The Speech before the Khalifa
The granddaughter of Prophet Muhammad œ, had just spoken truth to power—in front of Yazîd ibn Mu¢âwiyah, the khalîfa, the Umayyad ruler in Syria (Part 1). Zaynab bint ¢Ali paused, and then delivered the speech that became famed throughout history for its eloquence, its ferocity, and its passion.
Allah and His Messenger have spoken the truth, O Yazîd!
Then evil was the consequence to those who dealt in evil, because they denied the revelations of Allah and made a mock of them. [Sûrat Al-Rûm, 30:10]
O Yazîd, did you really think that when we were shackled by the corners of the earth and the sky’s canopies—such that we were herded about as prisoners are herded—that we were humiliated with Allah while you held a position of honor, and that this is due to the greatness of your rank? You turn your nose up at others and look at yourself in exuberant exultation as you see the world lain out before you and your affairs proceeding harmoniously. What you have actually been given is respite and lavishness, but this is the statement of Allah (Glorified and Exalted):
Let not the Unbelievers think that Our respite to them is good for themselves: We grant them respite that they may grow in their iniquity; But they will have a shameful punishment. [Sûrat Âl ¢Imrân, 3:178]
Is it just, O Son of Freedmen, that you keep your wives and female slaves in seclusion while you parade around the daughters of the Messenger of Allah having removed their protective layers and forcing them to raise their voices —depressed, scurried about on camels, enemies guiding them from place to place, unguarded and unsheltered, watched equally by strangers and familiar people, and without a guardian from among their men-folk? How would it even be possible for someone who looks toward us with insolence, hatred, grudges, and malevolence to slow down the pursuit of our abuse?
Did you actually say—without feeling guilty or deeming it significant— “If only lords of mine at Badr could see” while scraping Abu ‘Abdullah’s teeth with your walking stick? How could you be otherwise when you have scraped the scab off the wound and nipped us in the bud by spilling the blood of the progeny of the Messenger of Allah and the stars of the earth from the family of ¢Abd Al-Muṭṭalib? Soon you will most certainly gather together with them before Allah, and you will most certainly wish that you had been blind, mute and did not say, “They’d cry repeatedly with joy.”
O Allah, take the matter of our rights into Your Hands and avenge us of those who have wronged us!
By Allah, you have not run away except within your own skin, and you have not cut anything other than your own flesh. You will come before the Messenger of Allah despite yourself while his flesh and blood are in the Divine Sanctuary on a day when they will be united after having been dispersed. For Allah (Glorified and Exalted) says,
Think not of those who are slain in God’s way as dead. Nay, they live, finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord. [Sûrat Âl ¢Imrân, 3:169]
Those who positioned and affirmed you in your authority over the lives of Believers will soon know—when Allah is the judge, Muhammad is the plaintiff, and your own wounds bear witness against you for (“evil is the exchange for the wrong-doers” and “who is worst in position and weakest in forces!”)
And even though I deem you to be of paltry worth and heinous anger, our eyes flow and our chests burn. This does not compensate or benefit us as al-Hussain has been killed. The Party of Satan has brought us before the Party of Fools in order to give them the property of Allah as payment for them violating matters made sacred by Allah. Such hands drip with our blood; such mouths nurse from our flesh; and such pure bodies are preyed upon at night by roaming wolves.
So if you take us as booty, you will be held liable when you find nothing other than your own actions before you, screaming, “O Ibn Marjânah[i],” just as he screams for you. [Ibn Marjânah was….]
By Allah, I am afraid of nothing other than Allah, nor do I complain to anyone other than Allah. So scheme away, sally forth, and exert your utmost effort. By Allah, nothing will ever wash away the shame of what you have done to us.
And all praise is due to Allah Who sealed the lives of the masters of the young men of the Gardens with felicity and forgiveness, thereby guaranteeing them Paradise. I ask Allah to raise their ranks and to guarantee them an increase from His largesse, for He is the Omnipotent Guarantor.”[ii]
The Response from the Khalîfa
The words of Zaynab bint ‘Ali echoed throughout the palace, and Yazîd ibn Mu¢âwiyah remained silent. Such was the granddaughter of RasûlAllah: unafraid, even in a position of seeming defeat and humiliation, to speak words of truth to an individual who clearly had no hesitation in demanding the blood of his opponents. And such was the baraka (blessings) of her words that, rather than punishing her, Yazîd released her household and returned their wealth to them.
In fact, he was so moved by her words that as the people of Ahl Al-Bayt prepared for their next journey, Yazîd took Zaynab’s nephew Zayn Al-¢Âbidîn aside to express his remorse for the treatment of the Prophet’s family during the events of the 10th of Muharram and its aftermath.
May Allah curse Ibn Marjânah. Lo, by Allah! Had I been one of your father’s companions, he would never have asked me for anything except that I would have given it to him, and I would have protected him from death with everything I could, even if it meant that one of my sons had to perish. However, Allah decreed what you witnessed, my young son. Write to me from Madinah with all your needs.”
Zaynab and her family chose to go back to Madinah, but their stay was cut short. Alarmed by the reaction of the people of Madinah to Zaynab’s return, the governor ¢Umar ibn Sa¢îd wrote swiftly to Yazîd, saying:
The presence of Zaynab in Madinah arouses people’s emotions and roils their thoughts because she is eloquent and intelligent. When she talks, she grabs their undivided attention, and when she delivers a speech, she enchants their minds and hearts. It is possible that she will request justice for the spilling of Al-Hussein’s blood, which will have undesirable effects and ramifications that only Allah knows.
