Journey to the Land of Two Rivers

TEHRAN, May 31 (MNA) -- “Whoever visits Imam Husain (AS) fully comprehending and acknowledging his right, Allah rewards him with the equivalent of a thousand accepted obligatory pilgrimages (hajj) and a thousand accepted voluntary pilgrimages (umrah) and forgives him all of his past and present sins.” Imam Sadiq (as).1

After receiving an invitation from Al-Khoei Islamic Center to join a ziarat (pilgrimage) group to visit the Atabat (holy shrines) in Iraq, I was filled with conflicting thoughts and emotions. Should I go? Or should I be “sensible” and pass, missing this unique opportunity? After careful consideration and counsel from Hojjatoleslam Ebrahim Kazeruni who is from Najaf and drew me map by memory, I concluded that it was now or never, and decided to take the plunge. Iraq, here I come!

The itinerary called for a Tuesday 15 February departure from New York, arrival in Damascus, Syria Wednesday 16 February and arrival in Najaf, Iraq on Friday 18 February. While in Iraq we would visit Kufa, Karbala, Samarra and Kadhimain as well and the group would be lead by respected scholar Sheikh Ma’an as-Sahlani who would instruct us in the proper ziarat rituals.

Departing Denver

Not being an experienced traveler -- I hadn’t flown since 2006 -- I bought my tickets from a travel agent who advised as to how early to arrive at the airport and what to expect from the new security policies. I carefully studied Transportation Security Administration’s video on how to proceed through the security screening and downloaded a brochure for quick reference just in case. I read through all the carry-on bag restrictions.

With passport and pre-printed boarding pass in hand, I felt fully prepared to face the security ordeal. I placed my shoes, coat, sweater and everything else in the trays and proceeded through the metal detector. Much to my surprise, there was no alarm! Prepared to request a pat-down inspection, I asked a TSA employee what was next and, he responded almost anticlimactically that no further check was required, so I gathered my belongings and headed to the departure gate for my New York flight.

New York nexus

Following an uneventful flight with a slightly hair-raising landing at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, I headed for ground transportation. I was born in New York, so the experience of returning there felt akin to a homecoming for me. I threw caution to the wind and boarded a Q-72 bus, which headed down Junction Boulevard toward my old neighborhood. Surprisingly, not much had changed. Buildings looked a bit more worn and weathered like me, but otherwise remarkably familiar.

After walking around my old apartment building, I headed for the subway with directions in hand to get to my hotel, which was in Jamaica close to Al-Khoei Islamic Center. The subway is like a time machine. Yes, the subway cars were newer, but the ceramic tile work in the stations was exactly the same as was the deafening roar of an express train passing on the center tracks. I closed my eyes and felt as if I had entered a time warp; it could have been 1965!

The next morning, I found the Al-Khoei Islamic Center and was greeted by Brother Naima, an Iraqi refugee forced to flee his country as a result of the U.S. invasion in 2003 and unable to find work in his field of expertise, forestry. After introducing myself, he took me to the office where I met Sister Remtulla, who insisted that I call my wife and let her know I was all right. I also met Al-Khoei Director Sheikh Fadhel al-Sahlani and librarian Seyyed Razvi. Afterwards, I was escorted to a guestroom where tea was on the stove and breakfast was offered. I was overwhelmed by the hospitality shown to this out-of-towner, who had just arrived for the ziarat group.

Following a ride to JFK airport and a stimulating conversation with Brother Mukhsim from Tanzania, I joined the other members of the group. We proceeded to get our boarding passes, went through security, found our way to the departure gate for our flight to Istanbul and boarded our plane. After take off, we were welcomed aboard by our captain first in Turkish and then in English. I don’t understand Turkish, but heard a welcome sounding “insha’Allah” in the Turkish version that wasn’t in the English.

