You are on page 1of 5

to Allah, Muhammad and the Twelve Imams.

Thus, in the section

titled as Mirza Abu Talebs Pilgrimage as Mirrored Martyrdom, I
will finish the discussion by pointing that that the challenges and
the difficulties that these Shia travelers faced mirrors the
martyrdom of the Imams whose very shrines they worship.

Mirrored Martyrdom: On The

Pilgrimage of Mirza Abu Taleb
Khan Isfahani in Ottoman Iraq
Kavoos Kolahdouzan
Those who leave their homes in the cause of Allah, and are then
slain or die, on them Allah will bestow a goodly Provision. Truly
Allah is He who bestows the best provision.- srat l-aj verse 58

Think not of those who are slain in Allahs way as dead. Nay,
they live, finding their sustenance in the presence of their lord;
they rejoice in the bounty provided by Allah. And with regard
to those left behind, who have not yet joined them (in their Figure 1. Portrait of Mirza Abu Taleb Khan (painted by James Northcote)
bliss), the (Martyrs) glory in the fact that on them is no fear,
nor have they (cause to) grieve. - Al-Emran verse 169 Setting Out on Pilgrimage
During his stay in 28-day stay at Constantinople, Mirza Abu
Taleb decides to return Lucknow via traveling through Ottoman
Despite spending two years and five months as the Persian
Iraq and then the Persian Gulf. Importantly, he specifically decides
Prince in the high courts of London, Mirza Abu Taleb Khan
to take this route in order to worship at the shrines of the Martyrs
Isfahani (1752-1805/6) never secured work as a teacher of Arabic
and Saints of [his] religion (Shia Mohammadan), and to visit the
and Persian. After traveling to France, Italy, Malta, the Sea of
tombs of [his] pious ancestors and the descendants of the Prophet
Marmara and Constantinople, he eventually decided to return to that are located in the cities of Baghdad, Karbala and Najaf.2 A
India through what he declares to be Shia sacred territory. He pious sayyid himself, Mirza Abu Taleb Khan wishes pay his
successfully returned to Calcutta through the Persian Gulf and respects to the successors of Muhammad. It is important to note
Bombay. Even though there is large body of scholarly literature that Mirza Abu Taleb Khan could have traveled through Persia in
written on his travels in Europe, his journey through Ottoman Iraq order to go back to Lucknow. Given that he is of Persian decent
has received little scholarly attention.1 This account provides a (his father was born in Isfahan), one may become surprised by his
fascinating insight into the travails of the pilgrimage routes decision to not travel through his ancestral homeland. Of note, it is
between Constantinople and the Iraqi cities of Baghdad, Karbala also interesting to note that his account is riddled with praise for
and Najaf. the Shia Persians. Therefore, if he had chosen the Persian route to
In order to begin the scholarly conversation on his travels in Lucknow, he would have certainly enjoyed the people that he
Ottoman Iraq, this paper discusses the account of Mirza Abu Taleb would come across during his travels.
Khan in the context of his pilgrimage through various Shia shrines Nonetheless, he decides that paying his respects to the holy
and holy sites. In the first part of the essay, titled as Setting out on shrines of Ottoman Iraq is more important to him than visiting
Pilgrimage, I will describe the nature of the journey from Persia. On Tuesday the 6th of Shaban 1218 (4th of December 1802),
Constantinople to Baghdad, paying particular attention to the Mirza Abu Taleb Khan commenced his pilgrimage from Scudari
various difficulties that Mirza Abu Taleb faced during the (now known as Uskudar, a municipality of Istanbul) to the inland
pilgrimage. Next, in the sections titled as An Account of the Al- regions of Ottoman Iraq. Determined to pay his respects to the Shia
Kadhyimias Mosque and On Imam Husseins Mausoleum, I will shrines found in Baghdad, Najaf and Basra, Mirza Abu Taleb Khan
lay out Mirza Abu Talebs account on these two Shia shrines with started what he calls the most toilsome and dangerous journey I
a particular emphasis on some of the tensions between the Sunni had ever undertaken.3 Yet, given that it was a part of the world
Ottomans and the Shias settlements. In the fourth section, titled as [he] was anxious to see, and led towards home, he found himself
an Account of Imam Alis Majestic Sepulcher and a Bedouin Arabs to be in good spirits.3 Thus, from the onset of his travels, one can
Loyalty, I will analyze Mirza Abu Talebs deep, spiritual certainly notice that Mirza Abu Taleb Khans attitude towards
connection to Imam Ali as well as his fascinating account on the pilgrimage and travel is characterized by an innate sense curiosity
prayers of a wondering Bedouin Arab that visited the shrine. coupled with a desire to visit the holy centers of Islam. Despite fully
Overall, this essay underscores that the pilgrimage to the holy sites knowing the dangers that laid ahead, these Muslim travelers were
of Imams is an essential part of the identity of pious Shia travelers. determined to cover great lengths of distance for the sake of paying
In particular, it is important to realize that even with the life- homage to the wonders of the Islamic world.
