Some thoughts on the Arbaeen walk

An opportunity to visit Iraq, specifically Najaf and Karbala provided Ahmed Kaballo with food for thought of how Islamic society does and could work.

Last October I was lucky enough to be invited to witness one of the largest annual gatherings of people in the world: It’s referred to as Arbaeen and takes place each year in October in Karbala, Iraq. Yet, many people in the ‘west’ are ignorant about this historic, mass gathering of kindness and charitable generosity; it’s absent from the media, and it seems completely absent even in discussions among Sunni Muslims. As a Sunni Muslim from Sudan whose family comes from the Sufi tradition, I must admit that I too was entirely unaware of Arbaeen prior to my trip.

I was therefore extremely grateful to have been invited to Iraq by the organisation responsible for the Imam Hussein Shrine, specifically to learn about the battle of Karbala, Imam Hussein, his life and legacy and the 40 days of mourning of his martyrdom, known as Arbaeen.

This year, 20 million people gathered in Karbala to commemorate Arbaeen, making it the largest annual pilgrimage gathering of people on Earth. To put this into context, Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia – which is a mandatory religious duty that must be carried out at least once by all financially and physically capable adult Muslims in their lifetimes – has around 2-3 million pilgrims every year. This number is roughly the same as the number of Iranians alone who attend Arbaeen from the neighbouring Islamic Republic. In fact, according to Iran’s deputy interior ministry, Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, a total of 3.5 million Iranians had entered Iraq to take part in the ceremony, 1.2 million more than the number reported last year, the largest on record

Arbaeen is attended predominantly by Shia Muslims make up the second largest denomination in Islam and form the majority in Iraq, Iran, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan and, according to some sources, are the largest religious minorities in Yemen and Lebanon. There are also large Shia minorities in Afghanistan, India, Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan, Qatar, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE (BBC, 2016). Globally, they make up roughly 10% of the Islamic community according to a 2009 report from the Pew Forum. The same study indicates that their population is estimated to be between 154 to 200 million worldwide. The fact that roughly one out of every 10 Shias from all over the world joined me in the modest city of Karbala last week was extremely impressive.

During my six days there I saw extreme kindness and an unbelievable display of brotherhood, sisterhood and unity but what I wanted this piece to focus on was the charitable generosity that I witnessed first-hand, something I will refer to as Islamic Socialism, as well as what I learnt about Arbaeen, and the sacrifices made by the martyrs whom Arbaeen commemorates.

Islamic Socialism

Many Muslims have traditionally regarded the association of the terms ‘Islamic’ and ‘Socialism’ as controversial, impossible and even nonsensical, since all of the most famous/infamous (depending on your politics) leaders of socialist societies and socialist revolutions have been regarded as atheistic and even anti-religion, such as Fidel Castro or Che Guevara (a figure I will return to later). On the other hand, of course, Islam is, by definition, a monotheistic religion in which observers, Muslims, submit their lives to the creator of the universe: Allah. Yet, what is often neglected is that instrumental to the Islamic faith and Islamic teachings, is the fact that Muslims must attempt to carry out Allah’s will by serving humanity. This includes for instance, charity and giving part of your wealth to others. In fact, Zakat (the Islamic obligation of giving to charity) is one of the five pillars of Islam and is considered an act of worship. Similarly, the basic tenet of socialism is for an egalitarian society where the wealth of society is equitably distributed amongst the masses.

What I witnessed in Karbala was a fantastic demonstration, albeit for a brief period of time, of just that.

Firstly, everyone dressed the same; the men wore black t-shirts and shirts, and the women wore black Abayas, and everyone walked side by side. During my six days there, I never got any sense of rich and poor; it felt like everyone was equal, and if not part of an egalitarian society, then at least part of an egalitarian pilgrimage. Everyone was eating the free food and services on offer, reinforcing the obvious: there’s always enough to go around.

I was told by my guide how over the years pilgrims have donated so much money to the Imam Hussein Shrines that they were able to build a state of the art school for orphans equipped with the latest technology, creating an institution that surpassed the local state schools which have suffered greatly due the country’s instability.

The donations also went towards building a modern new hospital with specialist cancer treatment equipment brought over from Germany. Most of the treatment offered was completely free; patients are only charged for surgery,and the families of the martyrs who fought Daesh in Iraq’s Civil War get a subsidized price. It was a fantastic display of what is possible when donations are circulated effectively.

Despite the country’s many troubles, past and present, people were happy to donate because it was clear that they had complete faith that the money would be used to serve others. In fact the very land that the hospital is built on was donated to the Imam Hussein Shrine.

However, perhaps the most impressive display of charity I witnessed was on the actual walk towards the holy shrines. Millions of the pilgrims walked from far and wide to come to Karbala, the majority of them from Najaf, 45 miles away, Baghdad 55 miles to the north, and other places further afield. However, I was told that the bulk of them came across the Najaf road connecting Najaf airport to the holy shrines in Karbala, taking rests along the way in tents lined with foam cushions, mattresses and blankets.

