God bless all who are making the visitation to Imam Hussain (peace be upon him).
The Husayniah Islamic Society of Seattle
For Love of Hussain (A.S.)
An Independent Film by John Shuck and Josh Townsley
My name is John Shuck and I am a Presbyterian pastor from Portland Oregon. In October 2018, I visited one of the holiest cities on planet Earth, Karbala, Iraq.
Of about 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, 400 million are Shia. About 700 thousand Shia live in the United States. There are about a half dozen mosques or masjids in the Portland metro. Only one of them is a Shia masjid. It is the only Shia masjid in Oregon. It is across the street from the congregation I serve on Denney and Hall in Beaverton. It is called the Islamic Center of Portland, the Imam Mahdi Center.
I went to Iraq and learned more about my neighbors across the street.
My way and the way of my cameraman, Josh Townsley, was paid by the Husayniah Islamic Society of Seattle. We went for Arbaeen, the largest annual peaceful gathering of humans in the world. Josh and I went with a tour group, Caravan 72, led by Mohammad Baig out of Los Angeles. We went along with about fifty other Shia pilgrims from the United States to visit shrines in Iraq including the shrine of Imam Hussain (alyahi salaam), the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him), and the shrine of Imam Hussain’s half-brother, Abbas, in the holy city of Karbala.
I was asked to go because I am a Christian pastor and because I have interest in interfaith work and in particular, justice issues, large justice issues, war and peace issues, such as the so-called “war on terror” or perhaps more accurately, the war of terror that is being in inflicted by the United States, Israel, and the Saudis in the Middle East.
Also for me, this was a spiritual journey. I was moved by the story of Hussain and by those who follow him. I wanted to be inspired by his courage. You can read all about my quest for truth and my radical ideas, and I have them, on my blog, radio show, and social media, but that isn’t what this is about.
This is about a movement. Arbaeen is the largest annual peaceful human gathering in the world. Most people in America don’t even know about it. I didn’t until I was invited to attend earlier in 2018.
This tour group is like any spiritual tour group to a holy place. In this case Shia Muslims from all over the United States visit holy sites in Iraq and some went on a continuation of the tour to Iran. We stayed in a hotel in Karbala for most of the time and then in another hotel in Najaf.
Josh and I spent our time with the tour group, participating in their programs, going to the sites, including Karbala, Najaf, Baghdad, and Samarrah.
And of course, going on the walk, a fifty mile walk over 2 and 1/2 days from Najaf to Karbala. We spent two nights on the road, one night at the Iranian Media Center and another at the Bab Husayn Mawkib.
Visiting Iraq is not dangerous even as the state department says that Americans are not supposed to go to Iraq. I never felt safer. Josh and I walked around Karbala by ourselves. We did the 50 mile walk by ourselves. We were embraced. Many people took selfies with us. We were even the object of media attention when it was discovered that a Christian pastor from America was making a film about his trip to Arbaeen.
So who is Hussain and what is Arbaeen?
What I heard most often was that Hussain saved Islam. All Muslims know this. Both Sunni and Shia honor Hussain. Shortly after the death of the Prophet, a corrupt politician, Yazid, claimed control of Islam and demanded that the grandson of the Prophet, Hussain, bow to Yazid’s authority.
Hussain refused as a matter of conscience. On the plains of Karbala, Iraq, Yazid and his army of 30,000 surrounded Hussain and his family and his 72 companions, demanding Hussain’s allegiance in exchange for his life.
Hussain refused. A slaughter resulted. It was a battle of truth versus falsehood, good versus evil, right versus might. The incredible cruelty of Yazid and the transcendent bravery of Hussain is recounted every year with deep mourning and conviction.
The women and children were taken prisoner and forced to walk to what is now modern day, Damascus, Syria. There Hussain’s sister, Zaynab, bravely recounted the cruelty of Yazid and the bravery of Hussain and kept the truth alive. There is a saying that the movement ended with Imam Hussain but continued with Zaynab.
Yazid ordered the family to leave Damascus. On their way home to Medina, Zaynab asked to return to Karbala to visit the site of the battle. They arrived on the 40th day after Ashura, the day of the battle. Arbaeen means 40th.
It has only been in the last few years, since the fall of Saddam Hussain, that millions of people have come to visit their Imam.
