It’s not the Muslim Hajj, or the Hindu Kumbh Mela.. Known as Arbaeen, it is the world’s most populous gathering and you’ve probably never heard of it! Not only does the congregation exceed the number of visitors to Mecca (by a factor of five, in fact), it is more significant than Kumbh Mela, since the latter is only held every third year. In short, Arbaeen dwarfs every other rally on the planet, reaching twenty million last year. That is a staggering %60 of Iraq’s entire population, and it is growing year after year.
Above all, Arbaeen is unique because it takes place against the backdrop of chaotic and dangerous geopolitical scenes. Daesh (aka ‘Islamic State’) sees the Shia as their mortal enemy, so nothing infuriates the terror group more than the sight of Shia pilgrims gathering for their greatest show of faith.
There’s another peculiar feature of Arbaeen. While it is a distinctively Shia spiritual exercise, Sunnis, even Christians, Yazidis, Zoroastrians, and Sabians partake in both the pilgrimage as well as serving of devotees. This is remarkable given the exclusive nature of religious rituals, and it could only mean one thing: people regardless of color or creed see Hussein as a universal, borderless, and meta-religious symbol of freedom and compassion.
Why you have never heard of it probably has to do with the fact that the press is concerned more with negative, gory, and sensationalized tabloids, than with positive, inspiring narratives, particularly when it comes to Islam. If a few hundred anti-immigration protestors take to the streets in London and they will make headlines.. The same level of airtime is awarded to a pro-democracy march in Hong Kong or an anti-Putin rally in Russia.. But a gathering of twenty million in obstreperous defiance of terror and injustice somehow fails even to make it into the TV news ticker! An unofficial media embargo is imposed on the gargantuan event despite the story having all the critical elements of an eye-catching feature; the staggering numbers, the political significance, the revolutionary message, the tense backdrop, as well as originality.. But when such a story does make it through the editorial axe of major news outlets, it creates shockwaves and touches the most random people.
Among the countless individuals inspired by it, is a young Australian man I met several years ago who had converted to Islam. Evidently, no one takes such a life-altering decision lightly, so upon inquiry he told me it all started in 2003. One evening, as he was watching the news only to be drawn by scenes of millions streaming towards a holy city known as Karbala, chanting the name of a man he had never heard of: “Hussein”. For the first time in decades, in a globally televised event, the world had caught an glimpse into previously suppressed religious fervor in Iraq.
With the Sunni Ba’athist regime toppled, Western viewers were eager to see how Iraqis would respond to a new era free from dictatorship persecution. The ‘Republic of Fear’ had crumbled and the genie had irreversibly escaped from the bottle. “Where is Karbala, and why is everyone heading in its direction?” he recalls asking himself. “Who is this Hussein who motivates people to defy all the odds and come out to mourn his death fourteen centuries after the fact?”
What he witnessed in that 60-second report was especially moving because the imagery was unlike any he had ever seen. A fervent sense of connection turned human pilgrims into iron filings, swarming together other as they drew closer to what could only be described as Hussein’s irresistible magnetic field. “If you want to see a living, breathing, lively religion, come to Karbala” he said.
How could a man who was killed 1396 years ago be so alive and have such a palpable presence today that he makes millions take up his cause, and view his plight as their own? People are unlikely to be drawn into a dispute (much less one that transpired in ancient times) unless they have a personal interest in the matter. On the other hand, if you felt someone was engaged in a fight over your right to freedom, your prerogative to be treated justly, and your entitlement to a life of dignity, you would feel you had a vested interest and would empathize with him to the point where conversion to his beliefs is not a far-fetched possibility.