Arbaeen should be listed in the Guinness Book of World Records in several categories: biggest annual gathering, longest continuous dining table, largest number of people fed for free, largest group of volunteers serving a single event, all under the imminent threat of suicide bombings.” Sayed Mahdi al-Modarresi. “World’s biggest Pilgrimage Now Underway, And Why You’ve Never Heard of it!” Huffington Post, November 24, 2015. It is the world’s biggest annual pilgrimage, so why have we NEVER heard of it?
Arbaeen memorializes the end of the 40-day mourning period for the brutal death of Imam Hosein, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson and third Shia Imam over 1300 years ago. It is on a lunar calendar and falls on November 20th this year. Millions of people from around the globe gather in Iraq’s holiest city of Karbala to commemorate Arbaeen, one of the most revered Islamic religious occasions.
This annual event attracts over five times more people than the annual Islamic Hajj pilgrimage. In contrast to Hajj that is riddled with accidents and troubles, the Arbaeen event goes peaceful. While Hajj consists of exclusively Muslims, Arbaeen breaks across ethnic, racial, religious, and national barriers. Although it is initiated by Shia Muslims as spiritual reawakening, the participants include Sunnis, Ibadis, Christians, Jews, Yazidis, and Zoroastrians as both pilgrims and volunteers in service of the devotees.
Last year, Iraqi officials estimated that about 22 million people from across the world participated in the event. Millions of the pilgrims began their journey on foot from Najaf, 80-kilometers away, a distance that takes 3 to 5 days, towards Karbala. Pilgrims come on foot from other places as far as Basra, 510 kilometers from Karbala. Throughout their journey, the pilgrims were served with free water, hot meals, foot massages, and housing by nearby Iraqi local residents who consider the acceptance of such offers as a bestowing honor on them.
We may think that the presence of ISIS in Iraq could inhibit pilgrims from participating in the event. In contrast, it draws out more pilgrims in masses in defiance displaying of faith in humanity never seen before anywhere around the world. It is clear that people from all walks of life see Imam Hosein as a universal and meta-religious symbol of courage, compassion, love, and freedom.
We haven’t heard of Arbaeen because press is primarily interested with negative news, embellished tabloids, and controversial matters. Positive news and inspiring stories are often ignored, especially when it relates to Islam. When a few hundreds of anti-Putin people demonstrate in Russia, anti-authority in Iran, or anti-communism in China, it makes headlines. However, the world’s greatest peaceful annual event like Arbaeen with longest continuous free dining table and sleep accommodations, none of it paid by any government or corporation, and attended by over twenty million people in defiance of imminent terror fails to make even a single headline. When it somehow does, it gives hope to humanity that the universal peace is achievable!