I was given the herculean task of writing about one of the greatest women in Islam, Sayyeda Zainab (sa). I use the word “herculean”, because no amounts of words will ever be enough to do justice to her role and her sacrifice in preserving Islam. Moreover, even despite the efforts of numerous biographers, very little actual recorded historical fact is available about her. Even the exact dates of her birth, death, marriage, or number of children, cannot be ascertained with complete confidence.
It is not necessary however to dig up as many facts or versions of her life as are available in order to perceive her purity and the strategic importance of her contribution in Karbala. She is a metaphor for the defiance of the oppressed against the oppressor, the victory of truth against falsehood. It is through her extraordinary handling of the trials in Karbala, Kufa, and Shaam (modern day Syria), she endured that we have caught glimpses of the untold depths of her courage, forbearance, patience and submission to the decree of Allah (swt).
Sayyeda Zainab (sa), the daughter of Imam Ali (as) and Sayyeda Fatima Zahra (sa), was born to a family formed by Prophet Muhammad (saw), the most outstanding figure in history. The Prophet’s wife Sayyeda Khadija (sa), a devoted woman was her maternal grandmother, and her paternal grandmother was Fatima daughter of Assad, who mothered and nursed Prophet Muhammad (saw). There is divergence of opinions about the date of birth of Sayyeda Zainab (sa); some say it was 5th in the month of Jamadi Al-Awwal of Islamic calendar, and others say it was 1st in the month of Shabaan, in the 6th Hijrah year 625 AD.
When Sayyeda Zainab (sa) was born, Imam Husayn (as), who was then almost three years old, saw her, he exclaimed in delight, and said, “O father, Allah has given me a sister.” At those words Imam Ali (as) began to weep, and when Imam Husayn (as) asked why he was crying so, his father answered that he would soon come to know. It was when The Prophet (saw) was asked to name her, when the angel Jibra’il had come to The Prophet (saw) and conveyed the message that, “O Prophet of Allah, from early on in life this girl will remain entangled in tribulations and trials in this world. First she will weep over your separation (from this world); thereafter she will bemoan the loss of her mother, then her father, and then her brother Hasan. After all this she will be confronted with the trials of the land of Karbala and the tribulations of that lonely desert, as a result of which her hair will turn grey and her back will be bent.” When the members of the family heard this prophecy they all broke down in tears. Imam Husayn (as) now understood why earlier his father had also wept.
From very early on Zainab (sa) developed an unbreakable bond of attachment to her brother Imam Husayn (as). At times when as a baby in her mother’s arms she could not be pacified and made to stop crying, she would quieten down upon being held by her brother, and there she would sit quietly gazing at his face. One day Sayyeda Fatima (sa) mentioned the intensity of her daughter’s love for Imam Husayn (as) to the Prophet (saw). He breathed a deep sigh and said with moistened eyes, “My dear child. This child of mine Zainab would be confronted with a thousand and one calamities and face serious hardships in Karbala.”
Zainab (as) shared with her brothers and sister the extraordinary position of having such examples to look up to, and learn from, as her grandfather, the Prophet of Allah (saw), her mother Sayyeda Fatima (as), daughter of the Prophet, and her father Imam Ali (as), cousin of the Prophet. In the pure environment that enveloped her, she absorbed the teachings of Islam that her grandfather imparted and after him her father. From her mother too, she learnt to master all household skills with great proficiency. There is very little known of her physical appearance; however when the tragedy of Karbala befell, and Zainab (sa) was forced to go out uncovered. It was then that some people remarked that she appeared as a “shining sun” and a “piece of the moon”.
As a young girl she was fully able to care for and be responsible for the running of her father’s household. As much as she cared for the comforts and ease of her brothers and sisters, in her own wants she was frugal and unstintingly generous to the poor, homeless and parentless. After her marriage her husband was heard to having said that, “Zainab is the best housewife.” When the time came for marriage, she was married in a simple ceremony to her first cousin, Abdullah ibn Jafar Tayyar (as). Hazrat Abdullah (as) had been brought up under the direct care of the Prophet (saw); after his death, Imam Ali (as) became Hazrat Abdullah (as) supporter and guardian until he came of age. He grew up to be a handsome youth with pleasing manners and was known for his bravery, sincere hospitality to guests and selfless generosity to the poor and needy.