Sheikh Ramadhan Mufakkir
Najaf Seminary, Najaf, Iraq
Our gathering that you see of millions actually started after the demise of Saddam. Why? Because the Shias have been oppressed throughout centuries. They have been oppressed. In the time of Saddam if anyone was found walking towards the imam they would be killed. And many scholars were killed through that. So the Shias they saw that opportunity now. Now we are free. Now we are able to go to our imam freely. Because of this, people they take on that burden and that hardship of walking towards the imam because of that love, to show that now we are free. Now we can express that love toward Imam Hussain.
During the time of Saddam the walk was illegal.
Imam Muhsen Al-Dhalimy
Imam Mahdi Center, Portland, Oregon
Imam Muhsen Al-Dhalimy:
Actually there was kind of local uprising in Najaf back in 1977 when the government, the Baath government decided not to allow anyone to leave Najaf. But a group of young people they challenged that and they run toward Karbala. And Saddam Hussain brought big brigades and many part of the Iraqi army to block the roads and they arrested thousands of people. Actually myself I was arrested in that event and we spent many days in prison and they killed some people and tried to scare people off. Because they considered that a real challenge to their authority. That is when they started not to allow people to walk. But that did not stop people to go walking but it wasn’t such a public event. People would sneak in the night. Or people would not go on the main road, that is what you witnessed between Karbala and Najaf. They would go through the rural areas so the government would not detect them.
But now people come from over 60 countries, some walking hundreds of miles.
Sheikh Molana Mohammad Baig
Caravan 72, Los Angeles, California
Sheikh Molana Mohammad Baig:
This walk that is happening right now is a new phenomenon. It didn’t start by any planning. No one planned it. It’s just that after years of subjugation under Saddam, people were not even allowed to mourn and cry. No one was allowed to come here even to show their love. After years of subjugation, when freedom was found, it just happened that when Arbaeen came around people just felt that you know, I’m just going to go. They left their homes and started walking. They didn’t want to take the bus or anything. They just started walking. How would one understand it? For example, a crass example, Forrest Gump just starts running. There’s no reason. He just felt like it. You feel like it. I want to do this. The passion came and you just walked. And you just came and then it just grew from there. It grew. So it is something that is new. And it is just naturally there. There is no one who made the plan, you know what this is written in religion that we have to do this. It wasn’t like that. It just came about. And how it came about the wisdom, what’s the divine intervention in that, I don’t know. no one knows yet. We are still trying to figure it out. But all we know is that we are involved in the passion of the moment, that’s it.
The walk to Arbaeen is a time of mourning. The entire walk is constant prayer. Poetry that recounts the sacrifice of Hussain for Islam and for all humanity is recited in Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, and many other languages. Often this mourning includes a rhythmic beating the chest called matam.
Right from the start there is truth and there is falsehood. Imam Hussain is the same thing. He stood for truth. There is truth in him. Then there is falsehood out there. This truth and falsehood they come and meet. Falsehood on that day of Ashura, the army there on Ashura, when they killed Imam Hussain and they captured his family, they started beating drums of victory. They proclaimed to the world that they won and Hussain has lost. That was more hurtful for the family of Hussein than even his death. The fact that they proclaimed victory and beat the drums of victory. But divine decree would have it such that after that day until the day of judgment that drums of victory are going to beat. These are the drums of victory of Hussein. We are claiming to the world that truth has won. And we are making noise so that the whole world can listen to that noise and that beat and know that this is Truth that will always win.
All along the road between Najaf and Karbala are mawkibs. They provide rest, relaxation, food, and my favorite, Iraqi chai, strong and sweet.
The people of Iraq are the hosts. They save up for the year to provide comfort and hospitality to those who are visiting Imam Hussain.
On the first night we stayed at the Iranian Media Center. Two people gave up their cots for us. We spoke with Iranian film-maker, Ali Afshar. He told the story of Ali Asghar, the six-month child of Imam Hussain.
Documentary Film-Maker, Iran
The six-month boy was the son of Imam Hussain, with the name of Ali Asghar. In the battle on the day of Ashura, Imam Hussain told the enemies and put Ali Asghar like this... And told the enemies, “He is six months. He is thirsty. If you have war with us, he is children. What happened? Someone put an [arrow] to Ali Asghar’s neck and killed him. Simple. In these days, you can see this same killing like this story where? In Israel. In Yemen. In Syria. Some years ago in Iraq. Here. Near in this road. We can find something with this story.