threatening dangers of the route, Mirza Abu Taleb chooses to travel
to the Shia shrines for the sake of maintaining of his piety. He is For instance, travelers such as Mirza Abu Taleb would need to
willing to risk his life to go on this pilgrimage. This further travel through difficult mountainous terrains. After departing from
highlights the enormous weight that Shism places on active piety Malatia (modern-day Malatya, an eastern city in Turkey), Mirza
Abu Taleb Khan and his group of travelers struck into a very
that may even result into ones death. This is clearly one of the most
mountainous country. The steepness of several parts of the road
efficacious means of demonstrating and maintaining ones loyalty
was such, that [their] saddles slipped backward and forward.4 At
times, Mirza Abu Taleb even declares that it was a very real Town and New Town.10 The overall circumference of the city is
possibility for him to completely slip from the saddle and fall into about 8 miles with fortifications to keep enemies out. During
a quick demise. The mountainous roads that led from peacetime, the ditches around the city are cultivated. However,
Constantinople to the Eastern parts of Anatolia were narrow and these ditches can also quickly be filled with water during times of
filled with snow. The horses were often prone to exhaustion and war. Overall, with respect to Baghdad, Mirza Abu Taleb Khan
could easily slip on the wet terrain. As one can imagine, there are suggests that the city does not live up to his expectations.11
most likely many travelers who had lost their lives through these Disappointed with Baghdad, Mirza Abu Taleb Khan reminds
elevated regions of Anatolia. As for those who wanted to pay their himself of his original motivations for traveling through this region:
respects to the resting places of the Shia Imams, the route to to worship at the shrines of the Martyrs and Saints of our religion
Baghdads shrines posed dangerous difficulties that could quickly (Shia Mohammadans), and to visit the tombs of my pious
end their hopes of completing their pilgrimages. ancestors and the descendants of the Prophet.12 He visits the Al-
Furthermore, these roads also posed debilitating weather Kadhimiya mosque where the 7th Imam (Ms ibn Jafar al-Kzim)
conditions that were potentially life-threatening during the cold and 9th Imam (Muhammad ibn Al ibn Ms) are buried. These
winter. Given that Mirza Abu Taleb Khan started his journey in shrines are located four miles northwest of the city. The village
December, he certainly faced extremely cold weather during his (called Kazemine) was mostly inhabited by Persians and Indians
pilgrimage to Baghdad. For instance, on a steep mountainous road, who are Shia.13 Given that the shrines are located outside of
his horse slightly slips on the snow, leading to rocky movements Baghdad, Mirza Abu Taleb Khan declares that Turkish bigotry is
on his saddle. This resulted into Mirza Abu Taleb losing a very excluded and that the pious Shia may pray here according to his
valuable sortout coat which was buckled on the back of [his] own fashion.14 In fact, the numerous Shia settlements around
saddle.5 This is a severe loss for Mirza Abu Taleb Khan since he these holy shrines kept the Sunni Turks that everywhere else abuse
suffers for several days from the rain and the cold. Of note, his and spit on the Shias from the use of abusive language towards
account is riddled with his weather complaints. While traveling on the Shia population.15
the steep road between Bely and Karadah (two mountainous
villages in Turkey), he was covered with enough layers of clothing Through these travels, one can certainly observe Mirza Abu
6 Taleb Khans displayed superiority towards the Sunnis he
and fur such that he could not walk. Overall, the weather
encounters. For instance, on the subject of the Sunnis of Hussen
conditions and steep terrain severely slowed his rate of traveling,
Buddery (a village 32 miles away from Malatia), he declares that
often forcing Mirza Abu Taleb into staying in villages for a couple
they are a stupid and savage race, and so avaricious, that they will
of days until the weather conditions were better. Again, while
not put their provisions to the fire till the traveler has paid twice the
Mirza Abu Taleb Khan was lucky enough to live and tell the tale,
value: and when the dinner is laid out, they sit down without being
one can imagine that these weather conditions could induce severe
asked, and thrust their hand into the dish without ceremony.16 At
hypothermia to travelers who were not so lucky.
