Shiite pilgrimages

October 14 2012

The inauguration of pilgrimages on an oecumenical scale which accompanied the propagation of the higher religions to the ends of the Earth was inevitably followed by a reaction in favour of pilgrimages of a narrower range. Any pilgrims would be tempted to travel less far afield, into less strange and hostile social milieux, if they could be assured that, in choosing an easier option, they would be earning an undiminished amount of spiritual merit; and their ecclesiastical pastors and masters might be inclined to give them such assurances under the influence of mixed motives, including a circumspect reluctance to lay on their sheep’s shoulders a burden too grievous to be borne, [footnote: Matt, xxiii. 4.] as well as a politic desire to keep their flock within geographical bounds within which they would not be exposed to any rival religious influences. For these reasons, every secession of a sect from a universal church, and every emergence of a secular civilization from an ecclesiastical chrysalis, was apt to be followed by the establishment of new goals of pilgrimage, nearer home, as at least partial substitutes for the Haramayn [ie the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina], Jerusalem, or Bodh Gayā [the site in Bihar where the Buddha obtained Enlightenment].

A classic example of the narrowing of a pilgrimage-horizon was to be found in the history of the holy places of the Shīʿah. Within less than a hundred years of the date of the Hijrah, Mecca and Medina, the two oecumenical Islamic holy cities in the Hijāz, had been partially supplanted, as goals of pilgrimage for Shīʿī Muslims, by two sectarian holy cities in ʿIrāq – Najaf and Karbalā – that had been sanctified by the martyrdoms of an ʿAlī and a Husayn; and these ʿIrāqī cynosures of the Shīʿah had afterwards been supplemented by the tombs of an Imāmī Shīʿah’s seventh and ninth imāms, Mūsā al-Kāzim and Muhammad al-Jawād, at Kāzimayn. When, in the sixteenth century of the Christian Era, the career of the Safawī Imāmī Shiʿite empire-builder Shāh Ismāʿīl [reigned 1501-24] resulted in ʿIrāq’s losing to Iran the position, enjoyed by ʿIrāq for more than eight hundred years down to that date, of being the principal stronghold of this “Twelve-Imām” variety of Shiʿism, and when, thereafter, ʿIrāq itself fell under the dominion of the Safawīs’ Sunnī arch-enemies the ʿOsmanlis, it became the policy of a Safawī imperial régime to discourage its Shīʿī subjects from making pilgrimages even to the historic holy places of the Shīʿah in an Arab ʿIraq that was now in hostile Ottoman Turkish Sunnī hands, and to divert their hungry eyes with the lure of competitive cynosures inside the Safawī Empire’s political frontiers. Persian pilgrims heading for Karbalā and Mecca were provided with alternative goals en route at Qumm and Qāshān in a Persian ʿIrāq where they could slake their spiritual thirst at a lower cost in money, fatigue, and danger without having to descend from their temperate native plateau to the sultry lowlands at its western foot, or to make the arduous transit of the Arabian desert between the Shīʿī Muslim holy cities on the Lower Euphrates [Najaf and Karbala] and the oecumenical Muslim holy cities in the neighbourhood of the Red Sea. Better still, these Persian Shīʿī pilgrims could be induced not merely to stop short of the Qiblah, but to turn their backs on it, by being directed towards the Mashhad of the Imām Rizā in Khurāsān, in the north-eastern corner of the Safawī dominions.

Isn’t the Qiblah a direction rather than a point?

Shah Ismail I, Uffizi, Florence

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

One Response to “Shiite pilgrimages”


  1. […] German atlases, Shiite pilgrimages, Appointment in Samarra (old […]


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