It’s not the Muslim Hajj, or the Hindu Kumbh Mela.. Known as Arbaeen, it is the world’s most populous gathering and you’ve probably never heard of it! Not only does the congregation exceed the number of visitors to Mecca
According to rahyafte (the missionaries and converts website) Above all, Arbaeen is unique because it takes place against the backdrop of chaotic and dangerous geopolitical scenes. Daesh (aka ‘Islamic State’) sees the Shia as theirmortal enemy, so nothing infuriates the terror group more than the sight of Shia pilgrims gathering for their greatest show of faith.
There’s another peculiar feature of Arbaeen. While it is a distinctively Shia spiritual exercise, Sunnis, even Christians, Yazidis, Zoroastrians, and Sabians partake in both the pilgrimage as well as serving of devotees. This is remarkable given the exclusive nature of religious rituals, and it could only mean one thing: people regardless of color or creed see Hussein as a universal, borderless, and meta-religious symbol of freedom and compassion.
Why you have never heard of it probably has to do with the fact that the press is concerned more with negative, gory, and sensationalized tabloids, than with positive,inspiring narratives, particularly when it comes to Islam. If a few hundred anti-immigration protestors take to the streets in London and they will make headlines.. The same level of airtime is awarded to a pro-democracy march in Hong Kong or an anti-Putin rally in Russia.. But a gathering of twenty million in obstreperous defiance of terror and injustice somehow fails even to make it into the TV news ticker! An unofficial media embargo is imposed on the gargantuan event despite the story having all the critical elements of an eye-catching feature; the staggering numbers, the political significance, the revolutionary message, the tense backdrop, as well as originality.. But when such a story does make it through the editorial axe of major news outlets, it creates shockwaves and touches the most random people.
Among the countless individuals inspired by it, is a young Australian man I met several years ago who had converted to Islam. Evidently, no one takes such a life-altering decision lightly, so upon inquiry he told me it all started in 2003. One evening, as he was watching the news only to be drawn by scenes of millions streaming towards a holy city known as Karbala, chanting the name of a man he had never heard of: “Hussein”. For the first time in decades, in a globally televised event, the world had caught an glimpse into previously suppressed religious fervor in Iraq.
With the Sunni Ba’athist regime toppled, Western viewers were eager to see how Iraqis would respond to a new era free from dictatorship persecution. The ‘Republic of Fear’ had crumbled and the genie had irreversibly escaped from the bottle. “Where is Karbala, and why is everyone heading in its direction?” he recalls asking himself. “Who is this Hussein who motivates people to defy all the odds and come out to mourn his death fourteen centuries after the fact?”
What he witnessed in that 60-second report was especially moving because the imagery was unlike any he had ever seen. A fervent sense of connection turned human pilgrims into iron filings, swarming together other as they drew closer to what could only be described as Hussein’s irresistible magnetic field. “If you want to see a living, breathing, lively religion, come to Karbala” he said.
How could a man who was killed 1396 years ago be so alive and have such a palpable presence today that he makes millions take up his cause, and view his plight as their own? People are unlikely to be drawn into a dispute (much less one that transpired in ancient times) unless they have a personal interest in the matter. On the other hand, if you felt someone was engaged in a fight over your right to freedom, your prerogative to be treated justly, and your entitlement to a life of dignity, you would feel you had a vested interest and would empathize with him to the point where conversion to his beliefs is not a far-fetched possibility.
The Ultimate Tragedy
Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, is revered by Muslims as the “Prince of Martyrs”. He was killed in Karbala on a day which became known as Ashura, the tenth day of the Islamic month of Muharram, having refused to pledge allegiance to the corrupt and tyrannical caliph, Yazid.
He and his family and companions were surrounded in the desert by an army of 30,000, starved of food and water, then beheaded in the most macabre manner, a graphic tale recounted from pulpits every year since the day he was slain. Their bodies were mutilated. In the words of the English historian Edward Gibbon: “In a distant age and climate, the tragic scene of the death of Hussein will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader.”
Shia Muslims have since mourned the death of Hussein, in particular on the days of Ashura, then, forty days later, on Arbaeen. Forty days is the usual length of mourning in many Muslim traditions. This year, Arba’een falls on Friday 12 December.
I travelled to Karbala, my own ancestral home, to find out for myself why the city is so intoxicating. What I witnessed proved to me that even the widest-angle camera lens is too narrow to capture the spirit of this tumultuous, yet peaceful gathering.
