It was still dark outside when the five Self-Enhancement Competition winners and their guardians gathered at the departure gate to Najaf after a 12-hour transit through Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul. Although the participants of the 2017 competition felt exhausted after the first leg of their journey, there was an aura of excitement in the air. The group knew where they would be going next. As the gate attendant called for passengers to board for the flight to Najaf, it was not easy for them to contain their emotions. When asked about their trip, participants shared some of their experiences with I.M.A.M.
Preparing for the Journey
First-place winner in the sister’s group, Zahra al-Ammoury, described how she had wished in her heart last year during the mourning days of Muharram to visit Imam Hussain (p). One year later, her wish came true. Amena Syed, the second-place winner, recounted the difficulty of the journey, being in transit for so many hours, and how it was all worth it to be able to visit the sacred shrines of our Imams in Iraq.
First place winner in the brother’s group, Ali Jomaa, was in a unique situation since it was his very first time flying. He recalled the difficulties he faced being in a closed space for so many hours, but thought that we each must strive to meet and visit the family of the Holy Prophet (pbuh&hp). He continued to say that human beings may not be well in health, but after reflection and contemplation, we each must try so that God will open doors for us. We have more capacity than we realize and can go beyond what we think are our limits when necessary.
Second place winner in the brother’s group, Shayan Doroudi, experienced some brief technical difficulties with the airline at the very start of his trip. However, he remained steadfast and patient. As a result, he was able to resolve these issues and was able to keep to the trip schedule without any further delay. The resolution of this brief experience only added to the sentiment that he had received an invitation and help from the family of the Holy Prophet (pbuh&hp).
The third-place winner in the brother’s group, Ali Hussain, also had an interesting story. His mother, Razia Hussain, explained to I.M.A.M. that Ali did not inform her about his entry into the competition until he learned that he had won third place. He had found I.M.A.M.’s website, read about last year’s competition, and decided that he would enter and see what his chances were. He registered for the competition and recorded his video without informing anyone. Razia went on to describe her surprise at observing her son’s initiative and felt very blessed to see his accomplishments and motivation.
Visitation in Iraq
On the morning of Monday, December 18th, 2017, the door of their jet opened onto the tarmac of Najaf al-Ashraf International Airport. As the participants emerged from their plane, they could feel a temperate breeze gently embracing their faces. They had finally arrived.
At the airport, the group received a cordial reception from the Administration of the Holy Shrine of Imam al-Hussain (p), known in Arabic as “al-Atabah al-Hussayniyya al-Muqaddassah.” From the airport, their transport took them directly to the holy city of Karbala. Their accommodations for guests of the Holy Shrine were directly adjacent to the shrine of Abu Fadl al-Abbas (p). After settling in, the group was allowed entry into the shrines of Abu Fadl al-Abbas (p) and Imam Hussain (p), escorted by the shrines’ official representatives (who accompanied them throughout the trip), and they then completed their first of many visitations (ziyarah).
The following day, the group visited the shrine of Hurr al-Riyahi (p), which is located several kilometers west of Karbala. They went to see to other holy sites located in Karbala, such as the locations where Abu Fadl al-Abbas’s (p) left and right arm fell, the Euphrates river, and the station (maqam) of Imam Mahdi (p). Participants then visited a shop owned by al-Attabah, where one can purchase various gifts, such as marble from the shrines and other unique items.
On the next leg of their spiritual journey, the group left Karbala, aboard the Holy Shrines’ buses, bound for the holy city of Najaf al-Ashraf. While in Najaf, arrangements were made to meet with His Eminence Grand Ayatullah Sayyid al-Sistani. The participants were very excited and honored to be in the presence of Sayyid al-Sistani in such a private and personal setting. Furthermore, His Eminence delivered a personal lecture specifically to them. At the end of the meeting, each visitor had the opportunity to greet Sayyid al-Sistani personally, and they then left for the ziyarah of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib (p). Some commented that it was a surreal experience. They had just met Ayatullah al-Sistani and were now about to visit the shrine of the Commander of the Faithful (p) himself, as well as Prophets Nuh and Adam (pbut).
The following day was the first session of Quran classes for the competition winners. They were each asked to read and a scholar of the Holy Quran advised them about what they needed to work and focus on. Although they said they were initially a little nervous to read, participants said it was an amazing experience and opportunity to perfect their recitation and pronunciation (tajwid) with an expert.