times, Mirza Abu Taleb displays condescension towards non-Shia
In addition to the challenging terrain and weather, Mirza Abu villages and cities. His superiority towards the Sunnis is much more
Taleb Khan frequently mentions the robbers that infested the routes pronounced upon his arrival in Baghdad since he certainly
in Ottoman Iraq. In particular, he mentions that the route between witnesses how Sunni Turks treat the Shia populations. Of note, it
Nisibis to Mosul was full of violent thieves. Thus, in order to keep is important to keep in mind that the Shia travelers who wished to
them at bay, he traveled in a large pack that would always move travel to the holy sites would need to travel through Sunni-held
together since anyone falling behind would be plundered and territories. The aforementioned poor treatments that the Shias
murdered.7 As a result, it was also very important for these needed to tolerate in Sunni territories would greatly discourage
Muslim travelers to have access to horses who would have the travelers from making the pilgrimage. Nonetheless, the importance
endurance to travel long distances without rest since resting in of pilgrimage for Shia travelers meant that they were willing to
dangerous places would often lead to lootings. Of note, Mirza Abu tolerate the negative attitudes from the Sunnis as long as they were
Taleb always admires the Arabian horses for keeping him alive as able to complete the pilgrimage.
he traveled these regions. Interestingly enough, Mirza Abu Taleb
Overall, it is important to note that the Shia settlements around
prefers his journey through the dangerous desert routes more than
the shrines of Baghdad, as well other holy shrines located in Najaf
the mountainous regions simply because of the greater mobility in
and Karbala, were generally tolerated by the Sunni majority of
the desert. In fact, he declares that his pack could travel for more
Ottoman Iraq. Mirza Abu Taleb Khan cites two reasons behind the
than 200 miles without the need for changing horses. This account
tolerance of the Shia population by the Sunnis. First off, he cites
certainly shows that the Muslim travelers of his era were highly
the vicinity of the Persian Monarch, who might take revenge for
capable of covering large distances in the deserts of Ottoman Iraq.
any insult to persons of his own faith.17 More importantly, he
Through neutralizing the threat of robbers by traveling in packs,
mentions that the real fact is the number of pilgrims who visit
these Muslim travelers could easily travel to the Shia holy sites as
these sacred places bring a great quantity of money into the state,
long as they were not encountering mountainous regions.
and yield a considerable revenue to the state.18 Thus, these holy
Nonetheless, despite the difficulties of his journey, Mirza Abu shrines certainly had an element of economic value to the state,
Taleb successfully made it to Baghdad. Upon arrival, he declares making them highly valuable to any government that was in power.
that none but a person in good health and vigour should attempt In order to attract Shia pilgrims from Persia, it was important to
the journey between Constantinople and Baghdad.8 This journey keep them in a clean and pristine condition. Thus, it is not
took him fifty-six days to complete (with fifteen of which was spent surprising that Mirza Abu Taleb Khan notes that the shrines are
in various villages and towns for rest). He estimates the distance to kept in a clean and beautiful condition.19
be 1900 miles. He also enviously notes that couriers could complete
it in twelve days.9 On Imam Husseins Mausoleum
An Account of the Al-Kadhyimia Mosque Once Mirza Abu Taleb Khan was satisfied with his visit of the
resting place of the 7th and 9th Shia Imams, he proceeded with his
Upon arrival in Baghdad, Mirza Abu Taleb is somewhat pilgrimage by traveling to Karbala to visit Imam Husseins shrine.
