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.

8 Things to Know About One of Afghanistan’s Biggest Holidays

Earlier this summer, during the first week of June, Muslims all around the world gathered together to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the festival that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. In Afghanistan, as in most other countries with significant Muslim populations, Eid al-Fitr is one of the most important traditional holidays, and it is welcomed with great enthusiasm by Afghans all across the country. Read on for a look at eight interesting facts that you might not know about Eid al-Fitr in Afghanistan.

1. It celebrates the end of a long fast.

One of Islam’s most sacred traditions, Ramadan is a period of ritual fasting that honors the month when the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed. During Ramadan, most Muslims do not eat (or drink) from dawn until dusk, and they may also abstain from activities like smoking or taking medications. Eid al-Fitr is the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, and consequently, the end of fasting. Appropriately enough, therefore, the literal translation of Eid al-Fitr is “Festival of the Breaking of the Fast” or “Feast of Fast-Breaking.”

breaking fast

2. It begins with the sighting of the new moon.

Like Ramadan, the start of Eid al-Fitr is determined by the date and time that the new moon is first sighted. This means that most of the time Muslims must wait until the night before Eid to verify the exact timing of the festival. Many Muslim countries depend on local moon sighters to catch the first glimpse of the new moon; when the sighting has been confirmed, the beginning of Eid is declared at mosques and on television and radio stations. For uniformity, some Muslim regions choose to celebrate Eid when the new moon appears over the holy site of Mecca, rather than over their own location.

3. It is held on different (Gregorian) dates every year.

The Gregorian calendar, in use in many parts of the world, is based on the solar cycle, whereas the Islamic calendar is based on the lunar cycle, which means that months start and end with each new moon. Therefore, because lunar months are slightly shorter than solar months, Eid al-Fitr always arrives about 10 days earlier than it did the previous (Gregorian) year.

4. It usually lasts for at least three days.

The festival of Eid al-Fitr and its associated celebrations traditionally last for a three-day period. In many countries, including Afghanistan, all three days are observed as national holidays. However, depending on where Eid al-Fitr falls during the week, the festivities can sometimes last longer. For example, if the three days of Eid occur mid-week, it’s not uncommon for the celebrations to last all the way through the weekend.

5. Cleanliness and grooming are an important part of Eid al-Fitr.

On the first morning of Eid al-Fitr, Muslims begin the day with a ritual called “ghusl,” a ceremonial cleansing of the body. Then, they will often dress in new clothes—some people wear traditional dress from their country or region, while others choose contemporary clothing. In some areas, women will decorate their hands with intricate henna designs.

6. The festival begins with prayers.

After getting dressed, Muslims gather together with their families and communities for morning prayers. These prayers are usually followed by a special sermon and a prayer known as the Salat al-Eid. The prayers are often held at local mosques or in large halls, but in many countries, people also gather for prayers outdoors. After prayers, the rest of the day is spent visiting and celebrating with family, friends, and neighbors. In some countries, people also visit cemeteries to offer their respects to late family members.

Prayer
Image by DVIDSHUB | Flickr

7. Special dishes and meals are prepared.

Since Eid al-Fitr is a festival that marks the end of a month of fasting, it’s not surprising that food plays a major role in the celebrations. (In fact, voluntary fasting is actually not allowed on the first day of Eid al-Fitr, as Muslims are instead encouraged to feast and celebrate the conclusion of a month of fasting and worship.) Each country has different traditional foods that are prepared before Eid begins or on the morning of the first day; many of these foods are sweets or desserts, but savory dishes are also important. In Afghanistan, a dish traditionally prepared and eaten at Eid is bolani, a type of flatbread stuffed with different fillings like spinach, lentils, potatoes, or pumpkin.

8. Gifts are given.

To celebrate the end of a month of sacrifice and abstinence, Muslims embrace abundance during Eid al-Fitr. This means not only abundant food, but gifts as well. The most common gift at Eid is money, but flowers or goods for the home may also be given. Known as “Eidi,” gifts are most often given to children, who are a special focus during the Eid al-Fitr celebrations.