20120510-ashura Muslim_ibn_Aqeel_karbala_ashura.JPG
There are several traditional religious practices that are intimately associated with Shia Islam. These include the observance of the month of martyrdom, Muharram, and pilgrimages to the shrines of the Twelve Imams and their various descendants. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]

The Muharram observances commemorate the death of the Third Imam, Hussein , who was the son of Ali and Fatima and the grandson of Muhammad. He was killed near Karbala in modern Iraq in A.D. 680 during a battle with troops supporting the Umayyad caliph. Hussein 's death is commemorated by Shia with passion plays and is an intensely religious time. In some places they still have procession through the streets in which a catafalque for Hussein is accompanied by horses, blood-smeared attendants, and numbers of naked young men flagellating themselves with chains and swords. The veneration of ‘Ali and his sons is observed by many of the Sunni Muslims too.

For the most part, Sunni and Shia Muslims observe Ramadan in a similar fashion. Shiite Muslims have a few Ramadan customs that are different than those of Sunnis and they often celebrate the Eid al-Fitr the holiday marking the end of the Ramadan fast a day after Sunni Muslims do.
Jennifer Williams wrote in Vox: “Both Sunni and Shia Muslims fast during Ramadan. But there are some minor differences — for instance, Sunnis break their daily fast at sunset, when the sun is no longer visible on the horizon (but there's still light in the sky), whereas Shia wait until the redness of the setting sun has completely vanished and the sky is totally dark. [Source: Jennifer Williams, Vox, June 7, 2016 ^/^]

“Shia also celebrate an additional holiday within the month of Ramadan that Sunnis do not. For three days — the 19th, 20th, and 21st days of Ramadan — Shia commemorate the martyrdom of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad who was both the revered fourth caliph of Sunni Islam and the first "legitimate" imam (leader) of Shia Islam.^/^

Websites on Shia Muslims (Shiites) Divisions in Islam ; Shi’a History and Identity ; What is Shi'a Islam? ; History of Shi'ism: From the Advent of Islam up to the End of Minor Occultation ; Shafaqna: International Shia News Agency ;, a Shia Website ; The Shiapedia, an online Shia encyclopedia ; Imam Al-Khoei Foundation (Twelver) ; Official Website of Nizari Ismaili (Ismaili) ; Official Website of Alavi Bohra (Ismaili) ; The Institute of Ismaili Studies (Ismaili) ; Four Sunni Schools of Thought


Imam Hussein's body without a head

Ashura, a festival that marks the the Martyrdom of Imam Hussein (Husayn), is the most important Shia event, one that is not observed by Sunnis. Held on Tenth Day of Muharram (the 1st Lunar Month), it commemorates the death of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who was slaughtered with 72 of his companions at the battle of Karbala in A.D. 680 in present-day Iraq during a war between supporters of Hussein ibn Ali and troops supporting the Umayyad caliph. During the days leading to the battle, there were by some accounts only 72 companion (warriors) vs thousands on other side. The first nine days of Muharram solemnly recount the tragedy. On the tenth day, the day on which Hussein was murdered, people stage various events.

Shias view Hussein as the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad and see his death at the hands of Sunnis at Karbala as a great tragedy that lies at the heart of the deep, ingrained rift in between Sunnis and Shias. Processions are held in the Shia towns and villages on the tenth day of Muharram (Ashura), the anniversary of his death. Ritual mourning (taaziya) is performed by groups of five to twenty men each. Contributions are solicited in the community to pay transportation for a local group to go to Karbala for taaziya celebrations forty days after Ashura. There is great rivalry among groups for the best performance of the taaziya passion plays. [Source: Library of Congress]

In the villages, religious readings occur throughout Muharram. The men may gather in the mudhif (tribal guesthouse), the suq (market), or a private house. Women meet in homes. The readings are led either by a mumin (a man trained in a religious school in An Najaf) or by a mullah who has apprenticed with an older specialist. It is considered the duty of shaykhs, elders, prosperous merchants, and the like to sponsor these readings, or qirayas. Under the monarchy these public manifestations were discouraged, as they emphasized grievances against the Sunnis.


Arbaeen pilgrims

Arbaeen is a Shia festival that marks the end of the 40 day mourning period of Iman Hussein, the prophet Muhammad’s grandson and the martyr killed near Karbala. Many mark the event by making a pilgrimage to Karbala, where Hussein and his brother Abbas are buried in two enormous mausoleums facing each other, with some walking the entire distance from Baghdad to Karbala. Many wear black and carry flags. Little tents and open air kitchen are set up along the route to offer rice and soups in keeping with the Shia custom to offering food and drink to pilgrims.