unimpressed by the overall state of the city. In fact, he questions as After refusing to yield to the succession of Yazid I to the Ummayad
to whether the city of Baghdad was worth the difficulties of the Caliphate, Imam Hussein, the third Shia Imam, was martyred in a
journey. Baghdad is divided into two regions, dubbed as Old long battle that occurred near Karbala (October 10th, 680 or 10
Muharram 61) between his 72 men and Yazids army. Karbala soon and prayers to Imams such as Hussein and Ali, were under the
became an important pilgrimage site for Shias such as Mirza Abu constant threat of Wahabies who accused them of polytheism and
Taleb Khan who wanted to honor Imam Husseins suffering and idolatry. It is especially important to note that this time period was
sacrifice. After traveling for about 60 miles, he arrived at the an era of heightened tensions between the orthodox views of the
mausoleum in Karbala. He was immediately in awe of the Wahabies and the Shia worshippers. Nevertheless, despite the
grandiosity of the Imam Husseins resting place: terrorizing acts of the Wahabies, the worshippers still frequently
The mausoleum of Kerbela, and the courtyard, were repaired, not prayed in the mausoleums. Again, the life-threatening risks that the
many years ago, at the expense Mahommed Khan Kejar, the king Shias took exhibit the enormous weight that places on maintaining
of Persia. The dome is entirely covered with plates of gold, and the ones piety through worshipping at the shrines of the twelve Imams.
inside highly gilt and ornamented; and the most celebrated
goldsmiths, painters, and engravers, having been sent from Persia An Account of Imam Alis Majestic
for that purpose. The son of Aly, Prince of Martyrs (Hussein, son Sepulcher and a Bedouin Arabs Loyalty
of Aly, and grandson of Mahommed), is in the centre of the
building, and is covered with a steel case, inlaid with gold, highly Once Mirza Abu Taleb Khan was finished with the ceremonials
ornamented; and in the courtyard are the tombs of the seventy-two at Imam Husseins shrine, he set out for Najaf to pay his respects
martyrs who fell with their prince.20 to the shrine of Imam Ali, who was the son-in-law of Muhammad
and the first of the Shia Imams. Widely regarded by Shias to be
the divinely appointed successor of Muhammad, Imam Ali is
known for his wisdom, loyalty to Muhammad and Islam, fairness
and forgiveness of his defeated enemies. After Muhammad, Ali is
the most important Islamic figure for Shia Muslims. Shortly after
his martyrdom, his body was buried in a secret location in the city
of Najaf.
Upon his arrival in the mausoleum of Ali, Mirza Abu Taleb
Khan was so impressed with religious awe, that, although
supported by four attendants, [he] trembled like an aspen leaf, and
it was with the utmost difficulty [he] could perform the prescribed
ceremonies.21 The buildings that surrounded the shrine were all
the finest order of architecture and the tomb of Imam Ali was
made out of solid silver. The majesty of Imam Alis shrine, coupled
with Mirza Abu Talebs deepest loyalty to the first Shia Imam,
Figure 2. The mausoleum of Imam Hussein is beautifully ornamented, as During their visit to the shrine, after worshipping the tomb of Imam
Mirza Abu Talebs account suggests Ali, the pilgrims are instructed to do the following ritual:
[the devotees must] turn their faces to one of the corners of the
The sepulcher of Imam Hussein is arguably the second most building, and repeat a prayer for Imam Hussein, whose head, they
important shrine of the twelve Imams (second to that of Imam say, was brought from Syria by his son Zein al Abadeen, and buried
Alis). Thus, as one can imagine, it is frequently visited by Shias in the spot. After this ceremony, they go to the foot of the tomb,
as a place of worship. Even though Mirza Abu Taleb does not give and make two prostrations, one for Adam; and the other for Noah,
a clear description of the Shia praying practices at Imam Husseins both of whom, the attendants on the shrine affirm, were buried in
shrine, he writes of a letter from Abd-al Aziz (the chief of the this place.
