The Importance of Pilgrimage (Ziyarah) in Shi’ism and Catholicism: Comparing and Contrasting

Below is a precis of an article in the Arabic journal al-Nuṣūs al-Mu’āṣirah (Contemporary Texts), written by Muḥammad Folādī, Muḥammad Jawād Nawrūzī, and Farqad al-Jazā’irī wherein the rite of pilgrimage in both faiths is discussed.1

The purpose of this investigation is to elucidate on the importance of pilgrimage (al-ziyārah) in Catholicism and Shī’ism while extracting theoretical and practical similarities and differences in how this rite is understood between these two faith traditions. As per the Catholic Church, the church is the house of God and the locus of devotional ceremonies; churches, monasteries, and pilgrimage sites are suitable environments for connecting man and God. In a similar vein, Shī’ism encourages establishing mausoleums for the friends (al-awliyā’) of God, as they are seen as intermediaries for the believers and intercessors through whom one may procure Divine Providence.  In their respective beliefs about pilgrimage, Catholicism and Shī’ism attempt to direct their adherents away from the exoteric and towards an esoteric lifestyle imbued with gnostic characteristics (al-sulūk al-‘irfānī).  The core precept in both creeds is eschewing attachment to this world and aspiring towards the eternal abode.

Meanwhile, the key difference lies in their respective understandings of pilgrimage: belief in a spiritual pilgrimage towards a Heavenly Jerusalem can be found in Catholicism, stemming from a belief in original sin, the crucifixion, the ascendance of Jerusalem to Heaven, etc. The emphasis is therefore on living in a state of estrangement while on Earth. Meanwhile, Shī’ism rejects such beliefs and conceptions.

Nonetheless, both Shī’ah and Catholic pilgrims visit shrines in search of God, seeking the vicinity of a saint or walī in order to couple their spiritual quest with that of a “sublime human” (al-insān al-kāmil). Beliefs in the elevated status of saints/awliyā, their intercession, and respect and reverence for the sites ascribed to them are all shared features. Despite the differences in understanding pilgrimage, what is quite interesting is that both sects have had critics in their history that leveled similar accusations against them: that pilgrimage is polytheism, innovation, or deficiency in faith. Nonetheless, both Shī’ite and Catholic clergy insist on its legitimacy and consider it a means of augmenting one’s faith.

In terms of refuting these accusations against pilgrimage, it is sufficient to consider that millions of Christians—including Catholics, Protestants , and Orthodox Christians—visit saints to seek their intercession. In the Islāmic world, millions of Muslims—both Shī’ite and Sunnī—make pilgrimage to the Ka’bah, the Prophet Muḥammad’s tomb, and his Holy Progeny’s gravesites. Among the most prominent examples is the multimillion-member walk of Christina, Sunnī, and Shī’ite pilgrims to visit the shrine of Imām al-Ḥusayn (as) in Iraq. In essence, the stance that the Protestants once took against Catholic shrines did not emerge from a purely religious impetus—rather it was fueled by politicians taking advantage of the Protestant Reformation to fulfill their political motives. In the same way, we see the Wahhābīs tolday applying the same methods among Ahl al-Sunnah, whereby they resort to fringe views (specifically the writings of ibn Taymiyyah and Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb) to justify their political stance against Shī’ite pilgrimage.

Images, Drawings, and Iconography: The Materialization of Religious Art Between Imāmī Shī’ahs and Orthodox Christians

The below is a precis translation of an article published in the Arabic journal al-Nuṣūṣ al-Mu’āṣirah (Contemporary Texts) written by Laylā Hūshnagī, Rayḥāna Gholamiyān, and Ḥasan al-Hāshimī.2

Just as art, religion is considered the gateway to the metaphysical and abstract realm. As such, since antiquity religion and art have played an important role in rendering meaning to human life. Religious values appropriated for artistic purposes function to guide humankind toward building an ambience that allows them to better conceptualize their beliefs. Since the time that man became cognizant of his Creator and began to worship Him, he has employed words, forms, motions, and artistic creations to express his heart’s inclinations while crystallizing his beliefs. It is through such a lens that the first manifestations of religious art rose to the fore. In accordance with Orthodox Christian teachings, monotheistic precepts and religious rites are conveyed to onlookers by corporeal representation of sacred personages. This sect of Christianity believes that icons represent the Divine Presence on Earth and serve to remind one of the authentic connection between man and God.

