Atabat, or exalted thresholds, are the Shi ite shrine cities located in modern Iraq. The atabat contain the tombs of six of the Shi ite imams as well as other pilgrimage sites. The atabat are located in Najaf, Karbala, Kazamayn, and Samarra. Najaf is the burial place of Ali b. Abi Talib, cousin and sonin-law of the prophet Muhammad, and first in the line of Shi ite imams, who died in 661 c.e. Karbala is where Husayn, Ali's son and the third imam, was martyred in a battle against the Umayyads (r. 661–750 c.e.) in 680 c.e. It is a cornerstone of Shi ite belief that Husayn, courageous and principled, went to battle against all odds, and his demise prefigures and embodies the fate of all those who take an active stand against oppression and injustice. The site of Husayn's martyrdom had emerged as a Muslim holy site by the middle of the seventh century. Kazamayn entered the sacred landscape of Shi ism in the ninth century, as the burial site of the seventh and ninth imams, Musa al-Kazim (d. 802 c.e.) and Mohammad al-Taqi (d. 834 c.e.). Kazamayn is also the burial site of many a medieval Shi ite luminary. Samarra, which lies at a distance from the rest of the atabat, contains the tombs of the tenth and eleventh imams, Ali al-Naqi (d. 868 c.e.) and Hasan al-Askari (d. 873 c.e.). The twelfth imam entered occultation in Samarra in 941 c.e.
The atabat are also significant as centers of Shi ite learning. Najaf has housed, since the time of the Shaykh al-Ta ifa Abu Ja far Muhammad Tusi in the eleventh century, several educational institutions whose scholarly and financial networks have played an important role in determining intellectual and political trends in modern Shi ism.
Under Ottoman and later under Iraqi control, the atabat have served in recent history as havens against government persecution for those Iranian Shi ite scholars of the Qajar and the early Pahlevi periods who have spoken out against the ruling establishment at home. Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, was exiled to the atabat (Najaf) by Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlevi in 1963. In turn, after the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, those clerics opposed to the religious and political stance of the ruling hierarchy of the Islamic Republic have used the atabat as relatively secure bases from which to continue their doctrinal warfare against the religious establishment in Iran. However, it must also be borne in mind that since the 1980s, the Shi ite community and religious leaders resident in the atabat were themselves targeted by the Ba thist government of former President Saddam Husayn in Iraq. Minority leaders, the ulema of the atabat, especially of Najaf and Karbala, have been subjected to numerous incarcerations and assassinations, intensified in the wake of the first Gulf War (1991).
Another important feature in the social fabric of the atabat, directly related to their centrality in settling doctrinal orthodoxy and implementing political agendas, is the vast network of patronage and the nature of finances in the shrine cities. These networks are comprised mainly of donations and religious dues provided by the Shi ite communities worldwide, with significant portions from the merchant classes of northern India, to the maraji al-taqlid who reside there.
Cole, Juan R. I. "Indian Money and the Shii Shrine Cities of Iraq, 1186–1950." Middle Eastern Studies 22 (1986): 461–480.
Litvak, Meir. Shi i Scholars of Nineteenth-Century Iraq, TheUlama of Najaf and Karbala. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.