6 Sep 2023

Arbaeen: A journey of faith

8:19 pm on 6 September 2023

Masooma Mehdi from Auckland takes a selfie while completing the walk for the third time. Photo: Supplied / Masooma Mehdi

The Arbaeen pilgrimage is not a journey for the faint hearted - a symbolic 80 kilometre journey on foot, braving extreme heat and exhaustion to pay homage.

And right now, what attendees say is an estimated 30 million people are gathered in Iraq for what is often called the world's largest annual gathering.

Pilgrims from around the globe travel to make the journey from the city of Najaf to Kerbala, following a centuries old tradition of Shia Islam called the Arbaeen pilgrimage.

They go to pay homage to Imam Hussain - the grandson of Islam's Prophet Mohammed.

The journey to Iraq

First Up spoke to Masooma Mehdi from Auckland, who was completing the walk for the third time.

It was a long haul for her just to get to the start - it took Mehdi more than two days to get to Iraq.

She had stopovers in Singapore and Turkey before she got to Najaf.

"You are of course quite tired when you arrive, but the key is that you rest up in a nice hotel for a couple of days before starting your journey on your feet to Karbala."

The history of Arbaeen

It all began 1400 years ago when Imam Hussain and his small party left present-day Saudi Arabia for Iraq.

Imam Hussain had been called over by the locals who were not happy under the leadership of the caliph. He was expecting to negotiate with the caliph, but he was stopped along the way.

Mehdi said Imam Hussain's purpose was to "reform".

But after a 10-day siege, the caliph killed Imam Hussain and most of his group. The survivors were captured and held for 40 days.

After their release, the prisoners did not return home immediately, instead they went to pay their respects at Kerbala. From there, the ritual of Arbaeen - meaning 40 in Arabic - was born.

For Mehdi, walking in the footsteps of the survivors, particularly Imam Hussain's sister Lady Zainab, was more than an old tradition.

"When we visit today, we remind ourselves of those values of sacrifice, compassion, speaking the truth and speaking against injustice."


Under Saddam Hussein

In 1977, Saddam Hussein took over Iraq, and banned the walk to Kerbala. But Masooma said it did not stop the pilgrims.

"People were even killed at times, like their hands and feet were cut off as punishment for doing this Arbaeen walk."

The event had grown in popularity since Sadaam Hussein lost power.

Mehdi said it was a strong political statement against tyranny.

'There is an ocean of people out there'

Now, even non-Muslims joined the walk, Mehdi said.

"You see people from all ages, backgrounds, languages, colours, status, health, even religion and what you see is that they all are walking alongside each other."


The streets were busy with volunteers serving fresh food, drink and even massages. There were tents for those who wanted to take a break.

"One of the major highlights of an Arbaeen walk is the hospitality offered by locals and others coming to serve from other places.

"Just today I've had some Iraqi, Turkish, Lebanese, Pakistani and Persian cuisines."

Mehdi said the best part was all the food was free.

"What you experience here is the true spirit of Islam, which is beautiful."

Green Pilgrim

Mehdi said she was attending the event as a "green pilgrim".

The initiative was started in 2019, she said.

"So the idea of this campaign is to avoid one-time use plastics in order to keep this pilgrimage sustainable."


She was carrying a reusable water bottle and environmental friendly cutlery that could be re-used.

Soon, the international visitors will start leaving Iraq. But Masooma reckoned, like her, many would keep coming back.

Mehdi's journey can be followed on YouTube