The tragedy of Imam Hussain (as) holds huge importance within Shia Islam. Sayed Mahdi Modarresi reflects on his journey to Karbala.
Several years ago I met an Australian who had converted to Islam. Though he must have struggled with many intellectual and social factors impeding his adoption of the faith, it wasn’t his conversion which impressed me but the catalyst which ignited his quest for the truth.
As it turns out, he had been watching the evening news one day when the network aired scenes of six million Iraqis marching towards Karbala. In a worldwide televised event the world had for the first time in three decades had a glimpse of Iraq from the inside. With the Ba’ath regime toppled, Australians, like everyone else, were eager to see how Iraqis would react to George W. Bush’s ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’.
“Where is Karbala?” He recalls asking himself. “Isn’t Baghdad the capital of the country? Isn’t that where all ‘the action’ is? Who is this Imam Hussain (as) that motivates these people?” That was the first of a series of questions which eventually drove him to relinquish his Roman Catholic origins and embrace Shia Islam.
In 2007 I travelled to Karbala to see for myself just what makes Karbala so captivating. Thousands upon thousands of men and children, but mostly black veiled women fill the eye from one end of the horizon to the other — crowds so massive, they cause a blockade for hundreds of miles. We drove to Karbala in armoured vehicles with a police escort for nine hours but the road was overflowing with pilgrims.
Entire towns came to a virtual shut down as people converged on the holy city. The 620 km distance between the southern port city of Basra and Karbala is a long journey by any measure, and is unimaginably arduous on foot. In fact, it takes a full two weeks of walking. People of all age groups, even toddlers in their strollers are accompanied by their parents through the scorching heat of the sun in daytime and the bone chilling cold at night.
They travel through rough terrain, uneven roads, terrorist strongholds, and dangerous marshlands. Without any amenities or travel gear, the pilgrims carry nothing but a burning love for their ‘Master’ and flags and banners with exuberant quotes to remind the world and themselves to a certain extent about the purpose of their fervour. One banner reads:
O self, you’re worth nothing
after [the sacrifice of] Hussain,
My life and death are one and the same,
so be it if you call me insane!
These were the words of Abbas, Imam Hussain’s (as) younger brother who was killed while trying to fetch water for his thirst stricken siblings. With security being in the detrimental state it is, no one doubts that this statement is genuine in every sense.
Most striking, however, is the sight of old men and women in wheelchairs. Imagine walking for 620 km. Now imagine pushing a wheelchair for 620 km! I met a 46 year old man who had travelled all the way from Basra with his 12 year old disabled son. For most of the trip he put his son’s feet on top of his and held him by the armpits while they walked. It is the kind of story Oscar winning films are made of, but no Hollywood director or reputable screenwriter dares to venture into Iraq these days. They probably would not make much sense of the march either — it is not easy to understand what inspires these people.
But the one scene that grabbed my attention repeatedly was the sight of thousands of tents, makeshift kitchens and medical clinics set up by local villagers who live around the pilgrims’ path. The tents, called Mawakeb (convoys), are the only places where pilgrims can retire from the strenuous and physically exhausting journey.
More startling, however, is the sight of locals asking pilgrims to join them for food and drinks. They would intercept their path to invite them, plead with them, and eventually beg them to take a short break on the side of the road to eat.
They would say: “Please honour us with your presence. Our masters, bless us by accepting our offerings.” One tribal leader (who according to Iraqi tribal traditions bows to no one and is treated like a king) was calling out through a loudspeaker words that sent shivers down my spine: “Welcome oh pilgrims of Hussain. I’ll kiss the soles of your shoes. May I be sacrificed for you. Please honour us with your presence.”
After serving food and drinks to their guests, the host then proceeds to wash their feet with his own hands and kisses their hands and forehead before bidding them farewell. I have yet to see anyone go to such lengths to invite total strangers to a meal.
After the pilgrimage when the official numbers came in, I made an attempt to quantify what I had seen. The results were simply astonishing. If 13 million people walked for an average of seven days towards Karbala and rode back immediately after their arrival (realistically it took longer to get there and many didn’t have the luxury of a bus ride home), and if each pilgrim ate three meals a day, the total number of meals served is a colossal 273 million.
The government provided absolutely none of that. NGOs and humanitarian organisations are paralysed. Somehow, average Iraqis managed to provide food for the pilgrims. The obvious question is: Where did all this food come from? Iraqis call it a miracle.
What adds to the peculiarity of the phenomenon is that when security conditions worsen more people are motivated to challenge the terrorist threats and march to Karbala. When three days before Arba’een (40th day anniversary) a suicide bomber blew herself up after inviting pilgrims to eat at her tent in Alexandria, 45 km south of Baghdad, people came in greater numbers while chanting:
If they sever our legs and hands,
We shall crawl to the holy lands.
It is not only the working class and rural workers who take part in the march. Doctors, engineers, teachers, as well as wealthy entrepreneurs participate in what is today the biggest annual mass demonstration in the world.
Just looking at the masses leaves one breathless. It left me asking the same question that my Australian friend asked himself when he witnessed the first Arba’een (40th day anniversary) procession back in 2003: Who is this Hussain? I find myself asking in an attempt to rationalise and understand. Why would all these people walk for hundreds of miles just to remember an excruciatingly painful event that took place centuries ago?
Visitors to his shrine are not driven by emotions. They cry because they make a conscious decision to be reminded of the atrocious nature of the loss, and by doing so they reaffirm their pledge to everything that is virtuous and everyone that is holy. The first thing pilgrims do upon facing Imam Hussain’s (as) shrine is recite the Ziyara which is a sacred text addressing Imam Hussain (as) in the appropriate fashion that he is to be addressed.
In it, Shia Imams following the massacre of Hussain (as) have instructed their followers to start by calling out the name of Imam Hussain (as) as the ‘inheritor’ and the ‘heir’ of Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. There is something profound in this. It means that Imam Hussain’s (as) message is seen as an inseparable extension to that of divinely appointed prophets.
Pilgrims come here not to admire the physical beauty, or to shop, or to be entertained, or to visit ancient historical sites — but to cry and mourn. They come to join the angels in their grief. They all enter the sacred shrine crying, weeping, and lamenting. It is as if every person has established a personal relationship with Imam Hussain (as). They talk to him, call out his name and touch the walls and doors near his tomb the way one touches the face of a long lost friend. It’s a picturesque vista of epic proportions.
What motivates these people is something that requires an understanding of the character of Imam Hussain (as) and the relationship they have developed with his living legacy. For 13 million Shia Muslims, however, a question this profound which can cause someone to relinquish his religion for another can be answered only when once you have marched to his shrine.