On a pleasant evening, there was an announcement in the sisters hostel which brought about a breath of joyfulness among the students, causing them to rush to sign their names to register for the Rāhiyān-i-nūr trip. This was an opportunity to travel to junūb, the south of the Iran which shared a border with Iraq, to witness the place of difā’-i-muqaddas (the “holy defence”).
I had heard from other students who had already travelled to the south of Iran that this was a very spiritual journey, but could never quite appreciate the reason for such fame and reverence. Due to a sense of curiosity and an eagerness to explore, I followed the crowd and registered my name too. Although I was concerned about missing my classes due to going on this trip, I felt that opportunity to witness the spirituality associated with this journey was something not to be missed.
After much anticipation, the day finally arrived when it was time to depart. I remember us finishing our classes that day and hastily rushing back to the hostel to gather our pre-packed bags. We filed out into the middle of our seminary’s courtyard and stood next to the graves of the shuhadāyi gumnām, the un-named martyrs buried in the middle of the courtyard. We performed congregational dhuhr and ‘asr prayers and then headed to the parking lot where our buses stood. A huddle of students alongwith the principal of our hostel stood there to bid farewell to us. They held the Qur’an high in front of them, allowing us to pass under it as we boarded the bus. Many of those left behind were shedding tears, not due to our parting but for not being able to accompany us.
On the bus, we were given a light brown bastih-yi farhangi, a small bag containing reading material related to our journey, a blank identity card with a mirror in the place of the photo and a piece of brown cloth on which some soil had been sewed to use for prostration during prayers. These objects and their colours made me picture the soldiers, who often had their belongings in the same colours.
During the journey, we stopped at a masjid in Khurram abād to perform our evening prayers. After that we continued travelling and reached our destination late at night. It was an isolated spot amidst dense trees situated away from the city. The facilities were quite basic and nights were often cold. However, we managed to cope with such provisions as we were constantly reminded about the soldiers and how they would not only live in but also perform drills and swimming practice in these very conditions.
Fath-i-mubīn – The “undeniable victory”
The following morning, we began with morning prayers followed by breakfast. That day, we visited Fath-i-mubīn (the “undeniable victory”), an old battlefield named after the operation which took place there where the scarcely-equipped Iranian force contended with Saddam’s army which enjoyed a good amount of tank, artillery and aerial support. Despite their lack of resources, the Iranian army destroyed three Iraqi divisions and succeeded within a week. This success provided momentum, leading to success in other operations like Tarīq al-Quds and Bayt al-muqaddas.
We were accompanied by guides who were ex-servicemen and had served as part of the holy defence operations. We also had a cleric with us who would lead us in prayers. The guide told us stories about how the soldiers fought sincerely for the Islamic revolution. He explained how the holy defence was inspired by Ashūra and the sacrifice of Imam Hussain (AS) for the preservation of the religion of Islam. Many battlefield operations held Islamically-significant names, such as Operation Karbala and Operation Al-Fawz al-Azim (the “great victory”). They would often also use cryptonyms such as “Yā Zahrā’”, “Yā Mahdi”, and would wear forehead bands and carry flags with the names of the Imams (AS) on them.
On the spirituality of the soldiers
The holy defence was not only practically inspired by Karbala but spiritually as well. The guides told us that during the war against Saddam Hussein, some soldiers in the Iranian forces would be as young as fourteen years in age. They were disciplined in performing congregational and night prayers, and in the recitation of the Holy Koran and supplications of the Imams (AS). Often the night before an operation, the air would filled with the sounds of worship, followed morning congregational prayers, after which the operation would start. It was often a balance between praying for victory, although many also sought martyrdom to unite with Allah. Many soldiers possessed such a high level of faith that they often knew whether they would return from the front or not, and would bid their farewells to their families and friends before leaving. A famous of example of this was the martyr Mustafa Chamran, who before departing to the warfront, told his wife to try to see his face with her eyes closed. When he was martyred the same day, she remembered his words and realised what it was that he had wanted to convey.
How Imam Khomeini’s powerful speeches encouraged the soldiers
Imam Khomeini’s speeches were also one of the main inspirations for young soldiers to join the civilian army, popularly known as the Basīj, resulting in a civilian army of 2.5 million people. An example includes that delivered by Imam Khomeini on the 23rd November, 1988:
“I always envy the sincerity and purity of the basījīs and pray to God to enlist me among the basījīis. In this world, my honor is to be a basīj. I would like to recall to the honorable nation of Iran and the officials that, whether in war or in peace, the greatest simplemindedness is that we would imagine that the world-devourers, America…, has lifted its hands from us and the dear Islam. We should not be negligent of the trick of the enemies even for a moment…We must be equipped with the powerful arm of patience and faith in order to break the waves of storms and seditions and to thwart the torrent of calamities. All the members of a nation, which is in the line with the pure Muhammadan Islam and opposing the arrogance, money-worship, narrow-mindedness, and sanctimoniousness, must be basījīs “. 
With regards to the courage of Iranian soldiers, the guide told us that an Iraqi officer described in 1982 that:
“They come toward our positions in huge hordes with their fists swinging. You can shoot down the first wave and then the second, but at some point the corpses are piling up in front of you, and all you want to do is scream and throw away your weapon. Those are human beings, after all.”
