Photograph: Bernard O’Kane
Husayn ibn Ali, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was the third Imam of Shi‘i Islam. He is revered also as the son of the Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth Rightly-Guided Caliph in Sunni Islam. Following the assassination of his father and the abdication of Hasan, his elder brother, the Shi‘at Ali (partisans of Ali) in Kufa called upon Husayn to claim the caliphate from the Umayyads, whom they deemed illegitimate rulers. Ambushed en route, Husayn was killed and beheaded at the Battle of Karbala in 680 – an event which is commemorated and mourned worldwide by Shi‘i Muslims.
Following his death, it is believed that Husayn’s head was taken to Damascus to be kept at the Great Umayyad Mosque, and later secretly moved by the Abbasids to Ascalon, Palestine, so as to minimise the reverence paid to this sacred relic. In 1153 the head of Husayn was reinterred in Cairo near the Great Eastern Palace of the Fatimid Imam-caliphs, close to the graves of other caliphs whose remains the Fatimids had brought with them when they transferred their centre of rule from Ifriqiyya to their new city of Cairo. The historian al-Maqrizi (d. 1442) informs us that the Fatimid Imam-caliphs called on their ancestral graves whenever they entered or left the palace. The only tomb to have survived until the present day is that of the ra’s of Husayn, which lies inside his eponymous mosque and is still the focal point of the annual mass celebrations for mawlid al-Husayn.
The wooden sarcophagus (tabut) was discovered and then brought out from an underground room during renovations in 1939. It is signed by Ubayd ibn Ma‘ali (fl. mid-12th century) and had apparently lain undisturbed and unknown for almost eight centuries.
The sarcophagus is made of Indian teak and the panels are decorated with Qur’anic inscriptions in extremely beautiful and highly elaborate foliated Kufic and Naskh script. The whole inscription scheme is of a somewhat Shi‘i flavour. The largest calligraphic panel towards the top of the tabut shows part of ayat al-kursi (the Throne Verse), while the central panel (not seen in this image) displays a seven-pointed star. Indicative of specifically Ismaili-Fatimid theology with an emphasis on the mystical number seven, it is commonly accepted that the tabut was commissioned with an Ismaili sentiment. This unique and exquisite object is now preserved in Cairo’s Museum of Islamic Art.