The Arabic word ‘Arbaeen’ (pronounced Arr-ba-een) translates to forty (i.e. fortieth day). The traditional period of mourning in Islamic culture is forty days. As such, millions of people around the world mark the Day of Arbaeen by remembering the story of Imam Hussain, his family and his companions.
The reason behind the mourning by Shias is not just the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, but the oppression that was meted out to the Prophet’s family, its women and children, after the battle of Karbala. The women and children were tied with ropes and paraded through the lanes of Kufa (a city in Iraq) and Damascus. This is the main content in any Shia orator’s discourse during the months of mourning, which make the people weep. In remembrance of the hardships faced by the Prophet’s family during their travel from Karbala to Syria, Shias walk on foot from Najaf to Karbala, covering a distance of 88 kms. Some Iraqis also walk from Basra to Karbala covering 300 kms.
Today, almost 1400 years later, the Day of Arbaeen is remembered by millions of people around the world. It is marked as a day to pay tribute to the sacrifice of Imam Hussain for social justice.
In recent years centuries old tradition of walking 88km from Najaf (the resting place of Ali the father of Hussain) to Karbala has been reignited. Every year since, the number has been rising steadily from 17 million pilgrims to at least 4.5 million. People from all walks of life and all corners of the globe make the journey, despite the imminent threat of terrorists who have vowed to attack the pilgrims.
Along the 88km stretch from Najaf to Karbala volunteers distribute free food and drinks to those undertaking the pilgrimage, as well as offering places to relax, wash and sleep. Arbaeen Day is now the largest annual peaceful gathering in the world, with numbers set to increase significantly every year.
I have attended the event a dozen times and witnessed countless gestures of peace, love and sacrifice. Scent of musk, mixed with that of rose petals, filled the air as I left Najaf for Karbala on foot. I was to travel among thousands of others on a road stretching over 88 kilometres between two cities in southern Iraq, from the door of the shrine of Imam Ali (AS) in Najaf to the door of the shrine of Imam Hussain (as) in Karbala. While walking, I witnessed banners and flags in shades of red, green and black fluttering along the road that leads to Karbala. An avalanche of men and women, young and old, children and disabled, all marched in one direction as a collective as far as the eye could see.
Pilgrimage is managed by half of Iraq’s population as a host. Iraqi people welcome pilgrims with so much warmth and respect that according to the pilgrims, they have never experienced such warmth in their whole life. The walk starts from the door of Imam Ali’s shrine ‘Babe-Tusi’ and crosses 1452 poles or check posts where many volunteers build camps (Mawkebs) and Sabeels (water camps) where you will find water, tea, food etc. Iraqis also offer their homes to the pilgrims to stay and provide every necessity to them. Iraqi volunteers wash their legs, massage them and provide them for free facilities they never dreamt of. If you want to pay them, they will get angry and say why you want to lessen the reward of God which they will get by serving you. These spiritual servants will take the sand of pilgrims’ foot and put it on their faces to get healed from any disease. They fill that sand in bottles and take it to their homes. The visuals and photos recorded by the pilgrims prove this spiritual bliss.
Seeing hundreds of people marching in one direction makes one wonder what drives them to walk unarmed, fearlessly, along with their babies and the elderly, amidst the lingering deadly threats by the Islamic State (IS). These devotees, not only including Iraqis but also millions of Pakistanis, amongst other nationalities like Iranians, Indians, Egyptians, Jordanians, Libyans are driven by their love for Imam Hussain (as), the son of Imam Ali (as) and the grandson of the Holy Prophet (PBUH).
Iraq has been a war-torn country for almost 50 years, but despite this, the way the people of Iraq, from Najaf to Karbala and throughout this walk, open their hearts and homes and serve you with all they have with humility and compassion, is unbelievable. This classless and non-discriminatory walk is a perfect model of how an equal and healthy society should be, which is mesmerizing to say the least. The display of brotherhood one gets to experience during this walk is a miracle in this age and era, where the capitalist system has almost destroyed the humanity in humans. Even the poorest Iraqis try to provide everything they have to the pilgrims. Highest Islamic authorities of Iraq serve the pilgrims. Ayatollah Sistani serves them through Al Khoei Foundation and Ayatollah Basheer Najafi through Anwar al-Najafiya Foundation. Ayatollah Shirazi started the “Hussein-unites-us” campaign calling for free services to all the pilgrims including provision of free wifi from Najaf to Karbala.
A group of men walking barefoot, carrying flags in their hands and tied around their chests, looking straight ahead with grief-stricken eyes; an old man on a wheelchair, driven forward in the same direction by his young daughter walking swiftly; a baby wrapped in winter clothes clinging to her mother’s arm; a man on crutches; a blind man treading ahead with a stick, composed and calm; a two-year-old girl standing unattended, handing out tissues to the zaireen (pilgrims); a man pleading with the walkers to have food at his house while standing in the middle of the road, saying
It is hard to capture the sentiment behind these acts of compassion and devotion through any camera or words.
Even more awe-inspiring is the sight of thousands of tents with makeshift kitchens, set up by local Iraqi villagers. They provide the zaireen (pilgrims) with nearly everything they need, from freshly prepared meals, places to rest, diapers, a shoe-polishing service and foot massage for tired pilgrims, to all sorts of medical assistance. Such devotion shown by these poor, war-stricken people makes one wonder what the driving force behind this selfless hospitality is.
The 88-kilometre walk finishes at the shrine of Hazrat Abbas (AS), the brother and the flag-bearer of Imam Hussain (As), who is regarded as the symbol of loyalty in the history of Karbala. Monis Chishti, a Sufi Sunni from Ajmer, travelled with the caravan from Mumbai while Gaurav Arora, a Hindu photographer, travelled with the caravan from Lucknow, according to Malik-e-Ashtar Tours. Delegations of Sunni Muslims from Pakistan and Iran also visited Karbala this year.
For Muslims and non-Muslims, the sacrifice and noble message of Imam Hussain represents the peace and virtue of Islam, which prevented Hussain from resorting to violence or capitulation. This is why non Muslims as well as Muslims of different sects and denominations gather together for this event in Iraq and globally Hussain’s decision not to submit to the will of violence is a model all of humanity can replicate.
Pastor John Shuck of Southminster Presbyterian Church of Beaverton has returned from the pilgrimage of a lifetime — the Arbaeen. Shuck described his journey at a Washington County Public Affairs Forum on Monday, Dec. 3. “This is the largest peaceful religious gathering in recorded history,” Shuck said. “Yet most people in America have never even heard of it.””I was moved by the story of Hussein and those who follow him,” he said. “I wanted to be inspired by his courage.”
“When they found out that I was from America, and they found out that I was a Christian minister, they were flipping over backwards with gratitude that I came to document their story and honor them.”
“It was an amazing experience to go and realize that this is a walk for peace, justice — and resistance to tyranny wherever it may be.” “It means that every place and every day has its moments of injustice, but the call to respond is to say “I am with you, Hussein.’ This is about who will stand for justice, regardless of religion.”
For us the pilgrims, the Arbaeen walk is a journey on the road built upon the finest virtues of humanity – kindness, empathy, respect, freedom, and above all else, love. No visitor of this pilgrimage ever returns to their pre-walk existence; a spiritual transformation can be promised after the walk. It feels as if you have conquered death and discovered love – the two questions every being in this world is seeking answers for.