Millions of Shia Muslims around the world have celebrated the holy day of Ashura, the beginning of the forty-day period of grief and mourning known as Arbaeen, one of the holiest rituals of Shia Islam. Thousands of people gathered on Wednesday night in the Iraqi cities of Karbala and Najaf, producing some spectacular images of religious ecstasy.
Ashura falls on the tenth day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic year that marks the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who was killed in a battle fought at Karbala in the seventh century. Belief in Hussein as Muhammad’s successor is the founding tenet of Shia Islam.
In normal times, Shia Muslims from across the world travel to Iraq every year to mourn Hussein’s death and visit his resting place, although the COVID pandemic has limited people’s ability to do so. Storytellers recounting the events of centuries ago are surrounded by crowds of men who rhythmically beat their chests.
The grieving rites also include the use of chains or knives to draw blood, a tradition known as "Tatbir". Despite major Ayatollahs around the region repeatedly telling pilgrims to refrain from Tatbir because they believe it tarnishes the reputation of Shia Islam, some people continue to do so.
The Arbaeen pilgrimage is back in force after two years of limited movement due to the COVID pandemic – more than 20 million people made the journey in 2019. However, the number of people expected to make the pilgrimage is set to dwarf this year’s Hajj numbers in Saudi Arabia, which was limited to 70,000 people.
Ashura is also widely celebrated in many cities across Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and many other Muslim majority countries.