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Najaf is renowned as the site of the tomb of Alī ibn Abī Tālib (also known as "Imām Alī"), whom the Shia consider to be the righteous caliph and first imām. The city is now a great center of pilgrimage from throughout the Shi'a Islamic world. It is estimated that only Mecca and Medina receive more Muslim pilgrims.

The Imām Alī Mosque is housed in a grand structure with a gilded dome and many precious objects in the walls. Nearby is the Wādī as-Salām "Wadi of Peace", claimed to be the largest cemetery in the Muslim world (and possibly the largest in the entire world), containing the tombs of several prophets. Many of the devout from other lands aspire to be buried here, to be raised from the dead with Imām Alī on Judgement Day. Over the centuries, numerous hospices, schools, libraries and Sufi convents were built around the shrine to make the city the centre of Shīˤa learning and theology. Many of these were badly damaged during the rule of Saddam Hussein, with a highway being driven through the middle of the Wādī'u s-Salām.

Many great Shi'a scholars both old (such as Sayyid Mohsin Al-Hakim) and Sayyid Abul-Qassim Al-Khoei and contemporary (such as Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, and Alī al-Hussaynī as-Sīstānī) studied in Najaf. This city, along with Qom in Iran, is considered the centers of the Shi'a fiqh "school of faith".
 
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