Reflection on Arbaeen – From Najaf to Karbala

SHAFAQNA – If the pilgrimage of Arbaeen has often been told, and related in terms the West could understand so that it’s message could be conveyed to all communities, we seldom reflect on Arbaeen’s significance from a Shia perspective.

And though of course there is no monopoly to be claimed on Islam, Imam Hussain, or the remembrance of his martyrdom, we must admit that for centuries, it is the Shia of Ali who have most of all answered the call of their Imam – willingly braving death and abject oppression so they could pledge themselves to the only House worth serving: AhlulBayt.

Known today as the largest religious pilgrimage in History, Arbaeen forever remains a pilgrimage of the heart – a grand declaration of love to the prophet’s grandson, he, who the Prophet Muhammad prophesied would die martyr among all martyrs, he, for whom God raised a nation to mourn his death …

Tradition reads that there is, never have been, and never will be a day like the day of Abu Abdullah [Imam Hussain]. Tradition also reads that God loves whoever loves Hussain for Hussain stood the legacy of his grandfather, an Imam of Islam, God’s argument to the world so that people would learn of His commands.

Indeed … if I always believed, never had I witnessed … until Arbaeen that is!

I was privileged enough this year to have been extended an invitation by an Iranian-based NGO: New Horizon, working in coordination with Hussain, the International Love, an NGO dedicated to spreading the message of Imam Hussain.

I remain forever indebted to their kindness … without their dedication, patience and overall hard work never ever would have I been able to stand where I stood or meet the many great personalities we met along the way.

How many pilgrims can indeed claim to have met with some of our most revered scholars and clerics on the most sacred of grounds? How many pilgrims can say they were granted an audience with Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Sa’id al-Tabataba’i al-Hakim, and later on Sheikh Karbalai, the Custodian of Imam Hussain shrine? I would venture and say very few …

At their most busy, those figures offered their time and council so that we would leave spiritually elevated. While it would have been easier to call on others to welcome us, both clerics showed compassion before our ignorance so that we would learn to speak Imam Hussain’s message in terms which best reflect his standing. Through them I learnt what service entails – the pride one takes in offering one’s skills, time, and hands to honour AhlulBayt.

This reminded me just how much we owe our religious establishment; how from within the corridors of our religious seminaries those men of God have battled and at times bled to preserve our traditions … not for their sake, but that of others, not in their name but that of God’s religion.

Arbaeen remains by the strength of their dedication.

I was often asked on our journey from Najaf to Karbala what Arbaeen meant, and what we felt among the sea of people walking alongside us.

How do you convey humanity? What words can anyone use when one witnesses humanity divorced of all its pettiness – unadulterated, free, dignified, compassionate … ?

How can anyone reduce to a few adjectives the generosity of a people: the Iraqis, when in their poverty and despite their own struggles, they still managed to gift us beyond and above all of our needs? Before such boundless kindness I stand humbled and ashamed … if only we could match Iraqis in their bravery and generosity, the world would be a very different place indeed.

I must say that in Iraq I came to appreciate what being a Shia of Ali truly entails. Faith does not live in the technicalities of religious practice but the hearts and deeds of the faithful.

In Iraq I witnessed a people in communion and allegiance with their Imams, I saw the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala beat as a single heart as voices raised in prayers. For the first time I came to understand what Imam Ali told his enemies at the battle of Uhud, that “our dead are still alive.”

Having stood in Najaf before Imam Ali, and in Karbala before Imam Hussain and Hazrat Abbas, I understand now what it is to be among giants – to feel so very insignificant, and yet so very much seen.

I realise now that knowing AhlulBayt means to never again walk alone … and while the journey will most likely be an arduous one, what better company can anyone dream of?

How do I tell you readers about the pilgrimage of Arbaeen and the sacrifice it speaks of? I admit defeat … words fail me here. How do you tell of the heartbreak of a nation in mourning? How do you tell a sorrow so deeply ingrained that it crushes your soul … and yet none would ever forfeit that pain?

As I stood in between Imam Hussain and his brother Hazrat Abbas I was taught loyalty and absolute allegiance. It is Love which has been infused in the plains of Karbala. Love beyond fear, in spite of fear, beyond pain, in spite of pain so that only God would remain.

Indeed our Imams are God’s best arguments against Falsehood.

Now that I have left Karbala I yearn to return … and once more bask in their shadows.

By Catherine Shakdam for Shafaqna

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