By Catherine Shakdam

Arbaeen: To become more than the objects of tyrants’ desire

October 9, 2020 - 22:52

I did in fact partake in the Arbaeen Pilgrimage several years ago and I can still recall the impact it had on me - both spiritually and intellectually. It is not often that one is confronted with History in such a vivid and powerful way. I wonder still how so very few people outside the immediate Shia community have come to appreciate the powerful message that lies between Najaf and Karbala.

While it would be easy to blame those who still view Shia Islam as both a threat and a stain on their belief system, I would rather see communities take ownership of their stories so that they could be told and thus become part of the world heritage. Maybe that is also one of the lessons of Karbala … that victimhood is neither a crown nor a poisoned chalice, that martyrdom is better served in one’s empowerment and decision to overcome adversity. And if not all tyrants can be defeated, quiet acquiescence would equate to treachery, that against the sovereignty of oneself.

Long ago, when Rome led over the known world unchallenged, a tribe hailing from what we call now Denmark, left its icy landscapes to find refuge under kinder climates. As they traveled ever closer to Rome, the Empire decided to teach those they view as barbarians a lesson. Trapped and betrayed somewhere in modern Northern Italy thousands of men, women, and children were slaughtered. Those who could escape Rome’s swords decided to commit suicide - so unwilling they were to become Rome’s slaves.

Since the dawn of time Men have yearned to live free and sovereign … for many, such freedom warrants the ultimate sacrifice: death. Such tales have populated our history books. However, none has been more potent than that of Karbala. Maybe simply because there lie all of our tales, all of our struggles, all of our hopes of redemption, and belief that should we be one day asked to do what is right we would.
Karbala and its commemorative pilgrimage are more than just tragic bravery before unjust tyranny. Karbala I have come to understand lately is not about martyrdom, but an understanding that we exist beyond ourselves, beyond the limitations we teach ourselves for we fear to think ourselves more than the objects of tyrants’ desire.

Karbala and its commemorative pilgrimage are more than just tragic bravery before unjust tyranny. Karbala I have come to understand lately is not about martyrdom, but an understanding that we exist beyond ourselves, beyond the limitations we teach ourselves for we fear to think ourselves more than the objects of tyrants’ desire.
Arbaeen is the one Story which, beyond all cultural difference and belief systems, speaks to us, and moves us all. Arbaeen encompasses so many archetypes, it echoes so much of our struggles and pretty much speaks of the very essence of our humanity. How we can in the same breath prove capable of the noblest of deeds and yet fall prey to the very worst of our nature. 

If the Arbaeen Pilgrimage lies central to Shia Islam’s faith and tenets, I have come to believe that it belongs to no one and should be shared with everyone. One needs not to be religious to treasure its lessons or see the beauty in the millions, who, every year come together to commemorate. It is rather humbling actually to witness how so many different communities successfully congregate to share in a moment of quiet unity. 

If I could summarize the whole experience in a few words I would say that it still follows me - a spiritual haunting of a sort to remind me that I am a lot more than my circumstances. I am my choices!

I think the message of the Arbaeen has always been the same, that before tyranny ought to resist. And yet I would argue that it is not an allegory of martyrdom. And though for a time I did think that martyrdom was in fact central to Karbala and Arbaeen I think that my visit to Iraq made me look at it from a perspective. Yes there was immense suffering and yes many brave men, women, and children were martyred, but it is not their death which is mourned rather the ideals and morals they lived for, embodied, and defended to the bitter end. There is an inspiration to be drawn from that. 

It is also obviously a beautiful exercise intolerance, compassion, and generosity. Iraqis have made a point to open up their land and their homes to cater to pilgrims’ needs. I don’t think that there is anything quite like it in the world today.

Well, evidently things are very different this year. Many people have chosen to stay away for fear of contracting the virus and spreading it to their respective communities and families, but then others have decided to pay little heed to the pandemic to attend anyway. It is hard to say which is better. It very much depends on one’s perspective and understanding of the disease.

Personally I think it could be a health gamble to many with Iraq at a time when state institutions and resources have been under a great deal of pressure. But then many will argue that faith and their need to worship by far outweigh the risks at hands.

I guess we will see. But in any case, I don’t think that geographical proximity is necessary to feel part of this greater whole which is the Arbaeen Pilgrimage. Whether from home or in Karbala, people can still experience a sense of communion.

I would never be as bold as to advise people on what they ought to do this year, I am not a doctor and the knowledge I have of the virus is that gained from the media. Needless to say that it amounts to very little …

The last point is the functions of mainstream media in Arbaeen coverage. If I intended to talk about this a few years ago, I would have told that such media silence speaks of prejudice and bias both the Western world and Sunni Islam harbor against Shia Islam. I would have told you about Wahhabism and its war against all those who chose to defy its tenets and how for centuries Shiites have embodied all which Wahhabism wishes to destroy.

Today I will say that beyond such organized silence, beyond this battle of ideologies and a call from Shiites to be seen and recognized lies Shia Islam’s responsibility to take on that mantel.

To sit in victimhood waiting for vindication only serves our nihilistic tendencies. The Onus is on Shia Islam and its people to speak of their faith, their culture, and their beliefs.

It is not so much that the world ought to pay attention but rather that the world be given a reason to pay attention. I think the lack of awareness is a reflection of a collective failure to connect. This is not meant as a criticism, merely an observation.

Catherine Shakdam is a political analyst and author who has written for many publications among which Foreign Policy Association, Russian International Affairs Council, Your Middle East, Open Democracy, the Middle East Monitor, and The Guardian.

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