Iraq’s Massive, Peaceful Annual Arba’een Pilgrimage Is Beginning Now

karbala, iraq – september 27, 2021: photo of imam abbas shrine in karbala city in Arbaʽeen ilgrimage cermony © Mohammed_Al_Ali /

Preparations for the world’s largest annual pilgrimage are underway. Millions will gather in Karbala, Iraq, for Arba’een, a gathering that marks the end of a 40-day Shi’a period of mourning. Every year, Shi’as, joined by others, commemorate Husayn, the heroic grandson of the Prophet Muhammad who was slain in Karbala.

Arba’een should be listed in the Guinness Book of World Records in several categories: biggest annual gathering, longest continuous dining table, the largest number of people fed for free, and the largest group of volunteers serving a single event, all under the imminent threat of suicide bombings.

Sayed M. Modarresi, “World’s Biggest Pilgrimage Now Underway, and Why You’ve Never Heard of It!”

We haven’t heard of Arba’een because the media is primarily interested in negative news, embellished tabloids and controversial matters. Positive news and inspiring stories are often ignored, especially when they relate to Islam. When a few hundred protest in Russia, China or Iran, it makes headlines. When millions gather for the world’s greatest peaceful annual event, with the longest continuous free dining table and sleep accommodations, none of it paid for by any government or corporation, all in defiance of imminent terror, it routinely fails to make a single headline. When it somehow does, it gives hope to humanity that universal peace is achievable!

Last year, despite the threat of the COVID pandemic still persisting and terrorist bombings among crowds, around 21 million people from across the world gathered in Iraq and participated in the event.

Pilgrims are not inhibited by terrorists from participating in Arba’een. In contrast, it draws out more pilgrims in masses in defiance, displaying a faith in humanity never seen before anywhere around the world.

Arba’een breaks across ethnic, racial, religious, and national barriers. Although it began as a Shi’a Muslim pilgrimage, its participants include Sunnis, Ibadis, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Yazidis and Zoroastrians.

Nevertheless, Arba’een has its roots in tragedy. The festival marks the end of the 40-day mourning period for the 7th-century barbarous killing of Husayn ibn Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson and the third Shi’a Imam. That happened in Karbala, Iraq, around 1350 years ago by the order of the tyrannical Umayyad Caliph Yazid.

This year, Arba’een falls on Safar 20th in the Islamic lunar calendar, corresponding to September 6th. Millions of people from around the globe will gather in Iraq’s holiest city of Karbala to commemorate it, one of the most revered Islamic religious occasions.

Who was Husayn ibn Ali?

The death of Husayn is considered a formative tragedy in Islamic history. In The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon said, “In a distant age and climate, the tragic scene of the death of Hosein will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader.” His heroic life and death inspired countless generations.

To know Husayn, we begin with when Muslims wanted to reward the Prophet Muhammad for his services. Allah commanded him, “Say: I do not ask you for any reward for my services except to love my blood family.” (Quran 42:23). The blood family of the Prophet was above all Fatima, his only living child, her husband Ali and their sons, Husayn and Hasan. Tradition holds that the Prophet said of the lad, “Husayn is from me and I am from Husayn.”

Husayn’s life was tragic from the very start. In 632, when he was 6 years old, his beloved grandfather, the Prophet, died.

Before his demise, the Prophet gathered the Muslims and gave them his farewell speech. On the return from his last pilgrimage to Mecca, he commanded all the over a hundred thousand pilgrims to meet him there. He said that it was his last pilgrimage and that he would leave them soon. People cried uncontrollably. In his long speech, he reminded people about their religious duties and Allah’s commands for them to love his blood family.

Then, he introduced Ali, his son-in-law and Husayn’s father, as his heir and the leader of all Muslims. At the end of the speech, the people rushed and gave their allegiance to Ali. This paved the way for Husayn himself to eventually inherit his father’s claim to leadership.

If the demise of his grandfather was not painful enough for Husayn, another tragedy was in waiting. Ignoring Ali’s claim, some men moved to the leadership for another claimant. The ringleaders rushed to Ali’s house to secure his allegiance since Ali’s influence was immense. According to Shi’a tradition, Fatima, Husayn’s mother, intervened to save her husband. The men attacked her. She was badly injured and miscarried her baby, whom the Prophet had named Muhsin. Consequently, she died within six months of her father’s death. At 6, Husayn had now lost both grandfather and mother within a short time.

Among Muslims, Fatima has been considered something like a First Lady of Islam. The outrage provoked by Fatima’s brutal death saved the rest of the Prophet’s family and their small group of supporters, Shi’as, from being killed by the authorities. However, they were mostly kept under house arrest.

After the death of the third Caliph, Uthman, the people rushed to Ali’s house begging him to take the power. Ali consistently refused. After three days of riots, Ali finally consented under certain conditions, ruling only by the Quran and the Prophet’s traditions. They all agreed.

Soon, the rich and powerful people realized that Ali was not giving them any favors as the previous Caliphs had done. They deserted him, rallying around the Umayyad governor of Syria, Mu’awiya. Ali’s rule lasted less than five years. In 661, while prostrating at the mosque of Kufa, a city in Iraq, Ali was fatally struck in the head by an assassin’s poisoned sword. He died three days later from the wound. Hasan, Ali’s oldest son, succeeded him, but Hasan’s rule lasted only a few months before he was forced to abdicate in favor of the Mu’awiya, the first Umayyad caliph. The group left Kufa and resettled in Medina.

In 670, Hasan was poisoned and died. At 44, Husayn had lost his mother, father and brother. Now, he was the only living son of Ali and Fatima. Husayn became the patriarch of the Prophet’s family and leader of the Shi’as. Mu’awiya did not find Husayn an existential threat to their power and chose to ignore him rather than force allegiance on him.