Arbaeen ("Forty" in Arabic) marks the 40th day after Hussein’s death, when his family, taken captive by his killers, and then pardoned, returned to his grave. According to the Washington Post: “Millions of Shia Muslims traveled from across the Muslim world to walk in procession to the shrine of Imam Hussein in Karbala, Iraq, for the world’s largest, yet largely unknown, annual pilgrimage. This ziyara, or visit, to the shrine in southern Iraq is known as the Arbaeen. More than 10 times the size of the hajj — because Iraq does not limit the number of pilgrims — it was restricted for years during the rule of Saddam Hussein because of its potential for sectarian collective action.” [Source: Fotini Christia, Elizabeth Dekeyser and Dean Knox, Washington Post November 21, 2016 +]

Karbala is the epicentre of Shia Islam. “The pilgrimage’s unique processional nature facilitated this regional targeting during the survey process. Able-bodied Iraqi pilgrims walk from their homes across Iraq to Karbala, with some traveling as far as about 300 miles from Basra in the south. Iranians usually travel via bus to the city of Najaf, 50 miles south of Karbala, then walk from there. During the procession, tents, or mawakib, stationed beside the path provide rest and refreshment for pilgrims. For Iraqis, these mawakib are unofficially organized by region. Iranian mawakib are less specifically targeted but still often have broader regional trends. By visiting different tents, we were able to gain a geographically representative sample. +\

History of Karbala and Arbaeen

Edith Szanto wrote: “Muharram mourning rituals, whether in Karbala or elsewhere, have been used for political ends. Sometimes, Muharram practices were sponsored by rulers who sought to gain popular support. At other times, the rituals turned into anti-government protests. Fearing civil unrest, some rulers prohibited or limited pilgrimage to Karbala. For example, Mutawakkil, a caliph of the Abbasid dynasty, which ruled over a vast Islamic empire from the eighth to the 13th century, feared that the rituals inflamed anti-regime fervor. He destroyed the tomb in A.D. 850 and banned the pilgrimage to Karbala. [Source: Edith Szanto, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, University of Alabama, The Conversation, September 9, 2020]

“Karbala and Najaf grew in importance in the 16th century with the founding of a Shia state in Persia, today’s Iran, under Shah Ismail I. From then on, the Iraqi shrine cities attracted increasing numbers of pilgrims.

Under the authoritarian Iraqi Baath regime, from the early 1970s to 2003, Shia pilgrimage was closely monitored and limited. Like many previous rulers, Saddam Hussain feared that the rituals would be used in order to incite rebellion against his regime, that the pilgrimage would turn into a protest. But once Saddam was overthrown by U.S.-led forces in 2003, the pilgrimage flourished again.

Arbaeen in Karbala in 2023

In 2023, millions of Shia Muslim pilgrims gathered at the golden-domed mausoleums of the holy Iraqi city of Karbala to commemorating Arbaeen, one of the largest religious gatherings in the world. AFP reported: The event, organised under strict security, brought together some 22 million pilgrims, according to official figures. Iran hit a new participation record with four million visitors, a top security official told the Iranian news agency IRNA, up from three million last year. [Source: AFP, September 6, 2023]

Pilgrims freely expressed their suffering, weeping and wailing in memory of Hussein, who was killed in 680 during a battle in Karbala with the Umayyad caliph Yazid. Pilgrims dressed in black, some sporting headbands bearing religious messages, moved forward shoulder-to-shoulder to enter the mausoleums and pray. As they massed on the esplanade between the mausoleums, mist machines struggled to provide cooling in 41-degree Celsius heat (106 Fahrenheit).

Accompanied by religious chants and prayers, processions of the faithful holding up black banners with Hussein's image moved around the two mausoleums and the esplanade. The pilgrimage reached its climax on Wednesday, but the faithful had already been converging for several days on Karbala. Iraqi Prime Minister Mohamed Shia al-Sudani visited Karbala, where he said: "The state has mobilised all of its resources to serve its citizens", according to a statement from his office. He also hailed the volunteers from across Iraq's provinces who preserve the tradition of setting up and financing "mawakeb", stands that serve free drinks and food along the pilgrim routes.

