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Pilgrims walking to Karbala, on Arbaeen

Arbaeen, or fortieth, as it is known by Urdu-speaking Muslims, is a Shi’a religious observation that occurs 40 days after the Day of Ashura, the commemoration of the martyrdom by beheading of Hussein bin Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad which falls on the 20th day of the month of Safar.

Imam Hussein and 72 supporters martyred in the Battle of Karbala in the year 61 AH (680 CE). Forty days is the usual length of the time of mourning in many Islamic cultures.

The occasion reminds the faithful of the core message behind Hussein’s martyrdom: establishing justice and fighting injustice, no matter what its incarnation—a message that strongly influenced subsequent Shi’a uprisings against the tyranny of Umayyad and Abbasid rule.

In the first Arbaeen gathering in the year 62 AH, Jabir ibn Abdullah, a companion of the Prophet, was one of the people who performed a pilgrimage to the burial site of Hussein. Due to his infirmity and probable blindness, he was accompanied by Atiyya bin Saad. His visit coincided with that of the surviving female members of the Prophet’s family and Hussein’s son and heir Imam Zain-Ul-Abidin, who had all been held captive in Damascus by Yazid I, the Umayyad Caliph.

Imam Zain-Ul- Abidin had been too ill to participate in the Battle of Karbala. He later devoted his life to mourning and spreading the message of Imam Hussein’s supreme sacrifice.

The city of Karbala in Iraq, the third holy place of Shi’a Islam, is the center of the proceedings where, in a show of humility, many crawl through the streets of the city while others fall on their hands and knees as they approach the Shrines of Hussein and his brother Abbas ibn Ali.

Observance of Arbaeen in Karbala was banned for many years when Saddam Hussein was president of Iraq. Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the observance in April 2003 was broadcast worldwide.