The Mausoleum of Imam al-Shafi'i

The Mausoleum of Imam al-Shafi'i

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Ismail Abaza

The Mausoleum of Imam al-Shafi'i

A look at the decorative  exterior of the mausoleum

The Imam al-Shafi'i was the founder of one of the four rites of Sunni Islam1, and is considered to be one of the great Muslim saints, although no such institution was provided for by the Quran. He was a descendant of the Prophet's uncle, Abu Talib, and came to Egypt in the 9th century.

He died in 820 AD and was interred on his side facing Mecca in the Lesser Qarafa of the Southern Cemetery. The mausoleum, with a wooden dome over the grave, was erected in 1211 by al-Malik al-Kamil, whose grave, along with his mother's, is also under this dome and only a few steps away from the Imam's. Adjacent to the Iman's cenotaph is that of Sayyid Muhammad 'abd al-Hakam. It is the first officially sponsored mausoleum to be built for a Sunni theologian after the eviction of the Isma'ili Fatimids from Egypt in 1171.

It is also the largest detached mausoleum in Egypt. Paradoxically, the Fatimid practice of building domed mausoleum for 'Alid saints as a means of promoting their Shi'i agenda and gathering popular support for the Fatimid imams was adopted by the same leaders who eradicated all signs of Shi'ism in Egypt. In fact, this mausoleum is regarded as the symbol of the triumph of orthodoxy over heterodoxy.

The Ayyubids, who inherited the Seljuq and Zengid legacy of endorsing Sunnism and abolishing all signs of heterodoxy, particularly the Isma'ili doctrine of the Fatimids, used the institution of the madrasa to propagate and disseminate the Sunni law and teachings. It was Saladin who founded the first madrasa, dedicated to the Shafi'i rite near the tomb of its founder, Imam al-Shafi'i. This was a center of a successful missionary effort, which is still predominant in South Arabia, Bahrayn, the Malay Archipelago and East Africa.

Therefore, its historical and religious significance is perhaps even more interesting then its architecture. Since the medieval ages, it has been considered to be one of the most holy shrines in Cairo, and is regarded as a source of healing emanations from the Iman's blessing (baraka).

Hence, visitors flock to this site from all over the Muslim world to recite prayers while circumambulating the cenotaph of the great legal doctor, while the sick congregate here either to be cured, or to die at this holy site. Every year a a well known moulid, or religious fair, is held here on the Iman's anniversary.

The boat surmounting the  dome of the Mausoleum

The dome of this mausoleum with its muqarnas2 squinches3, which is visible from afar, dates from the restoration of 'Ali Bey al Kabir in 1772. Like the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, it is made of two wooden shells covered with lead. We do not know how closely the present dome corresponds to the shape of the original. Jutting from its peak is a famous metal boat which is supposed to hold grain for birds, although little seems to go into it these days. Also from the restoration of 'Ali Bey al Kabir are the painted inscriptions of the interior as well as the painted decoration of the walls.

The exterior has a number of Fatimid period architectural elements, including step crenellation, interlaced strapwork 4 frieze on the cornice5, blind arches with ribbed hoods, separating rosettes6 and lozenges7. One of the window (or door) recesses is roofed by a ceiling comprising octagonal coffers8 dating from the construction of al-Kamil (1211) and is believed to be the first of its kind in Egypt.

The second rectangular, receding story of the exterior, behind which is the transitional zone of the dome, is adorned with keel-arched niches crowned with fluted shell-hoods. The "post and panel" parapet at the summit of the lower part of the exterior, also dating from 1211, displays interlaced geometrical patterns which are analogous to those employed above late Fatimid prayer niches. Each of the posts is adorned with one of two designs carved in stucco. The first is a Maghribi or Andalusian pattern consisting of Kufic on an arabesque background; the second is a floral arabesque pattern. Earlier restorations by Sultan Qaybay including the addition of the marble dada (along with an earlier dome), and to 'Abd al Rahman Katkhuda is attributed the polychrome pavement in the entrance vestibule.

The mihrab in the Mausoleum

The interior of the tomb is colorful and airy, with its mixture of different period styles. The original entrance to the tomb is on the north wall, recognizable by the coffered ceiling above the bay leading to the carved door. Around 1178-9, a magnificent piece of Islamic woodwork made of teak and imported from India, ordered by Salah al-Din and carved by 'Ubayd al-Najjar ibn Ma'ali, was placed over the grave of the Imam. Today it rests beyond a sandalwood latticework screen that dates from 1911. In the Ayyubid period the marble column marked the position of the Iman's head, while the green baize bulb representing the turban was added much later in 1892.

At the left corner of the mausoleum is a small mihrab which was added in the eighteenth century, when it was discovered that the main triple-arched mihrab did not give the true orientation to Mecca.

1. The principal form of Islam in Egypt

2. An ornamental arrangement of multi-tiered niches on domes, squinches or portals also sometimes called stalactites.

3. A structure, such as a section of vaulting or corbeling, set diagonally across the interior angle between two walls to provide a transition from a square to a polygonal or more nearly circular base on which to construct a dome.

4. Interlacing straplike bands, often used in low relief on ceilings, screens, and panels.

5. A horizontal projection that crowns or completes a building or wall.

6. A painted, carved, or sculptured ornament having a circular arrangement of parts radiating out from the center and suggesting the petals of a rose.

7. A figure with four equal sides, having two acute and two obtuse angles; a rhomb.

8. Decorative sunken panels.

See also our section on Mosques.






Reference Number

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Al Ahram/Elsevier

None Stated

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Little, Brown and Company

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ISBN 977-424-497-4

Islamic monuments in Cairo: A Practical Guide

Parker, Richard B.; Sabin, Robin and Williams, Caroline


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 036 7

Mosque, The: History, Architectural Development & Regional Diversity

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Thames and Hudson LTD

ISBN 0-500-34133-8