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Study explains causes of loyalty to Arbaeen Walk

loyalty walking Arbaeen

SHAFAQNA- “For Hussain (AS)-devotee pilgrims, loyalty to the sacred routes is mainly because of a perceived spiritual invitation from their beloved Imam to his shrine that they take pride in it. For them, enduring the hardships of the routes is nothing compared with what their beloved Imams had suffered centuries ago to stand against tyrants and Islam’s enemies,” Adel Nikjoo et al. wrote. 

A study by Adel Nikjoo et al, published in the Journal of “Religions” explains: “The Walking Pilgrimage of Arbaeen: From Attachment to a Sacred Figure to Loyalty to a Sacred Route”.

Called Arbaeen, every year as many as 20 million pilgrims undertake a pilgrimage to the Iraqi town of Karbala in less than three weeks. The key in the rituals of Arbaeen is the passion for Imam Hussein who was martyred in the battle of Karbala in 680 CE. At this time, mourners gather around his shrine.

Around two weeks before Arbaeen, millions of pilgrims start their spiritual journey on foot through several routes depending on their departure point (mostly from Najaf and Basra) to reach the Iraqi city of Karbala to commemorate the event.

This study explores pilgrims’ faith in Imam Hussain (AS) and the pilgrimage to Karbala through different forms of different cognitive attachment. According to in-depth interviews with Iranian pilgrims during Arbaeen 2014 and 2019, the findings clarify how pilgrims’ psychological cognition translate into faith in spiritual journeys with different meanings during the pilgrimage process. More broadly, the current study contributes to the literature by empirically investigating the framework of attachment theory in the context of Islamic psychology and pilgrimage.

God in psychology of religion

God is a significant secure figure of attachment for believers within the psychology of religion, and people seek His proximity as a safe haven regarding the gradual separation from their prior attachment figures. Depending on their psychological needs, believers attach to God by their faith to keep away from perceived dangers, to experience companionship and emotional support (Counted & Zock, 2019), and to acquire a sense of being watched or guided (Brulin, 2019). In the case of Islam, God or Allah (SWT) is a supportive Creator; attachment toward God through belief and worship is produced by observing special ceremonies such as reciting daily prayers because God’s proximity can secure a comfortable life and give people a higher power to deal with life challenges (Ghobary Bonab et al., 2013).

More specifically, Shia Muslims attach to Imams as divine proxies (Moufahim & Lichrou, 2019) because they are considered infallible guides for humans whose tragic lives and struggles to preserve the genuine Islam are particularly salient (Musa, 2013). For Shias, Imam Hussain (AS) is of special importance as a hero who willingly sacrificed everything to fight against injustice and oppression (Aghaie, 2004; Ayoub, 2011; Gölz, 2019; Halverson et al., 2011). This perceived holy dedication of Hussein and his companions has shaped one of the central identities of the Shia community, encouraging them to dedicate themselves to justice in ways that are similar to what Imam Hussein did in Karbala (Momen, 1985).

Spiritual satisfaction

Hussain (2018) suggests that pilgrims of Arbaeen feel a sense of spiritual satisfaction through the hardship they experience during the foot-pilgrimage, because they endure it intentionally in the way of God. Saramifar (2018) even goes further and articulates how “love” to Imams encourages young Shias to sacrifice their life to protect Shia shrines in Syria and Iraq in the fight with ISIS forces. More generally, Ghobary Bonab et al. (2013) state that going on a pilgrimage and visiting sacred sites are among the main rituals Muslims perform in order to obtain closeness to God. These religious and spiritual characteristics of pilgrimage make pilgrims believe that they are not “tourists,” as this term implies Western hedonistic behaviors (Weibel, 2020).

For many Arbaeen pilgrims, forgetting otherness and being part of a whole, united Shia community are among their initial travel motivations (Moufahim & Lichrou, 2019), which seems to be in line with existential communitas (Turner, 1969). With such a diversity of forms and qualities, a unifying feature, then, of all of these pilgrimages is that they are “hyper-meaningful” travels to rather hyper-meaningful sites (di Giovine, 2013)—sites set apart from the profane and everyday world, which hold special importance to visitors, and which often promise some sort of personal or social transformation. In a word, it is travel out of the profane world into that of the sacred.

Shias believe that the sacredness of Imams is granted to the places that they have been buried in, and therefore, the believers attach spiritually to the shrine of Imams (Nasr, 2007).


The present study was conducted in two phases—Arbaeen 2014 and Arbaeen 2019. In Arbaeen 2014, the lead author traveled to Iraq and joined the pilgrimage to observe the rituals and interview pilgrims. He walked the 78 km from Najaf to Karbala in three days, during which he conducted semi-structured face-to-face interviews with 36 Iranian pilgrims with over 18 years of age.

To gather more data and to consider the more recent trends, 21 Iranian pilgrims were also interviewed as they walked the routes to Karbala during Arbaeen 2019 through a WhatsApp call and voice messages. In this phase, the participants were sampled mainly through searching the recent Hashtags about Arbaeen on social media, including Instagram and Telegram (the two main social media apps in Iran), and were asked for an interview about their pilgrimage. Furthermore, a number of participants were also invited to this study through snowball sampling. Given that more participants in the Arbaeen pilgrimage were males, more male pilgrims were interviewed.

