I grew up a globe trekker. As the son, and grandson, of employees at the American Embassy in India, I was afforded the privilege to see much of Asia and the Middle East before I understood the significance of those journeys, and my time spent on Pan Am flights and in foreign airports throughout the late ’70s and the following decades helped instill a habit of international travel that continues to itch inside me even today. In all my wayfaring, there is one place that stands above all others as a source of peace that I find myself drawn to like a moth to a flame, and in the light of this space, I am extinguished like the proverbial insect, only to emerge reborn like a phoenix, full of love. Atop the Iranian plateau, surrounded by arid deserts, there is an ancient city named Mashhad centered around a holy shrine, the Haram of Imam Reza. For the past two decades, ever since I learned of this sacred temple, I’ve become addicted to the feeling of empowerment from my delicate prayers in this hallowed space. Invocations for healing, clarity, and fortune—all have been answered. So during this visit, when I entered the holy shrine with a deeply spiritual state of mind, my body consumed in its green glow, whispering my supplication while I grasped at the silver chain surrounding it, I was unsurprised, as I slowly turned away from it, to meet the eye-line of one of the shrine’s caretakers, who gestured to me to come and then led me directly to the shrine’s ancient library and introduced me to the director, a direct descendant of Prophet Muhammad. The director, in turn, guided me to the English section, introduced me to a translator who would be at my service, and asked me to write about the significance of this shrine and share its compelling story with Western audiences, so that others could also experience the transcendent peace I found there. I was unsurprised by this sequence of events since my last whispered prayer before I met the caretaker’s gaze, was to be of service to the person I came to see—the person to whom this temple is dedicated, and who is buried below its glorious golden dome, the person who remains a catalyst for the tens of millions of pilgrims worldwide, who flock annually to this sacred space: Imam Ali ibn Musa ar-Ridha.
Imam Ali ibn Musa ar-Ridha is colloquially referred to as Imam Ali Reza or Imam Reza by most of the local population and the many pilgrims who swarm to offer their prayers at his shrine. He is also known lovingly by Persians as the richest person in Iran, due to the fact that over the years since he was martyred and buried in the city of Mashhad, his followers have willed their fortunes over to the shrine, and as a result, expanded it, allowing it to grow in size and stature so that it is presently the largest shrine in Islam dedicated to the legacy of Fatima az-Zahra, the daughter and sole heir to the Prophet Muhammad. The golden dome that covers his grave is iconic and the sanctified halls that lead to it are legendary for its verdant marble floors that glow from the light which reflects readily off of the shrine’s mirrored ceilings. In addition, the inner shrine, the holiest of holies, which is surrounded by a heavy silver chain, is itself often obscured by rainbow-colored mounds comprised of banknotes from all over the world: dinars, riyals, rupees, euros, and my own measly dollars slipped through the silver grating blanket the iridescent jade atop Imam Ali Reza’s grave. To me, there is no place in the world like it, and in spite of the challenge presented of traveling to Iran as an American, I continue to do so, even in years like this one, where global analysts are indicating there may be a war between our two nations. Yet in spite of this looming conflict or the machinations of ever-depraved warmongers, pilgrims like me continue undaunted to migrate to Imam Ali Reza, because he is the antithesis of the violence we abhor, and a cure for the hatred that grows in the systems that choke and oppress us and our planet; he is simply love personified—a virtue that tragically made him a target for murder.
This was an introduction to my new book “When Islam Meant Love: The Tragic Story of Imam Ali Reza,” which I have been working on for the past year (this is why I have not been blogging), and plan on releasing it mid-way through the year. If you would like to be one of my advanced readers, please leave a comment below.