Wahabies) that gives a clear description of the extent at which Indeed, the burial place of Imam Ali is one of the holiest sites in
Shias utilized the shrine for worship. In context, this letter was Shia Islam since the sect also believes that the remains of Noah
written to the King of Persia after the Wahabies pillaged Karbala and Adam, as well as Imam Husseins head, are buried in this site.
and Najaf, which resulted into the killing of five thousand Shias. Thus, one should not be surprised that Muslims such as Mirza Abu
In this letter, Abd al Aziz lays out his reasoning as to why his forces Taleb were often overwhelmed with the holy significance of the
massacred the Shia worshippers: site. For instance, during his visit in the shrine, Mirza Abu Taleb
Since the death of Prophet Mohammad, son of Abd Allah, witnesses the appearance of a Bedouin Arab who had come to pay
polytheism and idolatry have been promulgated amongst his his sincere respects to Alis holy shrine:
followers. For instance, at Nejif and Kerbela, the people fall down [During his visit, he witnessed] a Bedouin (Arab of the Desert),
and worship the tombs and shrines, which are made of earth and with a white beard descending to his middle, which seemed as if it
stone, and address their supplications and prayers to the persons had never been disturbed by a comb, his body covered by a coarse
contained therein. As it is evident to me, the least of the servants of and dirty shirt, and, in place of trowsers, a piece of cloth girt about
God, that such practices cannot be agreeable to our Lords Aly and his loins; his heals, from much walking, as hard as the hoof of a
Hussein, I have used every exertion to purify our holy religion from horse, and full of cracks; and who, in short, appeared as if just
these vile superstitionsthe attendants on the mausoleums, and the arrived from a long and toilsome journey, entered the sanctuary. He
inhabitants of Nejif, being blinded by covetousness and worldly took no notice of the attendants, but immediately began to walk
interest, encouraged the people to a continuation of these practices, round the tomb; and instead of repeating the prescribed prayers, he
and would not comply with my exhortations: I therefore sent an called aloud; Ya Abul Hussein (O Father of Hussein), peace be
army of the Faithful to punish themIf the people of Persia are with you! and, notwithstanding his apparent want of respect and
addicted to these superstitions, let them quickly repent; for decorum, he was so much affected by his faith and sincerity, that
whosoever is guilty of idolatry and polytheism, shall in like manner the tears trickled from his eyes. Seeing him treat the illustrious
be punished.21 sepulcher with so little ceremony, [Mirza Abu Taleb] at first
Even though the holy shrines of Ottoman Iraq were usually supposed that Abul Hussein was one of his companions or intimate
surrounded by Shia settlements, the above passage shows that the friends, who had fallen asleep in the mausoleum, and that he was
Shias were never truly safe during their pilgrimages. Those who endeavoring to awake him; but after observing him attentively, and
worshipped the tombs and shrines, addressing their supplications reflecting on his sincerity and purity of heart, and on [Mirza Abu
Talebs] own upworthiness, [Mirza Abu Taleb] was convinced that unnamed Bedouin who visits the shrine of Imam Ali, Mirza Abu
his vows were more deserving of acceptance than [Mirza Abu Talebs zeal and dedication is strong and unfaltering, emulating the
Talebs], and envied him his zeal and happiness.23 devotion of the martyrs who fearlessly embraced death for the
cause of Allah.
