HOLY CITY OF KARBALA, Iraq: Millions of black-clad mourning pilgrims converged on the holy city of Karbala for al-Arbaeeniyah al-Husseiniyah (the Arbaeen commemoration), 40th Day after Martyrdom of Al-Imam Al-Hussein (as) in 61 AH (680AD) , the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (s), the largest annual gathering of people anywhere on earth. Walking in long columns stretching back unbroken for as much as 90 kilometers, sleeping and eating in tents erected by supporters beside the road, the event has become an overwhelmingly powerful display of Shia belief and solidarity.
Arbaeen coincides this year with the final defeat of ISIS.
Karim, 48, a tribal leader from Najaf, who provides free food for the pilgrims, recalls that when he first took part in an illegal Arbaeen walk under Saddam regime, “we had to take a roundabout route by the river [Euphrates] and try to keep hidden because, if we were caught, we would put in prison or executed”.
According to Independent News estimates vary of the total attending, from highs of 15-17 million to a low of 6-7 million, but Iranian sources said it includes at least three million Iranians whose numbers are easier to calculate because they require documentation to enter Iraq.
The mourning pilgrims carrying black, green, red and white flags, with the black flag of mourning for Imam Hussein by far the most common were chanting elegies. Vast numbers of them decorated permanent brick buildings and temporary tents which were used for praying, eating and sleeping along the three main routes leading to Karbala. Everything was highly organised with copious supplies of food, small clinics and even dentists all working for free.
The care of pilgrims is regarded as a religious duty because according to narrations of Prophet Muhammad and his descendants such people will be highly rewarded by Allah.