In her character she reflected the best attributes of those who raised her. In sobriety and serenity she was likened to Umm ul-Muminin Khadija (as), her grandmother; in chastity and modesty to her mother Bibi Fatima Zahra (sa); in eloquence to her father Imam Ali (as); in forbearance and patience to her brother Imam Hassan (as); and in bravery and tranquility of the heart to Imam Husayn (as). Her face reflected her father’s awe and her grandfather’s reverence.
In Medina it was Bibi Zainab’s (sa) practise to hold regular meetings for women in which she shared her knowledge and taught them the precepts of the religion of Islam as laid out in the Holy Quran. Her gatherings were well and regularly attended. She was able to impart the teachings with such clarity and eloquence that she became known as Fasihah (skilfully fluent) and Balighah (intensely eloquent). In the thirty-seventh year A.H. (after Hijrah), when Imam Ali (as) moved to Kufa to finally take up his rightful position as caliph, he was accompanied by his daughter Zainab (as) and her husband. Even in Kufa her reputation as an inspiring teacher among the women had preceded her. There too women would amass together to her daily sittings where they all benefited from her erudition, wisdom and scholarship in the exegesis of the Qur’an. The depth and certainty of her knowledge earned her the name given to her by her nephew, Imam Ali Zain ul-Abidin (as), of ‘Alimah Ghayr Mu’allamah, meaning, she who has knowledge without being taught.
After the death of both her father, Imam Ali (as) and her brother Imam Hasan (as), through the hands of the power-hungry Bani Umayya, Bibi Zainab (sa) was stricken with grief and loss, however she stayed committed to her divine steadfastness and fortitude. In the month of Rajab, sixtieth year after Hijrah, Imam Husayn (as) decided to leave Medina and travel to Kufa at the request of the citizens of Kufa, who led Imam Husayn (as) to believe that they would be willing to combat the tyrannical rule of Bani Umayya. When Zainab (as) learnt of her brother’s proposed journey to Kufa she begged her husband to give her leave to accompany her brother. Abdullah, himself had wanted to accompany the Imam, but since he had been weakened by illness, he gave her permission to go on this destined journey; with her he sent two of their sons, Aun and Muhammad. Zainab (as) had been prepared all her life for what was written for her and her brother. She preferred to face the trials of Karbala than to ever be separated from him.
In Karbala, Zainab remained brave and steadfast as she saw one by one Imam Husayn’s sons, kinsmen and supporters were all butchered on the battlefield. The fateful day wore on. Husayn (as) was wounded so many times until eventually he fell off his horse. His enemies surrounded him and attacked him with swords and spears. Bibi Zainab (as) saw all this from her tent door. When the fighting came to an end, seventy-three brave men had faced four thousand, and after the bloody encounter was over none of the Imam’s supporters were left alive. The Imam’s body was trampled by his enemies’ horses, his head was severed, and even the tattered cloth with which he had hoped to preserve his modesty was snatched off him. Yazid’s army barging in the camps, plundered what they could and set the tents on fire. They beat the women with their swords and snatched away their veils. Imam Zain ul-Abidin’s bedding was ripped from beneath him and he was left lying feeble, weak and unable to move.
A major part of Zainab’s (sa) mission started when Karbala tragedy apparently ended with the martyrdom of Imam Hussein (sa). This chapter of Sayyeda Zainab’s (sa) life began with conveying the message of Ashura in which she heroically defended the household’s rights and did not permit the enemies to take advantage of Karbala tragedy. On the 11th of Muharram, the members of the Prophet’s (saw) family were made prisoners and taken to Kufa. A city where once Zainab (as) and Umm Kulthum had once lived respected and loved. Now they came to this city of their memories as captives. As they entered, the people were cheering and expressing their joy of victory. But the sermon of Syeda Zainab (sa) was so powerful that it converted the glorious show of victory into a mournful ceremony, where the evils of the governor Ibn Zyad, were revealed. The sermon caused for the delighted happy faces to sadden, and many even began to cry. As a matter of fact, her eloquent speech even boosted people’s anger toward the governor. Bibi Zainab (sa) addressed the people of Kufa with fury words: “Praise to Allah, and may the blessing of Allah be upon Muhammad and his progeny. O people of Kufa, you are hypocrites and deceitful. You feign to be sorry for the death of my brother and his companions. May you always shed tears. I find nothing in you but flattery, evil acts and thoughts, pride and spite and ill will. By Allah (swt)! You deserve lasting sorrow instead of joy. Shames on you, your hands are imbrued with the blood of the son of Prophet Muhammad (saw), the one who was your sole refuge in case of adversity. By your evil act and disloyalty, you incurred the wrath of Allah (swt) against you. Woe betides you! No one will intercede with Allah (SWT) for you.” Her furious words provoked people of Kufa to avenge Imam Hussein’s martyrdom. This frightened Ubaidullah ibn Zyad and his cruel agents. She also delivered a furious sermon in the court of the caliph that made his authority and despotic rule feel undermined. She said: “I fear no one but Allah (swt). Make whatever evil plot you can. Blazes are waiting for you in the hereafter. You’ll he accountable to Allah (swt) for your atrocities.”
