An excess of 14 million men, women, and children gathered this November in the holy city of Karbala (Iraq) to mark Islam’s other pilgrimage – the largest to ever have taken place in History … and yet we seldom discuss it.
Every year, regardless of the many grave dangers pilgrims have had to face: might it be the threat posed by Daesh militants, one former President Saddam Hussein, or the intolerance of a bigoted elite, Shia Muslims have flocked to Karbala to speak and reaffirm Islam’s proudest tradition – Freedom in the face of Tyranny.
If under Daesh black banner the world has learnt of Islam but intolerant bigotry and de-contextualised fanaticism, Shia Islam has held to its principle of pluralism and its hunger for justice. It is such sentiments in fact which saved Iraq from oblivion. If not for Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s religious edict back in June 2014, which edict called for all “Citizens to defend the country, its people, the honor of its citizens, and its sacred places,” it is likely Iraq would have been overtaken by Terror’s armies, fragmented along its ethnic and sectarian lines.
A revered scholar of Shia Islam, Ayatollah Sistani broke away from his usual ‘political neutrality’ to return Iraq to all Iraqis, so that all who inhabit its land would unite before oppression. In doing so, Ayatollah Sistani arguably saved not just his nation, but he single handedly reaffirmed Iraq sovereignty through resistance.
As it happens, the pilgrimage of Arbaeen speaks of such a stand!
Arbaeen, which translates as forty in Arabic, marks the end of the mourning of Imam Hussain’s martyrdom. The third Imam of Islam, and grandson to the Prophet Muhammad, Hussain ibn Ali was killed in plains of Karbala as he defied the tyranny of Yazid ibn Muawiya – a man whose taste for blood and debauchery very much mirrors that of Daesh.
13 centuries on Imam Hussain’s name, and the legacy he bore, commands to its banner communities of men across faiths, ethnicities, and all manners of differences.
This year Arbaeen has rung of Iraq’s victory against the cancerous dogma Daesh clerics have been so intent on affirming as normative.
“The Daesh terrorist group’s presence in Iraq has effectively come to an end following the liberation of the city of Rawa in the western Anbar province,” Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji told the press on November 17.
One must admit that for a country such Iraq to have managed to flush Daeh armies out of its territories is no small feat; especially if we consider just how many roadblocks the nation had to face before it could find its political footing again.
One Terror occupation and a failed secession attempt later and Iraq found itself a new lease of life.
Many have argued that Iraq’s victory lies in the momentum which animated its popular mobilization forces, and its military; that same momentum which, 13 centuries ago, compelled 72 warriors to stand by their Imam before an army of several thousands: a desire to stand dignified and free of oppression.
It is not without a certain poetry … and maybe irony that the very land which saw so much bloodshed and sectarian wranglings over the decades, and even centuries, sits today center stage to the best humanity has to offer.
Every year, for several weeks, and that for over 13 centuries, the holy city of Karbala has let go of all pettiness to host Imam Hussain’s pilgrims, and to the tune of its people generosity fed, sheltered, nursed, and comfort millions upon millions … never to ask anything but the promise to carry such message of brotherly compassion.
Karbala now dwarfs Mecca and the Hajj pilgrimage by an estimated 10 million pilgrims. And while from a religious standpoint it bears of little consequence, one must note that Karbala has succeeded where Mecca could not.
When Mecca has become synonymous to religious oppression – every year Shia pilgrims and other minorities have suffered the brutalities of Al Saud’s powerful clergy, Karbala has risen a symbol of religious cohesion and tolerance.
One could argue that the pilgrimage of Arbaeen is at the image of its hosts: kind, proud, brave, free!
And yet such brilliant testament to Freedom, such commitment to pluralism, remain lost to our prejudiced political discourse.
There is life beyond Terror … Iraq proved beyond all measure that Freedom can indeed inspire men to victory.