Karbala: visiting the site of Islam’s greatest tragedy

Imam Hussain


As I observed the roza of the Prophet Mohmmad’s (PBUH) grandson Imam Hussain in Karbala, it seemed surreal that I was actually here.

People visiting the haram can do as they please – eat, sleep, walk, pray – as long as they respect the rules laid down by caretakers of the shrine, which are mainly for security reasons and keeping the area clean.

A common sight is people taking selfies with the shrine’s golden domes that provide the perfect backdrop.

Imam Hussain

Imam Hussain

You can also have your photograph taken by professionals who are usually seen scouting pilgrims.

On one side, groups of men recite nohas and do matam.

The atmosphere is peaceful, as everyone is involved in their own activities.

Children, indifferent to the sanctity of the place and the sombre mood, run around laughing and shrieking as they do. What’s good is that nobody admonishes them for their behaviour.

There are separate toilets and ablution areas for men and women.

Drinking water is available everywhere.

While there are arrangements to give your shoes and valuables for safekeeping, lockers are placed along the shrine’s verandahs. They especially come in handy since cameras and phones are not allowed inside the shrines.

Donation boxes are placed inside the courtyard requesting charity for martyrs or soldiers who were wounded fighting ISIS.

You will experience a language barrier if you do not speak or understand Arabic as only few Iraqis understand English, but you don’t necessarily have to always converse to find your way around as directions to main landmarks are marked in English.



Outside the shrines, the main arteries are lined with restaurants, tea and juice stalls, and sweet shops. Inside the narrow alleys, shops sell goods from China, Turkey and India.

You can buy abayas, scarves, jainamaz, sajdagah, rosary, kaffan cloth, incense holders, framed photos and mugs of Imam Hussain, Hazrat Ali and Hazrat Abbas, as well as selfie-sticks.

Dustbins, placed every few feet, are routinely emptied. At night when the crowd gets thinner, the roads are washed.

The security is strict once you enter the cool interiors of the shrine. There is a separate curtained room which women have to pass through, while for men it’s open. Women are frisked and their handbags are checked carefully. Lipstick, nail polish and other cosmetics are not allowed. Security also checks if women have their heads completely covered before going inside. If they find you wearing makeup, they provide you with wet tissues to wipe before you are allowed to enter the mosque and the shrine.

Once inside, everyone’s goal is to touch the zarih (the outer enclosure of Imam Hussain’s grave) in midst of the huge crowd. There’s a lot of pushing and shoving, and there’s a real chance of getting trampled, as people who were standing calmly next to you in the line outside suddenly lose it once inside the shrine. They do not care if they have jabbed their elbows into someone’s rib, broken a toe nail, almost suffocated the person caught in between or pulled down or torn off someone’s head gear. You need to have an escape plan when you find yourself plastered between people.

Despite all, the cool, airy interiors of the shrine are a welcome respite. The beautiful Persian carpets are clean despite the huge number of pilgrims visiting around the clock. Sajdahgahs are strewn about on the carpet and are stepped on by women although there are boxes kept for them to be placed. If you stay inside the shrine long enough, you’ll see that the carpets are routinely vacuumed. The women’s section is vacuumed by women while the public place is taken care of by men.

The walls of the shrine are lined with shelves with prayer books in Arabic and Persian. It would be wonderful if the caretakers would keep some English translations as well.

Karbala remains a deeply religious experience and vast majority of the pilgrims believe that it is an invitation by the Imam to visit Karbala and pay their respects.

This Muharram marks the 1,377th year when Imam Husain arrived in Karbala.
The shrine of Hazrat Abbas, which is the same distance from Imam Hussain’s shrine, as the hills of Safa and Marwa in Mecca.
Many believe that the soil in Karbala, known as khak-e-shifa, cures every ailment with the exception of deadly diseases. These sajdagahs are made from Karbala’s soil and are widely available in stores around the shrine.
The place where Yazid’s forces ambushed and showered Hazrat Abbas with arrows, cutting off his right hand in which he was carrying the water skin filled with water from a dyke of the Euphrates, to take to the children of Imam Hussain. Abbas put the water skin on his left shoulder and continued on his way but his left arm was also cut off. He continued holding the bag with his teeth. The army of ibn Sa’ad started shooting arrows at him, one arrow hit the water skin and water poured out of it.
The vast courtyard between the shrines of Imam Hussain and Hazrat Abbas Ali provides space for prayer, relaxation and gathering.
Placed next to Imam Hussain’s shrine are the graves of two of his sons Ali Akbar and Ali Asghar.
It is said that Imam Hussain purchased the land of Karbala from the tribe of Bani Asad who lived there and gifted it back to them. He then addressed the men, requesting that: “On the tenth of this month you will see our dead bodies lying on this plain with our heads severed and taken away. Please bury us, and when our devotees come to visit our graves, treat them with honour and point out to them the places of our burial.”
Women visiting the shrines have to strictly abide by the dress code, which is the abaya and scarf. Men are free to wear anything as long as their legs are covered.
The battle of Karbala is the greatest tragedy in Islamic history when the Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) family was killed by Yazid’s army.

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