SHAFAQNA – From the time I embraced Islam over thirty years ago, I was aware of the importance of visiting the Prophets, Messengers, Imams, and other Friends of Allah, peace and blessings be upon them all.
As the Most Merciful of the Merciful mentions in the Glorious Qur’an, “Whoever honors the symbols of Allah — indeed, it is from the piety of hearts” (22:32). These signs or symbols signify anything or anyone that remind us of Allah, guide us to Allah, and draw us closer to Allah.
I knew perfectly well that, if possible, performing pilgrimages to the graves of the Prophet and his purified progeny was an obligation. After all, as Almighty Allah dictated to the Prophet: “Say: ‘No reward do I ask of you for this except the love of those near of kin’” (42:23).
The identity of “those near of kin” is indisputable. As Ibn ‘Abbas narrated, “When the above verse (42:23) was revealed, the Companions asked: ‘O the Messenger of Allah! Who are those near kin whose love Allah has made obligatory for us?’ Upon that the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said: ‘Ali, Fatimah, and their two sons,” repeating this sentence three times.
The status of Imam Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet, and the son of Fatimah and ‘Ali, is also incontrovertible. As the Messenger of Allah said: “Husayn is from me and I am from him” (Ahmad, Hakim, Abu Nu‘aym, Dulabi, Tabarani, Bukhari, Tirmidhi, Ibn Majah, Ibn Hajar, Khatib al-Tabrizi).
The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him and his purified progeny, affirmed that Husayn was the leader of the youth of Paradise (Tirmidhi, Ibn Majah, Tabarani, Nisa’i, Ahmad, Hakim, Abu Nu‘aym, Haythami, Lumzi, Ibn Hibban, Ibn Hajar al-Haythami, al-Khatib al-Tabrizi).
The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him and his purified progeny, stated that he was at war with anyone who was at war with Husayn and at peace with anyone who was at peace with him (Tirmidhi, Ibn Majah, Hakim, Haythami, Tabarani, Ibani, Khatib al-Baghdadi, Ibn Hajar al-Haythami, Dhahabi, Tabari).
The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him and his purified progeny, also proclaimed that he loves anyone who loves Husayn and that he is angered with anyone who angers him (Ibn Majah, Hakim, Ahmad, Ibn Hajar al-Haythami).
The tragedy that would befall Imam Husayn in the year 660 CE was not unbeknownst to the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him and his purified progeny. As Umm Salamah, ‘A’ishah, and Ibn ‘Abbas reported, Almighty Allah showed the Prophet Muhammad a vision of the slaying of Imam Husayn and the Archangel Gabriel even brought him some soil from the spot of his martyrdom (Tirmidhi, al-Khatib al-Tabrizi, Ahmad, Bayhaqi). The Messenger of Allah had given this soil from Karbala to Umm Salamah, his spouse, which she kept in a jar. He foretold that it would become bloody when his grandson would be martyred. And so, it came to pass.
“So, when are you going to perform Arbaeen?” I was asked repeatedly by the lovers of Ahl al-Bayt. They were not judging. They were not nagging. They simply wanted to share the love. The years passed. The decades past. And my answer remained the same. “When the time comes, I will know.”
I had, in fact, been invited to Karbala on numerous occasions. There had always, however, been impediments: financial, personal, and professional. For many years, I simply did not have the funds to afford such a journey. For many years, my family obligations prevented me from extended travel. I had small children to care for. For many years, my work obligations made such a trip impossible. Finally, the security situation in Iraq was perilous for decades.
“When the time comes,” I had always said, “I will know, and I will go.” And that time came in August of 2017. A teacher and mentor of mine had traveled to Iraq for Arbaeen only recently. This is the man who had taught me the most important lesson in life and afterlife: the love of the Prophet and His Family, peace be upon them all.
I had learned about Islam on my own, through self-directed study from the age of 13 to 16. When I finally realized that I had always been a Muslim, I was now required to find some Muslims to witness my profession of faith. I had learned Islam by the book. I had never met a believing and observant Muslim before.
Unfortunately, the first Muslims I came across were Salafi-Wahhabi-Takfiri-Jihadists. I spent two years in the company of these mentally and spiritually disturbed entities. It did not take long for me to realize that they were not Muslims according to any stretch of the imagination. Both in beliefs and practice, they were the absolute antithesis of everything I had learned from the Qur’an, the Sunnah, and the Sirah. Their myopic worldview revolved around prohibition, innovation, and excommunication. Violent, hate-filled, and intolerant, these terrorists soon tried to convince me to join the international jihad.