Moving forward, it is important to reiterate that this part of Mirza
Abu Talebs account has been left mostly untouched, despite the
fact that it has been published in English for the past two hundred
years. Thus, more historians should probe the rich passages of
Mirza Abu Taleb Khans pilgrimage. Hopefully, this essay has
stimulated a scholarly curiosity for historians who take an interest
in writing about Islamic pilgrimage and ziyarat, as well as those
who seek primary accounts on Ottoman Iraq during the early 19th

1. For representative works, read: Cole, Juan R. Invisible
Occidentalism: Eighteenth-century Indo-Persian
Constructions of the West." Iranian Studies 25.3-4 (1992): 3-
16. See also: Tavakoli-Targhi, Mohamad. Refashioning Iran:
Figure 3. The tomb of Ali, where Mirza Abu Taleb witnesses the unnamed
Orientalism, Occidentalism and Historiography. Springer,
Bedouins love for the first Shia Imam
2. Khn, Ab lib. Travels of Mirza Abu Taleb Khan in Asia,
In this striking passage, Mirza Abu Taleb Khan describes a Africa, and Europe, During the Years 1799, 1800, 1801, 1802,
Muslim who has clearly traveled a great distance to get to the holy and 1803. Vol. 3. R. Watts, and sold by Longman, Hurst,
shrine of Ali. Despite the difficulties of the pilgrimage, as Rees, & Orme, 1810. Translated by Charles Stewart, pp. 142.
evidenced by the Bedouins weary and exhausted appearance, his 3. Ibid, pp. 85.
loyalty to the Imam rejuvenated his spirits once he is near the tomb. 4. Ibid, pp. 99.
One can imagine that this Muslim has also traveled through 5. Ibid, pp. 87.
challenging, even life-threatening, conditions to get to have the 6. Ibid, pp. 110.
opportunity to worship at his shrine. Yet, Mirza Abu Taleb also 7. Ibid, pp. 135.
notes that the Bedouin does not perform the traditional prayers. 8. Ibid.
Instead, he greets Alis tomb as if he has been reunited with a dear 9. Ibid, pp. 136.
friend. His unadulterated love may lack the typical ceremonial 10. Ibid.
prayers but it is clear that he has an undying love for Imam Ali and 11. Ibid, pp. 138.
his descendants, so much so that tears trickled from his eyes upon 12. Ibid, pp. 142.
his spiritual encounter with Alis tomb. His struggles from the long 13. Ibid, pp. 141.
and toilsome journey had finally been rewarded. He was reunited 14. Ibid, pp. 144.
with Ali. Ultimately, the struggle that travelers such as the 15. Ibid.
unnamed Bedouin and Mirza Abu Taleb must face during their 16. Ibid, pp. 86.
pilgrimage to the sites of the Shia Imams can be thought of as a 17. Ibid, pp. 145.
reflection of their martyrdom, as described in the final section of 18. Ibid, pp. 142.
this essay. 19. Ibid, pp. 162.
20. Ibid, pp. 177-178.
Mirza Abu Talebs Pilgrimage as a 21. Ibid, pp. 186.
Mirrored Martyrdom 22. Ibid, pp. 188.
23. Ibid, pp. 189-190.
To my knowledge, this essay is the first scholarly work written 24. All Quran translations are from: Ali, Yusuf. "Abdullah
on the pilgrimage of Mirza Abu Taleb Khan from Constantinople (trans.) The Holy Quran: Text, Translation and Commentary."
to the Shia shrines of Ottoman Iraq. Throughout these previously (1989).
unexplored travels of Mirza Abu Taleb, the reader is constantly
reminded of the dangers of the pilgrimage for Shia travelers. From
surviving mountainous highlands to escaping from violent bandits,
this account is full of dangers that could easily end ones life.
Despite that, Mirza Abu Taleb Khan decides not to travel through
the Shia regions of Persia. Thus, one may even see that his love
and loyalty to the descendants of Muhammad transcends his fears
of losing his own life, much like a martyr who is willing to give up
his life in the way of Allah, as the verse from the beginning of
this essay touches on.
Ultimately, this is one of the essential parts of his Shia identity.
Herein, the article has shown that a member of the Shia sect is not
only devoted to Muhammad and Allah but also equally devoted to
Muhammads twelve descendants. Through risking his own life in
the dangerous Wahabi-held territories, Mirza Abu Taleb proves his
piety to the descendants through his actions. Much like the