Reflections on the pilgrimage of LOVE
by: Hujjatul Islam Dr. Mohammad Ali Shomali

Physically exhausting, yet spiritually uplifting, are the words to describe the anniversary of 40 days after the martyrdom of Imam Husayn(a) - the Arbaeen. I failed to silence my thoughts, and so decided to share some of my reflections in this article.

It is dubbed 'the world's largest peaceful gathering'. But peaceful isn't the only word I'd use to describe the experience. In fact, for the most part, it is far from peaceful! Can you imagine the combined chaos of 26 million devotees, driven by their passion? They leave their families and friends, all their worldly belongings, all their work and responsibilities only to be united by one incentive. They come from all regions and corners of the world, only to gather for the commemoration of one man. All ages qualify - all hearts, big and small, old and young attend only to be nurtured by one love. This is what the Arbaeen is: a pilgrimage of love.

It was something that I had the honour of attending last year, and because of how much I yearned for it this year too, my prayers were answered and my parents and I set out from our home in east London. The truth is, this opportunity didn't come about on its own. I want to share a little secret with you all: when you put your mind and heart and soul to it and take it upon yourself to recite Ziyarat Ashura for at least forty consecutive days, then you will be blessed with whatever it is that you want. There are plenty of hadiths that support this statement.

We arrived in Baghdad, heading straight towards Kadimiyya, where the two infallible personalities Musa ibn Jafar al-Kadim(a) and his grandson Muhammad ibn Ali al-Jawad(a) reside.

After spending one night and one morning there, we headed straight to Najaf so that we may begin the 86km walk to Karbala the following day. I'll tell you this: each different city makes you feel a certain way, and this is something on which anyone who has visited Iraq for religious purposes will agree.

Kadimiyya, for example, had a comfortable feel to it. A warm, yet vibrant energy in the atmosphere. I felt welcome. There was the hustle and bustle of visitors and natives, and record shops blared out the latest eulogies. And most importantly, the scene of two large golden domes, side by side, and polished ever so immaculately, as though looking over the city and protecting both its inhabitants and tourists.

The next city we travelled to was Najaf. What can I say about Najaf? Though the occasion was one of tragedy and calamity and it was only befitting to mourn for Imam Husayn(a) in the Arbaeen period, the only thing I wanted to do there was to rejoice. I truly and undoubtedly felt at peace, as though I had been reunited with my best and closest friend whom I hadn't seen in a long time. Despite the black cloth covering parts of the mosque, I felt like wearing white, and despite the almost constant cries, poetry and lamentations I would witness around me, an unmistakable celebratory feeling refused to leave my heart.

This was what it felt like to be in the vicinity of one of the best men to ever walk the Earth, the successor of the Prophet, the father of infallible Imams, Ali ibn Abi Talib(a).

Yet, once in Karbala, you cannot fight the urge to mourn, and rightly so. For when you are hosted by Imam Husayn(a) and his brother Hazrat Abbas(a), your mind instantly goes back to the event of Ashura, thereby re-inviting the feeling of sadness into your heart.

And here's one thing which blew my mind: I find that on all the occasions I reached the actual grave of Imam Husayn (a), one experience kept repeating itself. The moment I stepped directly underneath the dome, a rush of relief flowed through me. It felt like standing under a waterfall after being lost in the desert. And immediately I knew - it's something that you just know with conviction - that my ziyara (visit) was accepted. How sweet the feeling! After that, I could not help but prostrate in gratefulness for being granted such a wish and blessed with the proximity of the Prophet's grandson.

The walk from Najaf to Karbala is truly one of a kind. Whilst the arrival of 26 million people from all over the world would otherwise be considered a logistical nightmare for any other country, the Iraqi people manage to make it a walk in the park. However, do not expect it to be quiet, peaceful, empty and clean at all times., and acknowledge the fact that no matter how hard councils work every night to get rid of the waste produced, and how often the Iraqis sweep the floors, 26 million is not a small number, and naturally it requires some patience.

All sorts of questions will arise: who will accommodate all these people? What about the food? Yet everyone in Iraq, whether they are children or adults, civilians or soldiers, wealthy or poor, works together to serve the visitors of Husayn(a). And it's not some sort of chore or obligation for them. In fact, they wait all year to be able to serve and to offer whatever they have, completely free of charge, merely for spiritual benefit. They beg you to take from their food; they sit on the floor with a shoe shine kit, hoping the next passer-by will offer their shoes. Even the children would stand with either a perfume they spray on the people walking by, or a packet of tissues, prompting anyone to take as they please. This is the hospitality and generosity that truly reflects the image and legacy of the Infallibles whose shrines are there.

Being with my parents meant having to accept the possibility of not walking the entire 86km like we did last year, but I met my best friend, and we walked together, often reflecting throughout the journey. Together we reached Karbala. Later on, in Najaf we spent what was the best morning of my life sat in front of the golden dome, reciting Dua Sabah and Ashura Ziyara.

If there is one final note I'd like to end on, it is that everyone should aim to complete this walk and attend the Arbaeen at least one time in their lives, because it really is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Purify your intentions throughout the journey, and God will certainly purify you.?

Originally published in islam today magazine UK, issue 43 vol.5 | January 2017. It has been republished here with permission.