Amid all the San Bernardino news, I almost forgot that today is (or really was, at this point) Arbaʿeen (there are some great photos at that link). This is a Shiʿa religious observance that occurs forty days (hence the name, arbaʿin, which is Arabic for “forty”) after Ashura, the commemoration of the day when Imam Husayn was killed in the Battle of Karbala (in 680). It signifies the end of the traditional 40 day Islamic period for mourning the death of a loved one, a tradition that probably has some ecumenical roots, because Orthodox Christians observe a mourning period of the same length (the author of Luke-Acts in the Bible has Jesus’s ascension taking place 40 days after the resurrection, so that 40 day period was an important in this regard). The tradition is said to go all the way back to the year of Husayn’s death or possibly the following year, when an aged and possibly blind companion of Muhammad’s (and proto-Shiʿite), named Jabir ibn ʿAbdullah, made the trek to commemorate Husayn’s death.
Shiʿa who are able commemorate Arbaʿeen with a pilgrimage to Husayn’s burial place/shrine in Karbala, a pilgrimage that actually dwarfs the annual Hajj in sheer numbers–the biggest year for the Hajj was 2012, when a little over 3.1 million people participated, but Arbaʿeen drew at least 17 million people (there are estimates out there as high as 20 million) last year, in what was obviously a pretty harrowing time to be trekking around Iraq. The Hindu Kumbh Mela festival attracts more pilgrims, but it’s held every three years and rotates between three or four different sites, so Arbaʿeen and Karbala have a leg up on that pilgrimage in terms of frequency.
The Sunni political authorities who ruled Iraq over the centuries, including Saddam Hussein, periodically tried to ban the pilgrimage, obviously to little or no effect. These days the threat isn’t from the political authorities, but from that hyper-Sunni gang of crazies we all know
and love, ISIS. Large crowds of Shiʿa present an inviting target to people who pathologically target Shiʿa, and a few days ago a couple of bombings struck pilgrims in Baghdad, killing 15 and wounding dozens more. In fact, Arbaʿeen appears to have taken on a new importance in recent years, as spiting/defying ISIS has become part of the impetus for Shiʿa to undertake the pilgrimage, alongside its religious significance.