“In the past, this boat hanging on top of the dome used to be filled with grain. Children of the neighbourhood would climb up and fill it with grain to attract birds, as a gesture of festivity during the moulid of Imam Al-Shafii,” explained Mai El-Ibrashi
, an architect and the head of conservation at the mausoleum of Imam Al-Shafii in Cairo, which will soon be open to the public again.
The mausoleum of this important figure is located in one of the most unique of Cairo’s ancient cemeteries,
and is currently under restoration.
"We blame our times but the fault is ours. We are the only fault in our times."
“Those who seek higher status must labour through the night.”
These and many more pearls of wisdom from the famous Islamic scholar are commonly quoted in Egypt and are part of the collective memory of Egyptians, who follow Al-Shafii school of Islamic jurisprudence.
Born in Gaza, Al-Shafii moved with his mother to Mecca after his father passed away. According to the book Diwan Al-Shafii, compiled by Mohamed Abdel Moniem Khafagi, he studied in Mecca and in Iraq, was assigned the post of judge in Yemen, and founded his school of thought in his famous book Al-Om (the mother) while teaching in Cairo, where he lived until his death in 820 AD.
Known for his grace and eloquence, he grew quite popular and attracted many followers to his teachings.
After years of restoration, his mausoleum is almost ready to be opened to the public. Ahram Online was invited to take a look at this historic site.
Restoration of the mausoleum started off since 2016, explained El-Ibrashi, and the different phases of restoration were implemented through the ambassadors’ fund for cultural preservation and the Ministry of Antiquities.
“When Imam Al-Shafii first came to Cairo, he lived in the premises of Awlad Abdel Hakam, who was from his tribe, the Quraysh. He was a student of Saida Nafisa, and after his death, he was buried in the cemeteries of the Abdel Hakam family who were the guards of the mausoleum. His mausoleum became a visitors’ site and eventually made this burial ground another centre of cemeteries,” she added, explaining that Saladin created a school next to Imam Al-Shafii.
Al-Kamil, Saladin’s nephew, installed the big wooden dome -- the biggest such dome in the Islamic era, El-Ibrashi said.
However, during the restoration, they came across a most interesting finding.
“We found walls, revealing the remaining of a Fatimid tombstone of Al-Shafii and the remains of a Fatimid-style dome that was never mentioned in history books,” she said.
“During the Ottoman period, the mausoleum was the first visit of the Ottoman walli upon arrival in Cairo. All political disputes would be discussed and resolved there, and most Ashraf and Ottoman ruling family living in Cairo would be buried next to Al-Shafii’s mausoleum,” she noted.
Aiming to tell this rich tale of tangible and intangible heritage of the place, El-Ibrashi’s restoration plan includes a visitor centre and an exhibition of all the historic relics of the place, as well as an activity area for children, to encourage a new generation of visitors to come to the site.
“It is an ideal place for students studying architecture to view Fatimid, Ayyubid, Ottoman, and modern styles in the same block,” the architect commented.
Al-Shafii’s impact on Islamic thought is remarkable. Known for his eloquence, he was known to be a student of Sayyida Nafisa, who prayed for him after he died.
He was also a renowned poet whose words of wisdom remain quite popular in Arabic.
The Diwan Al-Shafii book also reveals that his core methodology was based on the Quran, the Sunna, analogy, and then unanimity. Thus the door of ijtihad was opened wide for his school of thought which beheld the two main streams of sharia side by side: the school of thinkers, and those relying only on hadith.
Indeed, Imam Al-Shafii remains dear in the collective narrative of Egyptians. Lots of letters, among other items, are said to be addressed to him, even after his death, in order to discuss worldly disputes and injustices.
“During the restoration, the Ministry of Religious Endowments collected the letters, photos and personal belongings. However, most of the letters are affiliated with injustice, for he was almost seen as a judge. Here, each of the religious figures’ miracles has something to do with their lives. It resonates somehow with something they were known for in their life,” explained El-Ibrashi.
The boat clinging to the crescent topping the dome has its own charm. In Sufi heritage, such a boat is a metaphor that reflects a hadith on saving those who value dearly Ahl Al-Beit, the descendants of the Prophet Muhammed. Some view it also to be a reference to Imam Al-Shafii’s title “the sea of knowledge.”
As well as the tradition of children filling the boat with grain to symbolise prosperity, El-Ebrashi said that local myth suggests that the direction of the mobile boat determines the prosperity of the year ahead.