An avalanche of men, women and children, but most visibly black-veiled women, fill the eye from one end of the horizon to the other.The crowds were so huge that they caused a blockade for hundreds of miles.
The 425 mile distance between the southern port city of Basra and Karbala is a long journey by car, but it’s unimaginably arduous on foot. It takes pilgrims a full two weeks to complete the walk. People of all age groups trudge in the scorching sun during the day and in bone-chilling cold at night. They travel across rough terrain, down uneven roads, through terrorist strongholds, and dangerous marshlands. Without even the most basic amenities or travel gear, the pilgrims carry little besides their burning love for “The Master” Hussein. Flags and banners remind them, and the world, of the purpose of their journey:
The message recalls an epic recited by Abbas, Hussein’s half-brother and trusted lieutenant, who was also killed in the Battle of Karbala in 680AD while trying to fetch water for his parched nieces and nephews. With security being in the detrimental state that makes Iraq the number one headline in the world, no one doubts that this statement is genuine in every sense.
Free lunch.. And dinner, and breakfast!
One part of the pilgrimage which will leave every visitor perplexed is the sight of thousands of tents with makeshift kitchens set up by local villagers who live around the pilgrims’ path. The tents (called ‘mawkeb’) are places where pilgrims get practically everything they need. From fresh meals to eat and a space to rest, to free international phone calls to assure concerned relatives, to baby diapers, to practically every other amenity, free of charge. In fact, pilgrims do not need to carry anything on the 400 mile journey except the clothes they wear.
More intriguing is how pilgrims are invited for food and drink. Mawkeb organizers intercept the pilgrims’ path to plead with them to accept their offerings, which often includes a full suite of services fit for kings: first you can a foot massage, then you are offered a delicious hot meal, then you are invited to rest while your clothes are washed, ironed, then returned to you after a nap. All complimentary, of course.
For some perspective, consider this: In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, and with worldwide sympathy and support, the UN World Food Programme announceddelivery of half a million meals at the height of its relief efforts.. The United States military, launched Operation Unified Response, bringing together the massive resources of various federal agencies and announced that within five months of the humanitarian catastrophe, 4.9 million meals had been delivered to Haitians. Now compare that with over 50 million meals per day during Arbaeen, equating to about 700 million meals for the duration of the pilgrimage, all financed not by the United Nations or international charities, but by poor laborers and farmers who starve to feed the pilgrims and save up all year round so that visitors are satisfied. Everything, including security is provided mostly by volunteer fighters who have one eye on Daesh, and another on protecting the pilgrim’s path. “To know what Islam teaches,” says one Mawkeb organizer, “don’t look at the actions of a few hundred barbaric terrorists, but the selfless sacrifices exhibited by millions of Arbaeen pilgrims.”
In fact, Arbaeen should be listed in the Guinness Book of World Records in several categories: biggest annual gathering, longest continuous dining table, largest number of people fed for free, largest group of volunteers serving a single event, all under the imminent threat of suicide bombings.
Just looking at the multitudes leaves you breathless. What adds to the spectacle is that, as the security conditions worsen, even more people are motivated to challenge the terrorist threats and march in defiance. Thus, the pilgrimage isn’t a mere religious exercise, but a bold statement of resistance. Videos have been posted online showing how a suicide bomber blows himself up in the midst of the pilgrims, only to have the crowds turn out in even greater numbers, chanting in unison:
The horrific bomb blasts which occur year-round, mostly targeting Shia pilgrims and taking countless lives, illustrate the dangers facing Shias living in Iraq, and the insecurity that continues to plague the country. Yet the imminent threat of death doesn’t seem to deter people – young and old, Iraqis and foreigners – from making the dangerous journey to the holy city.
It isn’t easy for an outsider to understand what inspires the pilgrims. You see women carrying children in their arms, old men in wheelchairs, people on crutches, and blind seniors holding walking sticks. I met a father who had travelled all the way from Basra with his disabled boy. The 12-year-old had cerebral palsy and could not walk unassisted. So for a part of the trek the father put the boy’s feet on top of his and held him by the armpits as they walked. It is the kind of story out of which Oscar-winning films are made, but it seems Hollywood is more concerned with comic heroes and with real life heroes whose superpower is their courage and commitment.
