Imam Zamin

Sarah Aleem, Meggie de Castro, Susanne Geiger, Tasneem Atik-Sabri, Tasneem Siddiqui

One does not unlearn all that one has been taught once removed from the soil he or she has bloomed in. So it is also true that culture will be carried and spread from parents to children and from country to country. This is the case with the use of money, specifically coins, in a South Asian Muslim tradition called Imam Zamin. In this cultural practice, coins are wrapped in a cloth and tied around the arm for good luck and safety during travel, for example. When the person returns, a form of charity is expected to be given or a dessert is to be bought by the bearers of the wrapped coins in thanks for a safe journey. Not only is this an unconventional use of money, but it is also not a practice native to the United States. Imam Zamin, though having its cultural roots in South Asia, has come to Southern California via Muslim immigrants, and is practiced widely among the South Asian Muslim generations. The problem with cultural practices being taught outside the place of origin is that it is prone to change or is practiced among the younger generations with little knowledge of its historical beginnings. Imam Zamin, in migration and translation, has become a sub-culture in Southern California, specifically, within the South Asian Muslim community in which money is used for non-economic reasons, and is rich with religious and historical fact/significance.

In order to understand any significance surrounding the practice of Imam Zamin, and its historical inception with Imam Ali al-Ridha (Imam Reza), a proper and comprehensive understanding of the Shiite Imams as well as Sunni beliefs is needed. Near and after the death of its Prophet, Islam saw its first major schism. The division was initiated based on political reasons, but soon it sprouted religious, theological and jurisprudential differences. The disruption of the cohesive Muslim Congregation was centered on the rightful leader and successor to the Prophet Muhammad. The Shiites believe that the cousin, son-in-law, and confidante of the Prophet was explicitly selected by Providence via the Prophetic personality to keep the course of the precious Divine Message in its pristine form after the demise of Prophetic personality. The other faction, the Sunnis, believe that the Prophet left no successor and that the issue of succession should be dealt by the people and what the Prophet Muhammad had said about the Caliphate. Instead, the Sunnis viewed leadership after the Prophet as a matter of the people, and thus to be decided by them according to general criteria such as piety, justice, and even tribe. The Shiites focused on statements from the Prophet such as "O' people! Behold! It seems the time approached when I shall be called away (by God) and I shall answer that call. Behold! I am leaving for you two precious things. First of them is the book of God in which there is light and guidance... The other one is my Family (Ahlul Beyt). I remind you in the name of God about my Ahlul-Bayt. I remind you in the name of God about my Ahlul-Bayt. I remind you in the name of God about my Ahlul-Bayt." For the Shiites, the Imams were part of the two-part legacy left by the Prophet, right next to the final revelation of God. The Sunni’s never discredited the existence of the Prophet’s family, rather they hold all of them near and dear to the heart. However, they never accepted the legitimacy of ruling.

The Shiites did not regard Imam Ali al-Ridha, the Imam specific to the practice of Imam Zamin, as their only Imam, rather they believed that leadership belonged to the 12 Imams of the Ahlul Beyt, all known to be exemplary in knowledge, piety and justice. To the Shiites, only they deserved absolute allegiance and authority. As a result of the disagreement between legitimacy of governance, tension escalated quickly in the lands of Islam. Imam Ali al-Ridha was born in Medina, the city-state founded by his great grandfather the Prophet Muhammad himself. Imam al-Ridha was the 8th Imam of the Shiites.

The socio-political dynamics had changed dramatically in those 150 years following the demise of the Prophet. Following the 5 year rule and violent death of the first Shiite Imam, the rival Umayyad tribe had swarmed into power through hypocrisy, deceit and terror. Mu'awiyah, the father of the Umayyad dynasty, spent years of war against Imam Ali in the fight for control over the Islamic Empire. This overtly passive stance continued until Yazid, Mu'awiyah's son, took the throne. At this moment in history, the Shiite Imam, Hussein (the other son of Ali), refused allegiance to an ambitious Yazid, and was tracked down in the deserts of Karbala where he fought a momentous battle culminating in the death of him and his 72 companions, most of whom were the Prophet's kin. This began a very revolutionary time period in Shiite history. Revolutions would spurt up across the Islamic lands by all Muslims, both Shiite and non-Shiite, who were galvanized by the murder of Hussein. This antagonism against the Ummayad rule continued for nearly 80 years before they finally fell to another tribe, the Abbassids. The Abbassids claimed to fight to avenge the murders and transgressions committed against the Ahlul Beyt. However, history attests that the Abbassid treatment towards the Ahlul Beyt, and their followers surpassed their Ummayad predecessors in terror, oppression and violence.