Along the road I saw families, organisations and generous individuals giving out water, delicious falafel wraps and sandwiches, hot coffees and teas, fresh fruit juices, chips, fruits, pancakes, basically every sort of commodity that you could think of or desire as well as services such as massages, shoe cleaning and chairs, beds and mats to rest, away from the glare of the burning sun.

Almost all the volunteers I came across on the Najaf road were Iraqis but I am told there were also Turkish, Iranians, Azerbaijanis and many other nationalities that had set up tents along the various routes coming into Karbala.

It was a truly wonderful display of human generosity from all people but particularly the Iraqis who have suffered so much over the course of the last 30 years of sanctions, tyranny, wars, occupation and takfiri terrorism. I was told they didn’t have very much and some of them even saved up so they could provide for the pilgrims who came to honour Imam Hussein and his brother Abbas and all those that died in battle of Karbala some 1400 years ago on the day that is referred to as Ashura.

The volunteers believed their sacrifice was worth it and, ultimately, they would be rewarded in this life or the next. I would hear the term sacrifice a lot during my trip but it was most commonly associated with the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and his 72 companions and also in reference to the fight against Daesh.

Arbaeen and Imam Hussein

Arbaeen is actually Arabic for the number 40. It falls forty days after the martyrdom anniversary of Imam Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) grandson. Moreover, he was also the son of Imam Ali, who Shias regard as the rightful successor to Muhammad (pbuh) and whom they believe should have been the leader of the Muslim community (the Ummah) following Muhammad’s (pbuh) death. Hussein is also the third Shia Imam.

Imam Ali eventually became the leader of the Ummah and ruled as the fourth caliph before he was killed while praying in the Great Mosque of Kufa, a place I was fortunate enough to visit on my trip.

His eldest two sons – Imam Hasan and Imam Hussein – who Shias believe were his rightful successors to lead the Ummah (and the second and third Shia Imams) were also later killed. Yet, it was the gruesome manner in which Imam Hussein, his relatives and companions were killed in the battle of Karbala on the day of Ashura that is mourned during the period of Arbaeen.

Following the deaths of Imam Ali and Imam Hasan, the title of caliph was controversially given to Umayyad caliph Yazid ibn Muawiya who was nominated by his father Muawiyah after Imam Hasan abdicated the position in order to avoid civil war and further bloodshed. Yazid has been described by many historians as being the tyrant of the time and he was seen as an illegitimate ruler by Imam Ali’s followers. Initially, Hussein was invited by the disgruntled inhabitants of Kufa who wanted to give their allegiance to him.  However, when their leadership reneged on this offer, Hussein and his companions found themselves besieged by Yazid’s forces on the plains of Karbala.  After they refused to submit to Yazid’s authority, Hussein and his 72 companions were martyred during the battle of Karbala. Among the dead was Hussein’s half-brother Abbas in whose memory a huge shrine was later built in Karbala in close proximity to Hussein’s.

The martyrdom of Imam Hussein has turned into a symbol of righteous revolt and social and political reform, as many believe his martyrdom demonstrated that it is right and just to oppose a tyrant even if he professes to a be Muslim (a lesson that the people of Iraq would learn again in the 20th century just as they were in the 7th). An Imam explained to me how it is part of Arbaeen to remember, mourn and retell this story. He was more than willing to give me all of the gruesome details, including how Hussein and the 72 companions were tortured and executed. I was also told that because of his martyrdom and what he stood for, Imam Hussein is a highly venerated historical figure not only among Shia Muslims but also among Sunnis and people of other faiths and even people of no faith. In fact, I was surprised to find out just how many non-Muslim freedom fighters have been inspired by Imam Hussein.

The South African freedom fighter and Nobel Prize winner Nelson Mandela said he thought about Hussein while incarcerated on Robben Island by the apartheid regime:

I have spent more than 20 years in prison, then on one night I decided to surrender by signing all the terms and conditions of government. But suddenly I thought about Imam Hussain and Karbala movement and Imam Hussain gave me strength to stand for right of freedom and liberation and I did.

(Abdolhamidi, 2017)

The Bengali national hero and philosopher, writer and poet Rabindranath Tagore also famously said “In order to keep alive justice and truth, instead of an army or weapons, success can be achieved by sacrificing lives, exactly what Imam Hussain did” (Kazim, 2014).

I was told that Imam Hussein had even inspired the Argentine Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, arguably modern history’s most well-known political martyr, who died fighting U.S. backed troops in Bolivia.

On my second day in Karbala, as I made my way to visit Imam Hussein’s shrine it became clear to me that not only was I visiting a place of huge religious significance but also of historical and political significance too.

Firstly, some of the attendees were carrying political slogans denouncing ISIS and takfiri terrorism – something I am told they have been doing since 2014 when the war in Iraq against ISIS began. Yet this year they were also carrying many anti-corruption banners – something that was very much in sync with the national atmosphere, as there had been nationwide protests that began before I had arrived in Iraq. The protests erupted at the beginning of October against high unemployment, government corruption and mismanagement. The Iraqi government was very much aware of the revolutionary spirit surrounding Arbaeen and attempted to use Arbaeen day itself and very much the language associated with Imam Hussein and Arbaeen to calm protesters. The Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi marked the day with a vow to “confront with strength and determination all forms of corruption and achieve justice” (Zahr and Mizban 2019).

