The Arbaeen walk is the largest annual peaceful and public gathering attended by approximately 17 to 20 million people. It’s astonishing how mainstream media and some Muslim media are not privy to the walk. The walk doesn’t receive as much coverage as it deserves.
THE HISTORY AND SIGNIFICANCE OF THE ARBA'EEN WALK
Every year, millions of Muslims walk to the city of Karbala, Iraq, the final resting place of Hussain ibn Ali ('alayhi assalam), the grandson of the Holy Prophet (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa alihi wa sallam). Their aim is to reach Imam Hussain ('alayhi assalam)’s grave by no later than the day of Arbaeen.
What makes people shut down their businesses and leave their houses to perform a walk, which takes days and even weeks to complete? In this article, I look into the history behind the Arbaeen walk. A walk that has been described as “the journey of love”, “the walk of the free” and “the journey of passion.”
What is the Day of Arba'een?
Arba'een translates to 40 or 40th. In this context, it marks the 40th day since the martyrdom of Imam Hussain ('alayhi assalam) at the Battle of Karbala. Technically, every deceased Muslim has their own day of Arba'een. In many Muslim communities, the family and friends will gather on the 40th day after their loved one’s death to recite Qur'an, dua, and dhikr on their behalf with the hope the reward will go to the deceased. Unless the deceased has left behind sadaqah jariyah there is no way for them to perform good deeds, which is why loved ones will often perform deeds on their behalf in the hope it will make the time they spend in the grave comfortable.
Imam Hussain’s day of Arba'een is on the 20th of Safar and is marked by millions of Muslims, predominantly Shia but also those belonging to other Islamic sects and religions.
But why is the 40th day after his or any other Muslim’s death so important? It is largely because the number 40 is significant in Qur'anic and hadith literature, leading many to center certain rituals and practices around 40 days.
When Did The Arbaeen Walk Start?
Jabir ibn Abdullah al-Ansari was the first individual to travel to the grave of Imam Hussain ('alayhi assalam). Jabir lived to very old age. He was alive from the time of the birth of Islam and the first revelation of the Qur'an all the way to the conquest of Mecca and lived for decades after the death of the Prophet. He had seen it all and had an immense amount of love for the Prophet. When he found out that the Prophet’s grandchild was martyred, he went to visit his grave. In actuality, it was not a grave at this time. Some traditions say Imam Hussain was left unburied for three days. Jabir arrived at the same time as Imam Hussain’s son, Ali ibn Hussain ('alayhi assalam). Ali ibn Hussain ('alayhi assalam) was returning from Syria, where he was imprisoned in the aftermath of Karbala. Ali ibn Hussain ('alayhi assalam) buried his father and the other martyrs.
The Development and Crystallization of the Arba'een Walk
The tradition of visiting the grave of Imam Hussain ('alayhi assalam) crystallized in the subsequent years. This was due to two reasons.
Firstly, the word spread about the events of Karbala. People were shocked by the way Imam Hussain was killed. The crimes of Yazid and the Ummayad empire were exposed. More and more people wanted to visit the grave to pay their respects.
Secondly, the progeny of Imam Hussain ('alayhi assalam) kept the tradition alive. They would frequently encourage people to visit the grave of Imam Hussain ('alayhi assalam). Subsequently, the tradition has been passed down to the present day. Over many centuries the shrine of Imam Hussain ('alayhi assalam) has been expanded and renovated to accommodate the growing number of visitors. The visits increase at the start of Muharram and hit their peak on the day of Arba'een as many set the objective to visit the shrine by then.
When Does the Arba'een Walk Start?
If your aim is to reach Imam Hussain ('alayhi assalam)’s shrine by the day of Arba'een, you have to plan based on your current residence. Muslims from Europe, the Americas and Australia will fly from their hometowns to Iraq and do the walk. For example, many will fly out to Najaf, the resting place of Ali ibn Abi Talib ('alayhi assalam) (Imam Hussain’s father), and walk from Najaf to Karbala. This walk will take between three to seven days.
The furthest known distance people walk from is Ahvaz, Iran (over 550km)
How Do People Survive the Arba'een Walk?
How it all works practically is a question asked by many. For example, during the walk, where do people stay, eat, sleep, bathe, etc? This is all down to the generosity of the local Iraqis as well as international charities and people coming down to setup mawkibs.
Mawkibs are places of rest. When the Arba'een season commences, a large majority of the roads will be shut and in its place, mawkibs established allowing people to rest. The mawkibs will provide a range of features such as a place to eat, sleep, rest, bathe, shower, receive massages and medicine, and much more. The facilities are free to enter and use, and are funded solely by donations. One is free to walk into any place of rest they wish where they will be afforded a warm greeting and anything else they need.
Mawkibs are only part of the hospitality and generosity of the people. As one partakes in the walk, they will find numerous stands and stations where people will be handing our food, drinks, and perfume free of charge. Astonishingly, they will approach you and insist you take something.
Those who perform the walk will also carry some essentials on their person but they really don’t need to.
As a result, a pilgrim’s needs are totally taken care of. The presence of mawkibs and general hospitality means a person can walk for weeks and not have to worry about their basic needs.