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The Origin of Arba’een Pilgrimage

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One of the most important and authentic pieces of evidence regarding the Arba’een pilgrimage is a narration from Imam Hassan al-Askari (a), in which his eminence states the signs of a believer:

عَلَامَاتُ الْمُؤْمِنِ خَمْسٌ صَلَاةُ الْإِحْدَى وَ الْخَمْسِینَ وَ زِیَارَةُ الْأَرْبَعِینَ وَ التَّخَتُّمُ بِالْیَمِینِ وَ تَعْفِیرُ الْجَبِینِ وَ الْجَهْرُ بِ بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمنِ الرَّحِیمِ‏.

A believer has five signs; fifty-one units of prayer each day, the ziyarah of Arba’een, a ring on their right hand, the mark of prostration on their forehead, and saying Bismillah in an audible tone (during prayer).[1]

In addition to the text of the ziyarah of Arba’een, this narration is the only authentic source pointing to the Arba’een of Imam al-Hussain (a) and its significance.

Origin of Arba’een

However, the abovementioned hadith does not answer the questions related to the origin of Arba’een and its founder. To find those answers, we need to assess other sources which recount the origin of Arba’een as the following:

  1. Arba’een is the day the Ahlul Bait (a), who had been taken as captives after the events of Karbala, returned to Medina from Shaam and possibly passed through Karbala on their way.
  2. It is the day that Jabir bin Abdullah al-Ansari, one of the loyal companions of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him and his progeny, entered Karbala from Medina to visit the grave of the Master of Martyrs (a) as the first pilgrim of that holy site.

In his book Misār al-Shi’a which relates the stories about the birth and demise of the Imams, Sheikh Mufid mentions the Day of Arba’een, as stated above.

Arba’een in Older Sources

Sheikh Tusi, a student of Sheikh Mufid, authored one of the most thorough supplication books available today. In his book Misbah al-Mutahajjid, Sheikh Tusi states: “The 20th of the month of Safar (forty days after the events of Karbala) is the day that the household of Imam al-Hussain (a) returned to Medina from Shaam, and it is also the day Jabir bin Abdullah al-Ansari, the companion of the Messenger of Allah, entered Karbala from Medina to visit the grave of Imam al-Hussain (a). He was the first man to visit the grave of Imam al-Hussain (a). On such a day, visiting the Imam’s grave is recommended. This action is referred to as the ziyarah of Arba’een.[2] In continuation, Sheikh Tusi states that the optimal time for reciting the ziyarah of Arba’een is in the afternoon.

Additionally, it has been mentioned in the book Nazhah al-Zahid, written in 6th  century Hijri, that: “It was on the 20th of this month that the esteemed family of Imam al-Hussain (a) reached Medina from Shaam.”[3] This matter has also been included in the books al-Futuh by Ibni A’tham and al-Misbah by Kaf’ami. Scholars consdier both as important supplication sources from the 9th century.[4]

Interpretation of Sheikh Mufid’s Statement

However, some argue that the statements made by Sheikh Mufid and Sheikh Tusi mean that on the day of Arba’een, the household of the Imam left Shaam for the destination of Medina rather than arriving at Medina.[5] In any case, the ziyarah of Arba’een is one of the most reliable texts regarding the Master of Martyrs (a) and contains deep and significant concepts.

The Ahlul Bait’s Return to Medina or Karbala

As mentioned, Sheikh Tusi believed the Ahlul Bait returned to Medina from Shaam on the 20th of Safar or the Day of Arba’een. It is also necessary to add that some believe the Ahlul Bait returned to Karbala that day. However, scholars such as Allamah Majlisi regard both opinions as implausible.[6] He remarks on this in his book Zad al-Ma’ad.

The Return of the Ahlul Bait on the 20th of Safar

Other older sources that state the return of the Ahlul Bait to Karbala from Shaam are Muthir al-Ahzan and Luhuf, which date back to the 6th century Hijri. Furthermore, historians recount in their books that on their way back to Medina, the Ahlul Bait requested their guide to take them through the route of Karbala, which may explain their presence there on the 20th of Safar. Yet despite this, one must also bear in mind that though both the aforementioned books contain useful facts, they also include some unreliable stories and narrations. Thus, to better understand them, one must cross-reference the data with that of older books.

