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A First-Hand Look at Arba’een, the World’s Largest Annual Pilgrimage

Arba’een draws millions of people together in a gathering where pilgrims’ needs are provided for out of generosity and without payment. I needed to see this with my own eyes and traveled to Iraq to take part. What I saw impressed me forever with the understanding that peace and compassion are possible here on Earth.

Arba’een 2018, showing the path pilgrims coming from Najaf to Karbala. Photo taken by the author’s family during their pilgramage.

August 28, 2023 07:13 EDT

Arba’een, the immense annual gathering in Karbala, Iraq, got my attention after I read Sayed M. Modarresi’s Huffington Post article, “World’s Biggest Pilgrimage Now Underway, and Why You’ve Never Heard of It!” After researching it, I knew Arba’een was something that I must experience firsthand.

As the founder and president of Peace Worldwide Organization, I could not get the idea off my mind. In the US, we cannot have a concert with a few thousand attendees without some trouble. How in the world was it possible for millions of people to get together so lovingly and peacefully?

Finally, I took the journey. My experience with Arba’een opened my eyes to many possibilities to achieve global peace. I had never encountered such hospitality, love and generosity in my life. Although it was held in Iraq under the threat of terrorism, I spotted pilgrims from across the world eagerly participating. I was touched by the display of faith in humanity, the likes of which I had never seen anywhere else.

A multicultural gathering

Although it was originally initiated by Shi’a Muslims as a spiritual reawakening, I witnessed that Arba’een brought people together from all walks of life. It was a true representation of all people in the world. The participants included not just Shi’as but Sunnis, Ibadis, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Yazidis and Zoroastrians. There, we were all united in purpose and welcomed with the utmost respect, regardless of religion, culture, ethnicity, gender or race. 

Four years earlier, I had participated in the annual Islamic Hajj pilgrimage. In Karbala, I noticed the much greater crowds; Arba’een attracts five or more times more people than the Hajj. In contrast to the Hajj, which is riddled with accidents and troubles, my experience with the Arba’een event was peaceful. While the Hajj consists exclusively of Muslims, Arba’een breaks across identity barriers. Arba’een is truly unique.

As I had read, it was embellished with the longest continuous free dining table with a variety of foods and personal sleep accommodations. Iraqis were stationed throughout the path of pilgrims to wash feet and massage feet, backs, shoulders and necks. Clinics and doctors were available to treat pilgrims. All amenities, down to baby diapers, were furnished free. All services, including the tight security, were provided by volunteers. None of these were paid for by any government or corporation. They were all offered by Iraqis and others who had been saving for a year to serve pilgrims with pure love and compassion. They expected no pay; rather, they felt honored when we accepted their offerings or lodging.

On my journey, I was told that among the servers were the Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi and the Chinese Ambassador along with his wife. I wondered why US officials were absent, especially when the US was generally unpopular in the region and had the largest embassy and military presence in the country. It would have been a great PR opportunity. 

Arba’een rarely makes headlines, but when it does, it gives hope to humanity that universal peace is realizable.

Arba’een memorializes the end of the 40-day mourning period for the brutal 7th-century killing of al-Husayn (Husayn), the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson and third Shia Imam. His murder at the hands of the wicked Umayyad Caliph Yazid made him a martyr standing up against injustice. The event left an indelible mark on Islamic history. 

As Modarresi says, Husayn’s “legend encourages, inspires, and champions change for the better, and no amount of media blackout can extinguish its light.”

For me, Arba’een was a life-changing experience

Starting in 2014, ISIS freely roamed much of Iraq and committed atrocities that shocked the world. Armed with weapons and vehicles of Western manufacture, ISIS tortured suspects, raped women and girls, robbed, enslaved, used child soldiers and carried out genocide.

I read Modarresi’s article in 2015 and learned that millions of people from all over the world ignored ISIS to attend Arba’een. ISIS, which takes an extreme anti-Shi’a stance, attempted to menace pilgrims into skipping Arba’een. The threat encouraged even more participation in defiance, a courageous audacity rarely seen anywhere around the world. 

To the pilgrims, Husayn typifies the man who is spiritually connected to Allah, the Source of all things, which enables him to stand firmly against despotism and never submit to oppression or persecution. Husayn did so even though it cost him his own life and those of his brothers, sons and other loved ones.

To me, Arba’een appeared to be a truer representation of cross-cultural participation and cohesiveness than even the United Nations. Like other political entities, the UN is riddled with favoritism and corruption. Unlike in the UN, all people are treated with equal respect in Arba’een.

