5 Things You Need to Know about the Abu’l Fazl Shrine

If you walk through the bustling bazaar in the recently restored Kabul neighborhood of Murad Khani—whether in person or online via the amazing Preserving Afghan Heritage platform on Google Arts & Culture—you’ll soon spot a distinctive blue minaret rising above the other buildings. This is the Abu’l Fazl Shrine, a beloved Murad Khani landmark and an important place of worship for Shia Muslims. Read on for a look at five fascinating facts about this unique site.

1. The shrine is named for a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

The shrine takes its name from Abbas Abu’l Fazl, an important historical figure who was the son of Ali, the fourth Muslim caliph. A cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, Ali became caliph in 656 and reigned until his assassination in 661. This period, one of the most tumultuous in Muslim history, eventually led to the splitting of Islam into two main sects: Sunnis and Shias. Shia Muslims, who were known as the “party of Ali” in early Islamic history, believed that Ali and his descendants were the rightful leaders of the Islamic community. However, after Ali’s assassination, his main rival, Muawiya, became caliph. When Muawiya’s son Yazid succeeded his father in 680, Ali’s sons, including Hussein, refused to accept the legitimacy of the new caliph, thus creating a division between the two factions.

2. The shrine commemorates a critical event in Muslim history.

The struggle between Ali’s sons and the supporters of Yazid over the question of who should hold leadership in the Islamic community eventually led to one of the most pivotal events in Muslim history: the massacre at Karbala, which took place in 680, the same year that Yazid became caliph. Stories about the event vary, but most accounts agree that Hussein, who was on his way to a city in what is now modern-day Iraq with a fairly small retinue, was set upon near the city of Karbala by Yazid’s much larger army. This army massacred Hussein’s entire party, including his half-brother Abu’l Fazl, and publicly executed Hussein—the shrine of Abu’l Fazl was built in commemoration of the brothers’ deaths. This devastating event permanently cemented the split between Sunni and Shia Muslims and gave rise to the longstanding feelings of betrayal and martyrdom that still persist in the Shia community. (Today, about 15 percent of the global Muslim population is comprised of Shia Muslims.)

3. Many pilgrims visit the shrine during the religious festival of Ashura.

While people worship at the Abu’l Fazl shrine all year round, the shrine sees the largest number of visiting pilgrims during the religious festival of Ashura. An important day for all Muslims, but especially for Shia Muslims, Ashura takes place on the 10th day of Muharram, which is the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar.

For Shia Muslims, Ashura is a commemoration of the massacre at Karbala, and of the martyrdom of Hussein, in particular. The day itself is marked by prayers, fasting, and many mourning rituals, processions, and passion plays that re-enact Hussein’s death. Some Shias emulate Hussein’s suffering through acts of self-flagellation or bloodletting, although this is increasingly discouraged by some contemporary Shia leaders, who instead urge worshippers to donate blood in recognition of Hussein’s sacrifice.

4. The shrine is important to the Murad Khani community for other reasons.

In addition to being the most sacred site of worship for Shia Muslims in Kabul, the Abu’l Fazl shrine plays an important role in the everyday lives of the residents of Murad Khani. Many people who live in the neighborhood believe that their residence there is intrinsically linked to the continuing health of the shrine and that their lives receive the blessing of the shrine’s power. On a more practical level, the shrine has given rise over the years to a thriving local economy—after the construction of the shrine, a sprawling bazaar sprang up to take advantage of the business brought to the area by the large numbers of visiting pilgrims.

5. The shrine was once saved from destruction by a dream.

The importance of the Abu’l Fazl shrine hasn’t always been recognized, however. According to a local anecdote as described in the 2015 book Religion and Urbanism: Reconceptualizing Sustainable Cities for South Asia, during the 1933-1973 reign of King Zahir Shah, urban planners wanted to destroy the shrine to accommodate a paved road directly through the Murad Khani neighborhood. Fortunately, the king changed his mind after a holy man visited him in his dreams and warned him not to demolish the shrine. The very next morning, the king visited the site and told workers to leave the shrine alone. Community elders often tell this story to illustrate the power the shrine is believed to have, as well the blessings it is said to bring to the neighborhood.