One Basiji boy was found by the Ba’athist regime wounded near the borders, and taken as a prisoner of war and so was brought to senior officers to see if he would offer and intelligence with regards to the army of the Islamic Republic. He was brought in front of a senior officer, when the officer laid his eyes on him and said “The age of soldiers in Iran has come down“. He the laughed sarcastically to hurt the sentiment of the young soldier. Although the soldier was young, he was a revolutionary inspired by Imam Khomeini and so with a smile he replied:
“No the age of soldiers didn’t go down, the age of lovers went down“.
The journey continued to through Ahwāz, Khuweze, Tahlayyeh and Shalamcheh
After Fath-i-mubīn, our journey continued through the towns of Ahwaz, Khuweze, Tahlayyeh. I remember seeing walls still containing bullet holes and Arabic graffite scribbled by soldiers of the Ba’athist regime who once occupied the region. My most heart-wrenching experience was in Shalamcheh. I remember arriving in Shalamcheh at dusk and noticing how a strange silence filled this land. Redness filled the sky as we dismounted from the buses, mimicking the blood of the martyrs. The guide asked us to walk with humility, as this place had witnessed the highest number of martyrs. We took off our shoes at the entrance to the warfront area, then walked a while until we reached a masjid where we offered our evening prayers. The guide then led us to an open field situated a short distance from the masjid. He pointed towards a group of dim lights visible in the distance, signalling the city of Basra, a city in Iraq which meant we were not far from the border.
As we sat under the sky and listened to the guide recount stories of the martyrs, I remembered cold winds blowing across the damp desert sand. Even when we walked barefoot our feet made deep traces on the soil. It eventually became dark, and we were sat under the black sky, surrounded by faint lights of distant cities and tiny stars twinkling above us; the rest engulfed in a thick darkness.
The guide spoke about the power of the Ba’athist regime, and how they possessed the latest weapons and protocols and enjoyed support from the world superpowers, whilst on the other side was the newly-formed Islamic Republic, with sparsely-armed soldiers full of faith in Allah (SWT). He again recounted the qualities of the soldiers, their daily recitations of of Ziyarah al-Āshūrā’, the night prayers, morning congregational prayers and continuous tawassul (intercession through the Prophet (SAW) and Ahlulbayt (AS)) before starting their day. In that state of purity, they would enter the battlefield as the army of the Almighty (SWT), with hundreds sacrificing their blood in the scorching heat, fighting against the Ba’athist regime just with their devotion.
I remember my eyes welling up and tears beginning to flow upon hearing the young ages of the soldiers and the stories of the brave soldiers: how the youth would leave their families, how the mothers would give away their only support of old age, how the sisters would bid farewell to their brothers, how wives would send their husbands to the battlefield, and how children would eagerly await their father’s return. Alas, each one of them sacrifices their life and gained proximity to Allah.
The guide then recounted an incident he witnessed a few years back when he was accompanying a caravan during the summer months. It was noon when they had reached Shalamche, and suddenly saw an old lady alone on the vast plain in the scorching heat. She walked some steps, spread her chador on the hot, sandy ground and then sat down. Then after few minutes, she got up again, walked a few steps, repeating the same actions again, and again. He said that initially he associated her strange actions with her old age, but when he went near her and asked if she needed any help, she replied with tearful eyes and a shaky voice replied:
“My son came here years ago to fight the enemies and never returned. You see the heat is so scorching, the land is burning, I don’t know in which part of this land he is sleeping. I am trying to provide shade to his wounded body”.
I remember that as he finished his sentence, cries erupted from the group and covered the dark sand dunes. Everyone was weeping. The narrator then continued:
“Can you feel the cold breeze coming from there? do you know where it is coming from and why? It’s coming from Karbala and since you all are the guests of the martyrs tonight this breeze which kissed the shrine of Imam Hussain (AS) is here to welcome you on the land which witnessed blood flow like on the day of ‘Āshūrā’”.
As he spoke, the sound of weeping became so loud and high that I knew it must have reached the sky. I could feel the ground below us shaking with our grief. The wailing continued un till our accompanying cleric started reciting Ziyārah al-Jāmi’ al-Kabīrah. Some students stood, whilst others continued sitting, or even began prostrating. There was no stop to the tears overflowing in every eye that night. I placed my hands on the soil with each and every word of the Ziyārah and lost my presence the extent that I wanted the soil to cover me and take me underneath to the people who performed the heroic deeds only to attain proximity to Allah, the Most High.
The Ziyārah ended with Du’a al-faraj. We were all so worn out by the spirituality of our experience that none of us had the strength to walk back towards the masjid. Some were taken by cars while rest of us slowly headed back. I was still barefoot and struggled to make out the path in the dark sometimes and so sometimes stumbled on the stones, feeling deep pain. Tears kept rolling down my eyes not for the pain of stumbling but for the pain that the martyrs had suffered on this same ground, where their holy corpses still lay below soil, their blood perfuming from it. I wanted to hold on that soil and never let it go.
How martyrdom kept Islam alive
The experience in Shalamcheh made me finally appreciate what this journey held, and how I had become attached to martyrs whom I had never met, and through them, attained greater proximity to Allah (SWT). I realised that the peace and security that we enjoyed today was achieved because of the soldiers responding to the call of their leader, Imam Khomeini. It was the faith of Imam Khomeini, these martyrs and the support of the Imam (A.S) of our time which gave the Islamic Republic and its Islamic revolution victory over the unjust powers of the world. My experiences strengthened my belief that even in unfavourable conditions, if one tightly held on to the rope of faith, one could conquer not just the world but the hereafter as well. It was now our responsibility to preserve this victory and constantly aid the ‘ulama and leadership to make it possible for the future generations to flourish in this free environment.
Holy City of Qom,
Islamic Republic of Iran