Spaces devoted to the men of the ahl al-bayt are widely recognisable in the Muslim world. Less well-known are the numerous spaces inspired by notable women in the Islamic tradition.
The Patron Women Saints of Cairo
The capital of Egypt, Cairo, is home to numerous shrines – some of which developed into significant mosque structures – that commemorate women. In the case of Cairo, some of these spaces are devoted to specific women who are often considered the patron saints of Cairo.
Arguably the most significant of these women is Sayyida Zaynab. As the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad and the sister of Husayn, Zaynab is a revered member of the ahl al-bayt who some believe is buried at the site in Cairo where the grand Mosque of Sayyida Zaynab stands today.
The resilience she exemplified in her lifetime has made her an inspirational figure in Islamic history. Consequently, the mosque-tomb that marks Zaynab is a sacred site for many that wish to commemorate her life. The space continues to exist as a focal point in the community that attracts visitors each year to mark the death anniversary of Zaynab. For others, particularly the Twelver Shia, it is believed that Sayyida Zaynab is buried in Damascus, Syria. Similar to the shrine in Cairo, the structure in Damascus developed into a large mosque-tomb complex that is visited by millions of pilgrims each year. The architectural elements of the mosque in Damascus are distinct in their association with other Shi‘i sites around the world, such as the golden dome that encloses the tomb. While this site is considered one of the holiest places in Syria for the Twelver Shia, today it remains at risk as it sits on the frontline of the Syrian civil war.
In addition to Sayyida Zaynab, Sayyida Ruqayya who is also considered a patron saint of Cairo has inspired a noteworthy site in Cairo: the Mashhad of Sayyida Ruqayya. Built in the Fustat cemetery in 1133, the mashhad, or shrine, that commemorates Ali ibn Abi Talib’s daughter is frequented by local worshippers seeking to make prayers and vows for Sayyida Ruqayya. Given the spiritual and religious significance of women like Ruqayya and Zaynab, these spaces are often associated with miracles that these women were believed to perform. The shrine has received attention, particularly among art historians, for its notable architectural features, including a prominent dome structure that sits upon an octagonal drum, and a main prayer niche, or mihrab, that exemplifies elaborate stuccowork.
Along with Sayyida Ruqayya and Sayyida Zaynab, another notable woman associated with the city of Cairo is Sayyida Nafisa. The great grand-daughter of Hasan and daughter-in-law of the sixth Shi‘i Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq; Sayyida Nafisa has become a prominent figure in Islamic tradition as a pious and scholarly woman. Like other female scholars and jurists of her time, Sayyida Nafisa is often credited with providing both scholarly and spiritual counsel to her male counterparts. One well-known example is Sayyida Nafisa’s influence on Imam al-Shafi‘i, the founder of the juridical school. It is known that she taught Imam Shafi‘i hadith and some reports claim that he wished for Sayyida Nafisa to read the funeral prayer after his death. To this day, miracles are still attributed to Sayyida Nafisa and as a result, her shrine in Cairo attracts many worshippers in hope of gaining proximity to the blessings and miracles that are associated with her.
These structures scattered acros Cairo are tangible reminders of the important role of women throughout Islamic history. While these women possess undeniable religious significance through their lineage, they have each left individual legacies that continue to inspire these spaces of worship in Cairo and the communities they house.