Arbaʿeen, for those who aren’t familiar, is the second Shiʿa holy day that is centered on the Battle of Karbala, and thus the death of the early Shiʿa leader Husayn b. Ali, in 680. The first, Ashura, is commemorated on the day (per the Islamic calendar) of the battle, while Arbaʿeen (Arabic for “forty”) occurs on the fortieth day after the battle, the end of the traditional mourning period per Islam (and Orthodox Christianity, for what it’s worth).
Arbaʿeen begins (began) at sundown this evening, so let me extend holiday wishes to any Shiʿa readers out there. There is an annual Arbaʿeen pilgrimage to Husayn’s shrine in Karbala that is the largest annual pilgrimage in the world, drawing multiple times the number of people who make the Hajj. There is a Hindu festival called Kumbh Mela that draws more pilgrims than even Arbaʿeen, but that festival is celebrated every three years, hence my “annual” qualifier above. It also rotates between four different sites, so each site only hosts a pilgrimage once every 12 years, where Karbala hosts its pilgrims every year.
This year, as ever, millions of people (that link says 22 million but I’ve seen estimates much higher than that) are expected to make the Arbaʿeen pilgrimage–primarily Shiʿa, but also Sunnis, Christians, Zoroastrians, Mandaeans, and adherents of other faiths. This is a huge logistical challenge for the Iraqi government, particularly when a large crowd of defenseless, mostly Shiʿa pilgrims makes an inviting target for ISIS–which, though it’s obviously got some major problems to deal with right now, has still shown itself capable of launching terror attacks throughout Iraq. The reason for the massive crowd is mostly simple population growth–the pilgrimage gets bigger every year–but this year there’s speculation about another reason why so many will gather in Karbala.
If you’ll recall, Iran and Saudi Arabia failed to come to terms on an agreement for Iranian pilgrims to make the Hajj this year. In the long tradition of political conflict mucking up everybody’s pilgrimage plans, there have been rumors that Iranian religious authorities have been suggesting to people who were denied the chance to go on Hajj this year that they could make the Arbaʿeen pilgrimage in its place. The Iranians deny that anyone has made such a suggestion and there’s really no evidence to suggest they have.
Saudi Wahhabi authorities–who reject Arbaʿeen in particular and Shiʿism in general, and also get mad at anything that might threaten the billions of dollars they make annually from hosting the Hajj–often use the Arbaʿeen pilgrimage, which most Sunnis don’t make, as a chance to “show” that Shiʿa aren’t “real Muslims.” This year, thanks to the rumors about the Iranians suggesting a pilgrimage swap, the Saudi sentiment about Arbaʿeen has been especially toxic–in September, for example, a Saudi-owned TV station tweeted “Muslims go to Mecca, Safavids go to Karbala.” That many Shiʿa wanted to go to Mecca this year but couldn’t, because they weren’t sure they’d make it out alive, is, presumably, not a detail the Saudis would like anybody to mention. Shiʿa religious scholars (political leaders are a different story) have consistently maintained, going back centuries, that the Hajj is “mandatory” while pilgrimage to Karbala, or to any other Shiʿa site, is merely “recommended.” But for the Saudis, any excuse to try to paint Shiʿa as unbelievers is always too good to pass up.