The word Ziyarah (زيارة) originates from the Arabic زور literally translating as “to visit, or to meet” referring to the pilgrimage undertaken by Muslims to places associated with the Holy Prophet Mohammed (saw), his family, and other venerated figures within Islam. Interestingly, a closely associated Arabic term زيار rather aptly takes the meaning of ‘aid or resource or a means of protection’, which is what the pilgrimage has come to signify for the devout. Many orphans, widows, homeless and needy have taken sanctuary within these shrines during times of oppression and hardship.
Ziyarah is a highly commended act in Prophetic traditions and takes different forms and meanings. It ranges from the act of physically making a trip to the shrine, to the more distant utterance and recitation of salutations from wherever in the world the pilgrim happens to be, especially on important occasions in the Islamic Calendar. At a spiritual level visitation is transcendent. It lives within the realms of the heart. It extends beyond the barriers of geography, language, culture, and time. It is performed as though the addressee of the salutations is present, untied with and personally receiving their guests and answering back.
Within the vast Islamic literature there are plentiful narrations from the Holy Prophet on the merits, and abundant blessings of Ziyarah. Through the forgiveness of sins, the renewal of faith and hope, to the acceptance of prayers and legitimate desires to list but a few. One such narration that struck a chord with me and brought out its fundamental importance is from the Holy Prophet, who is said to have informed Imam Al-Hussain:
(Thwab Al Amal, Shaykh Al-Suduq)
Ziyarrah in Iraq
Recently IUS AID team, driven out of a desire to enhance our spirituality and in a quest for tranquillity, visited Iraq to pay our respects and visitations to Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib (AS), Imam Aba Abdillah Al-Hussain (AS), and their sons (AS) and Ahlulbayt (family members of the household of the Prophet Muhammad). It was an opportunity to seek comfort and solace in these shrines, to reflect on the lives of these Godly individuals and (God-willing) follow in their footsteps. And in marvelling at the beauty of their conduct and patience in the face of tribulation, reflect upon the beauty of God, so that we may strengthen our connection with Him.
Our journey had coincided with the Islamic occasion of Arbaeen (literally the 40th). This annually marks the passing of 40 days since the martyrdom and killing of Imam Hussain (AS). According to tradition, it is the day on which his (AS) severed head was reunited and buried with his body. The day on which the family of Prophet Mohammed (saw) and the great companion of the Prophet Jabir Ibn Abdullah Al-Ansari (AS) came to Karbala for the first ever visitation of the grave of Imam Hussain (AS).
The annual ceremonies of Arbaeen draw a global audience of millions who flock to Imam Hussain (AS), all declaring their love and all pledging and renewing their covenant with the great leader and martyr. As if to say: “we are with you O ’Hussain, we are at your service, we will carry on with the message that you gave eternal life to with your martyrdom.”
At a personal level, I felt blessed to have been given the chance to visit the shrines in Najaf, Karbala, Kadhemain, Sammarra, Kufa and Hilla during my journey. I felt a close connection and a bond with each of the personalities I visited. The feeling and personal association was different in each place. I had been brought up hearing these names even before I could speak, perhaps even before my birth, while my mother still carried me. I had grown up hearing their stories and heroics. They were part of my flesh and bones. The emotional bond and attachment in each place was unique. Each was equally majestic, equally powerful, equally moving. It felt as though I had taken birth once more. I felt a renewal within myself and a motivation to live up to the values these personalities had stood up for: to be a good person, to be fair and just, to be a kind and caring person, to submit myself to the Will of Allah (swt). To actualise and to realise those gifts that Providence had blessed me with. I felt new energy in being able to combat the weaknesses within me. The words of the Prophet (saw) quoted above rang true within my heart and I felt as though I had already found the promised deliverance through the experience of being in their (AS) presence.
Seeing the majesty and permanence of the shrines reminded me of the majesty and greatness of the leaders they celebrated. With hundreds of robed scholars roaming Najaf, it felt as though the ‘gate to the city of knowledge’ was still open, personally imparting knowledge, overseeing the education and training of generations. The narrow streets and alleyways thronged with young fatherless children were the greatest casualties of a war still raging. Generations upon generations plunged into misery and robbed of hope and support. Their lives filled with loneliness without the guidance and support of their fathers who had sacrificed themselves for the protection of the future of Iraq. Bravely some of the children had resorted to selling small accessories, tasbeehs, caps, stickers, turbahs, all the while when they should have been at school. Some of them had been adopted by the shrines.
This was a reminder that there was once a man who had secretly roamed these very streets caring for the orphans and destitute, listening to their woes and bringing joy in their hour of misery. It was a reminder also of that brave soul who had gone to fetch water because his honour and dignity could not bear to hear the cries of the thirsty and oppressed souls. A reminder that he did what he could to assist his brother at the time of his need with all the might and strength he possessed. And to me it was a reminder of my personal responsibilities, to be at the service of my brethren in humanity, and of my responsibilities to the leaders I was visiting – responsibilities of following their example, in carrying out those very tasks that they had taken great pride in carrying out for the pleasure of their Lord.
Of the great number of personal spiritual highlights of this journey, one unforgettable one was perhaps the three day, 60 miles long walk from the shrine of Imam Ali (AS) in Najaf to the shrines of Imam Hussain (AS) and Al Abbas (AS) in Karbala. The highway from Najaf to Karbala was a sea of people, all walking in one direction, with one aim in mind, to pay homage to the Master of Martyrs in Karbala. It comprised of people of all sorts of different backgrounds ethnicities, nationalities, religion, men, women and children in their millions, from the very young babies, to the very old, to the weak and disabled, some literally crawling their way. They all had one thing in common; they were all united in their hearts, which held the love and affection for the Prophet (saw) and his family members (AS). Some visibly weeping and remembering the very journey that the womenfolk of Ahlulbayt (AS) were forced to take following the killing of Imam Hussain (AS).
The journey, like any, had presented many a difficulties and challenges, testing my patience and forbearance. It taught me many life lessons, improved my connection with Allah, made me realise the importance of visiting the Prophet and his progeny. I do not claim to have passed any of these tests; in fact I am certain I failed them all miserably. Yet there was a realisation and lesson in every moment. I took comfort in what a friend told me; that the difficulties of the journey were but a mark of the acceptance of my visitation. At every challenge, and sometimes in retrospect, was an association in my mind of the circumstances, the trials and tribulations that befell the Ahlulbayt. And more importantly, I took strength from remembering and recalling their (AS) reactions to those trials, allowing me to empathise with their pain, growing and increasing in my heart their love and respect. I felt renewed and forgiven. Indeed as Imam Jafar Sadiq (AS) narrates:
‘When the visitor decides to return home from the shrine, an Angel near him declares – I have got a message for you from Allah. Allah sends his salutations to you and says – I have forgiven all your past sins and now you can begin performing your actions afresh.’
(Tahzeeb vol 6, pg 43; Wasail vol 10, pg 342)
Written by Abu Hasan
Previously in this series: