In a world where individualism reigns, the battle between justice and injustice is becoming increasingly difficult, and the ego of the rich increases while the happiness of the poor decreases, there stands a phenomena that challenges these traditions and offers an alternative reality: Arbaeen.
Arbaeen translates to “the fortieth” and marks the end of the annual mourning period for Hussain ibne Ali, the grandson of the Holy Prophet of Islam. Imam Hussain, the third Imam of Islam, was killed in the city of Karbala by the tyrant of the time, Yazid ibn Muawiya. Along with his family and 72 companions, he was mercilessly killed because he refused to legitimize Yazid’s corrupt rule by paying allegiance to him. Imam Hussain left a timeless legacy of how one should face injustice: with defiance, courage, and honour. After his death, the women and children of his household were kept captive in Damascus. “The fortieth” also marks the day when these captives were finally released and able to walk back to the city of Karbala to mourn and pay their salutations to their loved ones.
To mark this historic event, every year, millions of people from around the world make their way to the city of Karbala in Iraq where Imam Hussain is buried. Most people make this journey by foot from the city of Najaf to Karbala, covering around 80 km in 3 to 4 days in order to reach the city of Karbala on the day of Arbaeen. This is both an act of servitude for Hussain and an imitation of how the family of Hussain walked to Karbala.
Over the years, this walk has developed into the largest annual peaceful gathering, with 20-25 million people walking towards the shrine of Imam Hussain. Along this journey one witnesses the grandest display of humanitarian values, such that it has left witnesses in absolute awe.
Along the road from Najaf to Karbala, the people of Iraq set up houses and tents called a “mawkab.” In these mawkabs they serve the visitors of Hussain. In their love for Hussain and his family they see this service as an honour and therefore refuse to accept any payment for the food, shelter, and help they provide. Along the entirety of the 80 km journey, you won’t find a moment where you desire food, water, or shelter and it isn’t given to you. You’ll also find medical camps set up where doctors from around the world come to volunteer their services to all pilgrims. Where in the world would you find people who are desperate to serve strangers in that manner? What other legacy has inspired people beyond the barriers of time to develop such humanistic values within them?
The Arbaeen walk is also a place where class, status, or race is irrelevant. Making this pilgrimage, there are elderly men/women walking with sticks, young children, wheelchair bound people pushing themselves, black people, Asians, white people, Middle Eastern people, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Shias, and even people of no faith — a truly universal event. The only characteristic given importance to is one’s love for Hussain. You’ll see former presidents, army generals, professors, and religious scholars sweeping the streets of Karbala. You’ll see such people offering the pilgrims to massage their aching feet. Every person you meet will be displaying such high morals that it gives you the opportunity to reflect on your own morals and how much we are lacking in sincerity and services to humanity.
These qualities that the pilgrims of Imam Hussain develop are actually a testament to the values that Hussain stood for and represented. This is because his pilgrims adopt these qualities within them with the knowledge that Hussain loved compassion towards one another, unity within society, offering assistance to those in need, etc. They therefore hope that by acting in the manner which Hussain wanted society to be, and refraining from the things he despised such as corruption, cheating, lying, etc., they can please their beloved Hussain.
Throughout this walk, travellers are given the opportunity to place the story of Karbala in perspective and use it to contemplate and reflect on their life. The crux of Karbala was a battle between good and evil, righteousness and falsehood. When one spends 3 days walking toward the man who succeeded in this battle, they naturally question where they stand in this battle today. Are their actions placing them on the side of Hussain or Yazid? Have they raised their voice against the oppressors of today like Hussain did then?
During this walk, one has to be prepared to give up many luxuries that we perceive as necessities; in actuality, these commodities are merely materialistic — small things like a soft bed (you sleep on thin mattresses on the floor) or personal food choice (you have to eat what is being served). Despite this, during the entire walk, you will not hear one person complaining because once these other commodities are removed, one is able to directly communicate with their inner self. For the first time in many years, there is no superficial stimulus trying to make you happy; instead, the organic source of human happiness that come from love, compassion towards fellow human beings is allowing your internal self to feel a rare sense of contentment. Some may say you can gain inner peace through praying or meditating, but all of those acts encompass an interaction between yourself and a higher power whereas the Arbaeen walk allows you to reach your inner self while remaining attuned to your fellow humans and broader society. You are being internally touched but not in isolation, rather in sync with others. In mainstream society, with the rise of individualism, people claim to find contentment when they move away from people. If we were to continue to find inner peace through other people, even strangers (as is the case during the Arbaeen Walk), then society could function with greater peace.
Over the years, the visitors of Hussain have used the Arbaeen Walk to make a strong statement to the tyrants and oppressors of the time. During Saddam’s reign over Iraq, he had banned people from visiting Hussain or taking part in the walk. Although during this time people still risked their lives to visit Hussain, it was after his fall that the tradition of walking to Karbala truly re-emerged. But even today, the infestation of ISIS within the lands of Iraq had made visiting Hussain a risk. One of the years during ISIS’s rule, they had threatened to bomb the visitors. That specific year, the Arbaeen Walk saw the greatest rise in pilgrims. People walked in millions towards Hussain and sent the message to ISIS and any bearers of injustice that the message of Hussain lives on. They showed them that lovers of Hussain don’t falter in the face of oppression; rather, they look it in the eyes and destroy it with their courage and hope, just like Hussain ibne Ali did 14 centuries ago. This year, with the fall of ISIS in Iraq, the atmosphere was of victory and sheer happiness.
The use of the Arbaeen walk as a political statement was initiated by the revolutionary sister of Imam Hussain, Zainab binte Ali. When she was made to walk in shackles from Karbala to Kufa, then to Damascus, she didn’t remain silent; instead, she spoke to the onlookers and told them what had happened on the plains of Karbala. She let them know that her brother was beheaded because he stood for the common man. Then, when she was bought in to the palace of Yazid, she delivered such fiery speeches that her words were said to cause the collapse of Yazid’s empire as she exposed him to the people. These visitors keep the legendary Zainab in their mind and with every step, they vow to continue her legacy today.
The story of Karbala and the remembrance of it through Arbaeen processions is something that has been cruelly hidden from the rest of the world. Tyrants of every era have recognised the power it possesses to ignite revolutionary spirits within humans and have therefore tried to restrict its magnitude and influence. But to their dismay, they have failed miserably. Every year more and more people are learning about Imam Hussain and the Arbaeen processions. Seeing millions upon millions of people from every corner of the world walking towards Hussain one thing was certain, the message of Hussain lives on and Hussain himself lives on in the hearts of those walking towards his shrine.