a (mausoleum), darih, mosque and even according to some, putting stones around the grave.

It also includes constructions built prior to burial. Therefore, contrary to the meaning usually coming to the mind, it also includes leaving constructions built prior to burial.

The Topic of Discussion and Dispute

According to disputes made between Wahhabis and other Muslims, the discussion about building over graves refers to the religious ruling about constructing new buildings over graves and also Muslims' obligation regarding leaving built constructions over graves and its ruling.

Historical Background

Before Islam

The grave of Prophet David (a) in Jerusalem and the graves of Prophets Abraham (a), Isaac (a), Jacob (a) and Joseph (a) in al-Khalil had tall buildings. At the time of the war led by 'Umar, Muslims did not destroy these graves and buildings. It shows that building over graves was neither reprehensible before Islam, nor was it wrong in the views of Muslims in early centuries of Islam.

At the Time of the Prophet (s)

The Holy Prophet (s) buried Fatima bt. Asad in a part of the mosque where was known as the grave of Lady Fatima (a) in Islamic history. Contemporary with Hudaybiyya peace treaty, the first construction or mosque was built over the grave of Abu Basir by Abu Jandal and the Prophet (s) did not stop it while he (s) knew about it.

At the Time of the Companions

The Grave of Salman al-Farsi in Iraq.

After the Prophet (s) passed away, he (s) was buried in his house and preserving and repairing this house was made by Muslims and caliphs since the first years after his demise. First, 'Umar b. al-Khattab built a wall beside the grave of the Prophet (s) and separated it from the living place of Aisha. To expand the Prophet's (s) burial place, Walid b. 'Abd al-Malik (r. 86/705 – 96/715) destroyed the Prophet's (s) house and in reconstruction, he appended the area surrounding the house to it and finally decorated the grave's chamber with alabaster. During the time of Mutawakkil (r. 228/846 – 242/861) and Musta'sim (ruling 640/1242 – 656/1258) this chamber was reconstructed. In 656/1259, the shrine of the Prophet (s) was decorated using the material the ruler of Egypt, Malik Mansur Ibak Salihi had sent and the first dome called Qubba al-Zarqa was built over the chamber of the Prophet (s). In 765/1364, 852/1448, 881/1476, 886/1481 and 891/1486, it was reconstructed by Abbasid and Ottoman caliphs and domes were built over it.

Lack of any objections to these reconstructions and expansions of the shrine by Muslims shows the legitimacy of this action and following the conduct of the Prophet (s) by Muslims and the permission for building over graves.

Building over graves was a common action in the views of the Companions. When Al-Mughira b. Shu'ba expanded his house, the grave of Safiyya bt. 'Abd al-Muttalib, mother of Al-Zubayr b. al-'Awwam, the aunt of the Prophet (s) was located inside the house, so a new structure was built over it. In the house of 'Aqil which gradually turned to become the dedicated place for the graves of Banu Hashim in Baqi' cemetery, the graves of Imams (a) and some companions had shrines. Ibn Athir reported about sending an architect by Majd al-Mulk Qummi to repair the shrine and graves of four of Imams (a) and 'Abbas b. 'Abd al-Muttalib. Ibn Jubayr, Ibn Najjar, Khalid b. 'Isa, Ibn Batuta and Awliya Chalapi in different times reported about the existence of some shrines over the graves of Imams (a).

During the Time of the Followers

The graves of Umm Salama and Umm Habiba, the Prophet's (s) wives, had a building over them. The graves of 'Aqil, his nephew, 'Abd Allah b. Ja'far b. Abi Talib, Ibrahim and some other children of the Prophet (s) had mausoleum and dome. Based on the report of Ibn Jubayr, the grave of 'Abbas b. 'Abd al-Muttalib, Imam al-Hasan (a) and Ibrahim, son of the Prophet (s) were higher than the ground level. There are evidences which show that before 94/713, there was a building over the grave of Ibn 'Abbas.