Istanbul interlude

After a pleasant but long flight, we arrived in Istanbul and took a bus to the Grand S Hotel. Istanbul seemed very westernized, with freeways, heavy traffic, McDonalds, Burger King and many English signs indicative of Western influence. It is a city of contrasts with women in full Islamic hijab walking past women in the latest alluring Western attire. On level 2 of the international terminal, one can buy alcohol by the drink or the bottle while downstairs on level 1 one can do the salaat in the masjid. I’m not certain if one could infer something about Turkish society based on the respective levels of the bar and the masjid at the airport.

Discovering Damascus

After a two-hour flight, we arrived in Damascus and “another world,” as one member of our group declared. Moving through passport control, I finally had a chance to practice my Arabic; I could even read the signs! We were whisked off to the Safir Saydna Zaynab Hotel, were fortified with fruit juice upon arrival and then settled in for the night.

Early next morning, we made our way to the Shrine of Hazrat Zaynab (SA), daughter of Imam Ali (AS),2 for ziarat and morning salaat. It was 5:00 a.m. and the shrine was already packed with space at a premium. I had to pray from a spot in the aisle, which regrettably interfered with the endless stream of pilgrims heading for the mausoleum. Afterwards, I sat in the courtyard of Hazrat Zaynab’s shrine for a time absolutely mesmerized by the sun shimmering off the glistening gold dome. I had never seen anything like this before.

Later that day, we visited the shrine of Hujr bin Adi, located in the town of Adra’ in Al-Qutayfah District north of Damascus.3 He was a devoted companion of Imam Ali (AS) and a staunch defender of Ahl-ul-Bait (AS) who was martyred by order of Muawiyah, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty of caliphs, for refusing to curse the holy imam as commanded by Yazid.4

Returning to Damascus, we visited the many tombs in Baab as-Sagheer cemetery, including Hazrat Ruqayya (SA), daughter of Imam Hussein (AS), Lady Umma Kulthum, sister of Imam Hussein (AS), Fatima Sughra bint Imam Hussein (AS), and Maqam Ra’s Shuhada, the place of safekeeping of the heads of the martyrs of Karbala.5 Later that afternoon, we visited the Great Umayyad Mosque, which is one of the oldest in the world and contains shrines of Prophet Yahya (John) the Baptist (AS), the place where Yazid kept the head of Imam Hussein (AS) and a white pulpit where Ali bin Imam Hussein (AS) addressed Yazid.6

While in Damascus, I got to know two young Iraqi men, Faris and Mostafa, who acted as guides and helpers for our group. Both men had been compelled to seek refuge in Syria along with an estimated million other Iraqis7 as a result of the U.S.-induced chaos in Iraq. Mostafa has been in Syria since 2005. I apologized to him and Faris for the American occupation in their homeland, a futile gesture perhaps, but what else could I do?

The most noble Najaf

The next morning, we arose early, did our salaat at Hazrat Zaynab’s shrine and by 8:00 a.m. were on a bus heading to Damascus International Airport for our flight to Najaf, Iraq. The weather was foggy which matched the way I felt after days of travel, but I thought to myself, “This is it; I’m on my way to Iraq.” After a two-hour flight, we landed safely at Najaf International Airport and waited while our passports were faxed to Baghdad for processing. Soon, everyone’s passport was stamped and we were on our way to the hotel.

Security checkpoints were everywhere. We passed at least 4 on the way from the airport to the hotel, each one manned by guards armed with combat rifles, armored vehicles with heavy machine guns and surrounded by concrete and barbed wire. These heavily fortified checkpoints underscore the plight of innocent Iraqis victimized by the illegal and immoral U.S. invasion and occupation that has resulted in over 1.4 million Iraqi deaths.8

Once checked into our rooms at the Guest Palace Hotel, we headed for the Shrine of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib (AS) for salaat. Tradition holds that Prophet Noah (AS) and Prophet Adam (AS) are also buried there next to him.9 Upon seeing the shrine’s gold dome, I was overcome with feelings of peace and tranquility that I simply cannot explain. After reciting the ziarat prayers, I hurried toward the mausoleum along with the throngs of fellow pilgrims, all of us filled with longing to be as close as possible to the holy imam.

