Religious Tourism and Shi’a Pilgrimage Culture

Last week I was discussing  the potential role of economics being unwittingly  intertwined with the Shi’a pilgrimage ritual to the sacred cities in Iraq so this was an unusual but interesting story that I thought would be relevant to share this week.

Many assumptions in this article are debatable such the fact that the Karbala pilgrimage culture has remained ‘untouched by wars’ or that Iraq is ‘quickly returning to normalcy’ after the withdrawal of US forces   But it does present an interesting insight into the ways in which religious tourism is shaping  up in the present day Iraq. The fact that these sites have become a hotbed of economic investment and development is not contested as can be assessed from these sources.

But such information has a specific economic investment angle and it does not really talk about the impact such development is having on the local culture and also consequently in many ways the Shi’a pilgrimage ethos. Sadly this seems to be a very understudied subject in current research on the area which certainly requires more meaningful critique and analysis. Throughout the Saddam era the Shi’a population were ruthlessly socially and economically persecuted and repressed, a fact that reflected on the conditions of the Shia holy cities. People who visited these cities in the 1990s recall how the Shi’a people in the Southern cities ofIraqwere living in horrendous socio-economic conditions with strict restrictions on their religious observances and pilgrimages. Consequently in the post-Saddam Iraq, with the lifting of such constraints the ethos of the Shi’a cities of Karbala and Najaf are changing phenomenally.

Compared to other parts ofIraqthere is a visibly significant amount of development happening in these cities, which has also brought about some sort of a spirit of materialism which can be contrasted with the somewhat spiritual outlook of the pilgrims. In this sense there seem to be two different emotional registers informing the visitors and the locals it seems. The materialism of the street vendors who adamantly refused to be paid in any other currency than dollars or  the enterprising hotel managers who try to haggle money out of you by offering lavish edible arrangements and facilities like rooms with jacuzzi’s etc can be disorienting for  pilgrims but are all understandable from the context of the local socio-political conditions.

One response

  1. The more I learn about Iraqi Shi’as, the more I feel that any reconciliation efforts are never going to be enough. Your article approaches state of Shi’a holy sites post-Hussein and post-U.S. occupation from an economic perspective, but your observation is more important: What does the development of these areas mean for practicing Shi’as who haven’t been able to fully practice their religion for the past 3 decades? I think that a key component missing from all of the talk about Iraqi sectarian violence and the need for reconciliation is consideration of how to restore these holy sites. These sites are key to Shi’i identity, and unless they are returned to their former state (or at least closer to their former state than they are now), I don’t think Shi’as will ever feel like they’ve regained what they lost under Hussein.

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