Justice. That is the main takeaway from all of this. The courage to stand with the oppressed against the powerful. Take a stand for truth. Take a stand for justice. That stand requires sacrifice. That is the essence of Imam Hussain (alayhi salaam) and true Islam. And true humanity.
On the walk between Najaf and Karbala are pillars every fifty meters. On each pillar is a poster of a martyr, a young man who lost his life fighting ISIS.
Sheikh Ramadhan Mufakkir On the poles from pole number one to pole number one thousand four hundred, we see pictures of martyrs, we call (Arabic). These are actually people, regular people not army trained, actually rose up when they heard the verdict to go to defend Islam…. Those pictures are innocent young kids who have left behind wives, left behind kids, and they rose up so they could go and defend the shrines of the imam. They can defend their country. They gave up their lives so that we are able today to come visit the Imam, able to go to Karbala, be able to go to Samarra…. Sheikh Hani is like one of the bravest guys I have met. I met Sheikh Hani from 2013. He actually was one of my Arabic grammar teachers. Very brave. He always had a problem with Wahabbis. He is from an area in Baghdad where a lot of his family members were killed through explosions. So he always had this bravery of always going and fighting these enemies. So when had the opportunity to go and fight he didn’t look back. He told us in class that you know what, I am leaving tomorrow and I will not come back. I remember seeing him three days before he died. I saw him and Sopana Allah, I saw him and we hugged and he said I am going back and he never came back.
This 50 mile walk from Najaf to Karbala is not easy. It is wall to wall people in the desert heat. But walking does offer time for reflection. It was important to me to do the walk, even more so than to make a movie. This was a spiritual visit for me. I am glad I made the choice to do the walk rather than focus on making a movie about the walk. It gave me the opportunity for self-reflection. What is my life about? Where do I stand? For whom do I speak?
I met a man from India. And we walked together for about 90 minutes. I don’t remember his name but we talked about everything from religion to politics to life. It was a breath of fresh air to be able to have conversations about things that matter with someone from the other side of the world. It was one of many gifts I received.
Naveed Hamza: As we have been making this walk, continuously we have been thinking or looking around that everyone is walking in one direction towards Karbala and Imam Hussain. I think it is symbolic and metaphorical that even in our lives, the duration that we are in this world, we all need to be walking in one direction. In our belief it is to be free of this world, to be with Imam Hussain and the Ahlulbayt and all the prophets, to be with God. The way to do that is to have that singular focus in one direction towards the Truth. In the Qur’an it says to be on the right path, be on the righteous path. That is what this feels like we are on. The righteous path. Everyone is moving in the same direction. Everyone has this dedication. Everyone has this intense love for Imam Hussain. Drawing them all—we saw young and old, people who can’t walk. Those who don’t have shoes. It doesn’t matter. There is some kind love that is drawing them in.
On the second night we stayed at the Bab Husayn Mawkib. Again, two people gave up their mats for us. This is a huge mawkib with sleeping accommodations for 4500 people.
Karbala, Iraq, is not a wealthy city. The electricity goes off and on. The water is bottled. Yet the city receives 15 million people during a two-week period.
Sheikh Ramadhan Mufakkir: You know when the companions of Jesus came to him and they wanted to see a sign. And they said, “Show us a sign.” The sign was a table spread, the last supper we call it. From a piece of bread he was able to feed, how many people. We see it here the same thing. The people here throughout the year don’t got nothing. And even myself, I ask myself this question: When it comes to Arbaeen how can these people host 40 million, 30 million? Like you said the sewage is bad, the roads are bad, the infrastructure is bad. But you will see that in this walk, this week or two weeks of people coming here, you will see that everything is free. They give their houses. Everything little thing that they got they give it. How? It is a miracle from God. Something that is unexplainable just like the table spread. This is something that goes in my head every time. How many animals they kill. How much food they give. How much water they give. And you will see after Arbaeen, they go back to suffering. But when it comes to Arbaeen, it’s like, you would think that every body in Iraq is rich.
