“Labayka ya Husayn!” I cried as I left my home and drove as quickly as I could to Chicago, Illinois, to catch I flight that I had booked mere moments before leaving. Although the invitation to speak the First International Conference on Iraq’s Heritage and Antiquities had arrived several months before, and the paper that I was set to present had been approved over a month ago, my passport had remained in the Iraqi Consulate in Detroit for three weeks, waiting, and waiting, and waiting for approval. It was Saturday morning, the day before the beginning of the conference, and I still had not receive the authorization number and visa. By the grace of God, after weeks of stress, anxiety, aggravation, and despair, the passport arrived by courier: “Verily, after hardship comes ease” (94: 5-6). I placed my trust in Allah, and I booked the next flight to Iraq, using my own funds, since I could not wait for the foundations that had invited me to act.
The trip to Iraq was grueling, brutal, exhausting, and exasperating. A three-and-a half-hour drive to Chicago. A twenty-four-hour flight, not counting the layover in Qatar. By the time I arrived in Karbala, it was 10 pm on Sunday night. There had only been eight people on the flight. The huge plane was essentially empty, filled only with angels, I figured, the four-thousand angels that accompany pilgrims from the time they make their intention to the time they complete their pilgrimage. I hoped they were rather small in size. Otherwise, they would have been quite crammed. By the time I left the washroom, where I rushed upon arrival, I was the only person remaining in the entire terminal, this same terminal that was simply teeming with life during my last journey: Arbaeen of 2017.
Two men I did not even know greeted me. They had been sent by the Hussayniyyah Foundation to pick me up. They only spoke Arabic. We communicated solely in the classical language. The drive from the Najaf International Airport to Karbala was surreal. It was pitch black. We were the only car on the road during the forty-mile journey. It was a scene of utter desolation. The contrast could not be greater. Here, I had walked, just one year ago, with millions of pilgrims from around the world. The silence was staggering. During the Arbaeen walk, the anticipation builds with every step until it reaches its spiritual climax in Karbala, when one sees the golden dome of Imam Husayn, the Lord of Martyrs. A pilgrimage to Karbala, outside of Arbaeen, is an entirely different experience altogether. It is more like an afterglow. Arbaeen come crashing down like a religious hurricane. Ziyarah during the off-season is like a ripple on a spiritual sea. The Imam calls to you gently, sweetly, and invitingly. You can sense his presence more sharply.
I arrived in the Holy City of Karbala. It was past midnight. I settled in to my room in the Sayyid al-Awsiyyah village on the northern outskirts of Karbala which was created to host the guests of Imam Husayn. After a delicious breakfast, featuring the best dates, olives, cheese, and cream I have ever consumed, I was driven with a group of Arab intellectuals to the Shrine of Imam Husayn where I delivered a lecture on “The Sacred Duty of Protecting Sacred Sites” as part of the First International Conference on Iraqi Heritage and Antiquities. Later that day, I was asked to give some final words, on behalf of the participants, at the end of the conference.
To visit Imam Husayn is an honor. To speak at his Shrine is an even greater honor. The entire time I spent in the Shrine, I was silently saluting the Imam, and sending him greetings of peace. Salawats, prayers and blessings of peace upon the Prophet Muhammad and his purified progeny, were a constant dhikr or mantra in the back of my mind. During Arbaeen, one is lucky if one can even gain entrance into the Shrine of Imam Husayn, such are the crowds. I was blessed to receive VIP treatment in 2017, visited the Shrine, and witnessed the Arbaeen celebrations from the top of the Shrine itself. I had not, however, been able to visit the tomb of the Imam, although I had seen a glimpse of it. This time, the Shrine was spacious, the people were relatively few, and it was easy to approach the tombs of the Friends of Allah, without being tossed around and crushed by waves of spiritual seekers. I approached my beloved Imam, the love of my life, and send him my salutations. I touched his blessed tomb seeking his blessing. I wept at the sight of the grave of Ali al-Asghar, the six-month old children of Imam Husayn, who was killed by a three-headed arrow shot by the enemies of God. I fell apart imaging my daughter who was the very same age. I greeted the martyrs of Karbala and touched their tomb. The spiritual energy that emanates from these graves is something that needs to be sensed to be understood and its intensity depends on the faith and sincerity of the pilgrim. The experience is simply overwhelming and soul-shattering. It is not one that I can endure for long without risking physical annihilation. It is like sending millions of watts into my simple 100-watt soul. It could blow me into oblivion. Karbala is like heaven to me. So much was said by Imam Muhammad al-Baqir, peace be upon him: “Visit Karbala in your lifetime so that when you die you do not feel like a stranger in Paradise” (Majlisi).
Although I was invited by the Dalil and Husayni Foundations to participate in a conference in Karbala, and had no intention of traveling elsewhere, especially Baghdad, where, I was warned, I would be at high risk for kidnapping, we plan, and God plans, but “God is the best of planners” (8:30). I was the will of God that I met ‘Allamah Sayyid Salih al-Hakim while having lunch at Sayyid al-Shuhada restaurant and that he offered to host me for the rest of the week. It was with him that I visited the Shrine of Imam ‘Ali, the tomb of Shaykh al-Tusi, the grave of Grand Ayatullah Khu’i, the graves of the great scholars and martyrs from the Hakim family, met with mujtahids, attended advanced classes with ayatullahs, and performed the pilgrimage to the tomb of Imam ‘Ali, sending him our salutations, and seeking his blessings. I also had the privilege of being presented to Grand Ayatullah Sayyid Sa‘id al-Hakim, praying behind him for two prayers, enjoying his company, and conversing at length with him. And all the while, in my mind, heart and soul, I recited ‘Aliyyan Wali Allah, namely, ‘Ali is the Friend of Allah.