Second/Eighth Century

The tradition of building over graves grew more in Islamic lands. The building over the grave of Ja'far, son of al-Mansur al-Abbasi (r. 136/754 – 158/775) which show the existence of building and dome over some graves in the 2nd/8th century, the building Harun al-Rashid (r. 170/786 – 193/809) built over the grave of Imam Ali (a) and the building over the grave of Sayyida Nafisa, a descendant of Imam al-Hasan (a) in Cairo are among the examples of this growth.

Ibn Batuta reported about the existence of a mausoleum and mosque over the grave of Talha. Also, a mosque existed near the grave of Zubayr. Other examples of building over graves are the building and mausoleum over the grave of Salman Farsi in Mada'in and over the grave of Uways al-Qarani in Syria, a mosque over the grave of Sa'd b. 'Ubada, chief of Khazraj tribe, and also dome and mausoleum over the graves of Mu'adh b. Jabal, 'Aqaba b. 'Amir, Muhammad b. Abi Bakr and his sister Asma', Ibn Zubayr and Abu l-Hasan Dinawari, among the great Egyptian scholars in fiqh, Anas b. Malik, servant of the Prophet (s) and Sahl b. 'Abd Allah al-Tustari.

After Third/Ninth Century

In the first centuries after Islam, many cases of building constructions over graves and building mausoleums were seen. It happened in many consecutive centuries before the eyes of Muslims while none of scholars, Shia or Sunni objected to these constructions and no one believed that it is an act of polytheism or would deviate Muslims toward polytheism and idol-worshiping and worshiping other than God.

Graves of Sunni leaders had dome and building too. The grave of Abu Hanifa (d. 150/767), leader of Hanafi school of fiqh in Baghdad had a dome and mausoleum which were built in 4th/10th and 5th/11th centuries. Also, the grave of Malik b. Anas (d. 197/813), the leader of Maliki school, in Baqi' cemetery had a small dome. The grave of Muhammad b. Idris (d. 150/767), leader of Shafi'i school in Egypt and also the grave of Ahmad b. Hanbal (d. 241/855), leader of Hanbalis in Baghdad have had domes and have been reconstructed several times.

The 3rd/9th century was when building domes over graves grew and since the 4th/10th century, visiting them became common. An example of such graves is the grave of Muhammad b. 'Isa al-Tirmidhi (d. 296/892) which possibly belongs to the end of 3rd/9th century and early 4th/10th century.

In Aswan region in Nuba which was one of the battlefields of Muslims with enemies, there are mausoleums from 4th/10th and 5th/11th centuries over the graves of the martyrs of those wars. Since 6th/12th century, many tombs were built around the Islamic world. In that century, when Sufism grew among Muslims, building Sufi tombs grew up; such as the tomb of Shaykh Ahmad Jam in Turbat Jam possibly built in 6th/12th century and the tomb of Bayazid Bastami built in 8th/14th century.

According to historical sources, Muslims have preserved and visited these buildings. Thus, destruction of some buildings by caliphs such as destruction of the grave of Imam al-Husayn (a) in 236/851 by Mutawakkil made Muslims upset and repulsive toward his action.

Building over the Graves of Imams (a) and the Ahl al-Bayt (a)

The tradition of building mausoleums and shrines over the graves of Imams (a) is another historical evidence Muslims considered by Muslims. The grave of Imam Ali (a) has had a glamorous dome and building and according to historical reports, its dome and building were built by Harun al-Rashid in 2nd/8th century and it was among old buildings over graves. Muhammad b. Yazid, a Shia ruler of Tabaristan, reconstructed this dome in 287/900. In an ode, Ibn Hajjaj Baghdadi, a poet of 3rd/9th and 4th/10th centuries, mentioned the grave and dome of Imam Ali's (a) shrine. The first building over the grave of Imam al-Husayn (a) was built when Mukhtar al-Thaqafi came to power. Later in 371/982, a darih made of teak was placed over the grave by the order of 'Adud al-Dawla. Khatib Baghdadi mentioned the grave of Imam al-Kazim (a) among the graves of Quraysh which was visited and made entreaty to by Shias and some Sunni scholars.