The next day, we headed to Wadi as-Salaam cemetery, burial place of Prophet Saleh (AS) and Prophet Hud (AS)10 and the site of fighting between the forces of Muqtada as-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi and the American invaders. In the August 2004 attack, two minarets of the holy shrine were damaged and the courtyard was riddled with bullets and shrapnel. Following artillery shelling, two of the invader’s F-16 warplanes dropped four 2,000 pound bombs on two hotels suspected of harboring resistance fighters located near the shrine11 in Suq al-‘Amara. The remnants of the destruction wreaked on that day characterized as a “raid” by the Western media still remain.

Later that morning, we moved on to the Shrine of Imam Jafar as-Sadiq (AS). Located there is a well from which Imam Mahdi (AS) drew water for ghusl (ritual bath). While we did salaat adh-Dhuhr and al-Asr there, I thought about the American bombs that had fallen nearby, which my tax dollars helped finance.

In the afternoon, we visited Masjid al-Hannana where the family of Imam Hussein (AS) stayed for a night and Imam Zain ul-Abideen (AS) did ghusl for the heads of the martyrs. Tradition holds that the walls of this masjid bowed down out of respect when Imam Hassan (AS) and Imam Hussein (AS) passed with the corpse of Imam Ali (AS).12

Next, we paid our respects at the shrine of Kumayl bin Ziyad, companion of Imam Ali (AS), where we did ziarat prayers then listened while Sheikh Ma’an recited the familiar Du’a Kumayl. I marveled at how fortunate I was to be listening to the beautiful supplication in this sacred location in Iraq.

The following morning, I arose early and made my way to the Shrine of Imam Ali (AS) for morning salaat. Entry required passing through two security checks; one to enter the haram (outer courtyard) and the other to enter the sanctuary. I received pat-down inspections at both before entering the sanctuary, which was already crowded with worshippers. Looking up at the gold dome and the colorful lights, I could not help but feel as if I was dreaming, but the cold gusts of wind quickly reminded me that all of this was quite real; I was really praying in the Shrine of Imam Ali (AS) amidst the multitudes of other pilgrims.

After a Sunday morning visit to Ayatollah Mohammed Saeed al-Hakim, we took a bus to Kufa to visit the shrine of Meitham at-Tammar and Al-Imara, the house of Imam Ali (AS). We spent most of the afternoon at Masjid al-Kufa with its numerous sites inside, including the place where Imam Ali (AS) was martyred, the mausoleum of Muslim ibn Aqeel, cousin of Imam Hussein (AS); the mausoleum of Mukhtar Thaqafi (Saqafi), avenger of the massacre of Imam Hussein (AS); the mausoleum of Hani bin Urwa, companion of Imam Hussein (AS) killed by Ubaydullah bin Ziyad for sheltering Muslim bin Aqeel; the mosalla (prayer chamber) of several prophets; and where the deluge of Prophet Noah (AS) began.

The next morning, we went for a meeting with Ayatollah Ali Sistani. After waiting outside his office, we were ushered past a number of security guards and then seated in a room where we were served tea after which his eminence entered. He informed us that even if we have not done all the ziarat correctly, if our intention was true, then Allah would accept our efforts because He knows best what is in our hearts.

Following the meeting, my roommate, Seyd Kazmi, and I ventured down Ar-Rasoul Street in search of a barber shop. We were directed to one owned by Mr. Hassan, who gave us both haircuts and a beard trim with a distinct Najaf touch. I began to feel at home here.

Also located in Najaf is the grave of Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Abolqasem Musavi al-Khoei. Author of 73 books and treatises, architect of a distinct school of thought in principles of Islamic jurisprudence, he was also the founder of many Shia centers around the world including Al-Khoei Islamic Center in New York, sponsor of our ziarat.13

Karbala the keystone of Shiism

Tuesday, we boarded a bus for Karbala and said our goodbyes to Najaf. While only some 72 kilometers from Najaf, the multitude of checkpoints--one every kilometer, or at least so it seemed--extended the trip into a half day’s journey.

