Here I recount my experience of the Arba’īn pilgrimage to Karbala, annually attracting over twenty million pilgrims, known as the world’s largest human gathering.
I recount the journey with my madrasah’s caravan across the Iranian border towards the holy city of Najaf.
A key highlight of the trip was the hospitality and brotherhood of our hosts and what this taught me about the essence of Islam. The experience of the three-day walk from Najaf to Karbala was breathtaking, as was the ziyārah of the shrines of Sāmarrā and Kāzmayn. The solidarity of the Muslims during this holy pilgrimage and their commitment towards the mission of Imam Husayn (AS) amongst the threat from Daesh makes one hopeful for the coming of the Imam of our time (AS), the subsequent liberation of the Muslims and the establishment of Allah’s government, completing the mission of the prophets.
This year I was blessed with the opportunity to go to Karbala for the ziyārah of Imam Husayn (AS), the saviour of Islam. I wanted to go to Karbala to become purified, to answer the Imam (AS)’s call, and to fight an ideological war against Daesh, as I did not know of a time in history when the ziyārah of Imam Husayn (AS) has been threatened by the enemies of the Ahl al-bayt (AS) like it is today. I remember being anxious about having to miss classes in the hawzah for two weeks due to this trip, but I realised that Allah (SWT) wanted me to be well rounded and that becoming a scholar without a strong, heartfelt connection to the Ahl al-bayt(AS) was of no use to myself nor to any of the communities back home.
Due to her strong faith, my mother encouraged me to go. She said that the threat of Daesh yielded no importance, because she had asked the Imam (AS) to watch over me, and if Allah SWT had decreed that I should be martyred along the way, then that was a source of pride for her. Even before I had left home to begin my studies in Qom, I used to tell my mother that she was like Umm al-Banīn, the mother of Abbas (AS), as she had been granted four sons from the offspring of Imam Ali (AS). One day, she would need to sacrifice her sons for Islam. Saying this to her would make her tearful.
Our caravan consisted mainly of the students and administrators of Amīr al-Mu’minīn (AS) Islamic Seminary. We travelled by coach from Qum to the Shalamcheh border crossing. At Shalamcheh, I remember soldiers with Qurans in their hands, ushering the pilgrims to pass under the Qurans, kissing them as they passed into Iraq. This was the tradition of the soldiers during the war between Iran and Saddām Husayn, and experiencing it was very emotional for all of us as we recounted the blood that had been spilt for the cause of the Islamic Revolution. The check posts were decorated with “Yā Husayn” flags, and the soldiers were kind and smiling. It was here that we started encountering mawākib (refreshment stations) with lots and lots of hot rice, curry, fruit, tea etc. all in servitude of the pilgrims of Imam Husayn (AS).
We then journeyed from the Iraqi border towards Baghdad. I remember stopping along the way in a mosque to say our prayers. Just as we turned around to leave, we saw that the caretakers of the mosque had laid out a tablecloth on the floor with hot soup and fresh bread. The hospitality of the Iraqi Shias was unbelievable; many of them would go through the extra effort to speak in broken Persian with us, just to try and make us feel more at home. I regretted even bringing a single chocolate bar with me; why should I have? Should one take food with himself when invited as a guest to his brother’s house? If the people of Iraq were really my brothers and I was really their guest, then why did I take my own food?
We reached Baghdad in the middle of the night. A wealthy Iraqi man in one of the Shia neighbourhoods of Baghdad had organised for us to stay at his house. I remember feeling slightly uncomfortable with my dusty clothes as I walked into his mansion filled with beautiful glasswork, ornate paintings on the walls, thick silk carpets and embroidered curtains. He, nonetheless, welcomed us in without placing even a single rū-farshī (rug protector) on the floor, and invited us to sit on his expensive couches. It was clear that he had been anxiously waiting for us throughout the night. Straight away he served us a hot meal and at the same time asked his sons to prepare our beds for us. He then showed us a collection of flags that he had collected from the shrines of the Ahl al-bayt (AS); I grasped them, kissing them, feeling warmth enter my heart. I could smell the scent of the shrines of the Ahl al-bayt (AS), and my heart melted when my thoughts strayed towards the destroyed shrine of Sāmarrā.
The following morning, I woke up early to study some philosophy, not wanting to leave my studies even though I was on ziyārah. Around noon, we went to a nearby masjid for congregational prayers. The local people were very hospitable and extremely keen to speak with us. Just as I rose from prostration after finishing my prayers, an old man next to me took off his abā (cloak) and threw it over me, giving it as a gift, and asked me to pray for him in the shrines. I was in awe, thinking about the greatness of Imam Husain (AS) and how people’s respect for his sacrifice drove them to show such respect and hospitality to their believing brothers, just as Islam had envisaged. We were then offered a massive lunch by our host after which we bade him farewell, and then began journeying towards Kāẓmayn.
