Islamic Thought

Arba’een fosters common identity of Shia Muslims

After the fall of the Baathist government in 2003, there has been an upsurge in foreign pilgrims traveling to the shrine cities of Najaf, Samara and Karbala.

In early September, against the backdrop of deadlocked attempts to form a government and periodic civil unrest in Iraq, British Shia Muslims travelled to the southern Iraqi cities of Najaf, Karbala and Samarra, joining millions of others from around the world to commemorate Arba’een. The religious occasion marks the fortieth day of mourning of the anniversary of Ashura, the day on which Hussein ibn Ali, the third Shia imam and the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), was martyred at the Battle of Karbala, nearly 1400 years ago.

Imam Hussein (AS) had refused to pay allegiance to the new Umayyad caliph, Yazid ibn Muawiyah, who he believed was acting against the ideals of Islam.

As Imam Hussein (AS) and his family attempted to travel towards Kufa in modern day Iraq, they were surrounded by the Umayyad army.

Imam Hussein’s (AS) camp was cut off from water supplies and almost all of the 72 male friends and family members who had accompanied him on his journey to Kufa were martyred, while the women and children were taken captive.

The event played a formative role in the creation of the Shia identity, in which opposing injustice and oppression has become a key ideal.

Since the fall of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 2003, there has been a resurgence of previously restricted Shia mourning rituals. Karbala, Najaf and Samarra have drawn a steadily increasing number of visitors, and now play host to Islam’s largest annual pilgrimage, known in Arabic as the Ziyara.

In 2019, the number of pilgrims taking part in Arba’een commemorations reportedly exceeded 14 million. Even more are expected this year, despite the volatile political situation in Iraq.

Since the escalation of the ongoing protest movement in Iraq, the UK has advised its citizens against all but essential travel to the country.

Even before the current unrest, however, British Muslims, alongside pilgrims from elsewhere, have travelled to Iraq despite the political instability and the threat posed by terrorist groups like the Islamic State (IS), which targeted Shia Muslims in bomb attacks.

Nabeela Zaman, a British Shia of Bengali heritage, travelled to the southern shrine cities during Ashura in 2022.

“It’s not something I even looked at,” she said when asked whether the political situation made her reconsider her travel plans.

What drives her, and others, is the feeling that by visiting the shrines, they are serving a higher purpose.Zaman said: “The ziyara is not like Hajj, it’s not an obligation. But I feel – and I think many feel – that when we go for ziyara, we’ve been called there by a higher power.

“For many, it is a once in a lifetime opportunity and that is why we don’t let anything stop us.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by British Indian Muslim, Mohsen, who spoke of an incident 2007, in which his tour group narrowly escaped an explosion.

“People were scared, but it didn’t stop us from coming back,” he said. “We have love for Imam Hussein (AS). Nothing will stop us from coming back.”


The targeting of Shia pilgrims by IS and al-Qaeda members has in some cases made pilgrims more resolved to continue.


Discussing her experience of visiting the Hassan al-Askari shrine in Samarra in 2009, after it had been desecrated by al-Qaeda insurgents in 2006 and 2007, Nabeela Zaman said: “I remember how it felt, seeing the shrine like that. It makes you more determined to come back.”

“In 2017, there was no change in the number of pilgrims we took to Karbala,” said Romana, a volunteer with the UK branch of Spiritual Guides, a tour company organizing pilgrimage trips to Iraq, adding: “Daesh [IS] was at the height of its power, and pilgrims were still committed to coming to Iraq”.

The pilgrimage to Shia shrines in Iraq has long been fraught with risk for both locals and foreigners.

Under Saddam’s rule, foreign pilgrims were heavily monitored by the state.

Fearing a Shia political revolution in Iraq that would mirror that of Iran’s, the Baathist government kept a watchful eye on all pilgrims to the shrine cities.

Yasmin, who travelled to Iraq extensively during the 1990s, recalled her experience in Karbala and Najaf, saying: “You were never allowed to be in the shrines alone. Two government guards were always watching you. You felt monitored. Even prayer books which contained pictures of the Marja (spiritual guides) were banned.”


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