The shrine of Imam al-Rida (a) in Mashhad is such a building. Muhammad b. Mumal, a Hanafi scholar reported about the existence of Imam al-Rida's (a) mausoleum and shrine in Tus and also reported about visiting it by Sunni scholars. Ibn Habban introduced it a refuge for the helpless.

In 333/945, Nasir al-Dawla Hamdani built a mausoleum over the graves of Imam al-Hadi (a) and [[[Imam al-'Askari (a)]] in Samarra.

Until the half of 2nd/8th century, there was a shade over the grave of Lady Ma'suma (a) in Qom. In the second half of 3rd/9th century, a mausoleum was built over it by Muhammad b. Zayd, da'i (caller) of Alawis (descendants of Imam Ali (a)).

The brick entrance of the major gate to the shrine of 'Abd al-'Azim was made by Majd al-Din Barawistani, minister of Bakiyaraq Saljuki in 5th/11th century.

The graves of Imams (a) in Baqi' cemetery, the grave of Banu Hashim and building dome over their graves and also the grave of 'Abbas b. 'Abd al-Malik were constructed by the order of Majd al-Mulk Barawistani in 5th/11th century and were reconstructed several times by caliphs. According to inscriptions available in these shrines, the first reconstruction was made by the Abbasid caliph Mustarshid Billah in 519/1125 and later in the early 7th/13 century, Mustansir Billah made other repairs in the shrine.

Islamic Ruling of Building over Graves

In the two last centuries, Wahhabis issued a ruling for destruction of constructions built over graves. The history of this ruling dates back to 7th/13th century and based on the theories of Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328) and his pupil Ibn Qayyim (d. 751/1350) according to whom, destruction of these constructions and shrines is obligatory. Their first action was destruction of the shrine and grave of Imam al-Husayn (a) in 1216/1801 and then, they destroyed the shrines of Imams (a) in Baqi' in 1221/1806. After reconstruction of destructed shrines, when Wahhabis took the control of Hijaz in 1344/1926, they collected rulings of scholars in Medina on the issue and began destroying the mausoleums of the Companions and Infallible Imams (a) in Baqi'. This way, the issue of building over the graves turned into one of the controversial issues in Islamic world.

However contrary to the beliefs of this group, other Muslims considered it permissible to build over graves, any construction including mausoleum, mosque or school. Shia and some Sunnis consider it in accordance with Muslims' tradition. Some Sunni faqihs, only in some cases, have considered it reprehensible and some others consider construction over the graves of the Prophets (s), martyrs and the righteous recommended.

Some Sunni researchers believe that the disagreement made about the issue of construction around graves is because of Wahhabis' carelessness about hadiths prohibiting construction and their lack of attention toward justifications against them. Prohibitions in these hadiths are not general, and they are about special cases and are based on some reasons such as touching the materials of construction with fire, their heaviness on the buried body or their separation from the graves of other Muslims and preventing burial of other Muslims near them. According to principles of usul, a ruling which has its justification with it, is specific to the certain case, the justification is given for and cannot be generalized for other cases. Moreover, there are contrary reasons permitting the construction which are even stronger in reference and chain of transmission than proscriptive narrations.

Even proscriptive narrations regard this action reprehensible. However, the graves of religious personalities, the righteous and martyrs are out of this reprehension, because they are considered among religious sacraments and building mosque and mausoleum over their graves is honoring them because their graves are distinguished and people visit them. According to the glorious Qur'an, upholding religious symbols is a sign of spiritual health and sincerity in intention.

The View of the Qur'an

In the dispute between Muslims and polytheists over the bodies of the People of the Cave, the glorious Qur'an mentions the opinions of both parties. Some suggested to build a mausoleum or wall in front of the cave, "they said, 'Build a building over them." (18:21) so that they would be hidden from people's sight. Some others suggested to build mosque or temple over their graves, "'We will set up a place of worship over them.'" (18:21)

Finally, they decided to build a mosque over their graves so that people worship God there and also the work of the People of the Cave would be kept and be blessed by their graves. In these verses, there is no mention of polytheistic nature of this action, for if building a construction or mosque was polytheistic, it must have been mentioned.