On Persian pilgrimages, Pakistanis and Indians reconnect with Iran


Pakistani pilgrims take a selfie at the tomb of Bibi Shahrbanu. PHOTO/Alex Shams

Atop a rocky hill southeast of Tehran sits the shrine of Bibi Shahrbanu, a Persian princess who was the daughter of the last Sassanian king of Iran. Following the Islamic conquest, she is said to have married Imam Husain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

When Imam Husain was killed at Karbala by the corrupt caliph Yazid — a battle that has become a seminal moment in the history of Islam — Shahrbanu fled and sought refuge further east.

The legend goes that when she arrived at the mountain, her enemies were close behind her; at the mountain’s base she prayed for deliverance, and the rocks opened up and took her in, protecting her from being enslaved by her husband’s murderers.

The legend has long attracted Iranian pilgrims to the shrine.

Shahrbanu perfectly brings together two key parts of Iranian identity: the Persian past and the Muslim present.

These days, if you visit the shrine you’re just as likely to encounter Pakistani or Indian pilgrims as you are Iranians.

On a recent visit, I found a large Pakistani tour group in the majority among smaller numbers of Iranian and Iraqi pilgrims.

A Pakistani visitor I spoke to said the tour had driven overland from Karachi to visit the major shrines at Mashhad and Qom. They were ending their trek across Iran’s holy sites at Bibi Shahrbanu’s shrine.

These flows of pilgrims are part of a growing network of Muslim shrine tourism that connects Iran and the countries around it, especially Pakistan, India, Iraq, Lebanon and the Persian Gulf.

The pilgrimages are focused on the shrines of the 12 Shia imams. Although most of the tombs are in Iraq, some are in Iran, and as the latter is safer and easier to access, it has become a major centre for pilgrimage.

The main sites are Mashhad, which hosts the tomb of Imam Reza, the eighth Shia imam, and Qom, which hosts his sister’s tomb, along with smaller tombs of the relatives of the 12 imams in Tehran.

Many tours visit both Iran and Iraq in one trip, while others concentrate solely on Iran.

Although the majority of pilgrims are Shia, many Sunnis come too. This is especially true for India and Pakistan, where the Shia imams are historically revered by many Sunnis as well.

Signs of the South Asian pilgrimage boom are visible in any Iranian shrine city. In Qom’s old city, Urdu signage competes with Persian and Arabic.

Twenty million pilgrims visit Qom every single year. While the majority are Iranian, they are joined by Muslims from both East and West.

Persian cosmopolis

When we think of cosmopolitanism, we often think of places like Dubai, where people from different countries come for work — but in Iran, there is a shrine cosmopolitanism that draws together worshippers from across the world.

Pilgrims from both Pakistan and India come, meeting each other in bazaars and mosques, and they in turn meet Iraqis, Lebanese, Afghans and many others.

While in Dubai all these people might be around, the neoliberal economic structure and stratification of society between rich and poor segregates national and economic groups.

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