Around a small window inside the al-Husayniyah courtyard in Karbala city, near the historic Bab al-Sidra, large groups of people of all ages gather every day. They queue for a long time and at the end, they are
This is no ordinary dust according to pilgrims who visit the holy shrine. It is a "sacred dust" said Haj Mujahid Mahdi Majeed, the head of the gifts and vows section of the Husayniah. "It is sacred because it is collected from areas surrounding Imam al-Hussein's shrine, peace be upon him."
According to Majeed, the dust is collected every month from around the Imam's shrine and the nearby areas and from the libraries inside the Husayniah. "But we mainly get the dust from the carpets every time we clean them," admitted Majeed.
People who visit the holy shrines in Karbala and other Iraqi cities, usually try to collect pieces of green cloth distributed inside the shrines. They buy them because they believe that they are sacred. However, those who gather around the small window only want the blessings of the ‘Sacred Dust’.
Pilgrims believe that the soil where Imam al-Hussein has walked will bring them health and happiness. There are many stories of miracles that keep up the dust’s reputation.
"Using the holy dust to cure illnesses requires special ceremonies," says Majeed. "First, the Quran should be recited, followed by prayers and sacred verses on the holy dust. Then, the dust is mixed with water and should be poured all over the body or a specific injured area of the body. Some, seeking quick recovery, go as far as eating the dust," he said.
Sheikh Ali al-Fatlawi, the person in charge of the library and its manuscripts in al-Husayniah, strongly believes that the dust is sacred and that it makes miracles.
"The shrines of prophets are sacred and history tells us many stories of people who used all kinds of medicine but were only cured when they resorted to the Imams and to their purity," he says.
Ruqaya Ibrahim al-Mayali, like many others, believes that the dust is sacred. While waiting for her turn to get a small bag of dust, she told Niqash that she uses the dust as a medicine.
"I have pain in my stomach and also severe headaches. All the medicine prescribed by doctors could not end the pain," she said.
"When I started using the dust, the pain vanished and that is why I always keep a bag of holy dust in my house."
3000 bags of holy dust are distributed every month.
Because of the high demand for the dust, the Shrine's administration decided that a specific time window (1pm – 5pm every day) should be allocated for the sale of dust.
Last year, a special machine was bought to clean the collected dust and pack it in special bags.
"The machine was designed and manufactured in Iran," said Majeed. "We installed it in the gifts' store and there are four persons operating the machine on a shift basis to produce the necessary quantities."
Visitors to Karbala, who come from all over the world to buy the dust, also often buy Masabih (prayer beads) made of Karbala mud which they use during their prayers.
There is no doubt that Karbala is the only city in the world that can sell its mud. Mud-made items are sacred and it is a privilege to receive gifts made of the city's mud.
Mud items are sold in shops surrounding the city and its two shrines. They are the main source of income for those who manufacture and sell them.
Haj Mahdi said that the dust is not manufactured specifically for sale and the Shrine's administration makes no profit from sales. It is given to visitors as a gift. However, some shops sell the dust and profit from it.
The holy shrines in Karbala depend on the amounts allocated to them from the federal government and also on amounts paid by the Shiite Waqf. In 2010, 6 billion Iraqi dinars (US$5 million) were allocated for projects aimed at developing the shrine. In addition to these two sources, the shrines receive grants and donations from different sources, said Haj Mahdi.
It was impossible to find figures for these donations or records of how the money is spent. The shrine’s management says that all the amounts donated are spent providing services to the millions of the shrines' visitors and to projects aimed at developing these shrines.
According to Majeed, the Shrine's Secretariat was keen to provide visitors with the dust service.
With the fall of the former regime, the number of the shrines' visitors has rapidly increased. It is estimated that last year around 30 million visited the shrine.