After the Prophet Muhammad died in 632 CE there was a disagreement as to who should be in charge of the Islamic state. Most believed it ought to be Abu Bakr,Muhammad’s closest friend. Indeed, this was the case, and Abu Bakr became the first caliph of the “Rashidun,” or the ‘rightly-guided.’  However, a minority believed that the successor must be a blood-relative of the Prophet, and that the only true leader was the fourth caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib, cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad. This created the first division in Islam, and gave rise to the sects of Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. The town Al-Najaf is an extremely sacred place for Shi’a Muslims as it is the burial place of Ali ibn Abi Talib. According to Ross Dunn, “For Twelver Shi’a, the largest of the Shi’i sects in Islam, it is the center of the holy pilgrimage, second only to Mecca” [1]. Such importance is attributed to the site, that the mosque in Al-Najaf is said to encompass the tombs of the Biblical Adam and Noah from thousands of years before.

Ibn Battuta visited Al-Najaf for only a brief time because he was a Sunni. While the town and the Mosque of Ali is important to all Muslims, its importance is not as strong for a Sunni like Ibn Battuta as for a Shi’a Muslim. Ibn Battuta was accepting of Shi’a Muslims. In fact, he quite often would use terms to degrade them in some way, often calling them “Rafidis” [2]. While in Al-Najaf, Ibn Battuta learned of a Shi’a ritual called the “Night of Life”. Any handicapped person in town would be brought to the mosque on a special night. After uttering prayers and bathing in rose and holy water, it is said that the person would be cured of the handicap. The ritual was foreign to Ibn Battuta, but to the Shi’ites of that region, this night was extremely important.

Al-Najaf is located in modern day Iraq, south of Baghdad and Karbala. The majority of Muslims in Iraq today are Shi’a. Najaf is still home to the mosque of Ali, which receives thousands of visitors a year. Though Iraq has been troubled by war since 2003, many Shi’a Muslims continue to visit the Shrine of Ali.



[1] Dunn, Ross. The Adventures of Ibn Battuta. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005.

[2]Macintosh-Smith, Tim. The Travels of Ibn Battutah. London: Picador, 2003.