Are you a Muslim?

By Christine Gruwez, September 2021

No sooner had I arrived with my Iranian travel companion in the pilgrimage city of Mashad, in the very north-east of Iran on the border with Turkmenistan, than we were already on our way to the shrine. That was in 2001.

Mashad is the central pilgrimage site in Iran and one of the four holy sites in the Shia Muslim world. It is also the resting place of the eighth Imam, Ali Reza, to which thousands of people make a daily pilgrimage to honour him and pray.

It was autumn and already growing dark as we made our way to the shrine, its dome sparkling in the rays of the setting sun. I soon lost sight of my friend in the crowd. It was my first time here and at that time the only foreigners were from neighbouring countries. Before I knew it, I was alone in the courtyard leading to the shrine of Imam Reza. Despite the bustle, silence reigned.

Trying to find my friend in the confusion was probably futile. I decided to follow a small group of women.

Just like them, I was wrapped from head to toe in a kind of outer garment, a cloth that I held around me with both hands. My curious glances were already limited by this in itself. I was alone with myself.

After some time we reached an entrance gate.

A heavy curtain hung in front of the entrance. I slipped in behind the women and along a corridor with various closed doors came to a room in which a woman was sitting behind a small table. She had a black chador ready, but put it aside as soon as she saw me enter.

It was an older woman. There was silence for a long time until she asked, “Are you a Muslim?” In a split second, all possible answers ran through my head. As we looked at each other steadfastly, I heard myself say, “I am a Christian” – and at the same time I realised that never before in my life had I found myself in a position where I had spoken these words openly and aloud in the presence of a fellow human being. In her eyes I read a poignant mixture of respect and regret. Finally, she took my hand in hers and said, “Bebahshid! – I am sorry! I can’t let you in.”

“Thank you,” was all I could say. How could I thank her properly, her who had enabled me to speak this “confession” in such a way that her presence gave it truthfulness? And here and nowhere else had this opportunity been given to me, for there is no place in the world where the Risen One does not live. When I finally walked back the way I had come against the stream of pilgrims, the wonderful knowledge grew in me that, for a moment, I had been home.

About the author: Christine Gruwez studied philosophy, classical philology and Iranian studies and worked in Antwerp as a Waldorf teacher and in teacher training. Numerous research trip to the Near and Middle East. Writer, lecturer and speaker all over the world.

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