History of Arba’een – the world’s LARGEST annual pilgrimage

Many people know that the Arba’een pilgrimage to Iraq, is the world’s largest annual public gathering. In some years, the city of Karbala hosts more than 20 million visitors, such as in 2022, as reported by Al Jazeera. But this was not always the case. In fact, during the rule of deposed President Saddam Hussein, this entire pilgrimage was banned. In this article, I’m going to be going through the history of Arba’een and what it actually is.

Arba’een literally means ‘forty’ in Arabic, marking the end of the forty-day mourning season following the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the grandson of prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and an extremely important figure for Muslims, especially those of the Shi’ite sect. To mark the end of the mourning period, pilgrims make their way to the city of Karbala, where Imam Hussein (Husayn) was martyred. Currently, most people start their pilgrimage in the holy city of Najaf, about 75 kilometres away, and walk to Karbala from there. However, some people walk all the way from Basra, in southern Iraq, or Mashhad in Iran, which is thousands of kilometres away. That’s a long way to walk!

The sight of the pilgrims walking to Karbala is truly one to behold. Volunteers set up these little tents and shelters beside to the road in order to provide the pilgrims with free food, water, accommodation, and more. Imagine feeding 20 million pilgrims, for free! That is a lot of food.

But what is the history of Arba’een?

How did the pilgrimage start?

Most people believe that one of the prophet Muhammad’s companions named Jabir Ibn Abdallah was the first person to make the pilgrimage to Imam Hussein’s burial place, 40 days after his martyrdom in the year 680 AD (which is the year 61 in the Islamic Hijri calendar). Jabir Ibn Abdallah’s pilgrimage was all the way from Medina in modern day Saudi Arabia to Karbala, a distance of around 1300 kilometres. However, in the centuries to follow, the tradition of walking to Karbala was not followed by many.

So if people weren’t doing this pilgrimage historically, why are so many people doing it now?

In the year 1901 (1319 Hijri), an Iranian scholar known as Sheikh Mirza Hussein Noori decided to revive the pilgrimage first undertaken by Jabir Ibn Abdallah. He gathered his friends and family to join him, and with a total entourage of about 30 people, he embarked on a journey by foot from Najaf to Karbala. After completion, he decided to do this pilgrimage every year until the day he died, bringing more and more people with him.

Over the years, the numbers of people undertaking the pilgrimage grew, but it wasn’t ever more than the amount of people going to Haj, which is a mandatory pilgrimage for Muslims that can afford it. In recent years, however, going to Haj isn’t easy for everyone. It’s expensive, requires a visa for most, and often you have to be put on a waiting list for years before being accepted. For most of the world’s Shi’ite Muslims, Arba’een is much easier to attend – Iraqi Shi’ites just have to travel within their own country while Iranians and Lebanese don’t have to travel too far either. Visas (if required) are also easier to get than Haj, with many Pakistani and Afghan Shi’ites also attending.

For decades, the Arba’een pilgrimage was banned!

During the rule of Saddam Hussein, Arba’een was completely banned, meaning that during the 1980s and 1990s, very few people took this route by foot. That doesn’t mean that pilgrim flows reached zero, however, with some people still undertaking the pilgrimage in secret, often taking smaller roads where the authorities might not have so much surveillance. My Iraqi friends tell me that during this period of time, those undertaking Arba’een would risk arrest and disappearance, with fears that many of them may have been killed.

Since the US invaded Iraq in 2003, pilgrims started to return to this famous route. Despite low pilgrim numbers during the years of Coronavirus border closures and lockdowns, pilgrim numbers are still rising year on year. During the rest of the year, Karbala has a population of less than 1 million. So you can only imagine how crowded it gets when there are 20 million people in town! The history of Arba’een was quite humble compared to it’s modern day numbers!

Interested in experiencing Arba’een?

Well, we run tours to Iraq during Arba’een, where you’ll be able to walk from Najaf to Karbala with the pilgrims. Non Muslims are welcome, as are people from every nationality. Check out this page for tour dates and information, both to Iraq and Syria.

Who are the Mandeans of Iraq?

Among Iraq’s religious minorities, the Mandeans are some of the least known. In fact, many Iraqis haven’t even heard of them, and if they have, they have very little ideas about what they actually believe in. I was fortunate enough to meet the head of the Mandean sect (similar to the Pope in Christianity), where he explained to us many core principles of the religion, as well as answering any questions we might have.

mandean rituals baghdad
Mandeans perform religious rituals in Baghdad, Iraq

Very few Mandeans remain in the world, and a significant amount of those that do have emigrated from their homeland (southern Iraq and the Khuzestan province of Iran), escaping historical persecution. Worldwide, it is claimed that only around 70,000 Mandeans exist, with only a few thousand of them remaining in Iraq. Some people claim that Mandeanism is the oldest religion known to man that is still practiced today. What is clear is that their religion is older than Islam, Christianity and even Judaism, yet it is still monotheistic, and believes in many of the same religious figures as prophets. For instance, Adam, Abel, Noah and John the Baptist, all of which are biblical figures, are seen as prophets of God by the Mandeans. John the Baptist, however, is considered to be the final and most important prophet in their religion, in the same way that Muhammad is seen by Muslims.

The most important religious scripture is known as the Ginza Rabba, and the Mandeans we met were kind enough to give us a copy of it. This book is composed on two parts, the “left part” and the “right part”, with the right part being the most holy scripture. The original language of these reilgious texts is Mandaic, an Eastern Aramaic language spoken by Mandeans. However, most, if not all of them, also speak Arabic fluently.

Ginza Rabba Mandean holy book
The Ginza Rabba, holy book of the Mandeans

Yet despite their different religious beliefs, Mandeans are not easily distinguishable from other southern Iraqis. Not only is their everyday clothing the same, but their dialect is also indistinguishable. This is in constrast to other religious minorities in Iraq, such as the (no longer present) Baghdadi Jews, whose dialect is distinct. Or Assyrian Christians, who can easily be distinguished by their appearance.

Sheikh Sattar of the Mandeans
Me with Sheikh Sattar, the head of the Mandean sect.

The symbol of the Mandean religion is known as the “darfash”, which is a cross made by two branched of olive branches, covered by a white cloth. Many people mistake the darfash for the Christian cross, but it is clearly distinct, as you can see in the image below. Many historians say that the darfash predates Christianity, despite the resemblence.

Mandean darfash or drabsha
The Darfash, symbol of Mandeanism

On our Iraq Tours, visiting the Mandean community of Baghdad is often part of the itinerary. If the tour dates coincide with certain Mandean ceremonies, we can help arrange for you observe their rituals and learn more about their community and religion.