Magazine article The Christian Century

Iraq's Shi'ite Pilgrimage to Martyred Imam's Tomb Reveres Slain Fighters Too

Magazine article The Christian Century

Iraq's Shi'ite Pilgrimage to Martyred Imam's Tomb Reveres Slain Fighters Too

Article excerpt

The pilgrimage of Shi'ite Muslims to the shrine of Imam Hussein in Karbala, Iraq, is the largest annual gathering on the planet.

This November, along with images of Hussein as Lord of the Martyrs, the pilgrims' path was lined with posters lifting up as martyrs the Iraqis who died while battling militants from the so-called Islamic State.

The two-week march, known as Arba'een, has been targeted repeatedly by ISIS, which takes the extreme view that Shi'ites are infidels. A suicide car bomb in November 2016 killed at least 125 pilgrims returning home to Iran.

"If you love Hussein, you will not be afraid--it makes me brave," said Fadl Abbas, a truck driver nursing blistered feet, swollen legs, and a limp after his 50mile march. "The love of Imam Hussein takes you on the right path in your life. You don't lie, don't cheat, don't drink. He represents all the good things in life."

During this year's pilgrimage some 55,000 extra security personnel were deployed, and strict rules kept all nonofficial vehicles 20 miles from the shrine. There were no serious incidents.

At the climax of days of walking on roads clogged with nearly 14 million fellow believers, pilgrims raise their arms in deference when they first see the shrine of Imam Hussein, with its ornate tiled facade crowned with a gold cupola and minarets.

Inside the gilt tomb, the emotional intensity overflows for the grandson of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. He was killed in battle in 680 AD, and the legend of his death--his small band overwhelmed by the vast army of an illegitimate caliph--demonstrates the qualities of faith and resistance that Shi'ites strive to emulate.

Around the tomb, believers crush toward the gleaming silver and gold metal frame, hands outstretched and tears flowing as they try to touch their sacred imam.

"It is always an amazing feeling when you get to touch Hussein," said Amal Hussein, a college graduate who has joined her family for numerous journeys to Karbala. "It is like reaching heaven."

Columns of ordinary people, many holding religious flags, stretched along roads on every horizon. Among them were elders in wheelchairs, young people with gelled hair and tight T-shirts, and young mothers in headscarves pushing strollers with determination. …

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