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Imamzadah, literally "one borne of an imam," refers to a descendant of a Shi˓ite imam and, by extension, to a shrine where such a descendant is buried. Imamzadahs exist throughout the Shi˓ite world; their relative importance is determined by the perceived legitimacy of their genealogy. The major tombs of Zaynab, daughter of the first imam, ˓Ali b. Abi Talib, and Ruqayyah, daughter of the third imam, Husayn, are located in Damascus, Syria. Prominent imamzadahs in Iran include the tomb in Qum of Fatimah, also known as Ma˒sumah, sister of the ninth imam, Riza, and the tomb of Ahmad b. Musa, popularly known as Shah Cheragh (King Light) in Shiraz. Imamzadahs of less-certain provenance are venerated in cities, towns, and the countryside. Although formally educated Shi˓ites often disdain less well known imamzadahs and view fervent devotion of them as tantamount to idolatry, those who visit imamzadahs approach the shrines with sincere faith and affection. Imamzadahs are regarded as accessible local representatives of divinity, and are appealed to as intercessors.

Pilgrimage to an imamzadah is known as ziyarat, a formal personal visit. The amount of time spent visiting an imamzadah is proportional to the saint's importance. For example, three days are considered appropriate for a visit to Hazrat-e Ma˒sumeh; one day suffices for ziyarat to Shah Cheragh. Cursory visits are paid to small neighborhood shrines. Pilgrims visit the shrines in much the same spirit as they would visit senior relatives.

Imamzadahs have distinct characters, and are often regarded as having specialties related to the character and personal history of the individual to whom they are dedicated. For example, the Seyyed ˓Ala al-din Husayn shrine in Shiraz, burial place of an imamzadah who died at thirteen years of age, is renowned as a site where children may be cured. Other shrines cure particular diseases or provide special kinds of assistance. Female imamzadahs are particularly responsive to women's and girls' concerns, such as the desire to find a suitable husband or have an easy childbirth.

Visits to small local imamzadahs are popular among many women. Men are more numerous at formal religious sites, which are generally less comfortable places for women to spend time. Locations of imamzadahs are suggested by dreams or the discovery of old tombstones, and confirmed by the occurrence of miracles. Graves of popular imamzadahs are marked by zarihs, often elaborate barred enclosures that surround the tombs and protect them from visitors anxious to carry away some of the shrine's blessing, or barakat. Letters of petition addressed to the saints as well as money and gifts may be placed inside the zarih to signal vows made or answered. Shrines that attract many visitors may be divided into separate men's and women's sections, each on one side of the zarih.

Political figures eager to demonstrate their piety may pay well-publicized visits to prominent shrines or assure that the shrines are refurbished with government funds. Since the advent of the Islamic Republic in 1979 in Iran, imamzadahs in that country have received a great deal of official attention and investment. Shrines are maintained by support from donations given to the imamzadahs or, lacking these, from the government endowments (awqaf ) office. Popular imamzadahs are frequently located near bazaars, which benefit from the flow of pilgrims. As sacred space, shrines can provide sanctuary and often serve as focal points for Shi˓ite rituals, such as ˓Ashura observances.

See alsoDevotional Life ; Dreams ; Imam ; Pilgrimage: Ziyara ; Religious Beliefs ; Religious Institutions .


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Anne H. Betteridge