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It was the site of the martyrdom of Imam Reza, the eighth imam of Shiite Islam. He was believed to have been poisoned by a Sunni caliph named Al Ma’mun. The village was small at the time of Imam Reza’s death, but a shrine built in his honor soon attracted so many visitors and pilgrims that a city grew up around it. Today, Mashhad is the second largest city in Iran after the capital, Tehran, and is one of the most important pilgrimage destinations for Shiite Muslims, 20 million of whom visit it every year.

This is exactly the educational and spiritual path followed by Ali Khamenei and his mentor, Ayatollah Khomeini. In the twentieth century, Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, and to a lesser extent Ali Khamenei, would inherit the high regard Iranians 41 42 ali khamenei traditionally extended to their “king of kings,” the shahs. Like the Zoroastrian kings who were believed to be the earthly representatives of the god Ahura Mazda, modern-day Iranian religious leaders were looked to as figures of truth, justice, purity, and goodness.

It was known as Sufism, a sect of mystical believers who distrusted the worldly power, authority, and corruption of Islamic clerics and the elaborate laws and scriptural interpretations that had encrusted the religion. They believed that the Koran and the Prophet’s insistence on forming a union with the one true god was best achieved not with the help of clerics, complicated church hierarchies, or complex religious writings, but through separation from the world, meditation, and mystical exercises, such as singing, praying, and dancing.

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