In this dynasty ruled a Caliph named Ma'moun. It is this time period where Imam al- Ridha's life story unfolds. His father was imprisoned for many years, eventually poisoned in prison by the Abbassid ruler and father to Ma'moun, Harun al-Rashid. The Shiite Imams themselves kept overtly quiet on political wars. Their goal was not to give the rulers a pretext to kill their sect and all its leaders. Nevertheless, the Abbassids always bore suspicion of the Shiite Imams because of their spiritual significance to the Shiite and non-Shiite masses. In this climate, history sees a dramatic shift in policy. Instead of following his predecessor's line of imprisonment and murder, the young 25 year old Ma'moun tried to co-opt his biggest political rival. He sent orders to Medina inviting the 8th Imam to come to Iran and be his heir-apparent. Such a change in the whole dynamic of the hundred year old war shows that the grassroots power of the Imam had reached such a point that force could no longer keep him at bay.

Ma'moun's ultimate goal was to merge the Abbasid caliphate with the Immamah of the Prophet's family. He thus appointed Imam al-Ridha as crowned prince to proceed him in succession of the caliphate. In the year 202 AH, a coin was minted with the name of Imam al-Ridha on it. According to the book "The Life of the Imam Ali bin Musa al Ridha" by Baqir Sharif al-Qurashi, on the coin "It has been written in the center of the back: 'Allah, Mohammed is Allah's Messenger, al-Ma'mu`n is the vicegerent of Allah, of what the Emir al-Rida`, the regent over the Muslims, 'Ali b. Mu`sa` b. 'Ali b. Abu` Ta`lib has commanded.' "

Another perspective on the coin occurred when there was a ban on visiting the grave of Imam Hussein, issued by Harun al-Rashid. However, this was brought to an end by Imam Ali al-Ridha. Ma'moun implemented a condition that for anyone wishing to go to Karbala to pay respects to Imam Hussein, they would need to obtain Imam Ridha’s personal guarantee. The Imam gave this guarantee to everyone, establishing his name as Imam Zamin, the Imam of guaranteeing. Then, Ma'moun ordered the state mint to engrave the name of Imam Ridha on the state coins. Now the name of the 8th Imam had come in the coin so during journeys such coins were kept with the person’s body as a powerful symbol against any sort of calamities. So the Imam became a symbol of guaranteeing safe journey.

Thus, during the time period of Imam al-Ridha's life marked the start of the practice of "Imam Zamin". It become customary for people at this time to take the coin that had Imam al -Ridha's name on it and wrap it around their arms when traveling. It was believed that when a person traveled with the Imam's name, he would also be protected by the Imam's blessings on his journey. When a person arrived safely to their destination they would take the coin and give it away as sadaqa, charity, in the name of the Imam al-Ridha. The practice of Imam Zamin has this name (zamin means safety) because it relates to Imam al-Ridha who is a protector and guarantee of a safe journey.

The act of Imam Zamin is in essence a type of nithr. A nithr is a promise to Allah that a person will perform some type of religious act if certain hajaat, or needs they have, are met. In the case of Imam Zamin, Muslims make a promise to Allah that if they arrive to their destination safely with the blessing of the holy Imam, they would then give away the coin they carried on their journey and give as charity. Nithr, however can be performed in a multiple of ways. For example, some Muslims will make a promise to Allah to fast a certain amount of days if they are healed from a bad illness.

In an interview, a woman of Iranian decent in her mid thirties was asked about nithr and how she performed them. She explained that. "If a person is ill, or a person desires something, like a material possession, this person asks God to grant their request. If God assents to the request (in Farsi the request is called hajaat), this person will offer a nithr.” This is a form of sadaqah, which means voluntary charity, not be confused with zakaat, which is mandatory similar to tithe in Christianity. The nithr can take many forms within Iranian culture; it can be monetary, it can be in the form of food, or a service rendered. However the nithr must be given to those in need, sick, or dispossessed and downtrodden. In Iran people have the option to take money to the shrine of Imam al Ridha, the 8th Shia Imam. This is the only shrine of the Imams in Iran, located in the city of Mashad. Individuals can take the money to the office of the shrine and receive a receipt for their charity. Some however take the money to the actual shrine and leave for the custodians to deposit later.

Through the rule of the Persian Empire in India, South Asians adapted cultural, religious, and linguistic elements of Persian culture. One important cultural aspect that they took on was Imam Zamin, which was taken from the practice of nithr. Indians and Pakistanis observe Imam Zamin by wrapping paper money or coins of any sort around their right arm and traveling with them for good luck. Then they either give the coins to charity as sadaqah or buy a dessert with them and do fatiha, or pray over it in honor of Prophet Muhammad and Imam Zain Al –Abldeen or Imam al-Ridha, depending on their Islamic sect and familiarity with the ritual. However, practitioners of Imam Zamin, both the Sunni’s and Shia’s, put more emphasis on its cultural significance and less emphasis on its religious significance. Many of the interviews taken from the South Asian community, specifically within the Sunnis, were unfamiliar with the historical and religious significance of performing the ritual of the Imam Zamin and placed more focus on the cultural tradition they were accustomed to following.