The essence of pilgrimage to Karbala is a ziarat to the Haramayn (two sacred shrines), the shrine of the 3rd Imam Hussein (AS) and that of Hazarat Abbas bin Ali (AS), brother and standard-bearer of Imam Hussein (AS). Inside the mausoleum of Imam Hussein (AS) are three graves: one for the imam (as), and two for his sons, Ali Akbar (AS) and Ali Asghar (AS).

Also located inside the shrine are the Ganj-e-Shohada,14 the graves of the martyrs of Karbala; the grave of Ibrahim son of the 7th Imam Musa al-Kadhim (AS) in the western part; the grave of Habib bin Madhahir in the southern part and Qatl-ghah, where Shimr (lanatullah) severed the head of Imam Hussein (AS) on Ashura. Near the shrine are the Khaimagah, the camp of Imam Hussein (AS) and Tall-e-Zaynabiya, the hill where Hazrat Zaynab (SA) pleaded for the life of Imam Hussein (AS) on Ashura.15

Also in Karbala is the garden of the 6th Imam Jafar Sadiq (AS) and the garden of the 12th Imam Sahib al-Asr, Al-Mahdi (AS). Five kilometers from Karbala is the mausoleum of Hur, a companion of Imam Hussein (AS) in Karbala. Also, there is the mausoleum of Aun, the son of Hazrat Zaynab (AS).

Sepulchres of Samarra

Samarra, which literally translated means “a joy for one to see,” is located 124 kilometers north of Baghdad.16 Unfortunately, due to a road closure and curfew, we were turned back at a checkpoint and could not visit the shrine of the 10th and 11th imams, Imam Ali an-Naqi (AS) and Imam Hassan al-Askari (AS). Also, there are the graves of Bibi Narjis (SA), and Bibi Hakeema (SA), mother and aunt of Imam Mahdi (AS). Samarra is the birthplace of Imam al-Mahdi and the sardab (cellar) where he went into occultation is there as well. In Balad on the way is the grave of Sayyid Mohammad, uncle of Imam al-Mahdi (as).17

Conclusion in Kadhimiya

Our last pilgrimage stop was to Masjid al-Kadhimiya, in the Qurash Cemetery. Located there are the mausoleums of the 7th and 9th imams, Imam Musa al-Kadhim (AS) and Imam Muhammad al-Jawad (AS).18 Also there are the graves of Sheikh al-Mufid, Seyyed Ismaeil Sadroddin, Khwaja Nasir ad-Din Tusi, Seyyed Murtada and Seyyed Razi.19

Bye-Bye Baghdad

Early Monday morning, 28 February, we gathered in the hotel lobby with our luggage, walked to the parking area and boarded our bus for the trip to Baghdad International Airport. We were ready to go at 4:45 a.m. but had to wait until 5:00 a.m. for the curfew to end. We headed toward the airport, passing through one security checkpoint after another, until we arrived at one where we transferred to a shuttle bus for the last leg of our trip to the airport. At this security checkpoint, all our luggage was lined up and men with bomb-sniffing dogs scoured the suitcases followed by a pat down screening for everyone. There were at least three more checkpoints on Qadisiya Expressway before we arrived at the terminal. At one, we made a loop in the parking area and waited; I don’t know why.

Arriving at the Turkish Airlines terminal, we proceeded through the initial security screening, obtained our boarding passes and headed for the departure gate and more security checks. Up to this point, I had no security issues, but here the inspector took my cologne, shampoo and every other liquid item I had, leaving only a stick of deodorant and a tube of toothpaste. Apparently, “mamnu’a” (forbidden) was the operative word.

