Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Disappointment over Karbala: A pilgrimage off-limits in 2020… and memories of 2019

Rohullah Sorush 11 min

In normal times, millions of people, including tens of thousands of Afghans, would be gathering in Karbala in Iraq today for the Arba’in pilgrimage. It marks the 40th day of mourning after the martyrdom of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Imam Hussain and his 72 companions in Karbala more than 1300 years ago. This year, however, Baghdad has closed its border to pilgrims arriving by land – the normal route for Afghans – because of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is only accepting a small number of pilgrims, who have to arrive by air. AAN researcher, Rohullah Sorush made the pilgrimage to Karbala last year and here describes the trip he made and explores the religious and cultural significance of Karbala. He also reports how Afghans unable to travel to Karbala this year feel about missing the 2020 pilgrimage.

KarbalaPilgrims walking by the shrine of Abul Fazl Abbas in Karbala, Iraq. Photo: Rohullah Sorush

The significance of Karbala 

Karbala is a city in central Iraq located about 100 km southwest of Baghdad, just to the west of the Euphrates river. It is one of the holiest places for Shia Muslims and a central element in their identity. Pilgrims visit not only the shrine of Imam Hussain, but also those of his half-brother, Abul Fazl Abbas and his sons Ali Akbar, Ali Asghar and his companions. All were killed in the battle of Karbala, which took place on 10 Muharram in the year 680 (61 AH in the Islamic calendar). The conflict was over who should rule the fledgling Muslim empire. Yazid, son of the late caliph Muawiya, had been designated by his father as his successor. His legitimacy was challenged by Imam Hussain. The battle between their forces proved to be a pivotal moment in the schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims. 

For Shia Muslims, the pilgrimage to Karbala is second in importance only to performing the Hajj to Mecca. It is not a farz (religious duty), however, but a mustahab (recommended or virtuous action), which demonstrates their high level of religious devotion. The Arba’in pilgrimage is the biggest annual pilgrimage in the world, bigger even that the Hajj – last year around 18 million pilgrims visited Karbala, compared to about three million people making the pilgrimage to Mecca. 

Pilgrimage only for the few in 2020

This year, in the face of fears over the Covid-19 pandemic, the Iraqi government has issued somewhat contradictory information about restrictions on foreign pilgrims. Earlier, the commemorations for Ashura, which this year fell at the end of August and which mark the actual martyrdoms in Karbala were far smaller than usual, with thousands rather than millions gathering in Karbala. In July, the Grand Ayatullah Sayyid Ali al-Husaini al-Sistani had encouraged believers to carry out their Muharram devotions throughout, rather than travelling to Karbala. Ahead of Arba’in, on 1 September, Iran’s Foreign Ministry reported that Baghdad would not be allowing foreign pilgrims to enter its country. Later that month, Baghdad itself confirmed that no foreign pilgrims would be able to enter Iraq for the pilgrimage. More recently though, it was reported that it had given permission for 1,500 pilgrims from each country (not defined) to fly to Iraq, with 2,500 also allowed to travel overland from Iran. Tens of thousands of people are now reported to be gathering in Karbala, with only limited precautions against the spread of infection visible.

At the time of writing it was not clear how the coveted 1,500 places for Afghan pilgrims had been allocated, but the fact that the Iraqi government seemed to specify flights rather than land travel would anyway have ruled out most would-be Afghan pilgrims who can not afford to fly. Issuing places for pilgrims is normally the responsibility of the Afghan Ministry of Hajj and Awqaf, but the ministry appears not to have been involved this year. Instead, religious travel agencies have been able to get a limited number visas for clients – although it has been complicated and expensive. On 7 October, Abdullah Qurbanzada, head of Khatam-al Nabieen Travel Agency said:

Afghans can’t go to Iran [to get visas for Iraq as they would normally do], but have to go to Islamabad to get Iraqi visas. My travel agency could arrange visas for just 20 Afghan pilgrims, but the costs of travel are huge. For example, a one-way flight from Islamabad to Najaf costs 100,000 afghanis (around 1,305 dollars).

When it became clear in early September that the Arba’in pilgrimage would be cancelled, religious tourism companies stopped registering Afghan pilgrims. (2) Haji Wali, head of Shirzad Amiri travel agency, told AAN that despite announcements from Iranian and Iraqi governments, he still has lots of people coming to his company and others to try to register for a trip to Karbala:

A lot of people are still coming to my office and asking to register for a Karbala trip. I just write their names in the registration book, but don’t take any money. I tell them that it’s not clear yet if the trip is going to happen this year. I also get their phone numbers and say I’ll call them if there is an Arba’in pilgrimage walk, I’ll take money for the travel then.

