1452 Poles to Karbala

Arbaeen marks the 40th day following the tragedy of Karbala. For centuries the Shias have protested against the oppressions and discriminations against the Prophet's household during Arbaeen. Saddam Hussein banned the Arbaeen walk during his rule, but after his fall it was reintroduced in 2003. In recent years, more than 20 million pilgrims annually arrive in Karbala from around the world during Arbaeen. This narrative recounts a personal journey and experience to Karbala on one of these historic walks.

By Mohd Faizal Musa

IT was a dusty afternoon on the 29th of November 2015. I have walked over 950 poles (47.5 kilometres) from Najaf to Karbala.[1] I constantly counted 20 poles as equal to 1 kilometre in my head. And there are 1452 poles (72.6 kilometres) to complete. The second day of walking hit a record of 11 hours. The road is still full of mourners and pilgrims, almost all of them in black. But I chose to rest. I must not push myself. Moreover, ideas for my 24th novel flows, demanding me to halt and to write down some notes before it overspills. I am also trying to sleep in a maukib, or a tent, erected by a group of young Shias from Kazimain, Baghdad. My body aches terribly after two days of walking. In the background, Iranian pilgrims are talking loudly, and Iraqis are looking at me in amazement, asking about my origin country while lamentation songs from neighbouring maukibs' speakers are playing non-stop in Arabic.

Suddenly, a loud bang heard from afar attracts many. A Shia liturgical march was in place, or just passed by a pole nearby. It was a street procession combined with people chanting and passion plays. I swiftly took my camera out and ran towards them while snapping as many photos as I could. There were twenty horses and camels on top of which were women and children wearing green and black clothes while their faces were covered. A few of them were handcuffed and chained. There were people chanting and a few of them were visibly wailing with drummers making loud noise. A man on a lorry right in front the caravan was reciting poems together with sermons and Quranic verses. The camels and horses are then hoarded by a group of men dressed in red. They have savage looks. One of them has deeply penetrating eyes, staring back at me. I will vividly remember his fierce look. Bystanders are deeply influenced by the street play and most of them snivel openly. Someone shouts “O Hussein.” Obviously, they are depicting Zaynab's caravan travelling from Karbala to Damascus and back to Karbala more than 1300 years ago.

The battle of Karbala (in present Iraq) took place on the tenth of Muharram, in the year 61 CE or October 10, 680 AD. It was a no fair match. That year not much more than 100 supporters and close family members of Prophet Muhammad's grandson named Hussein bin Ali left Mecca, cutting short their last hajj pilgrimage, and headed towards the city of Kufa as strong support in that city was reported by Muslim bin Aqil, Hussein’s cousin and representative to Kufa. Hussein refused to recognize the sovereignty of Yazid, the second Umayyad Caliph, as the leader for Muslims. Yazid knows the threat from Hussein as he is no match to Hussein, the Prophet’s deeply revered grandson. Hussein noted this clearly, stating: “mithli la yubayi'u mithlahu” or “one who has character like mine will not give allegiance to one with character like him.”

Thus Hussein, in opposition to Yazid the oppressor, brought together a small group with him but they were diverted to Karbala by a forward army of Yazid’s dispatched to block Hussein from reaching Kufa. Regardless, the people of Kufa gave Hussein a fake pledge of allegiance. Muslim bin Aqil, Hussein's representative there, was killed brutally and his body was hung in one of the towers of the city. Later, Hussein's caravan was intercepted by Yazid's mercenaries and all the men were killed and beheaded. This brutal massacre includes Hussein's six-month-old infant, Ali al Asghar. While Hussein's half-brother, Abbas, was trying to get water from the river nearby as the caravan members were left starving and in great thirst, his left and right hands were cut off. When Hussein, the third Shia Imam was killed, Shimr the murderer shouted “God is Great,” just like the present-day terrorists did when they attacked Baghdad, Beirut, and Paris in November 2015. Women and children from Hussein's camp—including the close descendants of the Prophet Muhammad—were later taken and paraded as prisoners.

Arbaeen marks the 40th day of this tragic genocide. It is narrated in history that Zaynab, Hussein's sister, and other detainees were released from Damascus dungeons after intense pressure on Yazid, and they turned back to Karbala to visit the site of the tragedy. Of course, it was not just any mere journey. It was very political indeed. All the way from Damascus to Karbala, people were standing to look at the Prophet's granddaughter and she and her caravan wept and lamented. This procession—the crying and the long walk, which passed by many cities and villages—became a means of preservation and perpetuation of a strong human rights movement, later led by Ali Zain al-Abidin, Hussein's son and the fourth Shia Imam. This act, lamenting and walking is a deliberate and symbolic approach to interact with the people at the time. The wailing led to rebellion and gathered serious momentum. Zaynab's grief managed to mobilise and provoke crowds, and thus united the true believers of Ali, who was believed to be the right successor of Prophet Muhammad by the Shias. The aforementioned point created real division in the Muslim world. Shias recognise Ali and further eleven Imams from Muhammad's progeny as the true successors to the Prophet Muhammad, while Sunnis believe in a different set of successors.