Although the rule of the Persian Empire played a role in influencing ideas, the principles of Hindu traditions also played a tremendous role in influencing South Asian traditions. Hindu’s practice many customs similar to the idea of giving money to the “Gods” in hopes for safety and prosperity in return. It began with the idea of the husband giving money and jewelry to the wife as a wedding present, to now in present day wearing money on the grooms sleeve from guests in order to wish for health, wealth, and prosperity. When looking at traditional South Asian Imam Zamin (see the examples to the right), they are red, ornate, and resemble South Asian outfits worn in traditional weddings.

Most Sunnis do not even know who, aside from Allah, is watching over them when they travel with coins on their arms. However, they have a story about Imam Zain Al- Abledeen. When the tragic battle of Karbala was about to occur, Allah decided to make Imam Zain al-Abideen ill so that he would be unable to fight and thus be killed in the battle. He was then left to watch over the women and children. Therefore, it is seen that Allah saved Zain al –Abideen from dying in battle, therefore dedicating the Imam Zamin to Imam Zain al-Abideen will in theory save people from harm during journeys. Although Sunni’s do not place emphasis on the Imams and lineage, they do accept the existence and factual information of the Imams and the battle of Karbala. Most Sunni’s may not know the actual historical significance behind their ritual, but the story of Zain Al- Abideen is a common religious justification for a cultural practice.

Sunnis and Shias alike also view Imam Zamin as a form of voluntary charity (sadaqah) where fortune is expected in return. This relates to Marcel Mausse’s The Gift where gifts in gift economies are not given selflessly. Rather, returns are expected in the future (i.e. good luck and safety). So, South Asian Sunni’s do not place weight on the religious and historical significance of Imam Zamin, rather they relate it to culture and charity.

The Shias, on the other hand, know that Imam Zamin, or Imam Ali al-Ridha is the one who watches over them, but they still regard it as a cultural practice derived from stories and similar Imam Zamin rituals used in both weddings and on the birthday of Imam Zamin. For example, an old man in an interview told this story: One day a man was hunting and was about to shoot a deer when, right before the man could kill the deer, Imam al-Ridha came and asked him not to kill it. Imam al-Ridha said that the deer was on its way to feed its young and that if the man let the deer go Imam al-Ridha would guarantee that it would come back for the man to hunt. The man took the Imam’s word and didn’t kill the deer, and, a little while later, the deer came back so that the man could kill it (interview). After narrating this story, the old man said that this was the reason Imam al-Ridha was called Imam Zamin, the Imam who guarantees . This is very similar to the story of St. Christopher. In this tale, St. Christopher told God that he would take people across a large stream. While traveling across this stream, he carried a child that got heavier and heavier, and this child was Jesus . Today, people put pendants on their clothes or in their wallets while they travel so that St. Christopher (meaning ‘bearer of Christ’) and God will watch over them. Pendants are obviously similar to coins.

Some other Shia practices of Imam Zamin include using a form of the ritual in South Asian Shia weddings. In India, the groom’s mother, family, and friends present the bride with sweets. If the bride is veiled, she may show her face (possibly for the first time) to the groom and his family. Then, the groom’s mother ties an Imam Zamin (a gold coin wrapped in silk) around the bride’s right arm as a wish for the couple’s prosperity. This is a cultural practice that does not emphasis the religious or historical aspects of Imam Zamin.

One other cultural Shia practice dealing with Imam Zamin was related through an interview with a Shia Pakistani woman. Each year, on the day of the 8th Imam’s birthday, her community makes a statue in honor of of Imam Zamin. They place a cloth over the statue and recite the first Surah of the Quran, called Surat Al-Fatiha. They also sing Nasheeds (religious songs). Each person cuts pieces of the cloth and uses it for the Imam Zamin. This, however, may only be a small community that practices this .

Originally, the coin used in the Imam Zamin ritual was religiously meaningful because it had the name of the Imam minted on it. Today, it doesn’t matter if the coin has a picture of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson because the only thing that matters is the symbolism of the coin on the arm (interview). Ultimately, the religious and historical importance of the coin is not observed among the Shias and Sunnis. It is a cultural phenomenon passed on through stories and traditional practices such as using it in weddings and traveling.

