This November again witnessed, one of the largest peaceful gatherings in human history take place in Southern Iraq. An estimated 20 million-plus people travelled to the region in the space of two weeks to observe the day of Arba’een, commemorating the brutal killing of a seventh century Arabian nobleman.
Millions flock to the region to participate in the observance, a pilgrimage of sorts, choosing to walk for approximately 90 km under the heat of the Iraqi sun, from the desert shrine-city of Najaf to the centre of Karbala – until they reach their destination, the tomb of Hussein bin Ali, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Many of these pilgrims have saved up for years to be able to afford to travel to Iraq and commemorate the martyrdom of Hussain. In his name, local villagers set up thousand of tents with makeshift kitchens to serve the pilgrims and provide them with everything they need free of charge, ranging from water, space to rest and medical attention. The care of pilgrims is considered an entrusted duty and service to humanity in its communal glory is on full display here. Locals from the war shattered villages of the Iraqi countryside, stand side by side with foreigners from wealthier backgrounds asking the visitors to stay with them to take rest, and eat the food they prepared. The road to Karbala is lined with a black flag quite different to the one that was raised in the Mosul from from 2014 to 2017.
Once at Karbala, pilgrims visit the Shrine of Hussain and his brother Abbas. Both Shrines are known for the beauty of their glistening golden domes, striking minarets and the interior courtyards covered with intricate glass mosaics. The tomb of Hussain is encased within a steel structure, lined with silver and gold, fitted with portals. Many pilgrims grip the bars of the mausoleum and recite lamentations to Hussain. They call out his name, often tinged with a sense of deep felt pain and implore God to give them the strength of Hussain in the face of tyranny, injustice and oppression in their own lives.
The pilgrimage reflects the diversity of the Islamic world. Pilgrims hail from a plethora of countries ranging from Iran, Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia, to the UK, Denmark, and South Korea. A majority of pilgrims are Shia Muslims but there are also Sunni Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and Zoroastrians.
Why do people perform the Arba’een Pilgrimage?
Hussain is remembered for being defiant in the face of oppression. The Ummayad dynasty was established and Yazid ibn Muawiyah ruled with an iron fist oppressing all who opposed him, killing who did not accept his rule and crushing who refused to pay allegiance to him. Hussain was one such person. He openly expressed his disdain to such an oppressive and ruthless tyrant.
Hussain received letters from the people of Kufa asking for his help and leadership and he set out to answer their call. However, an ally of Yazid brutally murdered Hussain’s representative and cousin, creating a climate of fear. Yazid also imprisoned the rest of Hussain’s supporters to ensure the obedience of the people of Kufa. Despite this, Hussain still proceeded to Kufa with his family and loyal band of 72 companions. Hussain was forced to change direction and arrived at Karbala. He was met by the forces of Yazid, approximately 30,000 troops, and forced to make camp in the desert, banned from accessing water which marked the beginning of three days of thirst. No exceptions were made for the women and children.
On the tenth of Muharram (known as Ashura) Hussain and his 72 companions, including his six month old son, were brutally murdered by the forces of Yazid. Their bodies were beheaded and defiled. The tents of the women and children were burnt and their possessions looted. The heads of Hussain and his companions were paraded around the Caliphate as the surviving women and children who were tied by the hands and dragged along through the deserts of Iraq and Syria as prisoners of war. This battle was not about access to water. This battle was the result of a refusal of a just man to give allegiance to a tyrant and maintaining the desire to establish a social order based on truth, justice and egalitarianism. For this cause, Hussain not only sacrificed his life but the lives of his companions and his family. The day of Arba’een marks the fortieth day post Ashura, forty days being the traditional mourning period following a bereavement in Muslim society.
Hussain may be remembered and revered by Shia Muslims specifically as their Imam, a divine leader placed on earth to guide the human community, and although he lived over 1,300 years ago, his defiance of tyranny in the face of death serves as an inspiratory exemplar to many others striving to create a better world based on truth, justice and egalitarianism. The road from Karbala to Najaf is lined with photos of civilians and soldiers killed in the campaign by the Iraqi Security Forces to rid the country of ISIS militants, who have stated their desire to end the Arba’een pilgrimage and destroy the Shrine of Hussain. Many soldiers find inspiration in the sacrifice of Hussain and in his memory are willing to sacrifice their lives to create a better world free of the oppression of ISIS and whoever else threatens peace.