Today, the walk to Karbala from Najaf has become a powerful statement yet again. Shi'ism, as a school of thought took an incipient activism approach. This is very much different from some strands of Sunnism that chose to adopt political quietism as promoted by figures such as Al Ghazali. This is why the Arbaeen walk or pilgrimage is designed to be noisy since it is required to do so in order to convey the message of Hussein's martyrdom. While walking, in my head, the protagonist in my coming novel, named Susan Boo Ali told her agnostic granddaughter, “His father, Ali advised Hussein to side with the oppressed and not to tolerate the oppressor.”

Two days ago, I was staying as a guest at a friend's house, Abu Fatimah. Knowing me as a universalist liberal Muslim and human rights defender (he noticed it from my Front Line Defender pullover), he asked what my expectation was from this pilgrimage—an 80 kilometre walk. I told him I don't know. Although in my mind I knew this is the kind of protest that Martin Luther King and his supporters adopted, a march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 as part of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King and his followers did it with banners and loud singing to demand rights for Blacks. I can see a similar approach taken here during Arbaeen in grandeur. If liberal Whites participated the Selma march in 1965, why cannot I do the same?

I knew this is the kind of protest that Martin Luther King and his supporters adopted, a march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 as part of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King and his followers did it with banners and loud singing to demand rights for Blacks. I can see a similar approach taken here during Arbaeen in grandeur. If liberal Whites participated the Selma march in 1965, why cannot I do the same?

For centuries the Shias have protested against the oppressions and discriminations against the Prophet's household during Arbaeen. Interestingly enough, Saddam knew the significance of this massive civil disobedience. Thus, the Arbaeen walk was banned during Saddam but after his fall, it was reintroduced in 2003. In 2014, more than 20 million pilgrims arrived in Karbala during Arbaeen. Comparing this to hajj, the ritual in Mecca was nothing. Abu Fatimah said to me, “You can expect everything in Iraq which lacks in hajj: the philosophy, the beliefs, and the emotion as it currently stands. Today in Arafah during hajj, rich pilgrims buy travel packages to stay inside air-conditioned tents. They reside in Hilton and pray from their 5-star rooms. But Arbaeen is not hajj. It has a greater meaning, (note that Shias also recognise that hajj is compulsory for each Muslim who is capable of its performance) since Hussein is sacrificing himself for Islam. Just like what Ismail and Abraham were willing to do.”

I do agree with at least one of his points. During hajj in 2009 I did not feel the emotion and spiritual experience as it should be. The spirit of hajj is no longer there. The Saudi authorities are not that friendly to pilgrims and show their deep loath all the time. It is entirely a money collection season or business. To make matter worse, the destruction of every inch of Islamic heritage in Mecca and Medina left pilgrims dumb and numb.

This is not what I expected in Karbala.

The next morning, I took my backpack, sleeping bag and a few belongings. I have to be as light as possible. The walk as Abu Fatimah warned me “is not a picnic, it is spiritual work.”

In 2014, the walk took on an especially significant role. It was a statement against Daesh (ISIS) and functioned well as an arena to demonstrate and to remind the Shias of their enemies.

But who are the enemies? Who is indeed the Shimr—the killer of Imam Hussein—of this era?

In my mind, one troubling fact dancing in front of me is the report of fifteen Malaysians killed in Syria after joining terrorist activities with the Islamist militant group, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). This was the figure given by the Permanent Representative of Syria to the United Nations in New York, in a press conference on June 18, 2014. Will people consider me a moderate Malaysian, or will I be hated since Malaysia is now a leading champion in recruiting terrorists?

My walk, 80 kilometres together with millions of people (an official I interviewed in Karbala claimed this year the number grew to 30 million with 13 million foreigners) is considered mild. Although I walked through deserts, baking hot during daytime and freezing cold during night-time, I keep reminding myself there are people walking from Basra on foot which takes two weeks as the distance is 425 miles. There are also those marching from Baghdad to Karbala.

Statements against sectarian slayings committed by Daesh are strong during the walk. Banners and huge billboards on the road side condemning Saudi aggression in Yemen are everywhere. Bahrainis I met cursed the regime and vowed to fight back through every way possible; there were Lebanese men wearing t-shirts with Arabic slogans carrying banners calling Hussein's name. There are Turkish Shias shouting out against oppression.

Pilgrims offer sweets to children. Some distributed memorabilia such as hats, headbands, socks, key chains all printed with one message: Remember Hussein. Old people are assisted on their wheelchairs; briefly stopping to drink a glass of water will be welcome with smiles and long kisses and hugs by those serving the pilgrims. European Shias offer their wealth to help.

A huge billboard with the picture of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr (a dissenting Shia cleric from Saudi Arabia soon to be executed by the Saudi government) can be seen between the poles. In fact at each pole, there are dedications to Iraqis killed for fighting Daesh. So pilgrims are constantly reminded about martyrdom.