Amir Muhammadi, head of Ensaf Sair travel agency, told AAN something similar: 

Many people come to my office. In fact, the number is higher than previous years, but I just take their names and phone numbers. This is what the Union for Religious Tourism Companies has asked us to do. Then if the trip is allowed to happen, I can ask them to pay the cost. 

The almost complete cancellation of the Araba’in pilgrimage is having a financial impact on religious tourism companies. The pilgrimage is central to their business and many have paid for months of office rent while waiting for news about whether there would be permission to travel. According to Amir Muhammadi, head of Ensaf Sair travel agency, many of these companies have been forced to close their offices.

For those Afghan who had been hoping to go to Karbala this year, the restrictions have been a great disappointment. Ghulam Ali Zohorian, who has been to Karbala twice before, told AAN:

I am very keen to go to Karbala again. Those who have not gone yet can’t really understand me, but those who have experienced it understand me better. You go once and you want to go again and again. That is why I have been watching the news on Iranian and Iraqi TV channels every day to see if pilgrims would be allowed to travel to Karbala this year.

There are a great many Afghans who have not yet had the chance to go to Karbala and are very keen to go. Najiba Sarwari, a housewife in Kabul, had planned to visit Karbala for the first time this year: 

I had saved money because I had made my mind up to go to Karbala and other holy places in Iran and Iraq, but unfortunately, there’s no good news as no one can go this year due to Covid-19. I am very unhappy, but I hope the virus disaster is over soon, so that people can go to Karbala next year.

Fatima Razawi, an Afghan living in Iran, told AAN: 

I wanted to go and participate in the Arba’in pilgrimage walk last year, but couldn’t. I had planned to go this year, but Covid-19 has prevented it. I’m watching last year’s Arba’in videos on TV and I just cry and cry over not being able to go.

How Afghans travel to Karbala 

Muslims travel from all over the world to get to Karbala. For most, making the pilgrimage is costly and time-consuming, involving long journeys by air, road and even foot. In normal years, Afghans can fly to Najaf in Iraq, the nearest airport to Karbala, via Mashhad in Iran or Dubai. Or they can travel by land through Iran and on to Iraq. Travelling by land is less costly and therefore the chosen route for most Afghans. There are also shrines in Iran to visit along the way. 

During Muharram and Arba’in, Afghan pilgrims are granted visas to travel through Iran much more easily than at other times. There is no Iraqi consulate in Afghanistan, so Afghans obtain Iraqi visas through specialist tourist companies – there are about 200 of them in Afghanistan –who take pilgrims to Iraq in caravans, taking care of their travel, food and accommodation. The companies can also get the Iranian visas, as well as plane tickets, if needed. It is also possible to travel independently once a pilgrim has the visas. There are many mosques along the route where independent pilgrims can stay, with pilgrims often finding generous offers of food from Iranian and Iraqis along their journey. 

For Afghans living in Iran, it is easier to travel to Karbala during Muharram and Arba’in, when they do not need a visa. They can use their residence permits to acquire temporary travel documents from the Bureau of Foreign Nationals in Iran. After returning from Iraq, they must return the travel documents in order to receive their residence permits back. (Information based on interviews with Afghans in Iran and this media report). 

Pilgrims from other countries such as Iran, Syria and India can travel to Karbala and other holy cities in Iraq whenever they wish, not just during Muharram and Arba’in. An Indian pilgrim told the author that: “There are roughly 2,000 Indians visiting the shrines in Iraq every month.” Afghans, however, do not have this privilege.

The majority of Afghan pilgrims come from remote provinces like Daikundi, Bamyan and Ghor, with some also going from Kabul and Herat. The author met people with the provinces above. Many of these people are very poor, but they are prepared to make significant financial sacrifices for the pilgrimage. As one man told the author during his pilgrimage in 2019: “There are people among us who sold their sheep and cows to obtain the money for their trip to Karbala.”

It is also relatively common for newly-married couples to try to visit Karbala during and after Arba’in. There was a newly-married couple in the same caravan as the author in 2019, who said they had kept their wedding ceremony very small, inviting only close relatives, so that they could save money for their trip to Karbala.