When the members of the Prophets (saw) were led to Damascus, they were tied with ropes and herded together like goats. If anyone stumbled they were whipped. The city streets had been decorated and the sound of music filled the air. People came out in throngs wearing festive clothes and rejoiced when they saw the procession, preceded as always by the heads of the martyrs. Bearing themselves with dignity and self-respect, the prisoners were paraded through Damascus. In this manner the captives were paraded until the afternoon when they reached the palace of Yazid. There he was seated on his throne and was much pleased when he saw the forty-four bound captives arrive. The head of Husayn was then brought to him on a golden tray. He struck the Imam’s teeth with his stick and said: “O Husayn! You have paid the price of your revolt.” When Zainab (sa) saw this show of arrogance from Yazid, she drew herself up and bravely addressed for all in the palace of Yazid. A part of the sermon Syeda Zainab (sa) gave with utmost bravery in the gathering of Yazid son of Muawiya in Syria is as follows: “What you consider today as spoils of war will become ruins for you tomorrow and on that day you will find what you have sent from before. Allah (SWT) does not oppress his servants. I express my complaint only to Allah (SWT) and have trust in Him. You may therefore do any treachery that you have, make all your attempts, and try all you can. By Allah (SWT), you cannot remove us from the minds (of people), and you cannot fade our message. You will never reach our glory and can never wash the stain of this crime from your hands. Your decisions will not be stable, your period of ruling will be short, and your population will scatter. In that day, a voice will shout: “Indeed may the curse of Allah (SWT) be upon the oppressors…”
Through Sayyeda Zainab’s (sa) bold and fearless speeches and from the word that spread as a result of their journey, people came to know of the events of Karbala and their hearts were stirred. The continued captivity and humiliation of the family of the Prophet of Allah (swt) was bringing their cause to the attention of an ever increasing number of people. Word came to Yazid that there was turmoil and unrest in the realm, and illusions of Yazid’s good intentions were being dispelled. It was fear of revolt that caused Yazid to release the members of the family of the Holy Prophet (saw).
After being released from prison, Syeda Zainab (sa) asked her nephew, Imam Zain al-Abideen (as), son of Imam Husayn (as), to tell Yazid to empty a house and return their belongings, with the heads of the martyred. She stayed in the house for seven days, mourning for the martyred along with the rest of the imprisoned women, and the women of Damascus. She was the first one to offer condolence to the fourth Imam Zain ul-Abidin (as) on the martyrdom of his father. She then traveled to Karbala and mourned at the grave of Imam Husayn (as) and the Shuhada-e-Karbala (as) [Martyrs of Karbala]. It is Zainab (sa), who is responsible for the foundation of mourning (Majalis-E-Aza) of Imam Hussein (as). This tradition which has lived in the memories and hearts of millions of Muslims to this day, has kept the sacrifices of Imam Hussein (as) alive, and brought dynamism to every movement that aimed at removing injustices on earth.
It was Sayyeda Zainab’s (sa) destiny to proclaim to the world the sacrifices made by Imam Husayn (as) and the other members of the family of the Holy Prophet (saw) for the cause of Islam. She exposed the evil deeds of Ibn Zyad and Yazid with courage and fearlessness. She endured physical pain and mental torture with fortitude and was a source of strength to all around her and never once did she rebel against the destiny decreed by Allah. The strength of her submission was divine, yet her lamentation poignantly human. It is claimed that she died in Syria, at the age of 57 in the year 62 A.H. Her holy shrine Zainabiya is located in the present country of Syria, or as some others believe in Egypt and nowadays many of the Shiites visit it.