Arbaeen Pilgrims and Bring the Dead to Karbala

Describing the scene in Karbala in 2003, Craig Smith wrote in the New York Times: “The overwhelming emotion in the packed streets outside the mosque housing the tomb of Hussein...was euphoria at the Shia’s newfound freedom and exhilaration over the mass chanting and chest slapping that swept through the crowds...While groups of men chanted wildly and beat themselves with ever-increasing frenzy, young boys squirted the crowds with rose water from bottles or backpack pesticide sprayers...Men offered water to passing pilgrims from cast-iron bathtubs set up along the roads, and hawkers sold tablets of compressed earth, the holy soil on which Hussein’s blood was spilled. Others sold posters, some depicting Hussein pierced by arrows or his bloodied head upon a spike.”

Many of those who visit the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf are pilgrims who make their way to the shrine on foot. from their hometowns in Iraq and even Iran. Men, women, children, old people make the trek. Some are barefoot. Some wear green headbands. Many carry black flags to remember Hussein. The walk from Baghdad tales a few days. From Basra, it is a tough 10 day march.

For a while Karbala was like Varanasi, where many Hindus bring the deceased to be be cremated by the Ganges River. Edith Szanto wrote: In the past ““Many pilgrims brought bodies of deceased relatives because of a belief that being buried close to Ali or Hussain ensures that when the deceased stands in front of God on Judgment Day, Ali or Hussain will appeal to God’s mercy to allow the person’s soul to enter heaven. “This has led to “Wadi al-Salam,” Arabic for “Valley of Peace,” in Najaf becoming one of the world’s largest cemeteries, holding up to 5 million corpses.[Source: Edith Szanto, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, University of Alabama, The Conversation, September 9, 2020]

“The transport and burial of corpses provided employment for a wide strata of the population in Najaf and Karbala. Higher fees were charged from those wanting to be closer to Ali or Hussain in the burial site. Blaming the corpse traffic as one of the reasons for several outbreaks of cholera in 19th-century Persia and Ottoman Iraq, the Ottoman government, which ruled over Iraq from the 16th to the beginning of the 20th century, sought to restrict and control the number of corpses that were brought in. Yet even under these restrictions, around 20,000 dead bodies were brought to Najaf each year at the start of the 20th century. Today, roughly 100,000 are brought for burial in Najaf annually.

Celebrating Arbaeen in Iraq After Sadaam Hussein

Muharram mourning
In April 2003, around a million Shia pilgrims were allowed to converge on Karbala to complete one of Shia Islam’s most important rituals for the first time in 25 years. The ritual had been banned off and on since the 1930s because of its potential as a political rallying point against whatever government was in power. Under Saddam, the ritual was banned.

Alissa J. Rubin wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The Shia revolution in Iraq burst into public view barely 10 days after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Without his troops to forbid them, Shia Muslim pilgrims began to throng Iraq's highways as the festival of Arbaeen neared, the women's black abayas flowing behind them in the breeze as if flocks of crows had taken to the roads. At almost every hamlet along the route to the holy city of Karbala, volunteers scattered plastic chairs and tables and offered sweet tea, water, bread. The mood on the eve of the festival was one of exhilaration, exuberance and resolution. Everyone seemed to know why he or she was there. This was celebration, but also a moment of solidarity. [Source: Alissa J. Rubin, Los Angeles Times, May 8, 2005]

“Pilgrims jostle for space with the peddlers of religious souvenirs who fill the streets leading to the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, offering devotional tracts and garish prayer rugs emblazoned with depictions of favorite imams.The Shia are in essence a people on pilgrimage, living over and over as some Christians do the passion of Christ the wrongs that were done them.

Often, pilgrims will weep as they describe the final battle of Muhammad's grandson, Imam Hussein, near Karbala as if it had happened yesterday and they had known him personally. "There began to be a revival of the life and the body of Shia more than 25 years ago," says Talal Talib, 33, a singer of religious music. "But then we were practicing in secret. Now we are practicing in the middle of the streets."