You don’t make the visitation, the ziyarat, without an invitation. It is important that the Imam invites you and the Imam grants permission. So all of the visitors, all 15 million plus, are believed to have been invited. No visitor is unwelcome. No visitor is anything less than a blessed beloved of Allah. Of course, you feed them. Of course, you shelter them. Of course, you care for their needs. You love them, because they are on a divine mission, a sacred journey, in which they will be blessed, be a blessing to the world, and you will have a part in that, not because there is anything extra special about you, but because, Insha-Allah. You do it for the love of Hussain (alayhi s-salaam). The people of Iraq know this.
Whether you are making the ziyarat or serving those who do, it is a divine interplay, a unchoreographed dance of love.
But lest we get caught up in the romance of it, let us remember who is this Imam who invites visitors from all over the entire world. Imam Hussain (alayhi s-salaam) refused to submit to the authority of Yazid, who he believed to be unjust. Hussain refused to allow Islam to be directed by tyrants with small minds and large greed.
His brutal slaughter and the slaughter of his 72 companions on the plains of Karbala 1400 years ago was a tragedy—a tragedy of cosmic significance. But it was something else. It is a victory. It is a tragedy that repeats itself all over the world and it is a victory in the hearts of those who will not allow that tragedy to be the final word on the matter.
The invitation to visit Hussain (alayhi s-salaam), is the invitation from his own lips. As the battle ended, and Hussain faced his own end, he called out to the world, to future generations, “Is there anyone who will help me?” The response is from any in the world, regardless of religion, or culture or language, “Labbayk ya Husayn.” “Here I am, Husayn.”
Group chants: Labbayk Ya Hussain! Labbayk Ya Hussain! Labbayk Ya Hussain!
Three men chant: Labbayk Ya Hussain!
“Hussain is the name of justice. Hussain is the name of sacrifice. Hussain is the name of braveness. Hussain is our symbol. Hussain is our passion. Hussain is our love”
Labbayk Ya Hussain, Here I am Hussain, can mean so many things in a world that is soaked in the blood of injustice. It can mean that I will bear witness to what I think is true, what I think is just, what I think is good, even if it means I will have to give up my own life. I will fight the Yazids of the world on behalf of the poor even if the odds are 30,000 to 72. Insha-Allah.
Hanan Al-Zubaidy: There is a phrase that we hear as we grow up in this that every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala and I think that is a powerful reminder for how timeless this story actually is. It is reminding us that every day is Ashura. Ashura being the day that Imam Hussein was killed. Every single day there are people losing their lives or facing oppression one way or another. And every land is Karbala means every where in the world, even here in Portland and in the United States and in the developed countries there is oppression happening every where and in every single generation.
I don’t want to leave with a false impression. I was embraced, but that should not be mistaken for “it’s all good.” It is not all good. The United States has rained destruction and death on Iraq. Millions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Palestine have died and are still dying because of the United States and its misguided foreign policy and its support of Saudi Arabia and Israel. War drums continue to beat against Iran, for no good reason. I came as an ambassador. I hope others will come. I hope American media will come. I hope other Christian pastors will come. Come and see. See what is happening, talk with real people, and be advocates of true peace, peace that comes from justice.
The most emotional moment for me was when I was able to swim through the bodies to touch the lattice work that is above the grave of Imam Hussein (alayhi salaam). I couldn’t quite reach it. A hand took mine and pushed it against the lattice work. I looked at the person who helped me and I felt a surge of emotion.
It was as if Imam Hussain (alayhi salaam) was calling me to give myself for truth. I am a Christian. I am a Christian pastor. But because of my encounter with Imam Hussain (alayhi salaam) I have received a renewed faith in the work of Jesus and Hussain (peace be upon them both) for justice and truth. Jesus and Hussein are brothers. They are one.
If the human race is going to survive, we all must be one.
For Love of Hussain (A.S.)
The Husayniah Islamic Society of Seattle
John Shuck and Josh Townsley
Filming and Editing: Josh Townsley
Interviews, Script and Narration: John Shuck
Sheikh Ramadhan Mufakkir
Sheikh Ramadhan Mufakkir
Imam Muhsen Al-Dhalimy
Sheikh Molana Mohammad Baig
Special thanks to:
Husayniah Islamic Society of Seattle
Husayniah Islamic Society of Seattle
Fourteen Panorama Hotel
Imam Hussain Shrine
Iranian Media Center
Bab Husayn Mawkib