The land journey is slow both because of the distance and the bureaucracy that pilgrims have to overcome. Most Afghans who travel by land go via Herat and cross the border at Islam Qala into Iran. With so many travellers during Arba’in, the staff at the Islam Qala border crossing struggle to cope. As a result, it takes hours to cross the border, causing complaints from the pilgrims, particularly older travellers who find it difficult to stand in line for hours. 

On the Iranian side, the border terminal at Dogharun is more efficient. There are more immigration staff, who quickly stamp the pilgrims’ passports with entry stamps. In 2019, as the author and his group were waiting for the bus to take them onwards, a young man came and offered some apples saying, “Please take an apple, they are from Imam Reza’s garden.” This is typical of the warm welcome received by pilgrims once they enter Iran, with tents where they can rest and get drinks and meals for free. There are medical staff available to treat pilgrims in case they get sick. Young men also offer to polish pilgrims’ shoes if needed.

Such generosity surprises first-time pilgrims, as Afghans more usually associate generosity during the pilgrimage with Iraqis. They are famous for their moukebs (stalls) and tents where they welcome and feed pilgrims. Some even invite pilgrims into their homes to rest, eat, wash their clothes and even take a bath. The communal spirit of both Iraqis and Iranians at this time is exemplified in the hashtag #hobulhussain-yajmaona, which means “It’s the love of Hussain that gathers us together” and is often used during Muharram, particularly around Ashura and Arba’in. 

From the border town of Dogharun, pilgrims travel next to Mashhad, the second-most-populous city in Iran. In 2019, the author spent three days there, including visiting the shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth Shia Imam, where pilgrims pray and read the ziaratnama, a special prayer recited during the pilgrimage. There were clergymen around to help those who are visiting the shrine for the first time or who are unable to read the prayer. 

The next destination depends on how pilgrims travel. Pilgrims may fly directly to Najaf, 75 kilometres from Karbala, site of Shia learning and seminaries, and itself a place of pilgrimage as it is the burial site of Imam Ali. Married to Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad and Bibi Khadija, Imam Ali is revered as the first legitimate caliph for Shia Muslims and the fourth for Sunnis. 

Those travelling to Iraq by land will visit Najaf later on. First, while still in Iran, they go to Qom, also site of Shia scholarship and seminaries and home to another important shrine, to Fatima Masuma, sister of Imam Reza, and also venerated by Shia Muslims. In March 2020, both Imam Reza and Fatima Masumeh’s shrines were closed due to Covid-19. They were both stormed by angry crowds who objected to the closure. The shrines are still closed, preventing those who might want to go for daily worship, as well as any pilgrims wanting to visit during Arba’in. Also in Qom is the Jamkaran Mosque, a grand building on the outskirts of the city, which is believed to have been funded by Imam Mahdi, the twelfth Shia Imam. It is always very crowded, but especially around the 15 of Shaban (the eighth month of Muslim calendar), the birthday of Imam Mahdi, which fell in April this year. 

From Qom, pilgrims travel to Iraq through the Mehran or Shalamche border crossings and on to Karbala. In 2019, the author arrived on a Thursday night, considered a holy time for prayers, and he and his group joined other pilgrims on a visit to the shrines of Imam Hussain and his brother Abdul Fazl Abbas. 

The pilgrimage experience in Iraq

The first thing pilgrims see when they arrive at the Karbala site are the golden domes of the shrines to the two brothers, each with two golden minarets. There have been shrines here for centuries, built and rebuilt, and now on a grand scale. The current dome of the Imam Hussain shrine dates from 2019 and is 30 metres high. The courtyard is 1,500 square metres and has ten named gates, allowing entry by pilgrims from all sides. The shrine of Abdul Fazl Abbas, known as the qamar-e bani Hashim (moon of the Hashimite clan), also has ten named gates. 

Pilgrims reading the ziaratnama prayer in the shrine of Imam Ali ibn Abi Taleb, in Najaf, Iraq. Photo: Rohullah Sorush

For most of the year, red flags are flown from the domes. The colour of blood, they signify the martyrdom of Imam Hussain and his followers. During Muharram, the flags are changed to black to mark the period of mourning. The lights inside and outside the shrines are also changed from green to red. 

