Relics in Islam

Relics in Islam

In his history, al-Tabari preserves an unusual report given on the authority of ‘Abd al-A’la ibn Maymun’s father, concerning the dying wishes of the first Umayyad Caliph Mu’awiya ibn Abi Sufyan. When he became sick with the illness from which he died, Mu’awiya said:

The Apostle of God clomed me with a shirt (qamis) and I put it away. He pared his nails one day and I took die parings and placed them in a bottle. When I die, clothe me in that shirt, cut up and grind the parings, and scatter them on my eyes and mourn so that perhaps God might be merciful to me on account of me baraka of mese things.1

This report is also recorded in the pilgrimage guide of Ibn al-Hawrani, and a similar account is mentioned by Nasim al-Riyad in his commentary on the Shifa’ of Qadi ‘Iyyad who states that Mu’awiya had the hair and fingernails put into his mouth and nose.2

The transportation and distribution of hairs by the Companions is also known from records of burial, especially at sites of martyrdom and , conquest. According to Ibn al-Hawrani and alHarawi, Khalid ibn al-Walid was buried in Horns with a hair of the Prophet Muhammad which he wore pinned to his hat during his conquest of Damascus. Abu Zam’a al-Balawi, reported to have been one of the companions present when the Prophet distributed his hair, is buried in Qayrawan with the hairs he is said to have kept in his hat on the raid of the city under Mu’awiya ibn Hudayj. In another account cited by al-Dabbagh, al-Balawi is said to have had three hairs buried with him, one placed on his tongue and one on each of his eyes.3 Today the shrine is called the “Zawiya of Sidi Sahib” and is located just outside the city walls of Qayrawan. Other well-known figures are also reported to have been buried with hairs of the Prophet. Abu Sha’ra, for example, is buried in al-Zillaj in a spot marked with a dome. Ibn Hajar reports that the tomb of Ali ibn Muhammad al-Khalati (d.708) contained a hair of the Prophet Muhammad, and Anas ibn Malik is said to have requested that he be buried with a hair under his tongue. The Ikhshidid vizier Ja’far ibn Khinzaba had three hairs of the Prophet placed in his mouth when he was buried in Medina, and Nur al-Din willed that the hairs of the Prophet be placed on his eyes when he was buried in the madrasa he built in Damascus.4

In other cases, hairs of the Prophet were used in the foundation of public buildings such as the madrasa of Ibn al- Zaman. The Nasirid Sayf al-Din Manjak established the Madrasa al-Majakiya in Damascus with a hair from the Prophet. Ottoman officials are recorded as having donated hairs of the Prophet Muhammad to the Ayyubid mosque in Cairo where the public display and procession of hair, especially on the occasion his birthday is popular.

Many other mos ques, such as the Masjid alHusayni in Cairo and the Masjid al-Jazzar Pasha in Acre, are said to be endowed with and founded upon hairs of the Prophet, as are other institutions such as the Ribat al-Naqshabandiya in Cairo, the Mashhad al-Husayni in Damascus, and the Bahubal in India. ‘Abd al-Ghani alNabulusi states that the hairs of the Prophet are numerous in India, and it is claimed that such hairs move, grow, and multiply on their own.

Abu ‘Abdallah al-Murshidi is reported to have had twenty-six hairs of the Prophet which he acquired from one of his three visits to Jerusalem. According to al-Sakhawi’s biography, alMurshidi distributed the hairs to his followers upon his death. During his visit to Mecca in 897, al-Qastallani reports having seen the hair then associated with al-Murshidi’s grandson Abu Hamid. Not unlike the use of hair to establish places of worship and centers of learning, the al-Murshidi hair of Mecca provides a physical manifestation of the otherwise intangible link between the Prophet and later generations of followers.


