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.

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.

This New Project Is Improving Health Care Quality in Afghanistan

As Afghanistan works to rebuild itself after many years of conflict, the country’s health care system remains an area of concern. Despite recent significant improvements, access to health care remains a challenge for many Afghans, particularly those living in remote or rural communities. In addition, the outdated infrastructure, lack of critical amenities and facilities, and inadequate opportunities for medical training that are standard in most parts of Afghanistan mean that it can be difficult for providers to deliver health care beyond the most basic services.

However, Afghanistan’s health care system is set to get a major boost over the next few years through the Sehatmandi Project, a large-scale program launched in the summer of 2018 that aims to improve access to and quality of health care services across the country. Here are four things you need to know about this important project.

It will cover the entire country.

Many of the development programs or initiatives that deal with health care in Afghanistan do so in very targeted areas, often concentrating either on Kabul or on rural areas in the north of the country. The Sehatmandi Project is exceptional in that its scope includes 31 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. This means that Afghans all around the country will be able to benefit from the cohesive and holistic improvements to Afghanistan’s health care system that the project aims to implement. In addition, some of the project’s key focus areas include offering underserved populations beneficial services such as nutrition management and family planning programs.

afghanistan

It is supported by a variety of national and international partners.

The Sehatmandi Project is a major, multi-year initiative with a budget to match: the total cost for the program’s three years of operation is estimated at US$600 million.

This cost will be covered by grants from three major funding entities:

The Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF)—Established in 2002, this multidonor trust fund is supported by 34 international donors under the overall management of the World Bank. It is one of the most important entities supporting Afghanistan’s ongoing rebuilding and development process.

The International Development Association (IDA)—Another arm of the World Bank, the IDA provides loans and grants to some of the world’s poorest countries, with the aim of boosting economic growth and lifting these nations out of poverty.

The Global Financing Facility (GFF)—This multi-stakeholder partnership helps governments of low- and lower-middle income countries to prioritize and finance their citizens’ health and nutrition.

In addition to these three major funders, the Sehatmandi Project involves many other administrative and operational partners, including Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health and Health Works, a global NGO based in the Netherlands.

It aims to build on the successes of a previous program.

The Sehatmandi Project is a follow-up to the System Enhancement for Health Action in Transition (SEHAT) program, another initiative operated by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health and supported by IDA and ARTF.

Running from January 2014 to June 2018, SEHAT aimed to expand the scope, quality, and coverage of health care services provided to Afghans, especially vulnerable and underserved populations. A key goal of SEHAT was to allow health facilities across Afghanistan to deliver a basic package of health service (BPHS) and an essential package of hospital service (EPHS). The successes of the SEHAT program have laid an important foundation for the Sehatmandi Project, which can now pick up where the earlier program left off and take its accomplishments to the next level.

Some of the most important achievements of the SEHAT program include the following:

Better health services in Nangarhar province—SEHAT oversaw new health initiatives in each of Nangarhar province’s 22 districts. For example, with the support of the SEHAT program, personnel at the Kama District Hospital were able to upgrade their skills and provide better care to patients, and the hospital itself received a second ambulance and a power generator.

The Kabul Urban Health Project—The Rahman Mina Hospital, a Kabul hospital that serves hundreds of thousands of the city’s residents, benefited from extensive renovations and new equipment provided under SEHAT. In addition, the hospital was able to increase its supply of critical medicines, and hospital staff received training on a new health management information system, which improved the facility’s operational efficiency.

It now includes a pay-for-performance component.

In early 2019, Aga Khan Health Services (AKHS) took over the management of health care facilities in two Afghan provinces under the umbrella of the Sehatmandi Project. In this new role, AKHS will be responsible for two provincial hospitals, five district hospitals, 24 comprehensive health centers, 158 basic and primary health centers, and more than 1,000 village health posts in the provinces of Bamyan and Badakhshan.

Interestingly, AKHS plans to operate its portion of the health system using a pay-for-performance model, which will see health service providers compensated for meeting pre-established benchmarks, including numbers of antenatal and postnatal care visits, numbers of immunized infants, and quantity and quality of major surgeries.