By the grace of God, I came across some lovers of Ahl al-Bayt. They spoke of the Prophet, Fatimah, Ali, Hasan, and Husayn, with profound reverence. They showered them with praises and blessings. This stood in sharp contrast to the Salafi-Wahhabis that I had met. They had nothing but contempt for the Prophet. They claimed that he was just a man like any other man. They claimed that God could have sent the revelation to anyone else.
Grotesque ingrates, these sons of Ibn Taymiyyah and Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab slandered the Prophet, Fatimah, Ali, Hasan, and Husayn and asserted that followers of the Ahl al-Bayt were infidels whose blood was permissible to shed with impunity. In a certain sense, God saved me twice: from ignorance of Islam and from false and fraudulent Islam. I saw clearly and lucidly that there were two traditions: the Islam of the Prophet and the Anti-Islam of Abu Sufyan, the Islam of ‘Ali and the Anti-Islam of Mu‘awiyyah, the Islam of Husayn and the Anti-Islam of Yazid. In other words, the Islam of God and the Anti-Islam of Satan.
My friend and mentor, the man who taught me the lesson of love, showed me clearly that one could not love God without loving His Prophet and that one could not love the Prophet without loving his progeny. When I met him at the Muslim Congress in 2017, he radiated with love and light when he spoke of Arbaeen. “When someone experiences such love, he wants to share it with those he loves,” he stated. “I love you in Allah,” he said, as he embraced me, praying that God would grant me the blessing of visiting Imam Husayn, peace be upon him. And his prayer was answered. And the call came.
When Imam Husayn calls someone, he does not pick up the phone. He does not send an email. He does not communicate via text messages. He calls you in your heart. And that is precisely what happened. He called my name. He spoke to my heart. He overwhelmed my soul and my spirit. The call was so compelling that it could have crushed a mountain and turned it to dust. Imagine a climax with one-thousand-fold intensity that radiates from head to toe. Imagine a pleasure so intense that it causes tears to flow from one’s eyes in ecstasy. Imagine every atom in one’s body calling out “Ya Husayn!” Such is the call of the Imam, peace be upon him, the Lord of the Martyrs.
I knew then, with knowledge of certainty, that I had to go. I could not say no. I had always been willing to visit the Friend of Allah; however, I had awaited an invitation. I had now been granted permission. There were only a few weeks left until the start of Arbaeen. Should I make plans to go? Should I reach out to the scholars who had been inviting me for years? I decided to do what I had done for years: place my trust in Allah. If the Imam had invited me, I figured, the Imam would take care of the travel arrangements. And so, he did.
“Did you receive the email that you forwarded me?” asked a friend of mine. “No,” I responded as I set off to search my junk mail. There it was: an invitation by the New Horizon Foundation in collaboration with the Imam Hussain Foundation, to join a group of scholars, professors, diplomats, artists, authors, performers, and reporters on a pilgrimage to Karbala.
“Are you going to accept?” asked my wife. The answer was obvious. “How can I say no?” I responded. “To refuse the invitation of the Imam would be to deny my identity and existence.” And so, I accepted. And so, the calls continued to come, day after day, at home, at work, while driving, all alone, and in public. The calls were spiritual. They spoke to my soul. Soon, they assumed au auditory aspect and I could hear the cries of millions and millions of pilgrims shouting “Ya Husayn!” I could hear the salawats from the holy city of Karbala.
Although it would be difficult to obtain a visa on such short notice, I placed my confidence in the Creator and the Best of Creation. A mere week before the estimated date of my departure, my father died, and was revived, died and was revived, died and was revived, died and was revived, and yet again, died and was revived. He passed away five times in total. “Are you still going to go to Arbaeen?” my wife asked. “The Father of my Faith comes first,” I replied.
I received my visa on a Friday afternoon and left for Iraq two days later, on a Sunday. The voyage was brutal. With layovers included, it took a full 24 hours by the time I left the Mid-Western United States and landed in the holy city of Najaf in Iraq. I arrived at the hotel at 10:30 pm where I met my gracious hosts, sister Zeinab Mehanna and her husband, brother Nader Talebzadeh, the respected film producer. We would commence the walk on the very next day. We were placed in the competent hands of handlers, guides, hosts, and security staff provided by the Imam Hussain Foundation. Their professionalism and hospitality were unparalleled.
