Mapping Shiite Opinion

Insights from the Arba’een Pilgrimage

Shiite Muslim pilgrims walk to the holy city of Kerbala, ahead of the holy Shiite ritual of Arbaeen, in Najaf, December 8, 2014. Alaa Al-Marjani / Reuters

In the weeks leading up to November 21, millions of Shiite Muslims will flock to the southern Iraqi city of Karbala for the world’s largest annual pilgrimage. Although the Arba’een pilgrimage has recently swelled to about ten times the size of the Hajj, it remains virtually unknown in the West. Pilgrims from across the world perform this ziyara—or visit to the shrine of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Hussein—on foot to mark 40 days after his martyrdom. The event commemorates a central moment in the Sunni-Shiite divide and was largely restricted during the rule of Saddam Hussein, who saw the massive physical mobilization of Shiites as an implicit threat to his regime.

Since Saddam’s fall, participation in such religious festivals has risen steeply. The new Iraqi government opened the borders to Shiites from around the world, and in 2004, over two million pilgrims, including 100,000 Iranians, went to

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