Reporting from Karbala, Anthony Shadid wrote in the Washington Post, “A little after 6 a.m....=Karbala began to stir. Tentative at first, crowds ambled toward the gold-domed shrines of Imam Hussein, Shia Islam's most beloved saint, and his half brother, Abbas. Young men loyal to militant clerics marched in military formation, pictures of their patrons taped to their shirts. Others beat their chests in ritual mourning known as lutm. Women cradled their young, their black abayas melting into the black banners fluttering along streets that overflowed with honeyed sweets, incense, religious books and prayer stones. [Source: Anthony Shadid, Washington Post, March 31, 2005]

“Green, red and white flags were unfurled, and an improvisational orchestra of mourning was unleashed: sorrowful chants for Hussein, pounding drums, laments crackling from rickety speakers and the shuffle of thousands of feet converging on the city. Wednesday marked the eve of Arbaeen, the sacred 40th day of mourning for Hussein, the prophet Muhammad's grandson, who was killed with his thirsty, outnumbered followers in a battle here in 680. It was a day of spectacle: one of the most remarkable convergences of people in the Muslim world. And it was a day of ritual: the quiet routine through which Abu Zahra says he finds meaning. "The best people never get tired, and they never lose patience," he said as he stirred the beans.

At once formal and intimate, routine these days is a powerful means of survival in Iraq. It is often rendered through the customs of burial, designed to bring comfort amid grief, to extract meaning from tragedy. It is constant, dignified and unhurried when little else is. This week in Karbala, a city blighted by suicide bombings last year on a similar holiday and shadowed by concerns about more of the same, it is an antidote to fear, an anchor in uncertainty.

Abra'een at Hussein mosque in Karbala

Arbaeen Food

Reporting from Karbala, Anthony Shadid wrote in the Washington Post, “A little after 6 a.m., as a relentless sun began burning through a gray sky, Abu Zahra and his men started their work. They stoked a fire with wood and kerosene, bringing to boil 110 pounds of garbanzo beans. They slaughtered three lambs. And they sipped sweet, dark tea on a morning imbued with ritual in one of Iraq's most sacred cities. Around them, Karbala began to stir. [Source: Anthony Shadid, Washington Post, March 31, 2005]

For Abu Zahra, the ritual is making qima, the dish he and his men feed to thousands in the city. "Take it easy, take it easy!" he shouted. Men clad in black hurried across trampled and hardened ground, lugging the vat of beans. With a ladle known as a chifcheer, they poured the beans into pots, which drained into a bathtub. They then beat the beans into a paste with a mallet. To the side, three boys peeled and cut 20 pounds of onions with butcher knives. Another man checked on the cooking lamb.

Abu Zahra was one of three cooks at the camp of two tents. They arrived in Karbala 10 days ago after, as is custom, walking about 100 miles in plastic sandals from their village of Noamaniya in the southeastern province of Wasit. Their skin was leathery from walking 12 hours a day in an unforgiving sun. Each had a beard that came from sleeping more than a week in a tent. "It's nothing!" Abu Zahra shouted. "Some people walk from Basra," a trip of 320 miles.

Abu Zahra is a spry man, with sad eyes that belie an exuberant charm. He has a prominent nose and a full head of gray hair that he keeps tucked under a red-and-white checkered scarf. His age is guesswork — "50, 54, 55," he said, waving his hand. He talks as much as he cooks, ordering tea every so often for guests willing to chat. "Ala ra'asi," he declared — meaning, at your service. "I'm going to show you hospitality until you get fed up with me."

Bus to Karbala and Najaf

Starting on a journey that began in Baghdad, Anthony Shadid wrote in the Washington Post: “The cries began before dawn Friday and rang out around the impromptu bus stop for hours. "Karbala! Karbala! Karbala!" the drivers shouted in staccato bursts, their voices rising on the last word like a car horn. "Najaf! Najaf! I'm going to Najaf!" In streets subdued by the Muslim sabbath, three men hurried toward a gray minibus headed south. Strangers brought together by faith and fervor, they had packed tattered prayer rugs and pocket money to cover the 75-cent fare. Still sleepy, they grabbed their seats for the 2-½ -hour trip to hear a sermon by a militant Shiite Muslim cleric, Moqtada Sadr. [Source: Anthony Shadid, Washington Post, October 31, 2003]

Bayn al-Haramayn (literally: between the two shrines) is the distance between the Holy Shrine of Imam al-Husayn and the Holy Shrine of al-'Abbas (a) of 378 meters. In the past, Bayn al-Haramayn was not an empty space between the two shrines; rather it was occupied by residential and commercial buildings. During Saddam, buildings in this distance were destroyed in order for the shrines to be expanded and developed, and so the present space was built. After the collapse of Saddam Hussein, the project of developing Bayn al-Haramayn was examined and executed as one of the most important projects for the reconstruction of the shrines by Iran and Iraq.

