Relics and the Religious Topography of Cairo

Richard McGregor

Professor of Islamic Studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville

icon-calendar Tuesday November 26ᵗʰ, 2019 at 5:00 p.m

Thanks to the precise study of the path and destiny of certain relics (the heads of al-Ḥusayn,  Muḥammad b. Ibn Abī Bakr or Alī Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn, prayer mats, footprints, turbans…), it is possible to write a history of Muslim piety and political power games. The Sufis traditionally link the cult of the relics to the following Qurʾānic verse: “And their Prophet said to them, ‘Surely the sign of his kingship is that the coffer will come up to you; in it (are) a Serenity from your Lord, and a remnant of what the house of Mûsâ and the house Hârûn left (behind), the Angels carrying it. Surely in that is indeed a sign for you, in case you are believers’”(Q. 2 (al-Baqara), 248). Among the sultans who have most encouraged the veneration of relics, the case of al-Ḥākim bi-amr Allāh (d. 411/1021) is significant. He built mosques in Cairo to house relics of the Prophet that he had stolen from Madinah and organized prayers for the flooding of the Nile. In the following centuries, these relics were moved to other places: Ribāṭ al-Āṯār, the mausoleum of al-Ġūrī, the mosque of al-Sayyida Zaynab, the ministry of Awqāf at the Citadel, the palace of ʿAbdīn and the mosque of al-Ḥusayn, where they are today. It is striking to note that despite their popular and political importance, it is not easy to follow the relics in textual sources, where they constantly appear and disappear.

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