Hussayn, the son of Ali and the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, spent most of his life in Arabia and Mesopotamia. There are no records of him ever having been in Egypt, and his tomb at Najaf has been recognized by most Shi’ites as his final resting place for well over a thousand years. Despite all geographic and historical evidence to the contrary, local tradition in Cairo insists that somehow Imam Hussayn’s head wound up in Egypt, and is interred somewhere beneath the Masjid Al-Hussayn. Built by the Fatimid dynasty in the 12th century, the mosque was clearly intended to be a pilgrimage destination for Shi’ites in Egypt. Interestingly, despite the fact that Cairo boast many competing mosques and is predmoninantly a Sunni city, the Masjid Al-Hussayn is in fact the most highly revered mosque in Cairo. The Masjid Al-Hussayn is part of the Historic Cairo UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Fatimid Empire of North Africa was one of the greatest Shi’ite dynasties in history. The reign of the Fatimid caliphs was the only significant period in Islamic history when many Sunnis and Shi’ites recognized the same political leaders. It was probably for this reason that the Fatimids were considered among the most religiously tolerant Muslim dynasties. They were also noted for the promotion of civilization, culture and higher learning, and many of Islam’s oldest schools were founded during the Fatimid period.
However, as a Shi’ite realm, the Fatimid caliphs did have one major problem. There were no major or even minor shrines of Shi’ite signifcance within the borders of Egypt, or anywhere else in their empire for that matter as the border only went as far as Syria. All of the Ahl Al-Bayt were buried to the east: in Medina in Saudi Arabia; Najaf, Karbala, Baghdad and Samarra in Iraq; and Mashhad and Qom in Persia. In order to make Cairo a more palatable religious center for eastern Shi’ites, the Fatimids decided that Cairo needed its own shrine.
At some point in the 12th century, the head of Hussayn, the son of Ali and the second Imam, miraculously arrived in Cairo. On the surface this might seem highly implausible. However, it is known that a number of heads from the massacre at Karbala did wind up in Damascus in the 7th century, possibly including that of Hussayn. If so, it is possible that the head was brought to Cairo from Damascus to be reinterred. In 1154 AD, a mausoleum was constructed to house the sacred relic. The mausoleum, and a number of Fatimid royal tombs, would later be incorporated into a full-on mosque shortly thereafter.
The Masjid Al-Hussayn worked as planned, and it became a major Shi’ite holy site, at least to those who lived in North Africa. It became their most important shrine west of Mesopotamia, though the Shi’ites of Persia continued to prefer honoring Hussayn at his mosque in Karbala. Even after Egypt returned to Sunniism under the Ayyubid dynasty, the Masjid Al-Hussayn remained the most popular, if not grandest, mosque in Cairo. Even to the present day, the Masjid Al-Hussayn is one of Egypt’s busiest mosques on important holidays, and is considered by many Shi’ites to remain a viable alternative to visiting the war-torn shrines in Iraq.
Amidst the dozens of great, splendid mosques that Cairo boasts, the Masjid Al-Hussayn still clings to its role as one of the city’s most sacred sites. Most of the imposing edifice, including the outer walls and strange crayon-shaped minarets, is actually an Ottoman-era reconstruction which dates to the late 18th century.
The interior of the mosque is even more modern than the outer walls, with the exception of the Tomb of Hussayn. That venerable mausoleum dates back to the original 12th century construction of the mosque. The head of Hussayn, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and the second Imam, apparently rests within. Also within the mosque is a small library which contains, among other things, one of the world’s oldest complete copies of the Qur’an.
The Masjid Al-Hussayn is located towards the northern end of Islamic Cairo, just down the street from the Madrassa Al-Azhar. While the mosque is open to Muslims and non-Muslims, it is considered by most locals to be the most sacred site in the city (the President of Egypt usually prays at this mosque on major holidays). Non-Muslims may feel less welcome here than they would at most of the city’s other mosques. There is no cost of admission. Web: www.egypt.travel (official tourism website of Egypt)
The number of other sites of Islamic interest in Cairo is staggering. There are dozens of major mosques and hundreds lesser mosques, madrassas, shrines and the like scattered all over the city, especially in the district known as Islamic Cairo. In addition to the Masjid Al-Hussayn, the highlights of Islamic Cairo alone include the Citadel and the Masjid Muhammad Ali, the Madrassa Al-Azhar, and the Masjid Ibn Tulun. Other important mosques include the Masjid Amr Ibn Al-As (the oldest mosque in the city), the Masjid Al-Muayya, the Masjid Rifai, the Masjid Qijmas El-Ishaqi, the Masjid Qaytbay, the Madrassa Sultan Hassan, and the Blue Mosque. The Tomb of Shagarat Ad-Dur houses the relic of one of the few ruling queens in Islamic history.