Here is the English abstract of Mr. Mohsen Hesam Mazaheri's (Social Studies Researcher) speech at the Fourth series of scientific lectures of the international conference on Theology of Pilgrimage titled "Reflection of Pilgrimage in Travelogues" which was held online on September 26, 2023.
Aliens in Ḥaram; the European Travelers’ Experiences of Visiting the Iranian Shiite Pilgrimage Sites
"Ḥaram" (which in Arabic literally means prohibition) is the most important and commonly used term in Islamic culture for sacred places. The first instance of this concept was the Masjid al-Haram. According to the famous Fatwa by Muslim jurists, entry into the precinct of Masjid al-Haram is forbidden and prohibited for non-Muslims. Gradually, this rule expanded to include other mosques and Islamic holy sites, including pilgrimage sites. The Fatwa provided a basis for the emergence of a social convention and also a law backed by Muslim administrations. In other words, this prohibition gradually took on three complementary aspects: jurisprudence (Sharia), law (administrations), and convention (society). Reports from European travelers indicate that from the Safavid period onwards, restrictions and prohibitions on the entry of non-Muslims into mosques and pilgrimage sites (such as the holy shrines of Imam Reza and Fatima al-Ma'suma) were implemented gradually. The strictest enforcement of these restrictions occurred during the Qajar period. In the Pahlavi era and from the end of Reza Shah’s period, the mentioned law was reduced for pilgrimage sites, allowing foreign tourists and other non-Muslims to enter mosques and visit them. However, the prohibition on entry into pilgrimage sites remained in place until three decades after the victory of the Islamic Revolution. In addition to Iran, a similar prohibition existed in the holy sites of Iraq. In recent years, however, the mentioned law has changed, and the doors of pilgrimage sites (such as the shrines of Shia Imams in Iraq and Iran) have been opened to diplomatic delegations from other countries and foreign tourists in general. To the extent that, one can even observe competition among the custodians of these pilgrimage sites in attracting foreign visitors. Numerous factors have been involved in this change of approach, from global developments and increased interactions and communications with other nations to political will and the interests of the official Shia institution, and most importantly, the widespread and rapid cultural changes in contemporary Iranian society, which have laid the groundwork for profound transformations in the religious culture and rituals of Shia Islam. As a result of these changes, we are witnessing a conceptual shift from " Ḥaram (i.e. holy shrine" to "cultural heritage" and from "pilgrimage/pilgrim" to "religious tourism/religious tourist," which one of its consequences is opening of the doors of holy sites to non-Muslims.
Translator: Mahdi Qasemi