The Return of the Ahlul Bait in Other Sources

Consequent to the opinion of his mentor Muhaddith Nouri, the author of the acclaimed and popular book Mafatih al-Janan, Sheikh Abbas Qummi considers the story of the Ahlul Bait returning to Karbala on the 20th of Safar to be incorrect.[7] Additionally, the late Muhammad Ibrahim Ayati and his student Ayatullah Mutahhari deny the matter.

Other Dates for the Arrival of the Ahlul Bait

Since the topic of discussion is the origin of Arba’een and the possibility of this lofty tradition being established by the Ahlul Bait upon their return from Shaam, it is beneficial for us to explore other reports regarding the day of their arrival. Scholars such as Imad al-Deen al-Tabari states in the book al-Kamil fi al-Saqifah that the Ahlul Bait arrived 66 days after the event of Ashura on 16th Rabi al-Awwal.

Reason for Differences in Opinions

Like all other topics in history, the origin of Arba’een has been the topic of debate among scholars. Though there is no doubt about the validity of this tradition, there are different opinions and records of how they came to be. While historians unanimously agree that Jabir bin Abdullah al-Ansari was the first person to visit the grave of Imam al-Hussain (a), the differences in opinions evolve around the role of the Ahlul Bait in this matter. The aspects that require analysis in this regard are unique to an event such as Arba’een because they involve elements that do not exist in other historical events. We will examine the source of the various opinions and reports to clarify this matter further.

Questionable Sources Regarding the Origin of Arba’een

One of the prominent Shi’i scholars and the author of Mustadrak al-Wasa’il, Allamah Mirza Hussain Nouri, has written a book in which he criticizes and assesses some matters mentioned in mourning ceremonies and eulogies that have made their way into the Shia belief system. Among such topics is what Sayyid bin Tawus reported regarding the Ahlul Bait asking their guide to take them through the Karbala route on their way back to Medina.[8] Furthermore, Sayyid bin Tawus has related this matter without citing a source and has compiled the prevalent stories mentioned in the mourning gatherings in this book, which calls for further speculation on the matter.

However, the author of Luhuf later on, refutes the possibility of the Ahlul Bait arriving at Karbala on the 20th of Safar and explains the reason as being the fact that Ibn Ziyad held them in Kufa for a long period. This, in addition to their stay in Shaam and the time it would have taken for them to travel between the three locations, makes their presence in Karbala on the 20th impossible.

Common Point

Regardless of the different opinions and dates, the single factor that is common in all reports regarding the origin of Arba’een and the first pilgrim of the Master of Martyrs is Jabir bin Abdullah al-Ansari. Moreover, the Infallible Imams, who used every opportunity to promote the pilgrimage to the grave of Imam al-Hussain (a), marked the day of Arba’een as an occasion when the pilgrimage is more recommended.

Ziyarah Arba’een

The text of the ziyarah of Arba’een which Imam al-Sadiq has stated, peace be upon him, contains the richest and most reliable concepts informing Muslims of the significance of Arba’een and the movement of Imam al-Hussain, peace be upon him. So much so that it is one of the signs of a true believer alongside other factors such as praying 50 units a day and wearing a ring on one’s right hand.

This article has been written based on sources cited by Dr. Rasoul Ja’farian.


[1] Wasa’il al-Shi‘a, vol. 10, p. 373.

[2] Misbah al-Mutahajjid, p. 787.

[3] Nazhah al-Zahid, p. 241.

[4] Al-Futuh ibni A’tham, Majd Tabatabayi’s edit, p. 916.

[5] Lu’lu’ wa Marjan, p. 124.

[6] Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 101, pp. 334 & 335.

[7] Muntaha al-Aamaal, vol. 1, pp. 817-818.

[8] Lu’lu wa Marjan, p. 152.

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