Hussain ibn Ali was a 7th century revolutionary leader who made a stand against Yazid ibn Muawiyah. Yazid was a tyrannical ruler who had illegally usurped power and was violating the basic rights and dignity of the people. Yazid wanted Hussain to pay allegiance to him, to lend credibility to his own corrupt rule. However Hussain refused to do so, based on his moral values and principles, and was killed by an army of over 30,000 whilst standing with a small number of 72.
After the Battle of Karbala, the forces of Yazid took the women and children of Hussain’s family as captive. They were paraded in chains through the streets of Kufa (Iraq) and Damascus (Syria) – where they were abused by crowds until eventually presented to Yazid and placed in prison.
Though Hussain has died, his movement still continued through his sister Zainab, and son Zain Al-Abideen. Hussain’s sister and his son defied Yazid in his own courtyard through famous sermons which unnerved even his closest allies. Eventually, Yazid had no choice but to free the captives as word spread across the region of the crime he had committed against Hussain ibn Ali and his family.
It is said that the Day of Arbaeen is the day on which Hussain’s family returned to the land of Karbala, to properly bid farewell to the fallen heroes and finally grieve for their loved ones.
The Day of Arbaeen, today
Today, almost 1400 years later, the Day of Arbaeen is mourned by millions of people around the world. It is marked as a day to pay tribute to the sacrifice of Hussain for social justice. Typically, on this day people organise large marches in cities across the world to symbolise the eternal nature of Hussain’s revolution and to show they stand for social justice, honour and peace.
In recent years – after the fall of the Saddam regime – a tradition of walking 80km from Najaf (the resting place of Hussain ibn Ali’s father) to Karbala has been reignited. Every year since, the number has been rising steadily from 17 million pilgrims to at least 25 million. People from all walks of life and all corners of the globe make the journey, despite the imminent threat of terrorists who have vowed to attack the pilgrims.
Along the 80km stretch from Najaf to Karbala volunteers distribute free food and drinks to those undertaking the pilgrimage, as well as offering places to relax, wash and sleep. Arbaeen Day is now the largest annual peaceful gathering in the world, with numbers set to increase significantly every year.