Considering that Iran is the predominant Shi’ite nation of the Islamic world, it is ironic that most of their holiest shrines lie within the borders of other nations, particularly those which have been hostile towards Iran and the Shi’ites for many centuries. Because of this Iranians have spared no expense on those sacred mosques which lie within their own borders. Of these, the greatest is the Masjid imam Ridha in Mashhad, site of the Tomb of the 8th Imam, Ali ibn Musa, the only one of the Twelve Imams to be buried on Iranian soil. Its distance from the Sunni Arab regions of Mesopotamia has traditionally kept it safe from the violence that has wracked other Shi’ite shrines over the centuries. A pilgrimage to Mashhad is considered by many Muslims of Iran as an acceptable alternative destination to Mecca for less well-off Shi’ites.
During the mid- to late-7th century, as early Islam struggled with its identity and leadership, those Muslims who supported the family of the Prophet began to distinguish themselves both doctrinally and geographically from other Muslims. When the Umayyad dynasty relocated the capital of the Caliphate to Damascus in the west, the Shi’ites began securing their own territory in the Persian east. What followed was the age of the Twelve Imams, descendents of the Prophet Muhammad who had sought to reclaim the caliphate, and all of whom were martyred. In response, many Shi’ites relocated to the relatively safer areas of eastern Persia, far from the blood-soaked sands of Mesopotamia.
During the reign of the 8th Imam, Ali ibn Musa, the Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad was on the verge of civil war between rival heirs to the throne. One of the two, Al-Mamun, sought the Imam’s support, offering pledges of reunification with the Shi’ites which included making Ali his heir. Soon after Al-Mamun’s victory, Imam Ali ibn Musa turned up dead in Mashhad, almost certainly a victim of poisoning. Blame was laid at the feet of Al-Mamun, who feared Shi’ite control of the Caliphate, and the last real chance of Islamic reunification fell apart.
Before the arrival of Imam Ali in the 9th century, Mashhad was little more than a small village on the far eastern borderlands of Persia. After his death, he was instantly hailed as a martyr, and Mashhad quickly became one of Iran’s most sacred cities. A mosque was erected over his tomb, and because of its strategic location between Mesopotamia and Central Asia, the Masjid Imam Ali became one of the most visited Islamic shrines east of the Caspian Sea. It also became a focal point for strengthening Shi’ite influence in Islam’s northeastern provinces. Unfortunately, it also lay directly in the path of conquering nomadic tribes from the great plains of Asia, and was sacked repeatedly, including as recently as the 20th century.
Throughout most of the second half of the 20th century, Shi’ite pilgrims were largely barred from visiting their sacred shrines in Najaf and Karbala in neighboring Iraq, and moreover found it very difficult to reach Mecca and Medina across the hostile Iraqi landscape. During this period the Masjid Imam Ali became the most important and popular religious destination reachable by the majority of Iranian Shi’ites. Although the Shi’ite shrines in Najaf, Karbala, Baghdad and Samarra are much more accessible now, the ongoing problems in Iraq will likely help to keep the Masjid Imam Ali the most popular Shi’ite shine for the foreseeable future.
The Masjid Imam Ali is an enormous complex and one of the most spectacular in Iran. Most of the shrine dates back to the 17th century reconstruction. The complex is dominated by two enormous mosques, one crowned with a great blue-tiled dome and the other with a mind-boggling gold dome that is more beautiful than the one in Jerusalem if that is possible. Dozens of grand, oversized, tile-bedecked arches offer a multitude of entrances to the structure which is said to accommodate up to twenty million visitors a year. A small forest of slender minarets are highlighted by four that are sheathed in gold at the top, matching the dome of the inner mosque.
The interior of the complex is equally stunning. There are a dozen massive prayer halls, including two coated in gold. The Tomb of Imam Ali ibn Musa lies within the center of the complex under the golden dome. Pilgrims pay their respects at the site by kicking the Mausoleum while they recite their prayers. Also within the Masjid Imam Ali is the Tomb of Harun Al-Rashid, a native of Persia who went on to become one of the greatest Caliphs of the Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad.
The Masjid Imam Ali spraws over the center of Mashhad, 425 miles east of Teheran close to the borders of Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. Because of location, the Masjid Imam Ali is one of the most secure Shi’ite shrines and receives several million pilgrims every year. It is open year-round for Muslims, and parts of the mosque may be accessible to non-Muslims at certain times. There is no cost of admission. Web: www.tourismiran.ir/en (official tourism website of Iran)
The shrine of the Imam Ali is enormous, and in addition to the main building there is the beautiful Goharshad Mosque, as well as the venerable Razavi University. Also nearby is the Qur’an Museum, which houses an exhibit of over a hundred beautiful and historic copies of Islam’s most important book. Despite Mushhad’s Isolation at the northeastern corner of Iran, there are nevertheless a handful of other sites of Muslim interest in the area, including the Shrine of Khwaja Rabi, a popular local Sunni site.