The Arbaeen pilgrimage is the world’s largest public gathering and held every year in Iraq, but relatively few know anything about it.
October 30 marked the culmination of the Arbaeen pilgrimage in Iraq – an event, which, since the fall of Saddam Hussein, has drawn to its name in between 10 and 20 million Muslims every year.
Formerly outlawed by Saddam Hussein as it spoke of the need to resist oppression and testify that freedom is not a commodity to be bought out by the barrel of a gun, Arbaeen has become both a religious and political flashpoint for millions of Muslims across the world.
What Does the Arbaeen Pilgrimage Honor?
The pilgrimage of Arbaeen marks the 40th day of mourning of the anniversary of the death of Hussain ibn Ali (7th century), the grandson of the prophet of Islam and a revered Imam of Shia Islam. A historical figure who has long transcended all manners of religious persuasions, Hussain was brutally murdered in Karbala (a city in Iraq) alongside several of his family members – including his infant son – and his closest companions on account he refused to concede political and religious legitimacy to the Umayyad dynasty.
The appointed custodian of Islam’s Scriptures and Islam’s traditions, Hussain, and his sons after him, were seen as roadblocks to be disposed of by those who ambitioned to rule over Islam’s rising empire, while still claiming to be religiously devout.
And so the line of the prophet was severed so that others could use his message to their own benefit by usurping religious legitimacy. To this day, Islam is being leveraged to confer a certain elite power.
The House of Saud built its dynasty on the affirmation of its role as custodian over Islam’s holiest of cities: Medina and Mecca, thus, as many would say, reducing an entire faith to a commodity to be owned and traded off as political capital. Almost 14 centuries later to the day, communities find themselves trapped in the same struggle that Hussain ibn Ali faced in the plains of Karbala – free men versus tyrannical rulers.
Every year since Hussain’s death, people of all denominations and ethnicities have turned to Karbala to remember the man who they revere for choosing defiance against reason and all sense of self-preservation.
If Hussain remains one of Shia Islam’s most revered figureheads, his courage, determination, and unbending resolve to speak justice in the face of political oppression has inspired Muslims across the ages – a symbol of resistance and hope.
How Arbaeen is Still Relevant Today
The story of Arbaeen matters today for it speaks of a people and a region calling for emancipation and liberation.
Emancipation from the shackles of a socio-political construct rooted in an oppressive dogma: Wahhabism, which has polluted the public discourse and tainted nations’ skies red with blood.
One needs not to be religious or even to believe in God to understand how dramatically significant Arbaeen has become for not only millions of Iraqis but all those who identify with the principles of resistance against oppression.
This year 60 nations gathered in the city of Karbala to proclaim themselves free. Over 20 million people shared in the pilgrimage so they could seal in actions what they believe to be inherently true: that freedom is not only a right but a responsibility; that to be truly free requires to forever struggle against those that which seek to enslave and humiliate.
There is a great lesson there to be learned and yet our media have been mostly silent before such an inspiring show of human’s spirit.
By all accounts, Iraq has suffered countless infamies and injustices, so much so that many hold true today that somehow Iraq deserves the misery that befell its people. Such moral relativism, this belief that only ‘deserving’ nations are owed sympathy when crises hit, has contributed to such dismissive silence on our parts.
Arbaeen pilgrims have chosen to do away with labels to meet each other as equals, as people ambitioning for the dignity of their choices and the integrity of their beliefs … we may want to pay attention!