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.

Spotlight on the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat

Aga Khan Agency

Through its various branches and agencies, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) is responsible for a wide range of development projects and initiatives in Afghanistan, from the restoration of culturally significant public spaces to the creation of improved health care facilities and resources. Today, we take a look at one of the AKDN’s agencies, the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat (AKAH), which is responsible for helping Afghanistan and its people to cope with one of the most devastating challenges that they face: natural disasters.

How Afghanistan Is Affected by Natural Disasters

Due to its geographic location, years of environmental degradation, and a number of other factors, Afghanistan is highly susceptible to severe and recurring natural hazards and disasters. Given that Afghanistan is located in a high seismic activity zone, earthquakes are frequent, particularly in the northern and northwestern parts of the country. Since 2000, about nine major earthquakes have occurred. Earthquakes of all sizes often trigger landslides, which can have a destructive impact. In the spring, melting snow and heavy rains commonly cause flooding all over the country, and the effect of these floods can be particularly severe when they are preceded by periods of drought.

The devastation caused by these high rates of natural disasters place a huge burden on Afghan citizens, who struggle to stay resilient in the face of such emergencies due to factors such as severe poverty and poor infrastructure. According to data from the World Bank, natural hazards and disasters in Afghanistan have affected 9 million people and caused more than 20,000 fatalities since 1980, and those figures are only expected to rise given the increasing threat of climate change and its anticipated impact on natural disasters.

An Overview of the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat

AKAH, which was previously known as Focus Humanitarian Assistance, is one of the most important entities dedicated to resilience in the face of natural disasters in Afghanistan. AKAH engages with Afghan communities, primarily those in remote mountainous areas and rural regions, to build and support their capacity to cope with natural disasters and other complex emergencies.

AKAH’s broad approach focuses on predicting where and how natural disasters and emergencies could impact homes, communities, and livelihoods; identifying the structural and non-structural interventions that could help prevent or mitigate these disasters; and supporting communities and local and national governments to reduce their vulnerability to risk.

Focus Areas of the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat

In order to help Afghans better prepare for and cope with the effects of natural disasters and emergencies, AKAH operates a range of programs and initiatives across several different focus areas. They include the following:

Disaster Risk Reduction – For over a decade, AKAH has operated a disaster risk reduction (DRR) and emergency preparedness program in Afghanistan’s mountainous communities. The program’s model consists of community-based DRR activities; safety initiatives for public facilities such as schools and hospitals; capacity building efforts for local governments; and national advocacy for wide-ranging DRR policies and programs. One of the most important elements of the program is the communities that play a hands-on role in their own protection and preparedness. For example, community members conduct a Hazard Vulnerability Risk Assessment to identify evacuation routes and safe refuges, as well as to establish their own community-based emergency response teams.

Capacity Building – Providing support to communities in creating and maintaining community-based emergency response teams (CERTs) is one of AKAH’s most important capacity-building initiatives. Through this program, AKAH helps to ensure that CERTs are established in the communities that need them most and that these teams are properly equipped and trained. For example, CERTs receive AKAH-supported training in areas such as first aid, search and rescue, health and hygiene, communication and coordination, and early warning systems.

Community-Based Interventions – AKAH works directly in areas that are most likely to be affected by natural disasters in order to help these high-risk communities mitigate hazards and respond effectively when necessary. Some of the particular interventions that AKAH has carried out over the years include: the creation of village disaster management plans for over 400 villages; more than 100 small-scale structural risk mitigation projects, which includes clearing flow channels of debris and terracing against avalanches; the development of school disaster management committees in schools, as well as school seismic retrofitting projects in five schools; and the development of three community-based flood early warning systems in riverside areas.

External Partnerships – In order for a response to natural disasters to be most effective, it’s important to have strong communication and coordination among the various entities involved in relief efforts. AKAH helps to achieve this by building strong external partnerships with other programs, agencies, and government ministries, as well as by taking a central role in disaster management coordination. AKAH is one of the primary response institutions in Afghanistan’s Provincial Disaster Management Committee; an active member of Afghanistan’s Disaster Risk Reduction platform; a co-chair of the Disaster Risk Reduction Clusters for Food Security and Agriculture; and a partner of many other institutions, including Afghanaid, Save the Children, the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, and a variety of United Nations agencies.