We left Baghdad at 9:30 a.m. and arrived back in Istanbul where we stayed overnight once again in the Grand S Hotel. The next morning, I was up early and ready to leave for the airport to catch our plane back to New York. The airline sent a bus with insufficient seats for the 16 people in our group, so they dispatched a taxi for the rest of us. Upon arrival at the airport, the taxi driver demanded payment and didn’t seem to understand that Turkish Airlines was supposed to foot the bill, so I took my bags and headed to check in, leaving the discussion over who was paying in the hands of Brother Mehdi.

After three more security screenings, we boarded the plane for our flight back to JFK Airport in New York, arriving there at 2:45 p.m. on Tuesday 1 March. I had booked a hotel room near LaGuardia Airport, where I was to leave for Denver the next morning. Wednesday morning, I caught a cab to the airport, went through the one and only security check and found my way to the departure gate. The one-stop at Chicago flight turned out to require a change of planes there, but that was the only glitch on my return to Denver, where I arrived safely at 3:15 p.m. on Wednesday 2 March, praise to Allah.

Ramifications upon return

This life-changing journey to Iraq into the heartland of Shia Islam continues to affect me spiritually and in manifold ways that are difficult to explain. Sunsets are more beautiful; food is more delicious; time with friends and loved ones more precious. What was once normal has now become abnormal. Separating life into religious and secular components now seems impossible. Also clear due to the ziarat is that the duplicitous U.S. foreign policy is nothing but a militaristic exercise of its self-interest and imperial ambitions.

All praise to Allah who granted the opportunity for this ziarat and ensured our safe return. My sincere thanks to the organizers at Al-Khoei Islamic Center as well.


Yuram Abdullah Weiler is a former engineer turned freelance writer from Denver, Colorado USA. A Shia Muslim, he has made a pilgrimage to Syria and Iraq. He frequently contributes to Tehran Times and welcomes comments at

1. M. Muhammadi Rayshahri, The Scale of Wisdom: A Compendium of Shi’a Hadith, London: ICAS Press, 2009. Page 496.

2. Hazrat Zaynab (SA), Ebooks. URL: - 1 (Accessed 26 March 2011)

3. Shabbeer Mousavi, Grave of Hujr ibn Adi, a companion of Iamam Ali (AS), 17 May 2008. URL: (Accessed 22 March 2011)

4. Hujr ibn Adi, Wikipedia, 73 December 2010. URL: (Accessed 22 March 2011)

5. Damascus Pilgrimage Sites, Ahl-ul-Bait Digital Islamic Library Project. URL: (Accessed 22 March 2011)

6. Umayyad Mosque, Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. URL: Accessed 27 March 2011)

7. Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed, One Million Iraqis in Syria, Asharq Alawsat, English ed., 6 September 2009. URL: (Accessed 22 March 2011)

8. Iraq Deaths, Just Foreign Policy. URL: (Accessed 23 March 2011)

9. Najaf Pilgrimage Sites, Ahl-ul-Bait Digital Islamic Library Project. URL: - Najaf (Accessed 23 March 2011)

10. Religious Sites in an-Najaf, Republic of Iraq, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. URL: (Accessed 23 March 2011)

11. Battle of Najaf (2004), Absolute Astronomy. URL: (Accessed 23 March 2011)

12. Seyyed Haider, Handwritten Notes, February 2011.

13. About Ayatullah Al-Khoei, Al-Khoei Islamic Center, New York. URL: (Accessed 25 March 2011)

14. Seyyed Rizwan Rizvi, The Martyrs of Karbala, URL: (Accessed 24 March 2011)

15. Index of Zafer-Cheadle, Karbala. URL: (Accessed 25 March 2011)

16. Holy Shrines in Salah ad-Din, Republic of Iraq, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Op.cit.

17. Seyyed Haider, Handwritten Notes, February 2011.

18. Seyyed Haider, Handwritten Notes, February 2011.

19. Pilgrimage Sites Kadhmayn, Ahl-ul-Bait Digital Islamic Library Project. URL: - Kadhmayn (Accessed 24 March 2011)

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