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Arbaeen Procession, Spirituality, and Foreign Policy

The international procession marking this year’s Arbaeen on September 17, 2022, is being held differently from the previous years due to the coronavirus restrictions.

Nevertheless, a large number of Muslims would try this year to commemorate the massively popular event, which is based upon the Shi’ite culture, remotely and following the health protocols, including the symbolic pilgrimage via the social networks and mass media, in the hope of holding a more magnificent procession in the coming years.

 Arbaeen means forty or the fortieth in Arabic. In the Muslim culture, Arbaeen refers to the 20th day of Safar (the second month of the lunar calendar), marking the 40th day after the martyrdom of Imam Hussein (PBUH) and his companions on the day of Ashura in 61 AH in Karbala. Preceded by the mourning rituals in the month of Muharram, Arbaeen is one of the main events during which Shi’ite Muslims perform religious rites across the world. Imam Hussein (PBUH) was the grandson of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the son of Imam Ali (PBUH) and Hazrat Fatima Zahra (PBUH). Imam Hussein (PBUH) is the third Shi’ite imam and one of the major characters of Islam. The highly revered imam and his 72 companions and family members were martyred in the Battle of Karbala because of standing against the tyranny of the ruler and the efforts to establish the rule of Islam.

 The Shi’ite Muslims hold mourning events during the first ten days of Muharram every year and then on the 40th day after the martyrdom of Imam Hussein (PBUH) to commemorate the culture of seeking freedom and justice inspired by the revered imam. The mourning rituals play a very significant role in maintaining and promoting the Shi’ite culture of resistance and struggle for freedom and justice.

 The people of Iraq have performed the Arbaeen rites in their way since long ago. To commemorate Arbaeen, Iraqis travel to Karbala on foot from the nearby and faraway cities and villages, sometimes at a distance of 500 kilometers, to make a pilgrimage to the location of the Ashura event and the holy shrines of Imam Hussein (PBUH), his brother Abbas ibn Ali (PBUH), and their martyred comrades. Holding peaceful processions to mark the martyrdom of Imam Hussein (PBUH) has its roots in the political situation prevailing in the region and a number of Islamic traditions derived from the ethics of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the Shi’ite imams during Hajj and how  some clerics visit Karbala. The regime of Saddam Hussein was opposing the procession by placing severe restrictions. Saddam’s regime massacred a large number of Iraqi pilgrims on the Arbaeen of 1975 as they were traveling from the religious city of Najaf to Karbala. After the fall of Saddam, Muslims from the other countries were allowed to attend the procession for the first time in 2003. The Arbaeen ritual was held more magnificently as an international spiritual event, attended by people from Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Republic of Azerbaijan, Lebanon, Turkey, Bahrain, Yemen, and tens of other nations. Arbaeen pilgrimage is now considered as the largest gathering of Muslims and one of the world’s biggest religious congregations. For instance, more than 20 million Iraqi pilgrims and around 5 million pilgrims from the other countries, including 3.3 million Iranians, attended the Arbaeen pilgrimage in Karbala during a week in the Arbaeen season of 2019.

 The growing enthusiasm for participation in the Arbaeen congress has been shaped within the framework of ‘Hussein culture’. The slogans chanted by nearly 30 million participants in the Arbaeen pilgrimage reveals the spiritual aspect of the major event and the main attitude of the pilgrims in the Arbaeen procession. The main point about such a major cultural event is that it is popular. Tens of millions of pilgrims walking the routes to Karbala are served by the people and the popular endowments for providing food, accommodation, and health services. According to statistics, more than 10,000 pavilions and congregation halls served the pilgrims inside the city of Karbala in the Arbaeen season of 2019. Most of them were Iraqis, while several the pavilions were set up by non-Iraqis. Iraqi officials believe it is not unlikely that the total number of pavilions in Iraq is above 100,000.

 The Iraqi government’s cooperation with the countries whose nationals attend the Arbaeen pilgrimage paves the way for Iraq’s more active foreign policy and enhanced cooperation, particularly with the neighboring states, which not only dispatch pilgrims to Iraq but also provide a route for the other foreign pilgrims traveling to Karbala. Political cooperation in the Arbaeen season includes the activities of government officials for addressing the political and consular affairs to facilitate the Arbaeen pilgrimage. The cooperation involves the measures taken by the Iranian and Iraqi political authorities in the form of visits, meetings, telephone conversations, and formal correspondence. In 2016, Iran and Iraq set up a permanent joint committee, entitled the ‘Committee of Political and Consular Coordination’, to make policies and arrange plans for the Arbaeen pilgrimage. The activities of the committee resulted in the abolition of visa fees for the nationals of the two countries in 2019. Later in that year, Iran and Iraq agreed on the removal of visa requirements. Considering the presence of millions of pilgrims in the Arbaeen procession, the two countries began to develop the infrastructures for transport, telecommunication, and travels at the border points in a short time. One can claim that the popular bonds between people of Iraq and the other nations, including the Islamic Republic of Iran, have grown rapidly under the influence of the ‘Arbaeen event’. Iran has dramatically developed the transport, telecommunication, and health infrastructures as well as the passport control counters along its common border with Iraq to facilitate the Iranian pilgrims’ travels and help the foreign pilgrims from other regional countries go to Iraq through Iran. The Arbaeen procession serves as a major model of the policy of neighborliness in West Asia and displays the great potential for political, economic, and security cooperation based on spirituality, common culture, and popular interactions. The Arbaeen pilgrimage demonstrates the efficacy of the policy of neighborliness between Iran, Iraq, and other regional countries.

 Since 2013, the issue of security of pilgrims has become the main concern in holding the Arbaeen procession after the rise of the ISIS terrorist group and its threats to the places of pilgrimage and religious gatherings in Iraq. Therefore, security officials in Iraq and the Islamic Republic of Iran began to make arrangements to ensure security along the procession routes and the places accommodating the pilgrims. Moreover, the two countries have held negotiations and worked in cooperation to ensure the security of holy places of pilgrimage, including the holy shrines of Shi’ite imams in Iraq, given their importance and the mass presence of pilgrims in those sites. Despite the widespread threats, only a few numbers of terrorist attacks have been reported in the pilgrimage routes over the past five years.

 The nations in the West Asia region share a lot of common religious and cultural values in light of the long history of coexistence, which could strengthen convergence among the regional countries. The Arbaeen procession in commemoration of Imam Hussein (PBUH) is one of the greatest and most important opportunities under whose spirituality the regional nations have shaped deep interactions and the foreign policies of the countries have reached a new level of relations.


About Ali Teymoori

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