Anicon Holy Icon: Absence, Erasure & the Islamic Dead

Photograph by Shirin Neshat

On April 21st 1925, hijri year 1343, a group of Wahhabi militia members demolished vast swathes of the much treasured Al-Baqi’ cemetery of Medina, housing countless members of the Ahl al-Bhayt (the Prophet Muhammad’s family) and the early Muslim community. Above the sacred landscape now littered with ruin crept a waning moon transiting the first Arabic lunar mansion known as Al Sharatain, or Alnath in the Picatrix. According to said text “the first mansion is for destruction and depopulation,” the invocation to the spirit of this mansion being “You, Geriz, kill N son of N, or N wife of N, quickly and speedily and destroy them.”How unsettlingly appropriate this transit would be as the once peaceful garden of the dead was razed in quick order. As the luminous domes of Islamic history were detonated through the almost instantaneously eviscerating means of modern weaponry, one cannot help but notice the consequences of the invocation to destroy ancestral lines. As it was said: go forth and destroy whomever it may be, son of someone, whomever it may be, wife of someone, quickly, verily, annihilate them whomever they may be. 


Janat al-Baqi


Sculptures destroyed by Da'esh at Palmyra, Syria. AP photo

Largely a concept derived from the art history of religion, aniconism can be summarized as a visual style that lacks the emphasis on ‘representation,’ in this instance referring to the depiction of particular human individuals. The term has also been used to describe historical periods where images, more often than not pertaining to religious or holy figures, have been destroyed or actively condemned. In genre and in early practice the Qur’an and its legacy are decidedly aniconic in tone. Spanning the grand scheme of Abrahamic hesitations around the use of images in religious art, this is nothing new. “And when Ibrahim said: My Lord! Make this city secure, and save me and my sons from worshipping idols: Surely they have led many men astray.” Referring solely to the text we find repetitive reinforcement of the notion that idols in general will lead the flock away from God and into confusion.

In contrast to the tone of strict Qur’anic observance we find a popular religion existing in historical and cultural contexts that is often reticent to abandon the image and the individual, as well as reverence for the dead, funerary rites, and interactions with the various saint-cults of the Islamic world; the dead and the intricacies of care therein being principally untouched by the Qur’an itself. Summarized by Leor Halevi, “In the post Qur’anic discourse of the Hadith, the tenor is altogether different. To serve the dead is meritorious, a labor of religion.” Once more, “Qur’anic redactors contrived an austere monotheistic reaction to pagan rites, the proponents of the Hadith espoused a number of popular ceremonies. If, in the first case death rites had been depreciated or devalued, in the second, they were often sanctioned and even sacralized.”As time passed from the origins of Islam, the various peoples who called it their religion had to form codified means of dealing with death on an everyday basis. To refer to the Qur’an was often not enough in this context. Inevitably the divergence between strict textual doctrine and developing cultural traditions would cause a variety of problems in the Greater Islamic community; with the contexts of death, ritual, heritage, and custom being at the forefront of fractures that would persist to this very day.
To highlight a recent example of this dialectic we may look to the wars and political struggles of Iraq in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. “In Iraq, War Strains World’s Largest Cemetery: Families Resort to Digging Up Sidewalks At Night, Stealing Plots” reads a Wall Street Journal headline in 2014. Noting the immense rise in death rates due to warfare, the largely Shia driven populations have vied for placement in the Wadi-us-Salaam cemetery near the Shrine and burial place of Imam Ali, their first Imam or the fourth Caliph of the Sunni’s. Though this particular instance falls within the minority Shia population, the notion of burial or proximity to saints also exists in a majority Sunni context. In discussing spiritual genealogies of Sufism known as silsila along with the Sunni Sufi saint Ahmad al Badawi of Egypt, El-Sayed El-Aswad remarks not only on popular geographical associations with burial sites of Sufi saints or wali, but also on the widely held belief that visitation and proximity to such sites constitutes an almost fundamental practice within popular Islam. “One of the Muslim religious worldviews that explains the significance of graves, in general, and of saints’ shrines, in particular, is that they are believed to be links between the everyday life and the sacred or trans- social reality. They inhabit the space and establish an intimate bond between the human body, earth, and celestial universe. Tombs and shrines constitute a liminal world, or barzakh (eschatology or isthmus), bridging this world with the next world.”The term barzakh is worth noting as an important concept in Islamic theology in relation to the Dead. Representative of the liminal, the term is capable of containing a dual meaning that harkens to both a strict Quranic interpretation of Islam and to a more popular notion of an afterlife centered around physical locales of the dead such as cemeteries and gravesites. In this way the barzakh is illustrative of a fundamental paradox within the notion of ‘The Islamic Dead,’ or better yet, as an eschatology of the religion itself.  
Wadi us Salaam Cemetery

Unsurprisingly the practice of grave visitations and relations extends beyond the saints into more familial territories. El-Aswad again remarks “Within this broader worldview, the focus of the people is on maintaining good relationships with their saints, kin, and friends, alive or dead. This view is reflected in the Arabic phrase ‘silat al-rahim,’ which simply means keeping in touch with relatives through local means of communication of which visitation or a face-to-face bond is the most significant. Visitors are careful to recite the fatiha and supplicate Allah for the sake of the soul of the dead or saint who can hear and recognize them.” 

