There was a schism in Islam over the rightful successor to the prophet Muhammad. Sunnis believed it was the ruler of the caliphate. Shias believed it was Muhammad’s son-in law (and cousin), Ali. They followed Ali and his descendants, called them Imam and believe that only they had the authority to interpret the Qur’an directly. Imams’ interpretations account for most of the things that make Shias different today.
Most Shias believe there were twelve Imams. They’re called ‘twelvers’. Imams continue to be revered like saints. Eleven are buried in elaborate tombs. Pilgrims visit their shrines to remember their stories and pray to them. The twelfth, Mahdi, disappeared some fifteen hundred years ago. Shias believe he is in hiding and will return to lead his people through the day of judgement. Apparently Jesus is also expected to tag along.
The Holy Shrine in Mashhad houses the remains of Reza, the eighth Imam. His importance seems to stem from three places. First, he’s an Imam, and they’re all pretty important. Second, he died in what became Iran, by far the largest and most powerful Shia state, and his tomb is consequently more accessible than others in Saudi and Iraq. Third, he was killed by a caliph who was jealous of his religious influence. The idea of martyrdom is especially important to Shias; reliving the story of his death is an essential part of the pilgrimage and one which is understood to cause significant anguish.
We visited the shrine around the time of evening prayers. It is massive and it was packed. It is the largest Mosque in the world by size, and only Masjid al-Haram in Mecca beats it for capacity. The only other time I’ve seen as many people at once has been at big sports games, and there was something of a stadium atmosphere. The night was chilly and dark but the lights overhead would have been plenty strong for a football match. Pilgrims sat on neat rows of prayer mats all facing in towards the action. Others queued for water and plastic bags to hold their shoes, or milled about in doorways and concourses. Prayers were broadcast over loud speakers. It was at once intense and orderly.
Muhammad the cleric, fresh from his attempted indoctrination of Fiona, guided us around the shrine complex. This was lucky because its crowds and size are disorienting. But also because of the things he could point our that we could not see: the senior cleric being escorted by three burly bodyguards (very Brian Tamaki), the office where you can pay money in the hope of expediting your prayers to the Imam (Muhammad assured us this works) and the language of clerics’ turbans which apparently indicate whether or not their father is still alive.
As a cleric Muhammad also seemed to be a minor celebrity. Pilgrims would come up to him to talk, he’d put on his listening face and preach to them quietly. We assumed he was giving out deep spiritual guidance but apparently he was addressing more practical questions about how many times per day pilgrims had to pray. In a possibly rare act of pragmatism Imams made special forgiving rules for travelers.
I’ve always liked the idea of pilgrimages. They’re an outlet for religious devotion that isn’t missionary and I understand why it might be moving to be somewhere that is important to your faith as a way of deepening it. I’ll never observe the the hajj pilgrimages to Mecca because they’re for Muslims only. But the pilgrimage to Mashhad is approaching that same level of significance. As Muslims who have visited Mecca can add Hajji to their name, those who have made it to Mashhad can call themselves Mashti.