On Thursday evening, the group returned to Karbala to participate in the supplication (dua) of Kumayl. The supplication was held in “Bayn al-Haramayn” (the place between the two Shrines of Imam al-Hussain (p) and Abu Fadl al-Abbas (p)), and on the following day, the group visited the station where the tents of Imam al-Hussain, Sayyida Zainab, Imam Zayn al-Abidin, and Abu Fadl al-Abbas (pbut) stood. They then attended Friday prayers in the shrine of Imam al-Hussain (p).
As the weekend arrived, the group expressed a collective sense of surprise as to how fast the trip was progressing. It was already Saturday, and they were pleased to be able to travel to their next destination, Kadhimiyyah, the location of the shrine of Imam Musa al-Kadhimand Imam al-Jawad (pbut). After performing their visitation, the participants were invited to have lunch as guests of the Holy Shrine in Kadhimiyyah before making their way back to Karbala.
In Karbala, the group continued their visitation to the place where Abdullah, the infant son of Imam al-Hussain (p) was wounded, as well as Ali al-Akbar, his eldest son. Their visit also included the garden of Imam Jafar al-Sadiq (p), our sixth imam.
The final week commenced with a second Quran session held in a conference room within the Shrine of Imam al-Hussain (p). In this session, the instructor delivered a lecture on the specific rules of pronunciation and went through each rule with specific examples. Once more, it was a great opportunity for each participant to improve their recitation skills. Some remarked that they learned things they had not known before. In the evening, the schedule became more relaxed, and the group could perform ziyarah and shop for gifts as they pleased.
The following day, the group traveled to the city of Babil. By now, it was Tuesday, December 26th. It is in Babil where the son of Imam Musa al-Kadhim (p) is buried, Qasim ibn Musa al-Kadhim (p), brother of Imam Ali al-Ridha (p).
As Wednesday arrived, the group began to sense that the end of the trip was near as they attended the third and final Quran class. The Quranic scholar went through specific pronunciation rules and then asked the participants if they could tell him an example of each in the Quran. He also asked them to read and again pointed out areas where they needed to correct their pronunciation to follow those rules. He concluded the sessions by thanking them and highlighting the importance of having a relationship with the Holy Quran, not just with recitation but also with daily implementation. He said that although each of us comes from different backgrounds with different languages, the universal voice of the Quran and the love for the Ahl al-Bayt (pbut) keep us united.
Later that afternoon the group’s itinerary included a visit to a Quran University where some of the winners were able to record their recitation in a recording studio. They also had the great honor of reading in front of the students of the university and received a warm reception from them.
With only one day remaining in their trip, the group then proceeded to the city of Kufah. Here, they visited the shrine of the companion of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib, Maytham al-Tammar, and then walked to the house of the Commander of the Faithful (p). They next made their way into Masjid al-Kufah, the place where many prophets and imams have prayed, where Imam Ali (p) was mortally wounded with a poisoned sword while in prostration (sajdah), and where the burial sites of Muslim ibn Aqil, Mukthar al-Thaqafi, and Hani bin Urwah (pbut) are. After completing this visitation, they made their way to Masjid al-Sahlah, where Prophets Ibrahim, Khidr, and Idris (pbut) lived, and the location where Imam Mahdi (p) prayed and will return.
As the group awoke to their final day in Iraq, they had a visit with the library administrator of the Imam Hussain (p) Holy Shrine, who is responsible for overseeing over 100,000 books. He welcomed the participants and gave them a summary of the features of the library and their plans to expand the facility to house even more books. He gave each of the guests a book in English on various topics pertaining to Islam. They followed this with a visit to the Museum of Imam Hussain (p), which houses various artifacts given to the shrine as well as some other relics documenting Saddam Hussain’s invasion of the shrine.
As the time approached to leave the holy city of Karbala, there was a sense of profound sadness in the air, but also a sense of appreciation for the beautiful journey the winners had received. They made their final visitation, bade farewell to the Master of Martyrs, Imam Hussain (p) and his loyal brother Abu Fadl al-Abbas (p), and from there made their way to Najaf al-Ashraf International Airport.
It was after they arrived at Istanbul Airport that the group experienced another sad separation, this time among themselves. Over the past two weeks, they had grown close and become companions who shared in a spiritual journey of a lifetime. As they bade farewell to one another, some with tearful eyes, they parted to make their own journeys home. However, what they had gained was far more than what they left behind. They returned home with new friendships and memories that they would cherish for all time.