On Shrines and Relics: The Veneration of Prophet Muḥammad in Medieval Egypt


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The preservation of the memory of the Prophet Muhammad and his descendants has deep roots in Egypt and manifests in different ways. For instance, In the early 9th century, al-Sayyida Nafisa (d. 824), a direct descendant of the Prophet, emigrated to Egypt and settled in Fustat, where she was known for her piety and interpretation of the Quran. Her house, where she was buried following the practice of the Prophet (sunna), became a sacred shrine for those who wished to commemorate her life. The heavy traffic incurred by regular and frequent visitation made the area in the immediate vicinity of her shrine a coveted place for interment. The Fatimid elite further memorialized the family of the Prophet (ahl al-bayt) by restoring or commissioning several shrines dedicated to them during the 12th century, all near al-Sayyida Nafisa, which greatly contributed to the growth of the Southern Cemetery. Commemoration of the Prophet and his descendants greatly accelerated and diversified under the Mamluks. It was during this period that personal effects said to have belonged to him were actively collected by high-ranking Mamluk emirs and notable sultans; this is in addition to the composition and circulation of textual artifacts that have been assigned a relic-like status. What unites these different practices centered on the veneration of the Prophet is that they were also used to convey authority. Given this context, this paper will examine the mechanism and conditions responsible for the popularity of such practices in medieval Egypt. It will also explore the use of prophetic relics as emblems of power that projected legitimacy, given that their acquisition coincided with periods of political transition and/or instability.

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