As we entered Kāẓmayn my heart became ignited due to the presence of the holy shrine. I walked through the old market, taking small steps, reciting praise of Allah (SWT), as recommended in Mafātīḥ al-Jinān of Shaykh ‘Abbās Qummī. I was then confronted by the sight of tall brick walls surrounding the brilliant sanctuary of the Kāẓmayn (AS). There were so many pilgrims, so many believers thirsty for blessings, overflowing with prayers for themselves, the sick, the oppressed, their loved ones, neighbours and friends. I too came to the holy shrine, ready to present my needs before the Imam. In light of what Imam Ali (AS) has said: “Surely we will intercede and also those who love us will intercede.”  It was the sinless Ahl al-bayt (AS) that I wanted to ask to intercede on my behalf with my Creator.
Following our ziyārah in Kāẓmayn, we left towards the holy city of Najaf. I observed what I could of the country of Iraq along the way. It had changed in the five years since I had previously visited. There were pictures of Ayatollah Sīstāni, Ayatollah Khamenei and Imam Khomeini everywhere. It looked so much like the Islamic Republic of Iran. I even saw the famous sadqah boxes from Iran’s Imam Khomeini Welfare Organisation dotted around the streets. The face of the country was turning Shia, and ties with the Iranian Shias were becoming undoubtedly stronger. Such are the blessings of the Arbā’īn pilgrimage. I prayed for a united block; a united Iran and Iraq, under the guardianship of the Islamic scholars, the inheritors of the Prophets; a force and a power to stand up against the enemies of Islam.
The next day, we journeyed towards Sāmarrā. My heart had been burning for Sāmarrā; the destruction of the tombs of the Ahl al-bayt (AS), including the father of our living Imam (AS), was a great tragedy for the Shias. I really did not care that Sāmarrā was located in the Red Zone and that there was a real security threat. No one had the right to block my path to visit the tombs of my grandfathers, the Ahl al-bayt (AS), the successors of the Prophet (SAW). It just amazed me; these terrorists had such enmity and fear of the Ahl al-bayt (AS) that they even insisted on destroying their graves to try and wipe away all memory of them. They had seen the power of the remembrance of the Ahl al-bayt (AS) in the strength that it gave to the Shia and the great Islamic Revolution that it gave rise to several decades ago in Iran.
The shrine of Sāmarrā was located in a Sunni neighbourhood beside the Tigris River. We had been told that the road may be closed due to security risks and so there was no guarantee that we would get there. Along the way, we unfortunately found the road packed with a long line of buses. We were all worried that we would not reach Sāmarrā. My friend looked at me and asked me to recite Du’ā al-Tawassul. I began reciting, and everyone on the bus joined in. The windows were open and the passengers in the buses around us were also listening. As we reached the verses calling the 7th Imam (AS), our bus began to move, and by the end of the Du’ā, we were speeding along the motorway again.
Upon reaching Sāmarrā, I remember the city being in absolute shambles; no rubbish collection, broken roads, destroyed buildings and bullet holes in windows of houses. The area around the haram was in shocking condition. All that existed was a long road protected by tall concrete walls. The new shrine was still being rebuilt after its previous destruction. There was gold on the dome, and some glasswork inside, but the ḍarīh was still in Qom – a gift by the Iranians made for the Sāmarrā shrine. Out of my whole trip, Sāmarrā was the most painful experience for me; it symbolised the reality of the oppression of the Shias – a product of our failure to the Ahl al-bayt (AS); a product of the success of our enemies. I prayed for God to give us strength to come out of our oppression, to overthrow our enemies, and to establish a platform for the government of the Ahl al-bayt (AS).
After Sāmarrā, we stayed in the holy city of Najaf, the city of Amīr al-Mu’minīn (AS). We journeyed to Masjid Sahlā, Masjid Kūfā and the shrine of Maytham il-Tammār, as well as the haram of Amīr il-Mu’minīn (AS). I remember feeling saddened by the unawareness of many pilgrims; despite the fact that they were from the Islamic Republic of Iran, some had no knowledge of tahārah, no understanding of how to show respect in holy places, and what a’māl to do, often due to the fact that many had very little contact with Islamic scholars to guide them. I did not feel good just concentrating on my own prayers whilst others remained in ignorance about what mustahabbāt to engage in. I felt I had the duty to help the people in whichever way I could, and so I devoted half of my time teaching different people about what to do in each masjid, the significance of these holy places, and how to show respect whilst visiting them.