Many immigrants have brought cultural and religious practices with them to Southern California. They have raised their children to follow in their footsteps and carry on these traditions, thus forming sub-cultures within the mainstream Californian cultural scene. As mentioned before, another example that is similar to the Imam Zamin is the Christian tradition of pinning a Saint Christopher token on clothes or storing it in a wallet during travel. Like the Muslim practice, this is supposed to bring safety to the travelers. The only difference is that the Christians take Christ with them symbolically through the token and the Muslims take Allah (swt) with them. Imam Zamin may also be used in weddings as a sign of prosperity in addition to safety in travel. Besides the Christians' use of tokens, there is an ideological division within the Muslim community - the Sunnis and the Shias have different beliefs concerning the Imam Zamin. Even more is the extension of this practice to different places like Iran, and then making its way to the United States. Immigration and preservation of culture through the next generation keeps this non-monetary use of money alive in the Imam Zamin. The only difference now is that in Southern California one can use any coin or dollar bill, not just the minted coin of Imam Reza. One does not unlearn all that one has been taught once removed from the soil he or she bloomed in - instead one accommodates, gathers, and spreads.



References and Resources
General Information:
1. A Glimpse of the Quaid. Retrieved on November 9, 2004 from the World Wide Web:
2. Al-Qarashi, Baqir Sharif. The Life of Ali Bin Musa Al- Ridha. November 26, 2004.
3. A Shi’ite Encyclopedia. Retrieved on November 23, 2004 from the World Wide Web:
4. Imam Ali Raza (AS). Retrieved on November 9, 2004 from the World Wide Web:
5. Imam Al-Zamin. Retrieved on November 24, 2004 from the World Wide Web:
6. Imam Reza. Retrieved on November 24, 2004 from the World Wide Web:
7. Iran Daily. Retrieved on November 24, 2004 from the World Wide Web:
8. Iran, Tehran: Malek Museum. Retrieved on November 24, 2004 from the World Wide Web:
9. Islamic Coins During the Umayyad, Abbasid, Andalusian, and Fatimid Dynasties. Retrieved on November 24, 2004 from the World Wide Web:
10. Muslim Weddings in Maryland. Retrieved on November 9, 2004 from the World Wide Web:
11. The Catholic Encyclopedia. K.Knight. 3 Nov. 2004. New Advent. 23 Nov. 2004
12. The Origins of the Sunni/Shia Split in Islam. Retrieved on November 24, 2004 from the World Wide Web:
13. Ya Imam Asr Al Ajal. Retrieved on November 29, 2004 from the World Wide Web:

14. Anonymous, personal interviews, November 18, 2004.
Tasneem Sabri and Tasneem Siddiqui interviewed 4 people at an Educational Center in Los Angeles.
15. Anonymous, personal interview, November 22, 2004.
Sarah Aleem interviewed 2 women at a location in Irvine.
16. Anonymous, telephone interview, December 1, 2004.
Sarah Aleem interviewed a man and a woman at a location in Irvine.
17. Anonymous, email interview, November 27, 2004.
Sarah Aleem interviewed an Islamic Scholar of South African heritage.

18. Images of Khorasan. Retrieved on November 29, 2004 from the World Wide Web:
19. Iran Online Forum. Retrieved on November 29, 2004 from the World Wide Web: images/entrances.html
20. Iransaga –Mashhad, The Holy Precinct. Retrieved on November 29, 2004 from the World Wide Web:
21. Iransaga-Mashhad, The Holy Precinct. Retrieved on November 29, 2004 from the World Wide Web:
22. Tehran <-> Washington, DC 1970-1973 Teen Girl Blog. Retrieved on November 29, 2004 from the World Wide Web:
23. The Mashad Collection. Retrieved on November 29, 2004 from the World Wide Web:
24. Travel in Mashad –Iran –Photo Gallery. Retrieved on November 29, 2004 from the World Wide Web:
25. VCoins—The Online Ancient Coin & Antiquity Show. Retrieved on November 27, 2004 from the World Wide Web:



Coins from the Abbasid caliphate, Ma’moun (AH194-218), Dirham, Madinat-al-Salam, 199AH

The Imam Zamin a 53 year old woman received upon coming to America from India. She is modeling the location of the Imam Zamin (on the right arm).
Photograph by Sarah Aleem.

Imam Zamin from India. A 53 year old was given this ornate Imam Zamin upon coming to America from India. Photograph by Sarah Aleem.

Ornate Imam Zamin. Photographs by Tasneem Sabri.

Simple Imam Zamin. Photograph by Tasneem Siddiqui.

Veer-Zaara, a Bollywood film featuring a segment that involves the Imam Zamin.

Shrine of Imam Reza, Mashad, Iran.

The Dome and Minarets of the Holy Shrine Imam Reza

Imam Reza Tomb
Imam Reza was poisoned and died in 817 in Sanabad. The place of his burial was named Mashhad ( the place of martyrdom) Imam Reza is the only one of the twelve Imams buried in Iran.