Special Reports

Arbaeen: a pilgrimage of unity, humanism, and devotion

On the day of Arbaeen, millions of Shias, Sunnis and even some Christians and Hindus from all over the world flock towards Karbala to pay their tribute to Imam Hussain and the Prophet’s family.

The 40th day of the martyrdom of the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Imam Hussain is known as “Arbaeen” or Chehlum. Imam Hussain fought against a tyrant ruler to save Islam and humanity 1400 years ago. Since then, followers of Imam Hussain commemorate the tragedy of Karbala. Other sects of Muslims also commemorate the sacrifice of Imam Hussain in their own way but they do not mourn. Mourning, known as “Azadari”, is exclusive to Shias around the world.

Indian pilgrims on their way to Karbala in 2015

On the day of Arbaeen, millions of Shias, Sunnis and even some Christians and Hindus from all over the world flock towards Karbala to pay their tribute to Imam Hussain and the Prophet’s family. Though the situation in Iraq remains disturbed, millions of pilgrims still come to Karbala, undeterred.

Iraqi Shia marching to Karbala this year

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 80 kms. Some Iraqis also walk from Basra to Karbala covering 300 kms.

The Arbaeen pilgrimage is listed as the largest peaceful gathering on earth. On the day of Arbaeen, Islamic scholars from Najaf have walked on foot to Karbala for centuries. Many influential scholars of the 18th and 19th centuries like Allama Hilli and Ayatollah Khoei, participated in this walk in their times. Some scholars still went on pilgrimage when Saddam restricted the pilgrimage or even forbade the visitation of the shrine by local people. After the fall of Saddam’s regime in April 2003, millions of people came from Najaf to Karbala on foot to revive Arbaeen and the journey restarted. Since then, a growing number of pilgrims, nearly 22m in 2014 and 26m in 2015, visited Karbala from at least 40 countries.

Some Shias of India took the historic step of marching towards Karbala on foot from Hyderabad city. In 1998, Syed Abdul Ali, a businessman from Hyderabad, formed a small group and started the journey. The biggest challenge was to travel on foot through various countries. They took the road to Amritsar via Agra and Delhi. From Amritsar they crossed the border and reached Lahore. Narrating the journey, Ali said, “We had to face many difficulties in Lahore as they did not let us walk and granted us only seven days’ visa. From there we flew to Zahedan in Iran and from there we completed our walk to Karbala.” Ali explains that they walked approximately 5,000 kms on this pilgrimage and it took them six months to reach Karbala. After the success of the walk, next year (1999), Ali again took a caravan of at least 40 people including Mirza Javad who said that the caravan started its pilgrimage from Hyderabad on 9 November, 1999 and reached Karbala on 25 April, 2000. Ali said that he took this caravan one more time in 2010. According to him, many astonishing incidents happened during this spiritual journey. People in Iran asked them where have you come from? He told them that they came on foot from India on their way to Karbala. An Iranian man took them to his house. After reaching his home, he told his wife, “Look here are those people whom I saw in a dream walking towards Karbala”. We were overwhelmed with tears in our eyes and wept after hearing the dream of the Iranian man. It was not just miraculous. It also proved the fact that God tells the importance of the visitors of Imam Hussain and protects them. Ali recounts that the respect which you get as the visitor of Karbala cannot be found in the whole world.

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. Pilgrims walk 80 kms from Najaf to reach Karbala after two to three days. The walk starts from the door of Imam Ali’s shrine ‘Babe-Tusi’ and crosses 1452 poles or checkposts 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.

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.

According to the Iraqi consulate in India, 6000 Indians visited Karbala on the occasion of Arbaeen in 2014 and the number has surged since then. Indian pilgrims take along their flag and build makeshift camps in Karbala. Many non-Shias also visit Karbala at this time according to tourist agencies.

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. Mehdi Hamza, a pilgrim, posted on his twitter a photo that shows that the Shoulder-to-Shoulder campaign started by Indian Muslims has reached Karbala where Sunnis were spotted praying along with Shias.

Describing his Arbaeen walk, Syed Hassan Kazim, a journalist from Delhi said, “When I visited Karbala in 2014 for the first time, I felt that a power was pulling me towards the shrine. Imam Hussain’s appeal of humaism and equality among the mankind, his way of resisting the state’s arrogance, inequality within the society and his message to be a ‘free man’, attracts millions of people towards his shrine.”

Maulana Yasoob Abbas, a cleric from Lucknow, posted a message on social media, during the walk, saying, “Sea of humans pouring down to Karbala, people of different colours, castes, creeds, cultures and religions are walking towards the martyr of humanity, Imam Husain. I’m overwhelmed by the unmatched compassion of the Iraqi volunteers here. May God bless them”.

A pilgrim from Kuwait of Indian origin, Samaah, said, “It’s completely divine, it’s like we are in Paradise. I could not thank God enough for granting me this visit. The world will feel the true definition of love here”.

In spite of ISIS attacks on the pilgrims in several parts of Iraq, not a single pilgrim stopped, and there was no stampede at all. If anybody wants to see the kind of  humanism and compassion the world needs at this very hour, he should watch this pilgrimage.