A heroic death in resistance to tyrants

In 680, all that changed when Mu’awiya’s son, Yazid, ascended to power. He wanted allegiance from everyone in the empire. Disobedience meant death. Husayn was no exception.

When Yazid’s ultimatum was formally presented to Husayn, he skillfully asked for a night time to think over it. After tough negotiation, he got the time. That night, when everyone was in deep sleep, he took his family and headed for the safe haven of Mecca. Muslims were strictly forbidden to fight in the holy city. Many of the Shi’as followed him.

In Mecca, Husayn received many letters from the people of Kufa imploring him to come there. He pondered over them. As the annual pilgrimage to Mecca neared, he realized that the holy city was not safe, either. Yazid had sent spies among pilgrims to kill him. Husayn hurriedly gathered his family and the Shi’as, and they secretly headed for Kufa.

Yazid soon learned of Husayn’s move towards Kufa. He sent one of his commanders, Hur, to block Husayn’s path. Husayn and his company were forced to reroute to Karbala, on the Euphrates River. There, Husayn and his male companions numbered about one hundred. Within a few days, they were surrounded by over 30,000 armed soldiers, all with orders to kill Husayn.

Husayn spoke before the enemy soldiers reminding them of what the Quran and the Prophet have said about him and his family. All fell on deaf ears, except for the ears of Hur, who had a change of heart.

Husayn managed to negotiate for one last night to be with his family and companions. That night was critical. Husayn wanted to ensure those who would remain with him truly believed in his mission. In a tent in the middle of the desert that night, Husayn had all the males gathered. He frankly told them all that the enemy wanted to kill him. They did not need to have themselves killed for his sake and should feel free to leave him. He even asked whoever owed someone a debt to leave. Then, he turned off the candles so that people would not feel embarrassed to leave. Some people left, but those who stayed uttered words that history would never forget. Zuhair ibn Qayn, Husayn’s devoted follower, said, “By Allah, I would love that I be killed, then revived, then killed a thousand times in this manner if it keeps you with the young ones from your family.”

On the next day, Muharram 10, 61 AH (October 9, 680 AD), Hur along with a few of his soldiers somehow deserted the camp and joined Husayn. He begged for forgiveness, which Husayn readily accepted. For what he had done, he insisted on being the first one to face the enemy. When Husayn consented, he and his company fought bravely and killed many soldiers before they were killed.

Abu Wahab Abdullah ibn Umayr, a Christian who had just married, overheard Husayn speaking before the enemy forces. Wahab was touched, embraced Islam and joined Husayn. When he was killed, his bride begged to go and fight the enemy. When Husayn tried to discourage her, she replied, “Please do not ask me to go back! I prefer to die fighting rather than to fall captive in the hands of the Umayyad clan!”

When the soldiers threw Wahab’s head to his mother, she threw the head back and said what we have given for Allah, we do not take back. With that statement, she grabbed a weapon and killed at least two soldiers.

The companions begged Husayn to allow them to be the first to defend him. One by one, they fought bravely until death. Next, his brothers volunteered, fought and died. Abbas, Husayn’s half-brother, known for bravery, attempted to save the family from thirst. He broke through enemy lines and reached the Euphrates. On the way back, he was brutally wounded and killed. Today, his mausoleum is across from that of Husayn.

There were around 80 who died in defense of Husayn and his family on that day. Just like today’s pilgrims, Husayn’s companions came from varied persuasions. They all knew that Husayn was right, standing for justice and against oppression.

As the day wore on, the hostile Umayyad force was restless and impatient to kill Husayn. Husayn prayed before facing the enemy: “I will be patient with whatever you decree, my Lord. There is no deity but you. You are the helper of those who seek help. I have no Lord except you, and no one to worship except you. I am patient with your wisdom, O rescuer of the one who needs rescue. O you who are eternal and everlasting. O you who bring the dead back to life. O you who observe the action of every soul. Judge between me and them, for you are the best of judges.”

Before being attacked, Husayn looked at the enemy asking them why they were so determined to kill him. According to Shi’a tradition, they responded, “We will kill you out of hatred for your father.” Husayn fought bravely, sending many of his assailants to their deaths. Finally, he fell. Killing him did not satisfy the enemy’s thirst. They severed his head and ran their horses over his corpse.

After the ordeal, only one male, Husayn’s oldest son Ali, who was sick with fever, survived.

Thereafter, the forces ransacked Husayn’s tents, captured its inhabitants and took them as slaves to Yazid in Damascus.

The Umayyads’ fury against the family of the Prophet knew no limits. They started the tradition to celebrate the occasion by urging people to fast on that day. Today, many Sunnis follow suit. Across the world, Shi’as follow the traditions of mourning that day and feeding the poor and needy.

Despite exhibiting the utmost savagery, though, the Umayyads spared the sick, women and children. Today, military forces are more ferocious. They indiscriminately kill men, women and children without feeling any remorse.

This year, Muharram 10 fell on July 28. Millions of people from around the globe gathered in Karbala to commemorate Husayn’s death. On September 6, they will break their period of mourning in the peaceful festival of Arba’een.

Husayn’s words should be written in gold: “Anyone who keeps silent when others are being oppressed is himself considered to be guilty of oppression.” I am unable to locate the source of this popular quotation, but it certainly encapsulates the meaning of his famous Sermon of Mina in which he condemned the Umayyad tyranny and the lackeys who failed to oppose it. Husayn refused to be like them and submit, uttering the words which would become his epitaph: “Death with dignity is better than a life of abasement.” 


This article was originally published in Fair Observer on August 22, 2023.