Arbaeen: “If you want to see humanity living and breathing, experience this walk”
The 40th – or Arbaeen in Arabic – holds great significance in the traditions of Holy Prophet (PBUH) and Ahle Bait (AS). Arbaeen marks the completion of Ashura, the day when Imam Hussain (RA) was martyred on the planes of Karbala. Since then, his followers and lovers walk to their beloved as they feel his plight as their own.
The walk particularly takes place in the memory of the return of Imam Hussain’s (RA) family from Syria, after getting freed from the shackles of Yazid. People from different parts of the world participate in this event, which remained banned during Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The Arbaeen walk – a spiritual journey of love
Scent of musk, mixed with that of rose petals, filled the air as I left Najaf for Karbala on foot. I was to travel among hundreds of others on a road stretching over 88 kilometres between two cities in southern Iraq, from the door of the shrine of Imam Ali (RA) in Najaf to the door of the shrine of Imam Hussain (RA) in Karbala. While walking, I noticed banners and flags in shades of red, green and black fluttering along the road that leads to Karbala. An avalanche of men and women, young and old, children and disabled, all marched in one direction as a collective as far as the eye could see.
Seeing hundreds of people marching in one direction makes one wonder what drives them to walk unarmed, fearlessly, along with their babies and the elderly, amidst the lingering deadly threats by the Islamic State (IS). These devotees, not only including Iraqis but also millions of Pakistanis, amongst other nationalities, are driven by their love for Imam Hussain (RA), the son of Imam Ali (RA) and the grandson of the Holy Prophet (PBUH).
While walking on the road called “Tareeqatul Ahrar” (the road of the free) in Iraqi tradition, I got the chance to talk to a number of people. I met Noore Maryam, a Pakistani settled in the UK, who told me,
“People rightly call it the journey of love.”
Iraq has been a war-torn country for almost 50 years, but despite this, the way the people of Iraq, from Najaf to Karbala and throughout this walk, open their hearts and homes and serve you with all they have with humility and compassion, is unbelievable. This classless and non-discriminatory walk is a perfect model of how an equal and healthy society should be, which is mesmerising to say the least. The display of brotherhood one gets to experience during this walk is a miracle in this age and era, where the capitalist system has almost destroyed the humanity in humans.
Being a six-time Pakistani visitor of the magnanimous pilgrimage of Arbaeen, I tried to capture some seemingly common yet amazing moments during this walk. I did, however, struggle to do so, for even the wide lens of my camera had too narrow a range to cover the outpour of love, compassion, generosity and kindness displayed by pilgrims, called the Zair-e-Imam Hussain.
A group of men walking barefoot, carrying flags in their hands and tied around their chests, looking straight ahead with grief-stricken eyes; an old man on a wheelchair, driven forward in the same direction by his young daughter walking swiftly; a baby wrapped in winter clothes clinging to her mother’s arm; a man on crutches; a blind man treading ahead with a stick, composed and calm; a two-year-old girl standing unattended, handing out tissues to the zaireen (pilgrims); a man pleading with the walkers to have food at his house while standing in the middle of the road, saying,
“O Zair! Come have food for the sake of Imam Hussain (RA), for the love of Imam Hussain (RA).”
It is hard to capture the sentiment behind these acts of compassion and devotion through any camera or words.
Even more awe-inspiring is the sight of thousands of tents with makeshift kitchens, set up by local Iraqi villagers. They provide the zaireen with nearly everything they need, from freshly prepared meals, places to rest, diapers, a shoe-polishing service and foot massage for tired pilgrims, to all sorts of medical assistance. Such devotion shown by these poor, war-stricken people makes one wonder what the driving force behind this selfless hospitality is.
I asked one Iraqi and he said,
“It’s love for our Master Hussain (RA) and our promise to him to serve his visitors. We have been doing this for centuries, and our coming generations will keep on doing it for the king of martyrs Imam Hussain (RA).”
A Coptic Christian priest who was part of the zair told me,
“Hussain (RA) is not limited to any faith or religion. He is the universal symbol, till the end of time, of righteousness over wrong, and resistance over tyranny and oppression.”
Along with people from different countries, such as Kuwait, Nigeria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and India, there are more than 10 Mowkib (places for rest and food) managed by Pakistanis on the road where this walk takes place. The makeshift kitchens serve hot meals and Pakistani chai 24 hours a day to millions of zaireen for almost 10 days.
A message given to one British-Pakistani doctor during the walk was,
“If you want to see humanity living and breathing, experience this walk.”
The 88-kilometre walk finishes at the shrine of Hazrat Abbas (RA), the brother and the flag-bearer of Imam Hussain (RA), who is regarded as the symbol of loyalty in the history of Karbala.
For me, the Arbaeen walk is a journey on the road built upon the finest virtues of humanity – kindness, empathy, respect, freedom, and above all else, love. No visitor of this pilgrimage ever returns to their pre-walk existence; a spiritual transformation can be promised after the walk. It feels as if you have conquered death and discovered love – the two questions every being in this world is seeking answers for.