The walk from Najaf to Karbala is like no other walk. It is described by some as the highway to heaven. For others, it is a dress rehearsal for the final gathering on the Day of Judgment. It is an experience unparalleled. Millions upon millions of people, estimated to reach 20 to 30 million pilgrims, many of whom are barefoot, walk 40 miles, from Najaf, the city of Imam ‘Ali, to Karbala, the city of Imam Husayn. It is a walk that passes through history, space and time. It is also a walk towards the future. It is a journey of faith along the straight path that commences with Imam ‘Ali, the successor of the Prophet, and ends with Imam Mahdi who will establish his capital in Kufah and the Government of God on Earth. It is the mobilization of the forces of the Twelfth Imam who will liberate the oppressed and bring justice to the world. When they chant “Labayka ya Husayn!” they are chanting “Labayka ya Mahdi!” They pledge their allegiance to Imam Husayn and they pledge their allegiance to Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi, may Allah hasten his rise!
Iraq is a country that has been bruised, battered, and brutalized. It has suffered under the savagery of the Baath regime. It suffered through a senseless fratricidal war with Iran. It has suffered from American wars of aggression, invasion, and occupation. Millions of civilians lost their lives. Although Iraq has little in terms of infrastructure, and has spent over one hundred billion dollars in the war against ISIS, it hosts, with pride and pleasure, the largest religious gathering in the world, a peace march that receives essentially no attention by the major media outlets in the world since it contradicts the Islamophobic narrative that they advance.
The Saudis, with billions of dollars at their disposal, with a modern-infrastructure, and professional crowd-controllers, struggle to accommodate a couple of million pilgrims with often disastrous consequences: thousands upon thousands trampled to death. Karbala, a city that can barely contain one to one and a half million people, sees its size multiplied twenty or thirty times. And yet nobody gets injured, nobody gets trampled, because all believers are on their best behavior, united in their love of Imam Husayn, peace be upon him.
If the pilgrimage to Mecca is moving, it pales in comparison to the pilgrimage of Arbaeen. The sheer magnitude of the single-minded pilgrims is staggering. Twenty to thirty million people marching together. People from all walks of life. People from all social classes. People of all races, nationalities, and ethnicities, speaking every language imaginable. Lovers of Ahl al-Bayt from every corner of the world carrying the flags of their countries but all united under the banner of Imam Husayn, peace be upon him.
The poorest of the poor proudly prepare tents to host the pilgrims from around the world. These are people who have essentially nothing but give everything they have, saving all year, to provide shelter and sustenance to the lovers of Husayn. From Najaf to Karbala, everything is offered free, in the path of Allah and for the love of Husayn. People walk together, eat together, drink together, pray together, and sleep together. Miles upon miles of tents offering water, juice, tea, snacks, meals, and places to rest and sleep.
Elderly men will beg, literally beg, to have the honor of washing and massaging the swollen feet of the pilgrims while other equally eager men seize the opportunity to fix their shoes. I was simply shattered by such humanity. It was the humility of Jesus-Christ, son of Mary. The care of the pilgrims is regarded as a religious duty. Over ten thousand mawakib or tents are set up offering accommodation, food, beverage, dental, and medical services. Where else, on earth, can you wake up to find that your hosts, complete and total strangers, have washed and ironed your clothing while you were sleeping?
I witnessed men massage the aching backs and shoulders of pilgrims who walk the path of Imam Husayn which is none other but the path of love. I observed shepherds taking their sheep and camels to Karbala so that they can be blessed by the Imam. I saw elderly men and women pushing themselves to their physical limits. I saw the sick, the infirm, and the handicapped, struggling on their own or being pushed on wheelchairs by their loved ones. I saw scores of children and babies, with red bandanas around their heads. I saw millions of people, dressed in black, the color of the Prophet and his progeny, moving like waves in an ocean of humanity. And upon this sea, I saw replicas of the Ark of Ahl al-Bayt, echoing the words of the Prophet: “My Ahl al-Bayt is like the Ark of Noah. Whoever embarked in it was saved and whoever turned away from it perished” (Hakim, Ahmad, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, Bazzar, Ibn Hajar al-Haythami, Suyuti, Tabarani, Abu Nu‘aym, Dulabi, Qunduzi, Saban).
The march is richly symbolic. It is arduous. It requires discipline. It calls for sacrifice. It mirrors the journey of life and the path of the human soul. Ultimately, it is eternally rewarding. The messages I sent to my spouse during my physically and emotionally straining trek are indicative of the impact of Arbaeen:
All is awesome. Love it. Life-altering experience. Labayka ya Husayn! This is a place where heaven touches the earth. You need to visit the Imams. Your life will never be the same again.
