SHAFAQNA – Coming this weekend, over 25 million pilgrims will rally in the holy city of Karbala to mark the greatest pilgrimage of all – Arbaeen. Right at the heart of Iraq, surrounded by the Terror of the Black Flag Army it is communities of men which will gather in prayers, and in mourning to perform the last rites of Imam Hussain ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.
While Arbaeen has eclipsed even the Hajj in terms of attendance, few … even within Islam have ever heard of the pilgrimage, let alone the tragedy it recalls, never mind the principles it saw enacted.
Arbaeen it needs to be said stands very much an offense to Wahhabism – this dogma the House of Saud has furiously promoted to assert its ascent to power. Arbaeen it needs to be emphasised, actually speaks of this eternal struggle in between Good and Evil, Freedom and Slavery, Piety and Dogmatism.
Sidelined by mainstream media for it speaks of Islam’s attachment and commitment to such values as Justice, Freedom and Compassion towards all men, and all fashion of faiths, Arbaeen has nevertheless towered a beacon of hope amid the furious rise of radicalism. Arbaeen I would personally argue, has become a grand symbol of resistance against oppression – the coming together of communities beyond their differences, and most importantly perhaps in spite of their differences, so that together they could oppose tyranny and offer the oppressed a rampart behind which to find refuge.
For those of you who still have no idea what in the world I am talking about, allow me to tell you the story of a man – a man whose courage, resolute strength of character and yearning for Truth have echoed across the centuries to inspire generations upon generations to think themselves free, and to rise themselves independent from the yoke of tyranny.
Imam Hussain ibn Ali’s martyrdom in the plain of Karbala over a millennium ago stands testimony to our collective struggle against injustice. And though it is Islam’s banner the Third Imam carried, his message was a universal call for freedom – an immovable promise that real tragedy lies not in our failure to defeat tyrants but in our reluctance to oppose them.
Allow me to take you back a few centuries, back when Islam’s early History was still being written, back when the name of the Prophet Muhammad was still murmured in the present tense through the lips of his progeny: the House (AhlulBayt).
Only a few decades after Islam’s last prophet’s passed, Islam stood divided as a nation-state, its religious sovereignty challenged by men of greed and oppression: Yazid ibn Muawiyah was one of them … arguably the most barbaric of them all since he envisioned slaughter to be the legacy of his throne.
As bigots brandished Islam to rationalise their heresy, and proclaim righteous exceptionalism before the abomination of their deeds, Imam Hussain had no other choice but to march against Yazid … even if alone, for as long as there was breath in him, it is Justice he would command for all people.
And so the Imam marched on … from the holy city of Mecca to the then-deserted plain of Karbala he walked knowing death would be his fate. And still he pushed on …
It is this determination to meet Evil and not relent in the task which Arbaeen speaks of most loudly. It is allegiance, loyalty and love, pilgrims manifest into reality as they walk towards their Imam, united not faith but in their humanity.
Arbaeen you most likely were never told is NOT exclusive to Islam. Arbaeen is neither Shia nor Sunni, Arbaeen is for all who dare think themselves free under God and in Him seek refuge.
And while Arbaeen has long been associated to Shia Islam for its school of thought revolve around those very principles Imam Hussain consecrated with his death, the pilgrimage stands not in opposition or rejection of any faith – quite the contrary since Christians, Yezidis, Hussainis Brahims, alongside countless other religious denominations have year after year, centuries after centuries come to Karbala to remember.
Arbaeen is remembrance of Hussain ibn Ali, remembrance of the Word of God made complete through Hussain, the man the Prophet Muhammad called his son, and whose leadership he commanded all believers to forever follow.
If many failed in their allegiance for fear rendered them motionless before their Imam’s calls, Hussain’s station in Karbala has echoed ever since of a love so brilliant and unparalleled that all people, all nations, all faiths, across time and space have found themselves compelled to walk the great walk of Arbaeen … and through Hussain ibn Ali find their humanity.
Arbaeen I have to say speaks to the best of our humanity; it is home after all to the best of humanity – martyr among all martyrs, there has never been a day like Hussain’s day – and though his name Wahhabism has worked to bury under the rubbles of History, Karbala has remembered its Imam with fierce loyalty.
A city build around and for Hussain ibn Ali, Karbala is a declaration of allegiance to the House of the prophet – those extraordinary men and women whose hearts, lips and prayers have spoken Islam in wisdom and piety, and without whom we would be orphans.
Every year without fail Karbala has fervently commemorated its Imam – even in oppression, especially when in oppression.
Before the poison of radicalism, Karbala has offered generosity and compassion, before brutal repression Karbala has opened its doors and to all oppressed offered a shelter, before the depravity of sectarianism Karbala’s pulpits have called upon men and women to hold to rope of Allah, never to disunite.
A city surrounded by the evil of Daesh Karbala has never shun brighter.
In the face of insane fanaticism Imam Hussain’s followers have never been braver.
And so coming this November 20-21, 2016 Karbala will let out a roar which will shook tyrants’ thrones. Karbala will offer all of its prayers and all of its devotion … Hussain’s name will be etched on believers’ hearts, tears of allegiance will flow, fists will rise to the sky, a promise that when called upon all will answer.
Islam today is best manifested in Karbala since Karbala shuns no one. Karbala today has put Saudi Arabia to shame since it has provided food and shelter to tens of millions of pilgrims – without expectation, without any hope of a thank you.
A city has proven more generous and compassionate in its destitution than Saudi Arabia in its wealth and might. Where the so-called custodians of Islam have cried the weight of the Hajj on their coffers, Karbala has provided beyond the mathematically feasible.
In a few short days Karbala will stop time once more … so that all could remember all martyrs are in fact alive and that the sons of Hussain are still standing vigil.
By Catherine Shakdam – Director of Programs for the Shafaqna Institute of Middle Eastern Studies. This article was published first in the American Herald Tribune