This link between the distribution and collection of prophetic relics and the demarcation of territorial and civilizational boundaries is also illustrated by the transmission of other remains such as the footprints of the Prophet Muhammad preserved in stone. These footprints, each of which is called QadamRasul Allah or al-Qadam al-Shanf, are scattered throughout the area encompassed by Dar al-Islam. Perhaps the best known is the footprint in Jerusalem on the rock from which the Prophet ascended into heaven during his Isra’ and Mir’aj. Although Ibn Taymiya calls the footprint a fake because there are no hadith reports mentioning it, there are numerous sources which attest to the existence – and visitation of this relic, including accounts by Mujir al-Din al-Hanbali,5 Burhan al-Din al-Salt,6 and Shams al-Din al-Suyuti.7 Prophetic footprints are known from al-Ta’if on Mount Abu Zubayda, the Masjid al-Qadam south of Damascus, and a footprint in Medina reportedly seen by the Caliph al-Mahdi. These are all found where the Prophet left them. Others, like the hair and nails, are distributed to areas farther afield such as that brought to Constantinople and buried with one of the companions of the Prophet, Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, during the siege of the city under Yazid ibn Mu’awiya.

Footprints of the Prophet are also used in the foundations of buildings such as in the Mujahidiya Madrasa in Damascus, and the two footprints built into the shrine of Sayyid Ahmad alBadawi in Tanta. Other footprints are buried in tombs of famous leaders such as those in the mausoleum of Sultan Qa’it Bay in Cairo, Sultan ‘Abd al-Hamid in Istanbul, and that of Fath Khan, son of Firuz Shah Rajab, in the Qadam Sharif in Delhi. A number of mosques, such as the Masjid Athar al-Nabi in Cairo and the Gawr Mosque in India also contain footprints of the Prophet A number of prophetic footprints are now housed in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, and another is kept in the Qadam Rasul Building in Lucknow.


Related to these footprints is the preserved shoe or “sandal” of the Prophet, called the na’l al-nabi in most sources. Numerous literary descriptions of the sandal are known including accounts from Dhahabi, Qutb al-Din al-Halabi, and Ibn Hajar in his commentary on Bukhari. As the other relics of the Prophet, his sandals and their distribution are traced back to his earliest followers. One of the sandals originated with Umm Rulthum the daughter of Abu Bakr, and another was preserved in the Masjid al-Khalil.

Other reports demonstrate that the practice of venerating the sandal was known in North Africa and the Maghrib. In his history of Egypt, al-Nuwayri records that a sandal of the Prophet Muhammad was in the possession of Ahmad ibn ‘Uthman who was a descendant of the Companion Sulayman Abu al-Hadid. Ahmad ibn ‘Uthman asked that the sandal be placed on his eyes when he was buried.

Other sandals are mentioned in accounts that place them in centers of worship and learning such as the sandal housed in the Ashrafiya Madrasa in Damascus which Ibn Abi al-Hadid used to take on visits to various local rulers. AlMalik al-Ashraf acquired the sandal so that he could wear it around his neck like a talisman, according to Ibn Shakir. Ibn al-Hawrani reports that the sandal was buried in the wall of the Dar al-Hadith al-Ashrafiya, and in the nineteenth century it was moved by the Ottomans to Istanbul. Sandals are also reported to have been housed in the Madrasa al-Damaghiya and the mausoleum of the Sultan al-Ghuri.

Despite the objections of scholars like Ibn Taymiya, traditions relative to these prophetic relics do not appear to be related primarily to the veneration of the Prophet’s physical body. Different traditions do emphasize the miraculous character of the Prophet’s feet, such as reports attributed to ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib that the Prophet Muhammad’s feet were so matched that it appeared he was walking on air. Other hadith reports state that the Prophet’s body cast no shadow, that fire could not burn his hair, and that his sweat and spit had certain healing powers. But these traditions do not seem to be connected with the hair, nail, and footprint relics. These prophetic relics need to be seen as part of the larger context of the relics dispersed with the passing of the Prophet.