Graveside practices in Moorish Mauritania share many similarities with El-Aswad’s observations in Egypt. In discussing comparable practices, Fornier also likens cemetery visits to a near universal popular practice, albeit taking on the idiosyncratic flavors of the culture therein. “Visiting the gravestones (ziyârat al-qubûr) in Moorish society, as in Islamic society, is moreover designated by a specific term, ziyâra, which refers to the quest of blessing (tabarruk). This, though less known and less studied than that carried out more especially on the gravestones of those ‘very close to God’, proceeds nonetheless in the same way, by a gesture of contact with the ground of the gravestones. Moreover, when an individual looks for the ‘blessing of the dead’ (barkat bali'hin) not for himself, but for a sick person for example, he brings with him a little bit of this ground which will later be scattered on the head of the person for whom it is destined.” This particular example illustrates an interaction intended to induce a blessing or barkat on behalf of a sick individual. The use of grave dirt as a vehicle for blessing and or affect is not completely foreign to a Muslim context. With dirt being the most accessible portion of a larger physical space that interacts with the body of the deceased, it may consequently be used more frequently due to ease of access. Having said this, the ground or the dirt is not the exclusive physical means in every instance, as “It is thus less the ground in itself which serves as a vehicle for the barakat of the dead, but rather any element related to the gravestone, or more precisely, to the body which it contains.” 
Shadi Ghadirian's Qajar Series

Repeatedly the grave becomes a marker of liminal space between the world of the living and that of the dead; a place where lay folks and religious leaders may gather to pay their respects, pray, and be reminded of a spiritual world that exists beyond the confines of the day to day. Though a strict Qur’anic view would not emphasize these same time and place details, the question seems to be more along the lines of eschatology, or rather, what happens after death? Within the confines of the Qur’an itself the barzakh acts as a kind of barrier between the living and the dead. In this view death is an almost impenetrable veil wherein distinct personalities cannot return to interact with the living and vice versa. “Neither are the living and the dead alike” the Qur’an remarks, “Surely Allah makes whom He pleases hear, and you cannot make those hear who are in the graves.”

With the barzakh relegated to the position of a barrier within strict Quranic observance, we are left to wonder if it may also be seen as a permeable space located near or inside of the grave within the popular imagination. If the souls of the deceased have not permanently departed then we are left with room for potential communication. As we have seen, visitations to the grave amongst the faithful are considered quite common, yet what might there be in the way of actual interaction with the deceased? In the context of plant matter, an often invoked Hadith from Al-Bukhari remarks that the Prophet Muhammad himself left a branch of green palm tree alongside two sepulchers as a potential relief of the deceased soul’s suffering. Along with the date or palm tree, it is also interesting to note the importance of the lote-tree in Islamic legend and practice. Often refered to as the sidr, the ziziphus lotus figures prominently in the afterlife of Paradise. Consequently the ground leaves of this same tree are often used with camphor and water in the washing of corpses before shrouding and burial.



Sidrat Al Muntaha


Interactions with the cemetery and the graves therein are not necessarily limited to prayer, offerings, reflection, and other ‘sanctioned’ activities. In a most fascinating study of the Negev Bedouin, The Charm of Graves, co-author Bar-Zvi relates a story told to him by a Negev Bedouin, or folk healer, of the name Sheikh Mhammad al Faqir. The darwish tells of a group of people who visited him asking to be healed through the means of his ancestors. To accomplish this the group wishing to be healed must spend the night sleeping on particular graves chosen by the darwish, as well as procuring sheep and other domestic animals to be slaughtered at said graves. After noting an individual who was consuming an excessive amount of liquids, the same man later rose from his sleep in sheer terror. He told the darwish that the dead began to cause him pain as they condemned him for drinking alcohol before coming to the cemetery. In another instance, “a chronically ill and unbalanced man took the advice of a darwish, went to sleep among the graves, and became fully normal again. Such transformations confirm the merit of a cemetery visit. Yet to succeed in one’s mission, when visiting the dead one must fulfill certain basic preconditions. The supplicant must come with full trust in Allah (i.e., that the divine determines one’s fate); a visitor whose faith waivers between belief and disbelief will fail.”


