The Imam Hussain shrine in Iraq’s Karbala was packed as usual around the forenoon when we waded through a large crowd of people, who jostled to kiss its walls as a customary mark of reverence
Sobbing faithful jostled to press their faces up against a grille separating the grave of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Hussain, from his shrine’s vast courtyards as we managed to make our way in as part of a group of journalists covering the war on ISIS. The section is the main attraction at the shrine in Iraq’s Karbala and the grave at its core.
Hussain, his companions, and family members, who laid down their lives resisting Umayyad ruler Yazid in the seventh century are buried in Karbala, making it one of Islam’s holiest shrines.
Ali al-Akbar, Hussain’s son, is buried at his father’s feet within the same grating. Around four metres away is the collective tomb of those who died with them in the Battle of Karbala.
Millions of people visit the city throughout the year. The rush peaks annually on Arbaeen when millions of people march through Iraq to reach Karbala 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 Hajj for which around 2.5 million people gathered in Mecca in 2023.
Apart from Arbaeen, pilgrims also ordinarily converge on Karbala for Ashura to commemorate the martyrdom of Hussain on the 10th of Muharram, the first Islamic month. Commemorations and mourning take place at Karbala throughout the year and up to 50 million devotees visit the ornate shrine annually.
The shrine was packed as usual around the forenoon when we walked in. We waded through a large crowd of people, who jostled to kiss the walls of the shrine, a customary mark of reverence, as they made their way into the main mosque of the shrine.
Every inch of the shrine appeared to be well-lit. Chandeliers, many of them gifted by Iranian kings, along with tiles, mirrors, and carpets, adorn the shrine. Mosaics cover the shrine’s walls.
Pilgrims start their pilgrimage by paying obeisance and offering salutations to Imam Hussain, followed by Ali al-Akbar, and then the other martyrs. Many faithful believe the imams hear and answer their salutations even as they cannot hear their voices.
The tomb of Habib ibn Muzahir al-Asadi, a companion of Imam Ali, Hussain’s father, who was among the older martyrs of the Battle of Karbala, is located outside the grating and the dome of Hussain’s tomb.
Next to his burial chamber is that of Sayyid Ibrahim al-Mujab, a grandson of the seventh Imam Musa al-Kaẓim, whose descendants have been in charge of the protection and administration of the shrine.
The focal points inside the shrine are located within the sacred al-Hair zone, a concentric circle containing the sacred core of the shrine. It encompasses the broader periphery of the shrine; an unmarked area of around 11.5 m in all directions from Hussain’s tomb. Pilgrims can offer prayers facing the Qiblah, the direction towards Mecca.
The exact spot where Shimr, Yazid’s commander, killed Hussain is located outside the al-Hair zone, whose gate from inside the shrine is occasionally opened to the devotees. A window has been installed from the outer wall in the courtyard for pilgrims to see the spot.
A pathway called the Bayn al-Haramayn connects the shrines of Imam Hussain and his brother Abbas across the road. It was built in 1979 by demolishing some buildings to connect the shrines. In 1997, the local council laid the street and planted palm trees on either side. The pathway is believed to be one of the exact places where the fighting in the Battle of Karbala took place.
The Iraqi government has expanded religious sites over the last two decades in Karbala to attract pilgrims and facilitate a pedestrian space between the two shrines. Marketplaces were constructed on either side. The pathway was paved with Italian marble in 2013, as part of efforts to modernise the area.
The place where Abbas’s hands were severed on the Day of Ashura is known as maqams. Another important spot in the vicinity is where Imam Hussain met the Umayyad general Umar bin Saad and tried to dissuade him from waging war.
Devotees spent their days and nights inside the shrine ensuring they visit all the sacralised spots. They mostly focus on prayers with almost everything taken care of including free three meals a day at adjoining and well-maintained dining halls.
We were offered the traditional black Iraqi tea and snacks while we waited for our lunch at a well-appointed waiting area. An extremely efficient team set the tables for us replacing their plastic covers in a matter of few minutes to place a variety of chicken stew, vegetables, rice, and bread for us.
The bulk of devotees at the shrine is Shia Muslims, who particularly revere Ahl al-Bayt (people of the Prophet Muhammad’s household) as nur-e-Muhammadi, or the bearers of his light, as well as his trustees ‘privy to his esoteric and religious knowledge’.
The time I spent at the shrine allowed me to understand variations in ritual practices between the followers of two major Islamic sects. Unlike Sunnis, who clasp their hands while praying, the Shias hold them at their sides.
The Shia also use palm-sized round, square, lozenge, and half-circle clay tablets called turbah with inscriptions praising Hussain during prayers. They press turbah with their foreheads when they prostrate in prayer.
Turbah is also a major source of livelihood for people in Karbala. They are made of sand dug up in the city of Imam Hussain’s burial. Pilgrims from across the world buy the coveted turbah, which is in much demand across the world.
The tablets from the holy city of Karbala are seen not just as a blessing, an aid to prayer but even a cure for sickness. Craftspeople make them by putting a muddy mix of water and cohesive filtered sand with low salt content in moulds made of copper.
Engraved steel plates are used to stamp holy inscriptions on the tablets before they are dried up in the sun. Turbah trade flourishes during Ashura and Arabaeen. Multiple stalls around the shrines sell the tablets and pilgrims buy them to take home.