The love for Husayn will melt your heart and soul. I have never been so happy and so sad at the same time. Allah loves those who love Husayn. May Allah increase our love for Husayn!
I could stay next to Husayn forever. It pains me to leave him. If only you felt the power of this place. Even our non-Muslim guest feel the holiness. The barakah of this place is so powerful.
I have made friends for life. Met some truly wonderful people. God bless them all. This place is incredible: 30 million people walk together, pray together, eat together, and sleep together. Everything is free. You should see how they honor the zuwwar of Imam Husayn. People who have nothing share everything. They save all year to host the pilgrims. Old men will beg to wash and massage the feet of pilgrims. I have never seen such humility.
The love these people have for Ahl al-Bayt is awe-inspiring. Their devotion to the Islam of the Prophet is profound. So saturated with spirituality.
Went to medical clinic for more medicine and an inhaler. Was not able to breathe. Immediate service. No wait. No charge. Just a friendly smile. Everything for the love of Husayn. It never stops: prayers, latmiyyat, poetry, and salawat, day and night. It is as if I died and went to heaven with choirs of angels singing. I will leave my heart here.
A pilgrimage to Husayn is worth 1,000 pilgrimages to Mecca and 1,000 umrahs. For every step taken to come here 1,000 sins are erased, 1,000 blessings are given, and one’s station in heaven is raised a thousand degrees. One leaves Karbala free of all sins like the day one was born. Gabriel comes down every night to visit Husayn’s grave. Wa Allahi, you can feel his presence.
The people who make this pilgrimage place their trust in God but are prepared to die in the path of Allah. They fear none but Allah.
So nice to not be the minority and to be surrounded by Ahl al Haqq from every corner of the world. This is going to be the capital of Imam Mahdi, may Allah hasten his rise! May Allah allow me the honor of answering his call. I have not ceased to cry since I arrived.
The pilgrimage to Karbala is the peak of spirituality. The entire event emanates love. I had visited the mausoleums of many religious figures in my life, including a magnificent pilgrimage to the grave of Idris I, the great-great grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, in Zerhoun, Morocco, as well as his son and successor, Idris II, in Fez. Although the Barakah Muhammadiyyah found among the sons of Imam al-Hasan, and the founders of the Idrisid Dynasty, was mighty, nothing could prepare me for the sheer spiritual power that shines from the sanctuary of Imam Husayn. Like millions of other pilgrims, I was drawn magnetically to the shrine of the Imam and I could bask in his spiritual light forever. The Imam is the Qiblah: the sign that points to Allah.
By the grace of God, and by the permission of the Imam, I was able to perform my pilgrimage to Karbala. I saw the power of faith put into practice. The sincerity of the salawat and latmiyyat was soul-shaking. The movement of the masses was powerful and poetic. The power of the 7.3 magnitude earthquake that shook the city on November 13, 2017, paled in comparison to the cries of love for Imam Husayn. I had the honor of visiting the sanctuary of Hazrat ‘Abbas, the brave brother of Imam Husayn. I had the advantage of standing in the VIP section of the shrine of Imam Husayn at the peak of Arbaeen when emotions explode like the Big Bang. I had the privilege of meeting with the Custodian of the Haramayn, Shaykh Mahdi, the representative of Ayatullah Sistani, and was invited to give a talk at the Shrine of Imam Husayn during a private gathering of fifty some odd dignitaries and guests. I was one of only few who was permitted to watch the Arbaeen procession from the rooftop of the Sacred Sanctuary.
There, on the rooftop of the sacred sanctuary, as the sun set, night fell, and Arbaeen, the fortieth day commenced, surrounded by millions of Muslims who were spiritually high on Husayn, and intoxicated with his love, I stood, surrounded by the sublime lights and colors that shined from the holy sites, and sent my sent my salutations to my beloved Husayn whom I had waited for decades to visit:Al-salaamu ‘alayka ya Aba ‘Abd Allah! Al-salaamu ‘alayka ya ibn Rasulillah! Peace be upon you, Father of ‘Abd Allah! Peace be upon you, Son of the Messenger of Allah! You called my name, ya Imam, and I answered your call.
Praise be to Allah who made my pilgrimage possible. May peace and blessings be upon Imam Husayn for calling my heart. And may Allah reward everyone who made my participation in Arbaeen 2017 a reality.
By Allah! By Allah! I left my heart in Karbala.
By Dr. John Andrew Morrow (Ilyas Islam)