Yet the former Iraqi premier and tyrant Saddam Hussein feared the revolutionary potential of Arbaeen and banned the procession during his rule because he allegedly believed that the mass gathering could be weaponised and pilgrims could be worked up into a revolt against his dictatorship. Indeed, in 1991 there was an uprising across Iraq’s Shia-dominated south when Iraqis rose up in huge numbers against Saddam’s dictatorship costing many thousands of them their lives. Some were chased and sought refuge in the holy shrines including the holy shrines of Imam Hussein and Abbas, which were damaged by artillery and gunfire.

So in many ways I was unsurprised to see Arbaeen all these years later immersed yet again in Iraq’s latest political convulsions.

Yet it was the spirit of martyrdom that struck me the most about the holy city and how that spirit had been invoked to fight the extremist threat posed by Daesh.

The Martyrs

The shrines receive around 15-20 million people annually and in 2017, the year that coincided with the final defeat of Daesh in Iraq, some put the figures well in excess of 20 million.

Daesh posed an existential threat to Shias throughout Iraq who were the biggest victims of their terrorist attacks. Naturally, images of the martyrs who gave the lives fighting Daesh were plastered throughout Karbala on the lampposts, on the entrances to hospitals and schools. Everywhere there were reminders of martyrs who fought in the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) against Daesh and if it wasn’t for their sacrifices the pilgrims would not be able to attend Arbaeen in relative safety.

I was told that Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a Fatwa in 2014 for all able-bodied Iraqi men to volunteer and join the fight against Daesh. Three million Iraqis from all the different religious minorities answered the call. The PMF comprised of Shias, Sunnis, Christians and Yazidis, yet they were wrongly and, I would add, sinisterly referred to as a Shia militia by many western mainstream publications, as an attempt to turn the conflict into a sectarian conflict as opposed to a national fight against Daesh. Granted, Daesh and other associated takfiri terrorist groups regard Shias as non-believers, and as Shias make up the majority of Iraq’s population it was only natural they made up the majority of the PMF. However, many Sunnis were also outraged and disgusted by their actions and warped ideology too and logically joined in huge numbers along with the other religious minorities that make up Iraq’s diverse religious fabric. 

Iraq, like Syria, has a long tradition of pluralism and Daesh’s attempt to impose a monolithic ‘Islamic state’ based on a very narrow interpretation of Islam angered the overwhelming majority of Iraqis. Thus, there should be little surprise that so many joined the fight against the extremist terrorist group and even less of a surprise that those that fought and sacrificed their lives are held in such high esteem by the people of Karbala and the shrine organisations themselves.

In fact, in the Imam Hussein Shrine there is a museum upstairs with a dedication to the martyrs with a special window dedicated to, Abu Tahsin al-Salhi. His comrades knew him as “The Sheikh of Snipers” and “Hawk Eye” because of his expertise with a sniper rifle. He is reported to have killed over 376 Daesh fighters.

Al-Salhi was a 63-year-old war veteran who had a long career fighting for his country starting in 1973 when he was part of an Iraqi brigade fighting on Syria’s Golan Heights against the Israeli occupiers in the Arab-Israeli war. Yet it was in Hawija in northwest Iraq where he was killed, as he advanced with the PMF alongside the Iraqi government forces against one of the Daesh’s last strongholds at what would be a penultimate battle. He is rightly held as a hero in Iraq and it felt like everyone knew his name. I couldn’t help but wonder why Hollywood didn’t consider someone like Abu Tahsin al-Salhi as worthy of a biopic. After all, they had no reservations about making a biopic celebrating the life of the controversial Chris Kyle in the movie “American Sniper”.

Kyle was part of the illegal occupying American force. He bragged in his autobiography that he had killed 255 Iraqis. He also stated he didn’t shoot people with Qurans but he would have liked to and that the enemy he was fighting were “savages” and “despicable evil”. The biopic, which starts with Kyle shooting a Muslim woman and her son, was widely criticized for glorifying the brutal and illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq. In fact, The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee claimed online threats against Muslims in the U.S. rose drastically after the film (Seymour, 2015). It reminds me of that old African proverb: “Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter.”  

Were it not for the sacrifices of the likes of al-Salhi and the rest of the modern martyrs who lost their life fighting Daesh, then Ashura and the Arbaeen procession in Karbala which connect Iraq’s modern day martyrs to Iraq’s martyrs of the past, would be under serious threat.

Ahmed Kaballo is a London based journalist, producer and documentary maker. He currently works for Press TV and went to Venezuela for 6 weeks where he reported live from the ground and also presented and produced two documentaries

Ahmed was born in the UK but his family come from Sudan and his father is a Sudanese politician and is a central committee member of Sudanese Communist Party, his father was detained during the time he was in Venezuela and was recently released when Omar al-Bashir fell. 

You can find some of his work on Venezuela here.