Arba’een, meaning “forty” in Arabic is the fortieth day that marks the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (a.s) in the Shi’ite Islamic sect. It is also commonly referred to as ‘Chehelom’ in Urdu or Persian. In commemoration of the third Shi’ite Imam (a.s), Arbaeen constitutes of a large gathering that usually occurs in the Islamic month of Safar. In Muslim traditions, Arba’een or a period of forty days is also the customary time frame that is spent in mourning a family member who has passed away and the fortieth day then marks the loved one’s death anniversary. However, Arba’een of Prophet Muhammad’s (s) grandson is no ordinary gathering. It neither the Islamic Hajj nor the Hindu Kumb Mela, it is the world’s most crowded gathering one would ever come across. Surpassing the statistics of Mecca pilgrims annually and Kumb Mela that only occurs every third year, Arba’een holds millions of visitors each year at the shrine of Imam Hussain (a.s) in Karbala, Iraq. Briefly accounting historical data, the visitors had been 8 million in the year, 2009 with the numbers increasing rapidly each year. Last year witnessed a hefty population of 20 million pilgrims in Karbala with the numbers expected to increase this year following the escalation trend. Arba’een being unique in light of its large population of visitors particularly encompasses intriguing attributes that are worth mentioning. Iraq, a region with political disturbances and home to terror groups such as ‘Daesh’ or ‘Islamic State ‘ host Arba’een’s visitors year after year. The Daesh view the Shia as their mortal enemy, however nothing deters the faith of these pilgrims who passionately carry out their commemoration surrounding the grave of Imam Hussain (a.s) despite the danger lurking in the shadows. Let us now examine a few more attributes of Arba’een. While this commemoration event is Shia-dominated, other groups including the Sunnis, Christians, Yazidis and Zoroastrians as well as Sabians also partake in the Arba’een pilgrimage (ziyarat) in addition to attending other customs, namely serving of devotees. The preceding attribute is remarkably exclusive in its religious ritual nature and articulates the following fact: regardless of religion or color, people see Hussain (a.s) as a symbolic evidence of universal, unconfined and meta-religious portrayal of freedom as well as compassion.
The Arba’een is truly amazing. The ziyarat itself constitutes a long trek to the shrine of the Holy Imam (a.s). There is a 425 mile distance to be covered from the southern port city of Basra to Karbala. Long as it is by car, it is even more difficult on foot. Pilgrims perform this journey within a full two weeks’ time frame and groups include all age groups. Whether it is the sun’s scorching heat during the day or the night’s bone-chilling cold, the pilgrims perform the ziyarat with sheer love for Hussain (a.s). Therefore, the rough regional terrain, uneven roads, dangerous marshlands and terrorist strongholds are no game against the compassion of Hussain’s (a.s) visitors who show unmatched devotion for their martyred Imam and Master. Moreover, the food served by the locals as part of Arba’een ritual is a sight to witness. For a comparative perspective, let us consider the aid offered by major organizations such as the UN World Food Programme and the military-based Operation Unified Response by United States to victims of natural disaster following the Haitian Earthquake. While the UN delivered half a million meals as their maximum effort, the collaborated efforts by United States had managed to deliver 4.9 million meals to Haitians. At Arba’een, 50 million meals per day are offered to the pilgrims with a total of 700 million covering the pilgrimage duration. And these meals are not offered by any world aid agencies; rather the Iraqi locals including poor laborers and farmers compile these meals by starving themselves the entire year in order to save food for Hussain’s (a.s) pilgrims.
Fourteen hundred years ago, the son of Ali Ibn Abi Talib (a.s) was martyred in an attempt to erase traces of all teachings of Ahlul-bayt (a.s) with his followers suffering a tragic end at the hands of the Umayyad empire and yet fast-forwarding the time clock, Hussain’s (a.s) mourners inspiringly gather from all walks of life in astonishing numbers every year. Therefore, if the world understood Hussain’s (a.s) message and his sacrifice, they will be enlightened about the Daesh’s ancient roots as well as its motto of death and destruction. Hussain’s (a.s) presence on the other hand has been and continues to be solidly marked by Arba’een. His legend is not only encouraging and inspiring but it challenges the greatest of champions in patience, dedication and strength to heroically serve a mission – all for the sake of his love for the divine God.