The following day, we began our three-day walk from Najaf to Karbala. I felt the spiritual effect of each step I took towards Karbala, recalling the hadith that for every one step taken for the ziyārah of Imam Husayn (AS), one thousand good deeds are written and one thousand bad deeds are erased . The purification I felt from the walk was immense. There were mawākib lined up next to each other for the entire 80 km stretch with not a single piece of land empty. There were mawākib for medical treatment, mawākib with free wifi, mawākib for charging telephones and even mawākib for answering shar’ī questions. Every single amenity required was provided. Every night, millions of people would be fed to their fill. Such are the blessings of the pilgrimage of Imam Husain (AS). I saw old ladies carrying suitcases on their heads, walking the entire way, men without legs making their way on crutches, small children, couples pushing several prams and sons pushing their mothers on wheelchairs.
We reached Karbala on the morning of the 19th of Ṣafar; more than half of the pilgrims were limping and tired, yet thoughtfully silent as they entered the borders of the holy city. Our hearts became heavy as we sensed the buried martyrs; the saviours of the religion that we value and treasure. Eulogies were being recited everywhere, and my eyes filled with tears as I fought through the crowds to catch a glimpse of the shrines. My feet were aching and full of blisters. The pain was unbearable but there was no possibility to stop. The ziyārah of Imam Husayn (AS) has no specific ghusl and it is in fact recommended to be performed in the very state that one enters Karbala. I yearned to go to the haram, but the crowds were too vast. As we entered the madrasah that had offered to host us, I threw down my bag, scrambling for my ziyārat nāmih, propping against a wall whilst welling with tears and beginning to recite the ziyārat of Imam Husayn AS. I was thirsty from the heat of the midday sun, my body was aching and my feet had completely given way. It was at this point that I remembered the struggles of Lady Zaynab (AS) and the children – what were my blisters after three days of walking, with hospitality and hot food along the way? The women and children of the household of the Prophet (SAW) after having seen the merciless killing of the grand children of the Prophet (SAW) were taken on a long journey through the Arabian Peninsula towards Syria, paraded through streets and markets with stones and boiling water thrown at them. It was an overwhelming experience that pushed my soul to its limits.
After some minimal rest, I gathered myself and left the madrasah, battling through the crowds to get close to the haram. I wanted to place my feet on the soil of heaven, the land of the shrine of Imam Husain (AS). I prayed in bayn–al–haramayn whilst a soft breeze blew between the shrines. The crowds would fall silent during the prayers and it was heart-shattering to hear praise of Allah SWT being emitted from the microphones of the golden minarets whilst millions of Muslims bowed down in submission to their Creator. Husayn (AS) had succeeded; Abbas (AS) had succeeded; the martyrs had succeeded; Zaynab (AS) had succeeded. The sacrifice of Ibrāhīm (AS) had culminated here in Karbala. The religion of Muhammad (SAW) was saved here in Karbala.
On our journey back towards Qom, I had fallen severely ill with migraines that I had developed since my time in medical school. We were travelling through mountain ranges, and there was no place to stop in sight. I felt sick and uncomfortable in our claustrophobic coach. The pain became so severe that it was becoming unbearable. Everyone on the bus, including the leaders of our caravan, was asleep, and so as I called out for assistance no one replied. I closed my eyes and spoke to the living Imam (AS); I said to him that it was part of his duty towards his Shia that he should not leave us on our own during our time of need. My head pounded and my neck muscles started to spasm. My eyes ached terribly due to their hypersensitivity to light. I was aware that my friend was reciting some verses over a glass of water, which he then gave to me to drink in hope that it would give me ease at a time when no medicine was effective or in reach. As I drank the water, I immediately felt my pain disappear. I was shocked. My neck muscles relaxed and I could open my eyes. My friend had prepared a bed for me on the floor of the aisle of the bus and laid me down there. The next thing I remember, I was waking up four hours later as we arrived next to the haram of Hazrat Ma’sūma(AS) in Holy Qom. The following day, my friend came to visit me in the dormitories, and asked me about what happened when I drank the water he gave me. He was also shocked when I told him of my experience. I asked him what he had recited over that. He said that he had mixed some of the soil from Karbala into the water and recited Al–fātiha over it seven times. My heart melted as I listened to his words. I had experienced the healing power of the soil of Karbala that has been mentioned in traditions .
In these recent years, where the scholars of Islam have revived Islamic civilisation through the Islamic Revolution, the effects of the sacrifice of Imam Husayn (AS) in Karbala have truly began to materialise. While I was on ziyārah, I remember looking around at the greatness, numbers and strength of the Muslim nation, and I became very hopeful that the time was close for the establishment of God’s just government on this Earth, a paradise of tranquillity, peace and submission to Allah (SWT).
Syed Zain Abbas
5th year student, Amir al-Mu’minin Islamic Seminary
Holy City of Qom
- Biharul Anwar, Vol 101, Pg 25, Tradition 26
- Kaamil al-Ziarat, p. 275