The walls of the Imam Hussain shrine are covered in ornate decoration. The outside is decorated with tiles with verses of Quran written in Kufic calligraphy on the corners. The inside is decorated with mirror-glass tiles. Around the courtyard are small rooms for religious students and the servants of the shrine, with many porches along the walls. Passing through the courtyard, pilgrims are led inside the building which houses the zarih, the ornate encasement of Imam Hussain’s tomb, which also contains the graves of his sons, Ali Akbar and Ali Asghar. Another zarih also encases the shrine of Abul Fazl Abbas. Pilgrims touch the zarih in both shrines and kiss them. 

When pilgrims first enter the shrine, they read the ziaratnama. The author saw some pilgrims in tears as they read it. Other pilgrims were performing their normal daily prayers, while some were mourning and beating their chests. What really drew attention on the visit of the author was the mourning style of two Pakistanis sitting together in the courtyard of the shrine. One was singing a nawha, a mourning song while the other was beating his chest. The author saw that many pilgrims gathered around the Pakistani pilgrims and listened to their mourning.

Many pilgrims chose to make a ritual walk. Usually this is from Najaf to Karbala, with pilgrims arriving into Karbala in time for the day of Arba’in itself. The walk usually takes two days, but sometimes longer. Some pilgrims may begin the walk from the border in Iran, which takes more than a week or from Basra in southern Iraq.

However, they arrive, once in Iraq, pilgrims usually try to visit as many of the other holy sites in there as they can while they are there, in Karbala, Najaf and in Kazimayn city near Baghdad, and Samarra. (1) In all, they can be on pilgrimage in Iran and Iraq for three weeks.


One of the striking things for the author about his pilgrimage to Karbala was the diversity of the pilgrims. There were people from Iran, Pakistan, India, Azerbaijan, Syria, Lebanon, Kazakhstan, Bangladesh, Russia and other European countries. Everywhere, pilgrims were welcomed by Iraqis and offered drinks and food. 

The generosity towards the pilgrims is particularly significant for Afghans who live on low incomes, since it enables even those with very little money to attempt the pilgrimage. There are mosques and moukebs where pilgrims can stay, with food often provided by local Iranians and Iraqis. Some Iraqis invite pilgrims to their homes to have food, rest and take a bath. In addition, there are Afghans living in both countries who also set up moukebs which many Afghan pilgrims make use of.

Although most pilgrims to Karbala are Shia, there are also some Sunni Muslim visitors. The author saw Sunni Muslims in both Karbala and Najaf. They can be distinguished from Shia Muslims by the way in which they perform their prayers. Some were praying inside the shrines of Imam Hussain and Abul Fazl Abbas. Although they were putting a mohr/turbah (soil or clay) in front of them to perform the sajdah (prostration) in the same way as Shia Muslims do, they were putting their right hands over their left arms below their chest in the way Shias do not, but some Sunnis do. Among the pilgrims from so many countries with their diverse appearances, languages and cultures, the atmosphere is one of mutual respect and kindness. Those Afghans who had hoped to make the pilgrimage this year can only hope that Iraq is again open to them in 2021. 

Edited by Kate Clark

(1) Pilgrims also visit the following other holy sites during Arba’in: 

  • The grave of Habib ibn Mazahir Asadi , Muslim ibn Awsaja, Hur ibn Yazid Reyahi (all of them companions of Imam Hussain;’;
  • The mosques of Imam Sadiq’s (sixth imam), Imam Mahdi’s (twelfth imam) and Zain ul-Abuddin (fourth imam); 
  • The graves of Muslim ibn Aqil (Imam Hussain’s cousin and envoy), Mukhtar Saqafi (who took revenge and killed the people who were involved in killing Imam Hussain) and Hani ibn Orwa (a companion of Imam Hussain), all of which are at the grand mosque in Kufa;
  • The graves of Muslim ibn Aqil’s children, Muhammad and Ibrahim, which are close to the main Karbala to Baghdad road;
  • The shrines of Imam Musa al- Kazim (seventh imam), Imam Muhammad Taqi al-Jawad (ninth imam), both of which are in Kazimayn city near Baghdad; 
  • The shrines of Imam Ali al-Naqi Hadi (tenth imam), Imam Hassan al-Askari (eleventh imam) and the grave of Bibi Nargis Khaton (Imam Mahdi’s aunt), which are in Samarra.  

(2) An Iranian TV channel, broadcasting footage of Iraqis walking to Karbala on 6 October, showed flags from 70 countries on which Iraqis had written, “We perform pilgrimage on behalf the people from these countries that could not come to Iraq this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.”


10 Muharram Karbala pilgrimage


Rohullah Sorush

More from this author