It is generally observed that these pictorial representations do not attempt to reflect the physical realm but rather represent the metaphysical world. As such, its artists prepare themselves through piety and worship to develop the spiritual capacity to properly envision and channel this symbolic iconography. Adapting to the exigencies of era and environment, these artists attempt to simulate the Divine Artistry. It should be noted that Islamic art also represents the beauty of meaning—Islamic images do not seek to embody the material empirical world but rather the metaphysical realm as it phenomenologically manifests to the gnostic (al-‘ārif). This experiential representation often escapes verbal expression and thus is rendered within the framework of abstract symbols and iconography.

This article discusses the parallels and contrasts in religious art between Orthodox Christianity and Shī’ah Islām. It begins by discussing the various Islāmic juridical proofs used to delegitimize images and drawings—from verse 90 of Surah Mā’idah to the various ḥadīths on the topic. It concludes that there is much room for interpreting these textual evidences and that it appears that the rationale for their condemnation is drawn from: 1) an attempt to discourage idolatry; 2) avoiding distractions during worship; 3) showing reverence to the inimitability of God’s Design. However, closer to the present day these have become subject to discussion and jurists like Imām Khomeinī and Muḥammad ‘Abduh have expressed the view that these reservations may no longer be relevant.

The article then examines the various historical evidences for pictorial representation in the Muslim world, beginning with the Ka’bah itself. It points out that some books of ḥadīth have narrated that the Holy Prophet (pbuh) demolished all sculptures present in the Ka’bah except the statues of Jesus and Mary. It then discusses the early Umayyad frescoes found in the ruins of Quṣayr ‘Amra and al-Ḥayr al-Gharbī, the representations of the Holy Prophet in books of history like Jāmi’ al-Tawārīkh, and the drawing of two angels in the Jāmeh Mosque of Iṣfahān. A as Islāmic culture fused with Byzantine, Coptic, and Sassanian influences, more and more artistically daring endeavors developed. It therefore appears that the ostensible legal prohibition against artistic representation of humans and animals did not official enjoy wide societal support.

The article then discusses how Shī’ah art as embodied in Safavid Iran rose to prominence and how it evolved during the Qajarite dynasty, post-constitutional Iran, and to the present day. In particular it discusses Ashura art which took the form of “coffee shop paintings” in the 15th century Safavid culture to represent its tragic events for the laity. In this capacity, Iranian art served a nearly identical purpose to the 11th century Christian miniaturist art form used to represent Biblical stories to the masses. During the Qajarite dynasty, this evolved into formal highly embellished religious plays conducted at takiyehs to re-enact the events of the tragedy

The article then moves on to discuss the Christian view on pictorial representation of personages. It starts with the historical background regarding the Greco-Roman artistic culture and notes how this played an important role in early Christian representations of Jesus and Mary. The historical precedent of the “Veil of Veronica” is referenced as the earliest known pictorial relic of Jesus. It is emphasized that this played a major role in the mystical and metaphysical conception of art in Orthodox Christianity. Orthodox Christianity is governed by quite strict rules when it comes to their iconography; unlike Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity discourages the use of highly realistic 3D sculptures and paintings. The focus instead is on producing artistic forms that connect back towards the Divine and metaphysical realities. In contrast to Catholicism, icons are seen as more than just pedagogic. Rather, they hold theological significance and are deemed worthy of reverence and sanctimony in themselves. Among Orthodox Christians, icons and religious art are seen as the visual analog of scripture and are thus often pursued as sources of divine blessing. This is contrasted to Protestantism or Calvinism, both of which are somewhat opposed to the use of graven images in worship.

The article concludes with noting that although both Orthodox Christianity and Shī’ah Islām share the same principle of abstract and symbolic use of art, they differ in the way it is theologically conceptualized. While Orthodox Christians see it as a spiritually authentic emanation and reflection of holy scripture, Shī’as envision it as an emotional vehicle for representing their religious teachings and values. While in Christianity, iconography played a pivotal role in proselytization, in Islām it was not seen as a fundamental part of the faith and remained relatively underutilized. As such, Christian artistry was patronized by the Early Church while well-established Shī’ite art forms did not develop until after many years of consistent Iranian patronage.


  1. The original article may be found at this link:
  2. The full article can be found here: