The word ‘Arbaeen’ literally means ‘forty’ in Arabic. In the context of the Islamic months of Muharram and Safar, however, this term is most widely associated with the commemoration of the 40th day after the martyrdom of Imam Hussain ibn Ali (p) in the year 61 A.H. (680 C.E.). From a spiritual perspective, there are many narrations in Islamic literature noting the merits of various supplications and rituals on Arbaeen. The most prominent of all acts is visitation (ziyarah) to the actual grave of Imam Hussain (p). Each year, millions of people visit Karbala on Arbaeen and millions more observe this day all over the world, but what should we do to ensure that we are observing Arbaeen with proper understanding? Indeed, it is meritorious to visit Imam Hussain (p) on this and many other occasions. However, there are criteria that, once met, make such visitations even more spiritually rewarding. Additionally, it is important to recognize the role we play in visiting Imam Hussain (p).

The Rights of Imam Hussain (p)

In Islamic literature, there are many works that describe the virtues of visiting the sanctified grave of Imam Hussain (p) (and other infallible ones) in detail. However, if one takes a closer look at some of these narrations, they will note a very important but often overlooked condition. According to Shaykh al-Kulayni, there are narrations from Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq (p) on the excellence of visiting Imam Hussain (p). In some instances, scholars quote the 6th Imam (p) as saying that such visits earn the visitor the spiritual rewards of setting free one thousand [enslaved] people.’ In other areas, Shaykh al-Kulayni quotes Imam al-Sadiq (p) as saying that for such a visitation, sins of the past are forgiven. In each of these cases, there is an additional statement that the Imam (p) makes, forming an important stipulation. Imam al-Sadiq (p) says that these rewards are for one who visits the grave of Imam Hussain (p) ‘with proper understanding of his rights.’1

In other words, simply visiting Imam Hussain (p) without understanding what his rights were and how they were violated does not merit the same level of spiritual excellence as a visitation in which one is aware.

According to the Ahl al-Bayt (p) school of thought, some of the rights of the twelve Imams are to acknowledge that they have leadership with divine authority, to know that obedience to them is religiously obligatory, and that disobedience to them is transgression. Yazid ibn Muawiyah, the grandson of Abu Sufyan, had demanded that Imam Hussain ibn Ali (p), the grandson of the Holy Prophet of Islam (pbuh&hp), recognize him as the rightful leader of the Muslims. Yazid was evil and only sought to use the seat of Islamic leadership as a means for seizing power, as did his ancestors before him. How could Imam Hussain (p), who was himself endowed with divine authority from God, recognize another for a task that he was commanded to perform? Imam Hussain (p) rejected Yazid’s claim outright.

When Yazid saw that Imam Hussain (p) would be an obstacle for his impure ambitions, he set events in motion that would result in the most horrific tragedy in all Islamic history. On the 10th of Muharram, his troops massacred Imam Hussain (p), on the desert plains of Karbala, Iraq. He was slain along with many members of his family and loyal companions after being surrounded by Yazid’s army and starved of food and water for three days. In the aftermath of his martyrdom, the women and children from his family and his only remaining son, Imam Zayn al-Abidin (p), were all taken as captives by the army of Yazid. The root cause of this tragedy was that Yazid did not wish to recognize Imam Hussain’s (p) divinely ordained right as the guardian of the Muslims and instead sought to usurp this right to satisfy his own personal, sinful ambitions.

The Promise of God, the Most High

After the massacre of Imam Hussain (p), his family, and loyal companions on Ashura, the cruelty of Yazid’s army was now focused entirely on tormenting the women and children. On the 11th of Muharram, the household of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him & his progeny), bound in chains, were now forcefully being taken to Kufa. Shaykh al-Majlisi chronicles many details of the events that followed, including a very important narration from Imam Zayn al-Abidin (p), the 4th Imam.

The 4th Imam (p) said, “When we suffered what we did in the tragedy of Karbala in which my father was murdered, along with [many of] his sons, brothers and others [from his family], and his family and women were taken on camel-backs to al-Kufah, I began to look at the fallen ones left without burial. It [what I saw] became intensely heavy on my chest and my soul was about to leave my body.

“Zainab, the eldest daughter of Ali, my aunt, noticed and asked, ‘Why do I see you in this condition? You are the legacy of my grandfather, my father, and brothers.’ I replied, ‘How can I remain without crying and lamentation when I see my master, brothers, uncles and cousins and my family stained with their blood. They are on the ground in the open with their garments looted, without shrouds and burial. No one comes close to them [as if they are strangers].’

“She then said, ‘What you see must not make you cry, because, by God, it is due to a promise of God with His Messenger, your grandfather, your father and your uncle. God has made a promise with certain people of this nation (followers of Muhammad) who are not known [to the kings of this earth] but they are well known to the inhabitants of the skies. They will collect these bodies which are cut in pieces and stained in their blood to bury them. They will establish in memory of this tragedy a monument for the grave of your father, the master of the martyrs, whose traces will never become old and its marks will never be eliminated because of the passing of nights and days. Allow the leaders of unbelievers and falsehood to try and eliminate these monuments, but these monuments will [only] shine brighter and higher.’”2

Observing Arbaeen with proper understanding

From the two points mentioned above, it is important that visitors of Imam Hussain (p) during the occasion of Arbaeen (and indeed all occasions), have proper understanding of the rights of Imam Hussain (p) and their role as visitors in fulfilling the Promise of God, the Most High.

One should be aware that Imam Hussain (p) was the rightful guardian of the Muslims, that his leadership was divine, obedience to him was religiously obligatory, and disobedience to him was an act of transgression. His divinely ordained rights were usurped by the tyrant Yazid, and he was brutally massacred without reason.

Additionally, the millions of visitors of Imam Hussain (p) should fully appreciate the role they play in fulfilling the Promise of God, the Most High, as described by Sayyida Zainab bint Ali (p). We should strive to be those people who are well-known to the inhabitants of the skies and were promised to the household of the Holy Prophet (pbuh&hp). There is no one other than the followers of Ahl al-Bayt (p) that are actively preserving the sacred monuments of Imam Hussain (p) and his family. They do so not only by continuing to visit the physical shrines, but by educating others about Imam Hussain (p). One way to accomplish this is to spread the message of ‘Who is Hussain?’ to those who may not know him. Other ways include attending majalis to increase our own insight so that we can learn and impart what we have learned to those who wish to know. By taking some of these steps, we ensure that the light of these monuments can shine ever brighter and people will see it even from afar.


1. Shaykh al-Kulayni, al-kafi, vol. 4, part 3, ch. 20.
2. Shaykh al-Majlisi, Bihar al-anwar, vol. 45, ch. 39.


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