Shia Islam is one of the largest branches of Islam, second only to Sunni Islam in global following. The primary distinction between the adherents of Shia and those of Sunni is that Shia Muslims believe Ali ibn Abi Talib was the first Caliph, while the Sunni Muslims believe it was Abu Bakr. The largest branch of Shia Islam is the Twelver Shia, with 85% of Shias in 2012 being Twelvers. Shias base their doctrines on the Quran as well as the hadiths. They believe Muhammad divinely appointed Ali ibn Abi Talib as his successor, making him the first Imam. There are three mosques which are accepted by all Muslims as holy sites. After these three locations, the most sacred Shia sites are those associated with Muhammad and members of his family, his descendants, their companions, and the prophets.
Shia Islam's Holiest Sites
Located in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, it is the second largest mosque in the Islamic world. The mosque surrounds the Kaaba, which is the holiest place on Earth according to Islam, with all Muslims turning towards it in prayer daily. 820,000 people assemble inside the mosque during Hajj, with much more worshipers gathering outside in the streets because of their multitude. Muslims call it “the Sacred Mosque,” and believe that God used the word mosque in referring to this site along with the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem when communicating with Ibrahim (the Biblical Abraham). In the pre-Islamic period, the site of the Kaaba was used by non-Muslim Arabs in polytheistic worship.
Al-Masjid an-Nabawi is considered to be the second holiest site by all Muslims, and it is found in Medina, Saudi Arabia. Muslims call it “the Mosque of the Prophet.” This was where Muhammad settled after his Hijra (emigration) to Medina. It was originally his house, but afterward, he built the mosque on the grounds. In its original state, it was an open-air structure, while the vast expansions and decorations to come were carried out by Islamic rulers who came after Muhammad. Its basic plan is used as a model by mosques worldwide. Its most important feature is known as the Green Dome, the location of Muhammad’s tomb.
al-Ḥaram al-Šarīf is Arabic for “the Noble Sanctuary.” Located in Jerusalem, Palestine/Israel, the site contains the al-Aqsa Mosque, which both Shias and Sunnis consider a holy site. In Judaism and Christianity, it is referred to as the Temple Mount. Muslims believe that during the Night Journey, Muhammad was transported to Al Aqsa Mosque, and held prayers towards this site until he was directed by Allah to turn towards the Kaaba.
Imam Ali Mosque
It is located in Najaf, Iraq, and it is the fourth among the holiest sites in Shia Islam, and the holiest site unique to Shia Islam. It contains the burial site of Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s cousin, and who Shia's considered the first Imam and Muhammad’s successor. Shias believe that Adam and Noah are also buried within the mosque. The holy site attracts millions of pilgrims each year.
Imam Husayn Shrine
Located in Karbala, Iraq is the Imam Husayn Shrine. Karbala is a special place to Shia Muslims because this is where Hussein ibn Ali, who was Muhammad’s grandson and the third Imam of the Shias, was martyred along with his companions in 680 AD during the Battle of Karbala. Millions of Shia pilgrims flock to the city each year to pay tribute to Hussein ibn Ali and the Karbala Martyrs.
Other Holy Sites for Shia
Other holy sites in Shia Islam include the Al-Baqi' in Medina, Saudi Arabia, the Jannatul Mualla Cemetery in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque in Damascus, Syria. There is also the Bab al-Saghir Cemetery in Damascus, Syria, the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad, Iran, the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, Iraq, and the Fatima Masumeh Shrine in Qom, Iran.