The day later, I traveled with ‘Allamah al-Hakim, and that I traveled with him to Baghdad to next day. There, in the city I was made to believe I would not survive, I attended a marvelous inter-religious conference on the status of women in Iraq which brought together leaders from every faith community in the country, including Sabeans, Mandaeans, Zoroastrians, Yezidis, Christians, Sunnis, and Shiites. It was remarkable: none of this lovey-dovey, wishy-washy, watered-down, New Age nonsense that we witness in the Western world were world religions are relativized to the point that they become meaningless.
The leaders who gathered in Baghdad were staunch believers, some with harsh words of criticism for one another, but who were determined and committed to build community ties for the betterment of the country and who were adamant about the need to co-exist as fellow citizens. This was real interfaith work that mattered. What was taking place at that conference was worth more than one hundred Parliaments of the Worlds Religions. It was meaningful. It was actionable. It was life and death. Iraq is not a place where people who disagree with you write a bad review or unfriend you on Facebook.
This is a place where your critics or opponents will kill you point blank; hence, the car inspections, the pat-downs, the bomb-sniffing dogs, and the soldiers armed with machine guns. Interfaith work entails no risk in the Western world. In Iraq, it means placing your life on the line. The interest in the Covenants of the Prophet was palpable. The thirst and hunger were real. The need was of the hour. This was one of the most religiously, ethnically, and linguistically diverse nations in the world: destroyed by the West by design, by the very proponents of pluralism. Without meaningful action, we would be looking at the end of diversity in Iraq and the creation of homogenous stateless for Arab Shiites, Arab Sunnis, and Sufi Kurds, while the Sabeans, Mandaeans, and Zoroastrians were condemned to extinction.
The following two days were spent in Kazimayn where a hotel room, just steps from the sacred sanctuary, had been booked for me. The long walk along the long walkway that leads to the Shrine of Imam Musa al-Kazim and Imam Muhammad al-Taqi, also known as al-Jawad, was like walking towards the Gates of Paradise. The sight of the golden dome moved me and mesmerized me. It pulled me magnetically. “Labayka ya Imam!” I wimpered, so sapped I was from my physical strength, so weakened, debilitated, drained, and exhausted I was from the emotional and spiritual upheaval. As Imam Musa al-Kazim, peace be upon him, said: “One who visits my grave after my demise is like one who migrated to me during my lifetime” (Majlisi). And here I was.
I passed through the layers of security and headed directly toward my Imam. I sent him my salaams. I touched his blessed tomb. I was intoxicated by scent of sainthood that permeated the Shrine of Imam Musa al-Kazim, the same perfume of Paradise found in the Shrines of Imam ‘Ali and Imam Husayn, peace be upon them all. The air in these environments is otherworldly. The Shrines of the Imams are portals to Paradise and highways to heaven. They are places where heaven touches earth, elevators for angels, who are constantly descending and ascending. Were we to don mystical lenses, we could see the domes of divinity extending over these holy sites. They are wormholes to another world. They exist in two worlds simultaneously.
With the exception of food, drink, sleep, and other human necessities, I spent as much of my time as possible inside the Shrine of Imam Musa al-Kazim. I recited the ziyarah of Imam Musa al-Kazim and Imam Muhammad al-Taqi over and over again. I prayed dhur, ‘asr, maghrib, and ‘isha, rain or shine, and stayed in the courtyard, despite the cold, reciting supplications, Qur’an, and salawat, seeking to benefit for every moment. Every breath I took was a supplication. Every thought in my mind was one of adoration. I prayed for myself. I prayed for my family. I prayed for my friends. And I performed every pilgrimage in Iraq on behalf of a dozen other lovers of Ahl al-Bayt, as a surprise gift to them, in the hope that they, one day, could send my salaams to the Imams when they themselves had the opportunity to visit them.
On my return from Kazimayn, I had the opportunity to send my salaams to Imam ‘Ali once more. I left, heavy hearted, from the holy land back to the Western world, carrying the Imams in my heart. After a thirty-hour trip, which battered my body beyond belief, I finally reached Chicago, where I weeped out of love for the Imams, peace be upon them. “I miss you so much,” I said, as I got off the plane, “Ya Habibi! Ya Husayn! I could die on your grave.”
As Imam ‘Ali al-Rida, peace be upon him, has said: “For each Imam, there is a covenant around the necks of his followers and supporters, and the completion of this covenant is to visit their grave sites” (‘Amili). I have completed my covenant and fulfilled my religious obligations. I return free of sin like the day I was born with the promise of the protection of Allah on the Day of Judgment and the intercession of Fatimah al-Zahra’. May Allah increase our love for the Prophet and His Purified Progeny and bless those who made this pilgrimage possible.
Dr. John Andrew Morrow is a Hispanist and Islamologist. He is the author of a wide body of works, including The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World which has been translated into Spanish, Italian, Arabic, and Indonesian. His websites includewww.covenantsoftheprophet.com and www.johnandrewmorrow.com.