For days, nights, weeks and months, I was preoccupied. Something deep inside me urged me to participate. I wanted to be a part of it. I needed to see it for myself and experience the event known to millions. I felt a strong zeal to take the journey, despite the imminent threat of ISIS against the pilgrims. I became excited and eager knowing there was a purpose.

With ISIS controlling much of Iraq, my family was adamantly against me traveling in the Middle East, especially within Iraq. I was compelled to delay my journey.

Thanks to Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s late top general, things have since changed for the better in the region. In mid-2018, Iraq gathered strength with assistance from Iran and Russia to push ISIS out of Iraq. On the ground with Russian air support, Iraqi special forces led by Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis soundly defeated ISIS. That brave action gave me an opportunity to convince my family to let me participate in Arba’een. I assured them that I would be careful traveling there. Knowing how badly I wanted to go there, they reluctantly agreed.

In 2018, Arba’een was at the end of October. I was astonished. The journey exceeded all my expectations; every moment was breathtaking. I stayed in Iraq for 12 days, and it cost me not even a dime for food. My lodging would also have been totally free, but I chose to stay a few nights in nice hotels to reflect. The hotels were around $20 a night. 

Step by step, side by side, I marched all 50 miles of the way on foot over three days, alongside millions of other pilgrims. The journey began at the mausoleum of Ali in the holy city of Najaf and terminated at Husayn’s mausoleum in the holy city of Karbala.

As I looked over my shoulder, I saw children in the arms of their mothers and young men assisting the women and elderly in their quest to make the journey. I saw folks with canes and crutches taking each intentional step forward. I found the weakened, aged or disabled rolling in wheelchairs as persistent and committed as those of us on foot beside them. There were no divides or differences. There, we were all one. 

There was only hope in their eyes and love in their heart as the people moved beside me. Often, I would find myself interrupted in thought, taking in each individual, making individual picture frame memories of their faces, with the various Iraqi citizens lining the trail motioning to give us water and food or guiding us along the path. I could feel the energy pulsating throughout my body, my mind, my soul—the frequency around me was vibrating, unconditional, pure, wholehearted love. 

It was with this powerful frequency that I then took each individual step. All of this beautiful, loving energy made what could otherwise be characterized as a marathon feel like a walk in the park. I had very little on me except for a backpack of clothes, yet I felt fully abundant.  

I had never seen generosity to that extent in my whole life. Various kinds of food and comfortable lodging were freely available along the path everywhere. I was astonished to see that even the poorest Iraqis traveled on foot for days to get there, simply to offer the pilgrims dates here and there.

Heaven on Earth

I thought to myself: If Iraqis could continue that spirit for the rest of the year by treating one another with the same compassion and love, Iraq would once again be the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:8), a place of happiness and peace. Imagine what the world could be if we existed in this nature daily as well.

The instantaneous coming together of millions of people from across the world in Arba’een must be of Heavenly inspiration. It is equally magical how Iraqis work together providing the pilgrims safety and security along with free food, lodging and other services. As Oregon’s Southminster Presbyterian Church Pastor John Shuck described it, “… it is a divine interplay of an unchoreographed dance of love.”

In my journey, I learned that millions of the pilgrims began their journey on foot from Iran, Kuwait, Syria and Lebanon, along with cities in Iraq and the Gulf Arab States, towards Karbala. For days, young and old traveled miles through mountainous and rocky trails in the burning sun of the day and the freezing cold of the night to reach the holy city. Regardless of where they came from, they all simply wanted to connect to Allah and live in harmony and peace. To accomplish these noble goals, they knew that a level of unrelenting self-will, accountability, good nature, kindness and endurance was required to win over oppression and persecution. 

Husayn gave us many examples of courage in his stand against tyranny and injustice. Many of his quotes can be heard across the world, even if few are aware of the source of them. Over 1300 years ago, before he was viciously murdered, he said, “Death with dignity is better than a life in humiliation.”

More than ever, I am now convinced that we can all learn a lot from religion in pursuit of harmony and peace. Religion is not inherently good or bad. It can be used as a positive force or abused for personal gain. The event of Arba’een symbolizes a religious occasion that annually brings the largest number of people from across the world together in the hope of promoting compassion, love, harmony and peace.

My journey was exceptional. My life’s dream of unity and peace was realized in my travels. I watched people who were amazingly liberated from fear, judgment and the desire for control and power. I saw them all sharing their basic needs with strangers. I learned that the vision of the coming together of people from all walks of life united for the pursuit of compassion, love and peace ALREADY exists. Now, I can imagine an entire world through this vision, where I paint a picture in my mind as I lead the Peace Worldwide Organization and write about history, philosophy, politics, religion and spirituality.

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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