Love for Imam Hussain (AS)

The thematic analysis revealed that there are four different perceived roles of Imam Hussain (AS) in the minds of pilgrims: beloved figure, interceding figure, transformative figure, and unifier figure.

Passion for Imam Hussain (AS) is the most prevalent theme among the interviewees, and it seems that many pilgrims are drawn to the route by a strong sense of “love.” When participants were asked to describe their impetus for their love for Imam Hussain (AS), many of them responded that this love needs no earthly impetus, and it is higher and sweeter than any other secular love.

Latent in the responses of this group of Hussein-devotee pilgrims are the love of Hussain (AS), which makes the hardships of the long walk comfortable is mostly attributed to his self-sacrifice, devotion to the real Islam, and bravery against tyrants. Many pilgrims of this group had a strong sense of “lover and beloved” and felt that their beloved Imam was omnipresent and observing them. Attachment to the route in this group of pilgrims is completely tied to their fiery love of Hussein as a beloved figure.

They know themselves “always-ready to devote” to their beloved figure, and they seek the permission of Imam Hussein for their next year’s pilgrimage. These Hussain-devotee pilgrims consider a very high position for Imam Hussain (AS) and the Arbaeen pilgrimage in a way that they believe that not everybody deserves to participate in this pilgrimage. In their minds, it is Imam Hussein who invites some selected people to his pilgrimage, and this is a spiritual merit for them.

Intercessory role of Imams in the mind of Shias

Shia narrations suggest that Imams can intercede between Muslims and God on the Day of Judgment (Ayoub, 2011). This interceding role of Imams, especially in the forgiveness of sin and gaining reward, is important for some pilgrims. The expectation of the forgiveness of sin is another common perception among Arbaeen pilgrims. The expectation for miraculous healing is another aspect of the intercession of Imams in Shia faith.

The most important perceived intercessory role of Imams in the mind of Shias are the ways through which they bridge between humans and God. Some Shias believe that they are not in the position to directly contact God, and the intercession of Imams as well as the spirituality of the pilgrimage atmosphere brings them closer to God.

For those who attach to Imam Hussain (AS) mostly for his perceived interceding role, the attachment to the Arbaeen pilgrimage and the routes to Karbala are equal to gaining divine rewards and the safe haven.

Transformative nature of Arbaeen pilgrimage

It was found that some pilgrims attached to the routes to Karbala during Arbaeen for its transformative nature. Many of those who had previous experiences of this pilgrimage narrated that they had become a better self after returning home. They argue they try to repeat this pilgrimage every year to improve their personal and religious personality year by year.

Arbaeen has become the most important Shia pilgrimage in the world by attracting the highest number of pilgrims (around 20 million domestic and foreign pilgrims). It causes many Shias to believe that the magnificence Imam Hussain (AS) ties Shias together; especially people of Iran and Iraq, who were in a long eight-year war together just three decades ago.

Unity, equality, brotherhood and kinship

The perceived unifying feature for Imam Hussain (AS) was very common among our participants, and they regarded him as the focal point of the Shia union.

Besides this sense of unity, pilgrims feel a strong sense of equality, brotherhood, and kinship when they are together. This in fact, attachment to Imam Hussain (AS) produces the meaning of a sense of community cohesion in the route to Karbala, for which pilgrims have a high motivation to revisit. In other words, the sense of a united Shia community plays the transactional object of transference role for attachment to Imam Hussain (AS).

Spiritual invitation

It was shown in this study that based on four cognitive attachments to Imam Hussain (AS), pilgrims experience different but convergent meanings of the sacred routes and places. It was found that for Hussein-devotee pilgrims, loyalty to the sacred routes is mainly because of a perceived spiritual invitation from their beloved Imam to his shrine that they take pride in it. For them, enduring the hardships of the routes is nothing compared with what their beloved Imams had suffered centuries ago to stand against tyrants and Islam’s enemies.

For pilgrims who aim to develop their personal and religious selves, Imam Hussain (AS) is a perfect transformative figure whose lifestyle is inspiring for a God-pleasing life. Hence, they attach to the sacred routes to Karbala for their transformative and human-making nature. Finally, for pilgrims who seemed to be more political or collectivist, Imam Hussain (AS) is mostly attached because of his role in unifying the Shia community. Those holding political standpoints attach to the route to show the power of Shia to the world especially ISIS, United States, and Israel.

The current study mainly contributes to the literature by presenting an empirical analysis of Muslims’ experiences and perceptions of Islamic theology, and their loyalty to a sacred route through attachment to a sacred figure.

Source: Adel Nikjoo, Mohammad Sharifi-Tehrani, Mehdi Karoubi, and Abolfazl Siyamiyan, From Attachment to a Sacred Figure to Loyalty to a Sacred Route: The Walking Pilgrimage of Arbaeen, Religions 2020, 11, 145; doi:10.3390/rel11030145

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