Golden Dome of Hussein
Visitors to the shrine of Hussein and his brother Abbas are not driven by emotion alone. They cry be reminded of the atrocious nature of his death, in doing so, they reaffirm their pledge to his ideals.
The first thing that pilgrims do upon reaching his shrine is recite the Ziyara, a sacred text which summarizes the status of Hussein. In it, they begin the address by calling Hussein the “inheritor” of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. There is something profound in making this proclamation. It shows that Hussein’s message of truth, justice, and love for the oppressed is viewed as an inseparable extension of all divinely-appointed prophets.
People go to Karbala not to marvel at the city’s landscape – lush with date palms, or to admire the mausoleum’s physical beauty, or to shop, be entertained, or to visit ancient historical sites. They go to cry. To mourn and experience the angelic aura of Hussein. They enter the sacred shrine weeping and lamenting the greatest act of sacrifice ever seen.
It is as though every person has established a personal relationship with the man they have never seen. They talk to him and call out his name; they grip the housing of his tomb; they kiss the floor leading into the shrine; they touch its walls and doors in the same manner one touches the face of a long-lost friend. It is a picturesque vista of epic proportions. What motivates these people is something that requires an understanding of the character and status of Imam Hussein and the spiritual relationship that those who have come to know him have developed with his living legend.
If the world understood Hussein, his message, and his sacrifice, they would begin to understand the ancient roots of Daesh and its credo of death and destruction. It was centuries ago in Karbala that humanity witnessed the genesis of senseless monstrosities, epitomized in the murderers of Hussein. It was pitch black darkness v. Absolute shining light, an exhibition of vice v. a festival of virtue, hence the potent specter of Hussein today. His presence is primordially woven into every facet of their
Revolutions, being upheavals of the most radical form, require changes to take place at the root of a society’s value system. Given that Iraq was decidedly ruined on every conceivable level by the former Baath regime, the political corruption gripping the nation, as well as the unspeakable genocideries of ISIS, undoing all of the damage requires a moral transfiguration.
So away from the lenses of sensationalist tabloid media began a revolution of another, more authentic kind. One that would restore values long buried under the smoldering rubble of vice and immorality. Called Arbaeen, this revolution is having a tremendous ripple effect in the corridors of power as well as the lives of millions around the globe.
The immediate political impact of Arbaeen can be gauged by the fact that it represents the greatest act of defiance against ISIS and other terrorists. Last year 24 million pilgrims swarmed into Karbala over a period of two weeks, creating the world’s biggest annual pilgrimage. A human avalanche that leaves analysts stunned and governments paralyzed.
Contrary to popular belief, Arbaeen did not commence after the fall of Saddam. Rather, this monumental ritual has existed for hundreds of years and grew in magnitude after the first gulf war when the feeble regime relaxed its crackdown on Shia rituals to focus on more pressing matters. Immediately millions of Iraqis revived the ancient practice and filled the horizon as they walked afoot for hundreds of miles to salute their spiritual commander. Soon enough the dictator realized that he had made a mistake. By lifting the ban, Saddam had unleashed a movement too powerful to contain. Still, he struck with an iron fist, arresting anyone found walking and shooting those trying to stealthily make the forbidden voyage. Nevertheless, the avalanche couldn’t be stopped and the pilgrimage continued in solid defiance, eventually crippling and abating the ancien régime in time for the final blow which came in the form of the 2003 war. The U.S. led invasion brought down an already hollow structure which had been eviscerated by popular resistance for years.
Now, with terror gripping the world, and with so many ‘solutions’ on the table, I posit there is only one real, viable antidote to the venom; the legend of Hussein, and Arbaeen as the syringe. Below are some features of this colossal pilgrimage which makes it uniquely placed to do just that;
1. All social and ethnic barriers come crumpling down in Arbaeen. Nowhere else in the world is harmony and cohesion more tangible than during this pilgrimage, where the sense of fraternity is most salient. No other assembly is nearly as congruous or melodious. Despite the inhospitable environment and lack of basic services, the overriding feeling in Karbala is that of unconditional love. The kind of love that makes total strangers extend gratis servicesfit only for kings.
