Alexander Reza Shams

Grant Type

Dissertation Fieldwork Grant

Institutional Affiliation

Chicago, U. of

Grant number

Gr. 9876

Approve Date

May 8, 2019

Project Title

Shams, Alexander (Chicago, U. of) "Building the “Islamic Modern”: Shia Shrines, Pilgrimage, and Urban Space in Post-Revolutionary Iran"

Since the early 20th century, many Islamic reform movements have opposed pilgrimage to saints’ tombs as part of “rationalization” of religious practice. But Iran – an Islamic Republic since 1979 – has pursued a massive project of shrine renovation as part of its vision of “Islamic modernity”, re-orienting urban landscapes around shrines domestically – and in Iraq – and transforming historical pilgrimage networks into a booming tourism economy. These divergent visions are mobilized by competing sectarian imaginaries – with Iran positioning itself as authoritative arbiter of Islam worldwide, and groups like ISIS staking a counter-position through attacks on shrines. Iranian shrines host the Basij paramilitary, which recruits “Defenders of the Shrine” to fight abroad and promotes its vision of religious masculinity domestically. Through ethnographic examination of shrine modernization and pilgrimage, I explore how shrines emerged as contested sites through government patronage of popular rituals, highlighting their role within an emergent model of Islamic governance and how they have become central simultaneously to Shia transnational identity and Iranian national identity. I examine contradictions that emerge as these local sites become nodes within an international religious tourist economy, targets for attack, and central to the production of political affinities and pious modern selves.