Braving extreme weather and worrying security threats, Shia Muslims around the world are flocking to Iraq’s holy city of Karbala to pay their respects at the final resting place of the Prophet Muhammad’s young grandson, Hussain Bin Ali, popularly known as Syed al-Shohada (Master of Martyrs). The Arbaeen pilgrimage – the journey of “love and compassion”, not being obligatory for Shiites – is a reaffirmation of a commitment to uphold the virtues proposed by Imam Hussain and the spirit of his sacrifice for the august cause.
It marks the 40th day since Ashura, the day of the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, who was killed by Umayyad Caliph Yazid ibn Muawiya in the Karbala desert. Besides Iran and Iraq, pilgrims from India and Pakistan attend the event. Non-Muslims also visit Karbala to show respect and solidarity with the noble cause of Imam Hussain.
Imam Hussain was considered the third imam in the line of succession in the Shia tradition of imamate after the Prophet. He is a symbol of resistance against tyranny and injustice. It is not limited to any faith or religion. In India, it is also revered by Hindus and considered a symbol of community harmony.
The martyrdom of Imam Hussain had a consequent and remarkable impact on the entire course of Islamic history. Having flatly rejected Umayyad Caliph Yazid bin Muawiya’s proposal to accept his illegitimate baiyyah (allegiance) and recognize his sovereignty over the credulous people, Hussain clearly drew the line between haq (justice) and batil (lie).
According to him, regardless of a ruler’s religious, social or political pedigree or status, the ruling clique should not be based on tyranny and injustice. He raised his voice against these injustices committed by Yazid and restored the human values that were instituted by the Prophet Mohammad and Ali bin Abi Talib, his grandfather and father respectively.
To achieve this goal, he believed that only the supreme sacrifice of fighting Yazid’s army and giving his life on the battlefield could save the high morality of Islam. Although he was 72, he fought valiantly on the plains of Karbala also called al-Taff in 680 AD, followed by the imprisonment of the remaining female members of his family, including his only surviving son Zayn al-Abedin .
The famous Iranian philosopher Ali Shariati once said: “The martyrs gave their blood, now the survivors must pass on the message of blood to future generations”.
The ongoing Arbaeen commemoration in the holy city of Karbala in Iraq carries Imam Hussain’s message of humanity’s unity. His sister Sayyida Zaynab played a pivotal role in spreading her brother’s message and she is considered a pioneer of this phenomenon. The tradition of visiting the tombs of Karbala martyrs gained momentum after the fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. Iraqi leaders had banned the visit, but people continued the pilgrimage in secret. These rulers even made unsuccessful attempts to raze the shrine.
The people of Iraq deserve gratitude for the incredible hospitality of pilgrims from all over the world who defy the terrorist threats of the Islamic State to visit Karbala. According to some estimates, after the two-year hiatus of restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic, around 30 million people are converging en masse on the holy city of Karbala, but unfortunately the blackout of this largest human gathering in the story by Western mainstream media is pathetic.
(The writer works in the development sector)