“We Are All Pilgrims, Exploring Spirits and Selves with Iranian Women in a Damascus Shrine,” an excerpt by Karen G. Ruffle

In July 2004, I spent four months in Iran studying Persian and conducting doctoral dissertation research on a Shi`i devotional text about the Shi`i Imams, who trace their lineage through the Prophet Muhammad and his daughter Fatimah al-Zahra. As part of a research fellowship that I had been awarded, I traveled to the Shi`i shrines of Damascus, Syria, following the completion of my research and studies in Iran in mid-November. My goal was to participate and observe the rituals of Iranian Shi`i women who were on pilgrimage to the shrine of Imam Husain’s sister Sayyidah Zainab, and Husain’s daughter Hazrat-e Roqayya—both of whom are a significant part of the religious life of the resi- dents of Damascus and its pilgrims who travel here from throughout the Muslim world.

In this essay, I reflect on my own experience interacting with Iranian women pil- grims to the shrine of Imam Husain’s young daughter Roqayya, who died of grief while imprisoned in Damascus. The two weeks that I spent in Damascus were transformative for me because I, too, was on pilgrimage and seeking the healing and saintly powers of the family of the Prophet Muhammad. I entered into the world of Iranian Shi`i women pilgrims and learned more about my own spirit and faith—these women became con- duits for helping me to learn more about myself. This essay is based upon fieldnotes from November 24, 2004, when I made my second visit to the tomb of Hazrat-e Roqayya.

 

About the Writer

Karen G. Ruffle is an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Historical Studies and Religion at the University of Toronto. She has conducted field research in India, Pakistan, Iran, and Syria. Ruffle is the author of Gender, Sainthood, and Everyday Practice in South Asian Shi‘ism (University of North Carolina Press, 2011).