Every year millions of pious Shia Muslims gather in the city of Karbala in Iraq to pay their respects to Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of prophet Muhammad. The Arbaeen pilgrimage is the largest annual gathering in the world and observes the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, who was killed in the Battle of Karbala on the 10th day of the month of Muharram, first month in the Islamic calendar. Along with Husayn ibn Ali, 72 of his followers were also killed in the battle. Arbaeen is a religious observance and takes place 40 days after the Day of Ashura. In the year 2016, some 30 million pilgrims gathered at Karbala. As per sources, the number of pilgrims at Karbala is much more than that of Hajj pilgrims.
The observance of the pilgrimage dates back to AD 680 following the battle of Karbala. The pilgrimage sees people walking from Najaf to Karbala, which are around 50 miles apart. The route is divided into 1,452 poles, each 50 meters apart, in order to facilitate pilgrims. Some people also walk to Karbala from as far as Basra which is approximately 425 miles away. Though the journey is tough, but volunteers and devotional groups try to make the pilgrims’ travel as smooth as possible. Stalls are set up on the roadsides which offer food ranging from bread and rice to strewed lamb and fish to pilgrims free of cost.
The pilgrimage is mainly undertaken by the Shia Muslims, but over the years it has seen participation of Sunni Muslims and other communities such as Zoroastrians, Sabians, Christians and Yazidis with people even coming from the European countries.
Despite, the threat of terrorism and Iraq being a war zone, pious Muslims have been regularly making the Arbaeen pilgrimage. But, the pilgrimage has seen obstruction during certain periods in history. It has at times been banned. Under the regime of Saddam Hussein, the event could not be publicly observed. However, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 witnessed the lifting of the ban and in April of the same year it was broadcast worldwide.
Nevertheless, the pilgrims still face risk from militant groups such as the ISIS, which has often targeted them. The militant group has used suicide bombers and even launched rocket attacks on the pilgrims resulting in many deaths. But, proper security arrangements are in place. Thousands of Iraqi policeman and army personnel provide adequate protection to the pilgrims.
The Arbaeen pilgrimage is one of the most revered and significant pilgrimage, but has largely been ignored by the Western media. Nevertheless, other than Iraq, Arbaeen is also observed in other countries such as Nigeria, the United States and the United Kingdom.
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