How Afghanaid Makes Life Better in Afghanistan

Afghanaid

For over 35 years, the British humanitarian and development organization Afghanaid has been working to improve the lives of millions of Afghans who are vulnerable and underserved. The organization it maintains a presence in some of Afghanistan’s poorest and most remote communities.

Afghanaid develops and runs programs across a broad range of focus areas, including basic service delivery, livelihood enhancement, emergency assistance, and disaster risk reduction. Through the organization’s community-led approach, ordinary Afghans play an important role in their own development. They have the opportunity to become active participants in shaping not only their own futures, but the future of their country as well.

Afghanaid’s recent and current projects include:

1. Restoring Mine-Contaminated Land

For the past two years, Afghanaid has worked in partnership with the HALO Trust, a charity focused on land mine clearance and mine risk education. Due to the decades of conflict it has experienced, Afghanistan is one of the world’s most heavily mined countries. Many regions are still littered with unexploded ordnance.

This makes life extremely difficult for the 80 percent of Afghans who rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. When land cannot be used for crops or grazing because of land mine contamination, whole communities are trapped in poverty and lives are put at risk on a daily basis.

Afghanaid is working to address this issue by coming to areas that the HALO Trust has cleared of mines and unexploded ordnance. It then helps local families rebuild their livelihoods by making good use of their cleared land.

In Samagan and Logar provinces, for example, Afghanaid has provided training in improved agricultural techniques, orchard and greenhouse management, and poultry rearing to nearly 3,000 people. The organization has also supplied the technical assistance and tools needed to transform this previously dangerous land into a valuable, productive resource.

landmine

2. Improving Livestock and Animal Welfare

Most families and households in rural Afghanistan rely on animals, whether for food, transportation, or economic livelihood. Despite this dependence, however, few Afghans have the skills, knowledge, or resources to provide proper care for their animals. In addition, access to experienced veterinarians is rare in remote regions.

As a result, the well-being of many animals is seriously compromised. This negatively impacts both the animals themselves and the people who rely on them.

To help improve animal welfare in rural Afghanistan, Afghanaid recently launched a new partnership with the international equine welfare charity Brooke. This collaborative project will see Afghanaid working in Daykundi province to provide mentorship and specialized training to vets as well as education for farmers regarding the benefits of good animal welfare and the importance of veterinary services.

The organization will also teach farmers critical animal husbandry skills, such as appropriate animal handling, proper housing and feeding, and the identification of diseases. The aim of this initiative is to create a “virtuous cycle” in which improvements to animal welfare lead to greater productivity, which in turn leads to greater prosperity.

3. Responding to Severe Drought

Recent years have seen Afghanistan struggling with severe drought. Because of the resulting water shortage, crop yield has been much lower than usual for the past several seasons. As a result, many rural households have insufficient food for either themselves or their livestock. This has led to significant income reduction and has greatly increased vulnerability to environmental and economic crises.

This devastating situation has left thousands of Afghan families in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. In coordination with the World Food Programme and local partners in Afghanistan, Afghanaid has worked to provide essential food and supplies to nearly 11,000 struggling families in Ghor province, which has been one of the regions hit hardest by drought.

With this assistance, these households can stave off hunger and malnutrition. In addition, they can avoid the negative coping strategies (such as selling off livestock at a very low price) that are unfortunately common in these extreme situations.

drought

4. Promoting Sustainable Use of Natural Resources

When Afghan families in rural areas need food, water, fuel, medicine, and construction materials, they often turn to the forests, rangelands, and rivers that surround them. However, over the years, a lack of proper regulation and oversight of these resources has led to severe depletion and deterioration of many of these natural systems.

Today, the strain on Afghanistan’s natural ecosystems is even further exacerbated by increasing pressure from rapid population growth, rising land prices, climate change, and recurring natural disasters. This is not only problematic from an environmental point of view, but a social one as well. Resource scarcity is often a significant factor in ethnic, political, and regional conflicts.

To help transform scarce natural resources into sustainable assets, Afghanaid is embarking on a major four-year project in collaboration with the Liaison Office, an Afghan NGO, with support from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. Taking place in Daykundi province, the project will support 4,500 rural families as they learn to more effectively manage the natural resources they depend on.

A key element of the initiative will be the creation and training of local rangeland management associations. This will help communities work together to manage rangelands in a way that is equitable, inclusive, and sustainable.