2. After the fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest and heavily fortified city fell to ISIS overnight, another standoff later stunned observers. The location was a tiny village north west of the country called Amerli. Cordoned off from the rest of the country by ISIS forces, Amerli resisted for over three months. Men as well as women turned out to fight and eventually pushed back against ISIS, achieving liberty. How could Mosul fall in a matter of hours while tiny Amerli stands tall and defeats the enemy? The difference lies in the fact that Amerli is an ethnically Turkmen, religiously Shia village. It was the legend of Hussein which inspired them to persevere, while Mosul practically embraced ISIS. Shias are all too familiar with the menace of hewed off heads, murdered children, hacked throats, and captive women. We have been abominating these acts to which Hussein and his camp were subjected to for over a millennium. That is what has turned the Shia into the staunchly non-conformist global community of devotees, willing to battle terror at the merest beck and call of our religious leaders.
3. In a world grappling with a sharp rise in people fleeing wars as refugees, Arbaeen pilgrims and their Iraqi hosts exhibit such generosity that must serve as an example to the West. In this crisis, let the world look at the inclusive policy vis-à-vis Arbaeen pilgrims and the unparalleled embrace of foreigners, as an emancipatory defiance of the borders in the North, ever immobilizing victims of capitalist expansionism and imperial militarism. Isn’t it ironic that members of non-Muslim minorities, including Christians, Assyrians, Yazidis, and Sabean Mandaeans, who were viciously exposed to the ethnic cleansing campaign launched by ISIS, have long participated in and contributed to this annual march?
The war with ISIS is not an internal conflict. Despite the wishes of some pundits and politicians, it cannot be dismissed as a mere civil war. It is a battle between the genuine Islam embodied in its founder and appointed heirs, versus a counterfeit Islam in the form of Salafi militancy. An Islam that takes the appearance of the real thing, adopting its slogans and insignia, but is devoid of its original values. An Islam that refers to the greatest and most recurring Quranic verse “In the name of God the beneficent, the merciful” yet they exhibit anything but beneficence and mercy.
This is the truest manifestation of an autoimmune disorder, where the body attacks itself; to destroy Islam by using Islam itself. This, of course, isn’t exclusive to our faith. Anything of value will inevitably have counterfeits emerge at the hands of opportunistic impostors. But in our case, the antagonists are an apocalyptic movement that began in the time of the Prophet Mohammad himself, when he warned about “hypocrites” who appear like the true adherents of the faith, but harbor no faith internally. An entire chapter of the Quran was revealed about the hidden dangers of these duplicitous liars who wreak havoc under the guise of being Muslim.
Why should the world take notice? Because what happened in Paris was a small glimpse of what these monstrous beasts are capable of. If they get their way, they will slaughter your infants and carry their tiny heads on spikes. They will butcher your men and enslave your women. How do we know this? Because their ideological ancestors have committed these same gruesome atrocities against none other than the family of the Prophet. They murdered his grandson Hussein in cold blood while chanting ‘Allah Akbar’, an Islamic slogan hijacked for a sinister cause. They severed the head of his infant son as they cheered in mad hysteria!
It was Saladdin, the twelfth-century Tikrit-born Sunni warrior who conquered Jerusalem, yet before marching toward the Roman enclave, he massacred hundreds of thousands of Shias in both Fatimid Egypt as well as Abbasid Syria. Much like today, the road to the Christian West, must cut through Muslim blood.
By risking death, Arbaeen pilgrims are exposing this menace. The millions who march are echoing calls we have been making for centuries; that Wahhabism is a ominous evil which attempts to conquer and control in the name of Islam. If left unchecked, it will burn the world to the ground without so much as blinking. No matter how much serpentine Western politicians tell us they are “our allies”, they are nothing but raving wolves in sheep’s skin. The banner of Islam needs to be re-appropriated to its rightful bearers and these impostors must be held to account.
The gravitational pull of Hussein, a man killed 1400 years ago, is so strong that it travels along the earth’s axis. From Auckland, New Zealand to Vancouver, Canada, and in every nation in between.. Pockets of people commemorate his tragedy and travel to one of the world’s most dangerous countries to reconnect with Hussein and visit his mausoleum.
They do so to reclaim the black attire, which for long has been worn to sympathize with the oppressed, not to intimidate them. To relieve the trauma of loss, not to cause them. Which is why, the grimmer the threat of ISIS, the more crowded became the paths towards Karbala. “If it rains Da’esh (ISIS), we will still visit Hussein,” reads asignpost installed by pilgrims.
The pilgrims walk in their millions on the same path, towards the same destination, motivated by the same cause; to defeat immorality and hate, even if it costs them their lives. Just like Hussein.
This is how I know ISIS will never win.