Cultural sensibilities on a journey of faith

Pakistani pilgrims will do well to be aware of and sensitive to local sensibilities while in Iran

July 30, 2023
Shrine of Masooma-e-Qom.

Are you willing to appear in torn, smelly, old clothes before the Imam? It’s crucial to consider your appearance. The Imam may not be pleased when pilgrims are not dressed for the occasion. You could also offend other visitors who have come to the holy places immaculately prepared.”

Every year, thousands of people from Pakistan undertake a spiritual journey to Iran. Most of them visiting the shrines of Imam Reza in Mashhad and Masooma-i-Qom in Qom City. While some opt for road travel in caravans, many pilgrims are unaware of the appropriate preparation and proper conduct upon reaching Iran. The purpose here is not to educate pilgrims on the rituals and rites at these shrines, as there are dedicated books and magazines available for that purpose, providing comprehensive information. I propose, instead, to highlight the importance of social and economic aspects that pilgrims should consider while visiting Iran. The information share here draws on personal experience and conversations with people who have been there.

It’s essential to clarify that the questions raised in the opening paragraph pertain specifically to the conduct of an official serving on behalf of the Government of Pakistan at a centre on the premises of the revered shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad. This centre operates almost round-the-clock, providing guidance and assistance to pilgrims from Pakistan.

In a candid conversation, the official emphasised the significance of the pilgrims’ appearance, as they are not merely individuals but also representatives and ambassadors of their country in Iran. Visitors from various countries, including Pakistan, come to Iran daily. Unfortunately, some Pakistani pilgrims have been causing embarrassment to the centre’s staff with to their unkempt appearance and shabby attire. Some of them get mistaken as beggars.

Masoom-e-Qom shrine.

The official expressed regret over the low personal hygiene standards some of the pilgrims show, leading other visitors to maintain a distance from them. Their clothes and bodies sometimes emit such unpleasant odours that standing or sitting beside them becomes challenging. The official said he believed that this situation is not solely a result of poverty. Some of the pilgrims actually believe that appearing in a pitiful state at the shrines would bring them closer to the Imam. However, it should be noted that this belief reflects a lack of understanding.

Some of the pilgrims cite a hadith in this regard, stating: “One of my loved ones will be buried in Khorasan. So, whoever visits him in a sad state, Allah Almighty will remove his sorrow and grief.” It is essential to interpret such teachings appropriately, considering the broader context of Islamic teachings on cleanliness and self-respect.

The official’s observations are a reminder for all pilgrims about the importance of maintaining personal hygiene and dressing appropriately while visiting these sacred sites. Representing one’s country in a dignified manner should be central to the pilgrimage experience, fostering a positive and meaningful connection with the Imam and the spiritual journey.

There exists a misinterpretation of the hadith among some pilgrims, leading them to believe that appearing poverty-stricken while visiting the Imam’s shrine will bring them closer to both the Imam and God. This is a misguided notion, as sadness is a mental and emotional condition unrelated to one’s external appearance. The ulema advise that upon reaching Mashhad, a pilgrim should first take a shower and don a clean and pure outfit. Onaly then should one enter the premises of the Imam’s shrine barefoot, and reverently praise Allah Almighty.

The Pakistani official emphasised that while pilgrims pay substantial amounts, ranging from Rs 50,000 to Rs 60,000, to the caravan organisers for the journey, it is prudent to also allocate a suitable amount for appropriate clothing. That way, when they visit the shrines alongside pilgrims from around the world, they can present themselves with dignity and not be subject to contempt.

Entrance to a restroom, Mashhad.

Every year, thousands of people from Pakistan undertake a spiritual journey to Iran, particularly visiting the shrines of Imam Reza in Mashhad and Masooma-i-Qom in Qom City.

There have also been complaints about some Pakistani pilgrims in Iran not adhering to restroom etiquette. Some fail to flush toilets properly, despite the availability water in washrooms built near all holy places in Iran. In the province of Baluchistan-Sistan, it has been especially noted that some of the Pakistani visitors do not adhere to water use and cleanliness guidelines while using restrooms. Such behaviour fosters a negative impression of Pakistanis among hosts and visitors from other countries.

To uphold their reputation and show respect to the host country, Pakistani pilgrims should receive appropriate guidance and training in proper restroom use and cleanliness practices before embarking on their pilgrimage. Doing so can enhance their overall experience besides improving the national image.

Another category of visitors tend to the other extreme, carrying numerous clothes and shoes for themselves and their families during the pilgrimage. This causes them to carry large suitcases and bags, making the journey cumbersome and burdensome. A suggestion for such pilgrims is to have a more practical approach. Only a few sets of clothes or shoes are needed. Wearing an abaya or a chador while visiting the shrines or moving around the city should suffice for women. Carrying two or three pairs of trousers or shalwar kamees is enough.

Men and children can also manage with a similar number of clothes, which can be washed there if necessary. Using a smart trolley-suitcase or a trolley bag is a good idea. In Iran, most of the sidewalks are well-maintained, allowing trolley suitcases or bags to be easily wheeled around and sparing the pilgrims the labour of carrying them.

Road just outside the shrine of Imam Reza, Mashhad.

A pilgrim visiting the Imam’s shrine primarily aims to engage in a heart-to-heart conversation with their spiritual guide. However, due to the abundance of prayer supplications in Arabic, it often takes pilgrims a considerable amount of time to recite them. In the process, the pilgrim might lose the connection with the meaning of the words they are reciting, hindering effective communication. To address this issue, it is suggested that after reciting all the Ziyarats in Arabic, pilgrims take a moment to sit quietly near the holy shrine, close their eyes and express their feelings in their native language. By doing so, they can make up for any shortcomings and seek the Imam’s guidance in purifying their hearts before standing before Allah Almighty. While Arabic prayers hold importance, communicating the state of one’s heart in their own language is equally significant.

Also, it is important not to discipline your children, especially in public places, with physical violence or shouting. Such behaviour can lead to unfavourable consequences, including potential confrontation by Iranian individuals. In Iran, children are treated with utmost respect. Most Iranians firmly believe in not reprimanding children or subjecting them to physical punishment. The emphasis is on treating them with love and respect.

An incident at the Tehran railway station should serves as an example. A Pakistani woman scolded and perhaps slapped her child for taking something to eat from an Iranian couple sitting in the waiting room. On seeing this, the Iranian couple became visibly upset. They expressed their displeasure in their native Persian. To them, the idea of a mother punishing a young daughter for such a thing was perplexing.

The situation was eventually defused after the woman pledged not to beat her daughter again during her stay in Iran. The incident highlights the importance of understanding and respecting local sensibilities while visiting other countries.

The writer is a Lahore-based journalist. He may be reached at