The Significance of Arba’een in Muslim tradition.
Although Western media typically reports on Arba’een as a largely Shia gathering, if it does indeed report on Arba’een at all, in fact Arba’een is a unifying event across the Islamic world and one which elucidates some of the most significant Islamic concepts and beliefs; martyrdom, submission to God, the fight against injustice and oppression, the prescribed acts of worship in Islam. The story of Karbala is well-known, what is rather necessary is to provide some insight into why Arba’een takes place every year, and what its unique role in the Islamic world is.
The History of Arba’een
What is commonly called the Battle of Karbala by historians is known as the Taff Battle, which started on the first day of Muharram, 61 A.H. (October 4, 680 A.D.), and ended ten days later with the barbaric killing of Imam al-Husayn (A), and all his followers who participated in the battle with him. Imam al-Husayn (A) had prepared himself for this battle in the full knowledge that it would lead to his martyrdom and that of his followers, and also knowing that the surviving family members, women and children, would be taken as captives. This was a well calculated decision by him, as he was well aware it was a necessary step to guarantee the future of Islam. It was much more than a decision, it was a decree that Allah SWT had communicated to Prophet Muhammad (S), that his grandson would be martyred in the desert of Karbala.
The Significance of the Number Forty
Arba’een takes place on the fortieth day after the tragedy of Karbala. “The visitation of the blessed grave of Imam Husayn (A), and his noble family and friends on the day of Arba’een is extremely important and is something which every true believer will try and perform during his lifetime.” 1 The commemoration happens after this particular time interval because this is the prescribed mourning period in Islam; the Messenger of Allah (S) and his family, said “Indeed the Earth laments over the death of a true believer for the period of 40 days.” 1 The Muslim person pays tribute to the deceased person for these forty days after his death by doing acts of righteousness on his behalf, by eulogizing him and enumerating his merits.
Significantly, also 40 days after the martyrdom of Imam Husayn (A), it is narrated that his head was returned to his body and buried with it. 2 It is quoted in some traditions, and among the signs of martyrdom are that the sky turned pitch black during the day until stars were visible while no stone was lifted up, except that there was pure blood underneath it. 5 The Arba’een of our times takes place on the fortieth day of the mourning period, when millions of pilgrims (reportedly 20 million last year) perform this visitation upon the Imam.
The first Visitation of Imam Husayn (A) and the role of Arba’een for all Muslims
According to tradition, the first visitation of the Imam was when Jabir Ibn Abdullah al-Ansari visited, a companion of the Prophet. 1 Especially in the last decade or so, with the improvement of the security situation in Iraq, the annual pilgrimage has become a spectacular gathering of Muslims and non-Muslims. Quite apart from the martyrdom of the Imam’s family, during the battle he still maintained salat, so he sacrificed himself also to safeguard the prescribed acts of prayer. This is of immense significance to the entire Muslim community, as Imam Husayn’s (A) martyrdom is also a sacrifice to preserve one of the pillars of Islam. Consequently, the attack upon Husayn (A) precisely during prayers by Yazid’s men can also be understood as an obvious attack on Islam.
It is commented that “the majority of Sunni scholars have not a single doubt of the certainty of the crime Yazid has committed , which subsequently proves his Kufr, and hence they have endorsed his cursing to the extent that Jaheah says, ‘he who prohibits the cursing of Yazid must be cursed too.’” 4 The ziarat to the tomb of the martyred Imam has acquired this great significance in all Muslim tradition because the Imam and his fellow martyrs are seen as models of jihad in the way of God. 6
Imam Husayn (A) is one of the most precious and revered figures in Islam, it is his martyrdom that ensured the continuation of Islam and its journey around the world.