The walk is a serious symbolic interactionism participated by all walks of life. The urban and remote Shias, the educated and non-educated, the rich and poor, people from various ethnicities: Persians, Arabs, Indians, Africans from Tanzania and Nigeria among others, Europeans (I even met a Russian Shia from Moscow) and Asians (including a group of Chinese Shia) mingled around, slept and ate together in maukibs, discussed their fate and suffering conditions for being Shias back at home. For instance, a Saudi woman from Qatif told me she had to fly to Mashhad, in Iran first and not directly to Najaf as Saudi authorities might confiscate her passport; or a Hazara Afghani telling horror stories of how his entire family were killed by unknown militias. I did not talk long with him, he had a very ambitious target: to reach pole 1100 before dusk.

As mentioned throughout this article, another remarkable aspect is the hospitality and charitable side of Iraqis as the hosts. Maukibs or temporary tents organized by the people offer free accommodation, food, medical treatment and other services, even to the extent of delivering good massages for those who need it. Strangers became brethren immediately.

Strangers became brethren immediately.

The maukibs are not only from locals but also from other Shias around the world. There are maukibs from Thailand and Indonesia for Southeast Asian pilgrims. They served fish and rice. During my stay at the Lebanese maukib later on, they told me incredible stories how they cooked for 20,000 guests for 10 days straight. The head chef is an art director for 26 international films, asking me not to mention his name. One of the workers, a 23-year-old American University of Beirut's student told me that he keeps all his savings to come to Karbala in order to give services like this. He did this for four years and vowed to continue doing so. Another small maukib boast how they sacrificed 10 sheep every day for the guests, simply referred to as zairin (the visitors).

I saw young Shias exchange numbers, and promise to correspond through facebook, twitter and Instagram. They are eager to help each other. An Australian guy kept motivating another Shia from Yemen to seek asylum.

Who is Shimr or the murderer of Hussein for this Arbaeen season? The overall mood is determination to defeat corruptors, this year they name it clearly ‘The Saudis.’ This is the named enemy: Wahhabis are a demon that destroyed the purification and the moderate facet of Islam. They said it loudly.

Everywhere. Every step. Pilgrims are saying how Wahhabism or their disguise mask, Salafism, insulted Islam.

However, despite the energy, and warm, kind, generous embracement, the walk became extremely difficult as very minimal participation from the Iraqi government led to serious lack of facilities such as toilet and waste managements.

Only the pilgrims keep persuading themselves, “imagine Zaynab 1300 years ago.”

I arrived in Karbala one day before Arbaeen during the early hours of the morning. I did not directly go to the last pole, 30 metres from the shrine of Abbas. I stayed one night at an Iraqi house. I needed to have peace of mind to complete the journey. The host only introduced himself as Abu Qamar. There are fifty others squatting, mainly from Qatif, Saudi Arabia and Shiraz, Iran. I noticed at the living room of the house another fifty people already occupied the space. I recognized one of them as the man who dressed in red resembling Yazid's troops. Yes, it is the man with deeply penetrating stare. I still remember his barbaric face. When I arrived, they were getting ready to march to the focal point of Karbala, the area between Hussein's and Abbas' shrine. Only the man has now dressed in green, his face looked gentle, meaning that he is no longer acting as the villain. All of them change to green, and a few in black that signifies mourning.

I asked why. Why has he changed? Why don't they march like before towards the shrine of Hussein?

The man simply answered, "Because after four days walk, each of us has to transform in Karbala. Nobody wants to be in the devils' camp anymore. O Aba Abdillah, O Hussein, we are coming towards you.”

Because after four days walk, each of us has to transform in Karbala. Nobody wants to be in the devils' camp anymore. O Aba Abdillah, O Hussein, we are coming towards you.

I was left speechless. Fighting back my tears. I have waited long since my hajj in 2009 to get the mystical or spiritual feeling he stated confidently. I never thought I would get it in Karbala, six years later.

Dr. Mohd Faizal Musa (also known as Faisal Tehrani) is a Research Fellow at the Institute of the Malay World and Civilization (ATMA), National University of Malaysia (UKM) and as Associate of the Global Sh'ia Diaspora at the WCFIA Project on Shi'ism and Global Affairs at Harvard University. The Jakarta Post dated 28 August 2017 called him ‘Malaysia’s Rebel Author’. Andrew Fowler, a famous Australian journalist and the author of ‘The Most Dangerous Man in the World’ stated that Faisal’s translated works into English, ‘The Nurse’ (Misi), and ‘Crises’ (Kegawatan) were ‘great narratives on the battle for ideas and freedom in Malaysia’. Meanwhile ASEAN (South East Asian) Literary Festival’s official page 2017 named him as ‘one of Malaysia’s and Southeast Asia’s important writers’. View Mohd Faizal Musa's full profile on the Project on Shi’ism and Global Affairs website. Follow him @MohdFaizalMusa1.


Figure 1. Pilgrims praying outside the Holy Shrine of Imam Hussein during Arbaeen in Karbala, Iraq.

Figure 2. A Shia liturgical march during Arbaeen towards Karbala, Iraq.

Figure 3. Crowds walking during Arbaeen towards Karbala, Iraq.

Figure 4. Children and volunteers providing the pilgrims with tea and other refreshments and food during the Arbaeen walk towards Karbala, Iraq.


[1] On the way from Najaf to Karbala, poles marking standardized distances help pilgrims gain a sense of how long they have walked and how much remains.