Finally, she retired to Egypt, where she devoted the last years of her life to worshiping Allah, embodying once more her title of âbida.
What We Owe to Ourselves
Thus was Zaynab bint ¢Ali ibn Abi Ṭâlib: a woman in whose veins ran the blood of the Messenger of Allah, whose tongue recited the Words of Allah, whose life was marked by sorrow and grief without end – yet whose faith never wavered, whose courage never diminished, whose dignity never faded.
It is all too easy to end her story on such a note, to admire her as a heroine without peer, to place her upon a pedestal and leave her there. However, her life was much more than just a fascinating historical incident – rather, it is a sign for us to reflect upon, a lesson for us to learn from.
Ahl Al-Bayt. Karbala. Al-Ḥassan. Al-Ḥussain. Yazîd. These terms and names tend to make many of us feel uncomfortable, referencing incidents in the history of the Muslim Ummah both painful and polarizing. The aftereffects of those events continue to be felt today, and are considered to be one of the main reasons for the difference between Ahl Al-Sunnah wa Al-Jamâ¢ah, and the Shî¢a. Outside of academia, the topic usually arises in Muharram and the Day of ‘Ashura’ – and even then, the focus for Ahl Al-Sunnah lies not in discussing what took place at Karbala, but on the Sunnah of fasting the 9th and 10th of Muḥarram.
However, it is time that we of Ahl Al-Sunnah question why we shy away from speaking about Ahl Al-Bayt –the family of RasûlAllah including his grandchildren Al-Hassan, Al-Hussein, and Zaynab bint ¢Ali–when we are the ones who should love them most. Their stories are our stories to know; their lives are examples for us to learn from.
Furthermore, we have spent far too long focusing on the Shî¢i vs. Sunni aspect of the events of Karbala without once stopping to think about what we have to learn from it about ourselves – about our tendency to deflect, to avoid acknowledging difficult realities in our Ummah, to avoid taking responsibility for ourselves and our own mistakes. We owe it to ourselves, to our Ummah, to come to terms with this sordid history—and actively to stop perpetuating its fallout. How?
Zaynab bint ¢Ali was a powerful figure because she called out the brutality of Muslims towards other Muslims, towards the family of RasûlAllah himself. Today, we might not be harming Ahl Al-Bayt, personally, ourselves, but this Ummah is supposed to be one body, and we need look no further than our own masajid to see the pain we have wrought amongst ourselves.
The pulpits of our masâjid have become bastions of sectarian politics, where it is considered dangerous to make du¢â’ for the Muslims oppressed by our own leaders, and where support for homicidal tyrants murdering their own people is not seen as a bizarre aberration. Sisi and Bashar Al-Assad are the names we speak today, but this is not a new phenomenon: Mu‘ammar Gaddafi, Husni Mubarak, Saddam Hussein, and so many more – uncountable names, for so many generations. Nay, we Muslims, we who claim to follow the Sunnah of RasûlAllah, are the ones who uphold oppression against each other out of petty worldly greed, preferring politics over piety.
Much of our reluctance to speak about the events of Karbala, to learn about the lives of Ahl Al-Bayt and what was done to them, is a reflection of our general weakness in being hesitant to admit that Muslims can and do turn on each other because of power and politics, and use din as a justification for dunyawi goals.
The story of Zaynab bint ‘Ali has very little to do with Shî¢a vs. Ahl Al-Sunnah, and everything to do with learning what it means to face the harsh realities of our Ummah. Her spirit and her words, her devotion to Allah and her refusal to accept quiet defeat, should inspire us to have the courage and determination to speak against the wrongdoing that we commit amongst ourselves.
We cannot claim to be obedient to Allah or to love His Messenger when we are the ones who abuse each other – politically or financially, within our homes and within our marriages. There is no outward enemy to blame for the Muslims in our own communities who are being beaten and abused by their own spouses because we are not providing them with the support they need; there is no one else to blame when we support political parties or individuals whose concern is not justice, but power over the masses.
Like Zaynab bint ¢Ali, we must be ready to prove our sincerity of faith by being willing to experience hardship and difficulty for the sake of Allah – seeking His Pleasure alone, finding our honor not in trifling political tidbits or the advantages of financial gain, but in living His din and striving to fulfill what it means to be the khulafâ’ (guardians) of this earth.
We are currently the Ibn Ziyad’s of our Ummah, but we can also be its Zaynab’s… if only we have the courage to live like the forgotten heroes and heroines of our past.
Balaghat al-Nisa’ by Ibn Tayfour translated by Moustafa Elqabbany.
[i] Ibn Hajar alAsqalani says about Ibn Marjanah: He is Ubaydullah bin Ziyad , the prince of Kufa for Mu’awiya and his son Yazîd and he is the one who prepared the armies from Al-Kufa to fight Al-Hussain [ra] until he was killed in Karbala. He was known as Ibn Marjana and she is his mother (Marjana).
Tajeel al Munfa Bazawaid Rijal al Aimah al Arbah, page 180
[ii] Ibn Tayfour; Balaghât an-Nisâ’.