Millions of devotees march through Iraq to reach the holy city of Karbala to mark the end of the 40-day mourning period of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussain, making Arbaeen the world’s biggest annual pilgrimage
In the seventh century, Prophet Muhammad’s favourite grandson, Imam Hussain, laid down his life resisting Umayyad ruler Yazid for riding roughshod over foundational Islamic values—egalitarianism, justice, and equity. Hussain stood up to Yazid when these ideals—the lifeblood of the true Muslim faith—began losing primacy following the Prophet’s passing and the swift rise of Arabs as a global power. The rise transformed Muslim society but led to the creation of elites more interested in power and wealth than upholding the foundational ideals.
Imam Hussain, as Islam’s spiritual custodian, opposed the distortion of basic Islamic values including the inauguration of the dynastic Umayyad Empire. The situation came to a head when Hussain refused to legitimise Yazid as he inherited the empire from his father Muawiya. The battle of Karbala that it triggered in 680 ended with the massacre of Hussain and 72 of his companions and family members. Hussain went down fighting giving Yazid’s 30,000-strong force a run for their money. His heroics on the battlefield fended off the enemy for 10 days and immortalised him in Muslim lore as the ultimate symbol of courage and commitment to the essence of Islam.
Thousands of devotees visit Hussain’s shrine in Karbala in modern-day Iraq to pay homage to their spiritual leader. The rush peaks annually on Arbaeen when millions of people march through Iraq to reach the holy city to mark the end of Hussain’s 40-day mourning period. The march is one of the biggest pilgrimages globally. It is even bigger than Haj for which around 2.5 million people gathered in Mecca in 2023.
Wearing black clothes, symbolising sorrow, devotees chant threnody for Hussain in Karbala to mark Arbaeen in the shadow of his shrine. They raise their hands in unison and thump their chests in collective mourning for Hussain. The Arbaeen march has gone from strength to strength. In 2016, the number of marchers ranged from between 17 million and 20 million over several days. The number was 17 million two years earlier in 2014. It grew instead of going down when ISIS overran Iraq.
More and more devotees joined Arbaeen in defiance of the terror group even when Karbala was particularly vulnerable with ISIS occupying the neighbouring Anbar desert and using it to mount attacks. Jurf al-Sakhar, a town located 60 km from Karbala, was briefly under ISIS’s occupation until Iraqi forces liberated it in 2014. The group’s presence in the neighbouring areas did little to dampen the spirits of the pilgrims, who take up to a fortnight to walk to the holy city for Arbaeen. The pilgrims carry flags, including those bearing the depiction of Hussain with blood on his brow as they trek from places as far as Baghdad, 90 kilometres to the north, and Najaf, 70 kilometres away to the south.
The only things perhaps pilgrims spent money on during Arbaeen are gifts and travel to Iraq if they came from abroad. Everything else is taken care of. Iraqis pitch tents for the pilgrims to rest along the way and set up stalls to ensure they are well-fed with helpings of rice, bread, stewed lamb, grilled fish, dates, and tea for their walk. Some of them host the pilgrims in their homes as Hussein’s guests and offer whatever they need—food, water, lodging, medical care— free of cost during Arbaeen. Many locals set aside up to 10% of their savings for the purpose.
UNESCO, which is dedicated to promoting global peace through cooperation, recognised the collective generosity and added the provision of services and hospitality during Arbaeen to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in December 2019. Starting at least two weeks before the date of Arbaeen, the UN organisation noted, ‘associations set up temporary facilities or reopen more permanent ones along the pilgrimage routes, including prayer halls, guest houses and stands offering various services:’
Many people also open their houses for free overnight accommodation. Bearers and practitioners include cooks, families offering hospitality, the administration of the two Holy Shrines in Karbala, volunteer guides, volunteer medical teams, and benefactors contributing generous donations.
Arbaeen is essentially a re-enactment of the journey Imam Hussain’s surviving family undertook to bring his remains for burial from Damascus, where they were taken to the Umayyad capital, to Karbala for burial. Arbaeen marchers make a beeline for Karbala from different corners of Iraq as far as Basra, around 500 kilometres away. They take weeks to walk to the site of Hussain’s burial. Young and old; men and women; families and individuals dressed in different shades of black clothes eulogise the Prophet and his family as they trek to the holy city.
Look down on the country from high above, wrote Simon Ingram for National Geographic in 2020, and these processions ‘might resemble a kind of slender-limbed starfish, with this city [Karbala] as its centre point.’ Over 14 million pilgrims in 2019 converged for Arbaeen on Karbala, which has a population of around 700,000, over two days for by far the world’s biggest annual pilgrimage.
In 2018, British House of Lords member Maurice Glasman was among the Arbaeen marchers from Najaf to Karbala. Iraqi friends of Glasman, who was raised Jewish, encouraged him to join the march to better understand the country that defeated ISIS. He called his visit politically, ethically, and spiritually ‘extremely elevated.’