“So began a ritual of the new Iraq, the weekly pilgrimage of hundreds, sometimes thousands, from Sadr City, a desolate Baghdad neighborhood of 2 million renamed for Sadr's father, to the sprawling mud mosque in the sacred town of Kufa, near Najaf. There, Sadr has preached a regular Friday homily that blends devotion and activism and is shaped by his fervent opposition to the U.S. presence. His huge audiences represent one of the intangibles of the six-month occupation: the unpredictable face of Iraqi street politics.

“With the driver, Abed fumbled through cassettes that cluttered the dashboard, settling on a tape of devotional chants to a Shiite saint. Black prayer beads swayed from the rearview mirror. In the right corner of the cracked windshield was a portrait of Imam Ali, the prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, with two of his sons — a talisman of a sect steeped in symbolism.

“The driver — like others here, notoriously unruly — lurched forward and set off the wrong way down a two-lane street. "God's prayers on Muhammad and the family of Muhammad," he said. The 13 passengers dutifully repeated the blessing. Through the open windows, a cool breeze blew over Tuama, 33, who like the other passengers lazily flicked his cigarette ashes on the carpeted floor.”

“At the end of the journey, “The minivan passed the last checkpoint before Kufa, and the passengers got out. Each went his own way. Hussein walked toward the mosque. Tuama joined friends. Abed hurried to the displays of religious literature, where posters of Sadr and his father and newspapers were for sale for a little more than 10 cents on soiled canvas mats, weighted against the breeze by rocks. The smell of grilled kebab and boiling garbanzo beans wafted in the air. Vendors hawked traditional pastries doused in sugar and honey.

“Abed picked up the latest copy of Sadr's newspaper, the Seminary. Its lead editorial urged Shiite leaders to unite "before the great flood comes and before the army of Satan readies itself to eliminate you one after another." With hundreds of others, Abed shuffled into the Kufa Mosque, beckoned by the call to prayer. He laid out his red-and-gold rug, kneeling side by side with others in the community spontaneously created by the Friday prayers. As Sadr went to the podium, chants rang out from supporters, some wearing funeral shrouds to suggest their willingness to die: "Long live Sadr! Faith will be victorious!"

“Sadr's voice, which had sounded hesitant in the days after the war, has matured. It has become deeper, more forceful. On this Friday, he infused his speech with references to current events and calls "to defend the oppressed and the weak and to help the poor." He repeated his insistence that anti-occupation protests should be peaceful but denounced U.S. troops without specifically naming them. "They have shown their wicked intentions against Muslims. Their hearts are full of hatred," he declared. When followers started chanting their support, he playfully scolded them. "Enough, enough," he said, employing an Iraqi slang term that few clerics would use in a public address. "You'll get us into trouble."

Arbaeen at Bayn al-Haramayn

“The prayers ended, and dozens gathered near the mosque's door to wait for Sadr's departure. One man asked excitedly: "Has he come yet? Has he come yet?" Others chanted their fealty, kaffiyehs, towels and posters thrust in the air: "We sacrifice our souls for Sadr and his son Moqtada." Then they broke into another chant: "Whoever touches you, Moqtada, we'll cut them to pieces."”

Arbaeen: the World’s Largest Pilgrimage, Bigger Than the Hajj?

In recent years the Arbaeen pilgrimage has grown into the largest gathering of people in the world for a religious reason. Edith Szanto wrote: ““In 2004, more than 2 million pilgrims walked to Karbala, and the most common route was from Najaf to Karbala. Since then, the pilgrimage to Karbala has even eclipsed the hajj, which annually draws between 2 and 3 million. In 2014, 17 million people reportedly completed the walk to Karbala. By 2016, the number of pilgrims increased to 22 million. [Source: Edith Szanto, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, University of Alabama, The Conversation, September 9, 2020]

In 2020, fear of the spread of COVID-19 has greatly restricted many pilgrimages, including the hajj. Only a limited number of Muslims already inside Saudi Arabia was allowed to attend. As a precautionary measure, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a top Iraqi Shia leader, encouraged his followers to mourn at home, rather than visit Karbala.

“For Ashura in 2020, Shias gathered in Najaf and Karbala, but on a much smaller scale. There was social distancing, but not everywhere. Not all pilgrims wore masks. In the absence of stringent measures, the number of infections in Iraq has already spiked. Whether the government will respond with stricter policies for the pilgrimage at the beginning of October remains to be seen.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art,, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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