The stories of darwish in the Negev seem to be illustrative of a much larger attitude towards the dead amongst majority Muslim populations. Although the spectrum may vary regarding the actions undertaken by any individual of the faith to interact with the dead, it would seem to be almost a certainty that the deceased are at the very least nearby or felt to be still apart of everyday life in some capacity. The emphasis on a strong belief in Allah amongst the stories of the darwish is not to be taken lightly; that is, for both the healer and the person wishing to be healed. The seemingly paradoxical views of Qur’anic observance and particular cultural and familial heritage are not seen as mutually exclusive. In other words, a faith in Allah and the Qur’an does not preclude one from interacting with the dead; in fact it often bolsters one’s ability to do so in a more productive manner. More to the point, the Negev darwish have managed to maintain a steady reputation as competent negotiators with the ‘other world’ while existing in a largely aniconic environment. Many of the Bedouin gravesites are marked with simple rock arrangements, even lacking names, dates, and other markers that we are accustomed to finding in burial sites. Between the stark desert landscape of Islam’s emergence and the fertile minds of the faithful, the dead have remained in their relationship to the living, never so exclusive, never further than the soil beneath our feet.

With the exception of the Prophet Muhammad and his life, it could be argued that Husayn’s death at Karbala best encapsulates a comprehensive view of Islam and its relationship to the dead. Though the commemorations are largely Shia, the days around Ashura hold much of the history and potential around interaction with death and mourning on a grand religious scale; perhaps something akin to lamenting the torture of Christ and the wounds inflicted therein. This profound level of devotion is shown through notes on a research trip to Bahrain undertaken during the days of Ashura (falling on the tenth of the Islamic month Muharram) by El-Sayed El-Aswad: “Husayn, son of Ali ibn Abi Talib, Grandson of the Holy Prophet and the third Imam of the Shia. He was martyred in 61H/680AD at the battle of al Taff at Karbala along with his 72 family members and followers, by the mighty army of Yazid ibn Mu’Awiyya … In the ma’tam, especially during the mortuary funerals, the shaykh narrates with great care significant episodes of al Taff in which al Husayn was martyred … (after decapitation) In yet another version the head spoke with wisdom, much like the head of Yahya (John the Baptist).” “Men walk in two rows beating the left side of their chests with their right hands and the right side of their chests with their left hands. Latmah, beating of the chest, is a sign of sorrow and grief that empowers and energizes the participants … Iconic images and replicas (tashihat) depicting certain characters and events of the battle of Karbala are displayed in the processions as well as on the street corners of sidewalks.” “In one of the ma’tam, I saw men weeping and crying when a preacher talked about the crisis of al Husayn and his family members … those who emphasize masculinity of Arab patriarchy cannot explain the intense crying men do when they remember al Husayn and his family.” In solidarity to the atmosphere of mourning black is used heavily in flags, clothing, and turbans. Once more returning to the use of soil in connection with the dead, the Shia have great respect for al Turba al Husayniyya, or stones used in prayer fashioned out of soil from Karbala, close to the tomb of al Husayn. The stones wherein the faithful place their head upon in prayer are meant to symbolize the blood that was sacrificed in Husayn’s martyrdom. 


Comprising grief, celebration, cemetery, ritual, and soil, the events surrounding Ashura span the entirety of the religion and its history while simultaneously representing extremely personal relationships of the faithful in a public setting. It is interesting to note that men now show many of the open displays of emotive grief during funeral processions. In the Muslim world women were historically known for their public displays of grieving through intense wailing as well as physicality that included self harm and blood letting in various forms. Often associated with al Jahiliyya, or the time before Islam, traditionalists almost unanimously looked down upon these practices. “According to one oral tradition, the Prophet had said ‘the one who tears at the garment (to expose) the breasts, and strikes at her cheeks, and calls by the invocation of al Jahiliyya is not one of us.’” Nevertheless, we can see the maintenance of certain funerary ritual patterns within Islamic societies. Also noteworthy are the proliferation of images in ritual theatre and street festivities during Ashura. In contrast to much of the Islamic world, the Shia have embraced representational imagery for many of their martyrs and heroes. Once more, the means for interaction with the dead in Islamic society cannot be easily contained within the neat aesthetic paradigms that  feel familiar either way; i.e. names, faces, paintings, and of course the complete lack thereof. 



Persian painting of Imam Ali, Husayn, and Hasan.



“It’s a wondrous tree, I thought (the pomegranate). Drinking the water of death for decades now, but always budding, always blossoming, and bearing fruit every spring … The living die or depart, and the dead always come. I had thought that life and death were two separate worlds with clearly marked boundaries. But now I know they are conjoined, sculpting each other. My father knew that, and the pomegranate tree knows it as well."

 Sinan Antoon The Corpse Washer


Fornier. Intercessor Status of the Dead in Maliki Islam and in Mauritania. 307.
Abi-Habib. In Iraq War Strains World’s Largest Cemetery.
El-Aswad. Spiritual Genealogy: Sufism and Saintly Places in the Nile Delta. 510.
The Qur’an. 14: 35-36  /  35:22
Halevi. Muhammad’s Grave. 207 / 53 / 119
Warnock Greer, Picatrix. 286-287.
Kressel, Bar-Zvi, Abu-Rabi’a. The Charm of Graves. 165-166. 
El-Aswad. Religious Rituals and Ashura in Bahrain. 3-7.