Pilgrimage and the flow of artifacts between Shia shrines and local communities: Transmitting and circulating saintly blessing

Ingvild Flaskerud


In Twelver Shiism1, the Imams have intercessory qualities and believers pray to them for protection and help. The most beneficial way to present a request for mediation is to perform a pilgrimage or a visitation, ziyarat, to the saint’s burial place. The visitation to a saint’s tomb is regarded as recommendable and as an addition to the main pilgrimage, the Hajj to Mecca. As early as in the 9th century, Shia pilgrims to shrines in the Middle East could consult pilgrimage guides or manuals on how to behave in front of a saint’s tomb to benefit from the merit, fada’il, of the place.2 In the presence of the saint’s mediating power, the devotee should repent his or her sins and could put forward supplications to God. The cross-cultural study of pilgrimage has expanded its field of interest to include, in addition to the investigation of the pilgrimage site, the journey performed by pilgrims.3 Evers-Rosander discusses, moreover, how corporeal travel is sometimes exchanged for the physical movement of objects.4 Women belonging to the Senegalese based Sufi order Mouridiyyeh, residing in Spain, may be represented at Sufi shrines in Senegal through money they donate to the shrines. At local Shia shrines in Iran, Betteridge has observed another use of object connected to pilgrimage.5 Pilgrims may call upon the saint’s attention by binding themselves with a lock or a piece of fabric to the grating around the sarcophagus. The symbolic action is called dakhil bastan, ‘binding the request for help’ and is performed to enhance the calling for the saint’s mediation. The theoretical contribution to the discussion of pilgrimage in the present paper is the use of artifacts in transmitting and circulating saintly blessing. The analysis follows the flow of artifacts to and from pan Shia shrines, visited by Shia from all over the world, but with particular attention to the use of the artifacts in the devotees’ home location.

The often long and costly journey to pan-Shia shrines in Iraq, Syria, and Iran are beyond the financial means of many men and women around the Shia world. Instead, artifacts are brought to shines to serve as vehicles for invoking the saint’s attention in what is considered a beneficial and sacred environment. Moreover, artifacts are transported from shrines to the devotees’ home locations in order to transmit and distribute the grace, barakat, conveyed at the shrine, and thus to facilitate saints’ intercession and God’s benediction at home.

The use of artifacts to enhance and facilitate the call for saints’ mediation and protection, I suggest, combines two lines of thought. First, shrine sites are most favourable places for presenting supplications. They are permeated with the Divine grace bestowed on the saints, and with the saints’ compassionate mediating commitment. Second, fabrics and other types of artifacts may transmit devotees’ intentions, as well as divine and saintly blessing, barakat, and protection. Attention to the devotees’ home location demonstrates, however, that despite the benefit attributed to a visitation to a shrine, one may perform a visitation to a pan Shia pilgrimage site from a distance by visiting a proxy tomb. The practice draws on the Twelver Shia idea of performing a pilgrimage from a distance, the power of votive gifts to work as sites for presenting invocations, and the capacity of visual and material culture to represent people and events from the past, as well as geographically distant places.

The cases discussed draw from well-established Shia communities in Shiraz, more or less exclusively inhabited by Iranians. The field research was conducted between 1999 and 2003. In addition, cases draw from a multinational migratory setting in Oslo (Norway), which has been developing since the late 1970s. The community consists of Shiites originating from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, European converts, and a new generation of Shias raised in Norway. The field research was conducted between 2008 and 2011. The methodology combines interviews with pilgrims regarding their handling of artifacts when on pilgrimages at the shrine site and participant observation of the devotees’ use of artifacts brought from the shrine sites to their home locations.

1. Sect in Islam which follows twelve imams.

2. Meri 2002.

3. Coleman and Eade 2004.

4. Evers-Rosander 2004: 91-104.

5. Betteridge 1985: 222-224.

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