Most of the prophetic remains are artifacts with no extraordinary attributes. There are the items which were part of the Prophet’s everyday life such as his cup, shoes, cloak, fragment of his bowl, his kohl pencil, an awl for patching shoes, an instrument for extracting thorns, his turban, walking stick, and his bed. Some of the artifacts relate to the practice of religion, including the Prophet’s prayer mat, his pulpit (minbar), and his copy of the Qur’an. Others were associated with the Prophet’s role as a leader, such as his signet ring, his handwritten letters to certain families and other leaders, swords and bows, iron stirrup, armor, javelin, flags and banners. Aside from the hair and fingernails and his body buried in Medina, there are no physical remains of the Prophet.8


The Prophet’s dispatch of his Companions with his relics, and their association with the establishment of civilizational centers in new territories, is also reflected in the distribution and collection of the Prophet’s textual remains. The basic model of temporal succession and geographical distance is emphasized by the expansion of the Companions (sahabah) and Followers (tabiiin) to the civilizational centers or “camps” founded by the conquest (amsar), and by the necessity of travel among these amsar to collect the dispersed hadifh reports. ‘Abd alRahman ibn Abi Hatim outlines this dispersal of the Sunna through four generations of scholarship from the Prophet Muhammad in the Hijaz to Iraq, Syria, Khurasan, and Iran. With each generation, the Sunna was dispersed to a wider area and to more people.

According to Ibn Abi Hatim, the significance of this trans-mission is in how the example of the Prophet was being spread by those who had been in physical contact with him. They (transmitters) preserve from the Prophet what he received from God, and what the Prophet practiced, defined as practice, decided, judged, delegated, commanded, proscribed, forbade, and suggested, they memorized and acquired.9 Ibn Abi Hatim says the Prophet was himself an explication (mubiri) of the revelation, and the practice of his followers, in imitation of the Prophet, became a physical example for new people in new locations, themselves the distinguishing characteristics (ma’alim) of the religion.

This dispersal of the Sunna led to the necessity of traveling among the amsar in search of prophetic knowledge. The ömsarbecame repositories for the knowledge of the Prophet, and scholars were required to journey, often great distances and over periods of many years within the far-flung area encompassed by the Dar alHijra. Ibn Abi Hatim and other scholars, such as Abu Ishaq al-Shirazi, show that the authority of the Shari’a was based on its physical link to the practice of the PropheL This travel also entailed the establishment of solid chains of transmission which affirmed the authority of those who could trace their knowledge back to the Prophet himself. As such, the hadith reports transmitted and collected by early scholars constituted the textual remains, or a class of textual relics, of the Prophet Muhammad. Other non-textual, physical relics like the hair, fingernails, footprints, and clothing functioned like these textual relics in that they were a tangible connection between the time of the Prophet and contemporary beliefs and practices.


The symbolic character of such relics is illustrated by a fatwa from the Maliki scholar Ahmad ibn Yahya al-Wansharisi. In response to a question about the permissibility of visiting a shrine which houses a sandal of the Prophet (na’l karamd), al-Wansharisi states that there is no sensible reason to venerate a shoe. If this relic (athar) is considered great and sacred, it is not because it has any particular form nor any particular smell, but because a person considers it great on account of his [the Prophet’s] sacred character, from its connection to his noble house.10 After this, al-Wansharisi goes on to cite a number of hadith reports concerning the veneration of objects. Permission for people to wear, touch, and wipe the shoe relic is based upon this veneration focusing the mind of the visitor on the Prophet Muhammad and the sacred places where he walked. It is about bringing to mind the temporal and physical distance separating the visitor and the Prophet at the time and place when he was wearing the shoe, gone now from the person doing the veneration.

The relics of the Prophet are ordinary items the dispersal and collection of which, in the absence of the Prophet himself, seem to be a reflection of the demarcation of territory and authority. Hair, footprints, and other artifacts of the Prophet are used in the foundation of buildings, such as mosques and madrasas, which are physical manifestations of the territorial distribution of Islam and of the preserved chain of transmission from the Prophet. These buildings are designated for the transmission of the example of the PropheL just as the acquisition of hadith was necessitated by the dispersal of the Prophet’s knowledge. The amsar were founded upon the example of the Prophet and became civilizational centers as repositories for the dispersed remains of the Prophet. Footprints and other artifacts marked the tombs of special individuals and classes which had authority in the Daral-Hijra, such as sultans, jurists, saints, and martyrs. As such, the Prophet Muhammad’s relics served to mark and signify the territorial boundaries of civilization and the law of the revelation.

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