The Sayyeda Zaynab and Bibi Pak Daman Shrines and the Construction of Modern Shi’a Identity

Saturday, January 4, 2020: 2:30 PM
Metropolitan Ballroom West (Small) (Sheraton New York)
Noor Zehra Zaidi, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
How is history and memory understood in Shi’a shrine and how are these spaces made sacred? This paper focuses on the hagiographies and debates surrounding Bibi Pak Daman, a small shrine in Lahore that has become a microcosm for conflict over history and public religiosity in Pakistan. The shrine has long been subject to a range of theories regarding its origins. The most widely disseminated claim is that the main mausoleum in Bibi Pak Daman belongs to Ruqayyah bint Ali, daughter of ‘Ali ibn Abu Talib. Hagiographies and narratives written about Bibi Pak Daman have capitalized on transnational collective memories of Karbala and reinterpret their significance to local contexts. Bibi Pak Daman shortened the distance of time and space, enabling devotees far removed from the lands of Karbala to access the communal memory of suffering – with memory and legend often framed as history.

The contention that a daughter of ‘Ali was buried at the shrine did not go unchallenged, however, especially among the shrine’s Sunni visitors. Amidst a rising militancy of conservative Sunni theology, Ruqayyah’s history in Pakistan would come to represent an alternate version of Islam - transmitted by a woman, miraculous and spiritual rather than retributive, and, most critically, coherent with a Shi’a vision of history and theology.

Using hagiographical texts as primary sources provides a way of understanding transnational historical perspective that is grounded in the specific. These narratives shaped pilgrims’ understandings of the shrine and their place on a map of Shi’a sacred space, but they also reveal why particular frameworks were constructed and how the symbiotic link between space, meaning-making, and the conditions that make meaning were forged.

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