Chehlum marks the 40th day after the shahadat of Imam Husain AS thus coming on the 20th of the Islamic calendar’s second month of Safar. It is marked with great fervour especially by Shias and a growing tradition is the Arbaeen (fortieth) walk and has been among the largest pilgrimages on earth with close to 20 million people making the journey to Karbala during this time. Many of these pilgrims choose to make the 55 mile journey from Najaf to Karbala on foot and an increasing number of Mumineen have joined their Shia and Muslim brethren in making this trip in this way.
Journeying on foot towards places of pilgrimage is seen as a form of utmost piety, especially when the pilgrim has the means at their disposal to do so with less difficulty. But some of the most poignant and telling narratives from the past are of persons of very limited means who still made tortuous journeys in search of spiritual fulfilment. Of these is one we hear on every Aashura, a remarkable story that has come to epitomise truly dedicated love and desire for Imam Husain’s AS ziyarat. We hear of her only as ‘the old lady’ or the ‘frail’ lady who made the journey to Karbala on foot many centuries ago.
She lived in Persia and at the time the Abbasid Caliphate was in power in Baghdad. The caliph of the time, bitter with enmity for the Ahle Bayt and in an effort to deter the Shia from coming for ziyarat gave a decree that of every ten pilgrims to Karbala from Persia one would be killed. Far from deterring them it was seen that there would be a tussle amongst the pilgrims to be the one who was sacrificed and so the caliph substituted his first decree with one that required every pilgrim to give 500 uqiyah of gold as a toll. (An uqiyah is a unit of weight, it is still used as the term for one ounce/approx 30g).
It was around this time that the old lady had determined to make the pilgrimage and little by little, doing various chores she gathered together, over some years, the required 500 uqiyah of gold. And so she set off for Karbala and eventually came to the crossing point where, by chance on the day she arrived the caliph happened to be sat watching the pilgrims. He sighted the frail, elderly lady, she was barefoot, weak, dishevelled, her clothes ragged and called her over.
“Where have you come from?” he asked her and she replied, unknowing that he was the caliph that she had come from Iran, “It’s been a long while that I had the desire to do the ziyarat of Imam Husain,” she told him.
The caliph asked her, “Do you not know that there is a toll of 500 uqiyah for each person that comes for pilgrimage?”
“Yes, I know”, she told him. “Over the years I have worked and gathered the 500 uqiyah together.”
Incredulous, the caliph continued to question her, “You are so elderly, your do not even have shoes for your feet, your clothes are ragged, so advanced in years, where did you get 500 uqiyah from?”
The old lady took them out, “Look here,” she said brandishing the bag, “I have the 500 with me!”
“When you had gathered 500 the right thing to do was to buy a steed, have some clothes made and then go.”
“I am but a poor woman,“ she told him, “I have these 500 which the caliph will take, I have nothing else.”
“You could have waited a year or two,” he counselled, “gathered as much as was needed and then.”
The old lady burst into tears, “I have reached this old age, I am elderly, what do I know if I will live another year or two and the desire for Imam Husain’s ziyarat goes unfulfilled?”
The caliph’s heart softened as he came to see how these people felt. He sent a new decree to his governor in Karbala that the toll should no longer be taken in this way and henceforth it should be only 2 uqiya.