AHL AL-BAYT – the family of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ,–those bound to him by blood and by marriage, those whom he spoke of in his sermon at Khumm:
And the people of my household, I remind you of Allah with regard to the people of my household! I remind you of Allah with regard to the people of my household, I remind you of Allah with regard to the people of my household. (Muslim)
And how can we uphold the rights of Ahl Al-Bayt without knowing who they are? We commonly know about the wives of the Prophet and we know of his grandsons Al-Ḥassan and Al-Ḥussain, but many of us do not know about the one granddaughter of the Prophet who played an important role during a turbulent period of Islamic history.
Amongst the Women of Ahl Al-Bayt
This woman was Zaynab bint ʿAli ibn Abi Ṭâlib. Sadly, her name and personality are unfamiliar to many of us, though she was the granddaughter of the Prophet ﷺ, the daughter of Fâṭimah bint Muhammad ﷺ and ʿAli ibn Abi Ṭâlib.
She was born in the year 5 AH, during the lifetime of the Prophet ﷺ and was in fact named by him, after his daughter and her aunt, Zaynab bint Muhammad ﷺ. She was the third child of Fatimah—daughter of the Prophet ﷺ—and Ali—nephew and son-in-law of the Prophet ﷺ—born after her brothers Al-Hassan and Al-Hussein. Though the Prophet ﷺ died when she was about five years old, her love for him never waned.
As she grew older, many sought her hand in marriage, desiring to be joined with the family of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ. However, her father waited until a man of equal standing came to propose: her cousin, ʿAbdullâh ibn Jaʿfar ibn Abi Ṭâlib.
Though ʿAbdullâh became a wealthy man, Zaynab herself was a woman who lived simply. With her husband’s support, she used her wealth to provide support for the vulnerable and the needy; it is said that she owned a house which she did not keep for herself to live in, but used as a shelter for vulnerable women, orphans, and the elderly.
In addition, she was a woman who memorized the Quran and was known for her knowledge of the dîn; she regularly held classes where she taught the women of Madinah—and later, Kûfa—though her knowledge was known even to the men. Ibn Abbas related aḥâdîth upon her authority.
Her nephew, Zayn Al-ʿÂbidin, referred to her as, ʿâlima ghayr muʿallama (‘she who has knowledge without being taught’). She was a woman of piety and had a deep love for worshipping Allah, spending her nights in prayer and her days fasting. People around her spoke of her as ʿâbida (the worshiper), zâhida (the ascetic), faṣiḥa (the skillfully fluent), and balîgha (intensely eloquent).
Thus, long before any of the troubling political incidents during her father’s khilâfa (caliphate, rule) and the subsequent years, Zaynab bint ʿAli ibn Abi Ṭâlib was a woman whose piety, good character, and knowledge were already known. She was a beloved wife who was supported by her husband; a sister whose older brothers consulted her for her wisdom in many matters.
However, the swiftly changing political landscape of the Islamic empire was unescapable, especially for Zaynab. Her father’s assassination and the death of her brother Al-Ḥassan came as devastating blows to herself and to the Ummah; Al-Ḥussain then gathered his family together, including his sister Zaynab and her children, and together they traveled from Madinah to Makkah. After the uneasy truce during the khilâfa of Muʿâwiyah ibn Abi Sufyân, the ascension of Yazîd ibn Muʿâwiyah as khalîfa (caliph) resulted in far more overt turmoil. Once again, Al-Ḥussain decided to travel, and his family refused to stay behind – the men, women, and children all formed a caravan and made their way to Iraq, where the people of Kûfa had promised their allegiance to the grandson of the Prophet ﷺ.
Alas, once the members of Ahl Al-Bayt arrived, they found to their shock a completely different state of affairs than what they were expecting – rather than a loyal group of the twelve thousand people who had already sworn bayʿâ (oath of allegiance) to Al-Ḥussain, barely a hundred people remained at Al-Ḥussain’s side. Betrayed by the people of Kûfa, they found themselves driven towards Karbala, where every member of Al-Ḥussain’s household knew full well what stark reality awaited them.
Yazîd ibn Muʿâwiyah had dispatched an army of 4,000 soldiers under the command of Ibn Ziyad, a ruthless military general and politician. There, in the desolate plains of Karbala, Al-Ḥussain and Zaynab bint Abi Ṭâlib sat together in their tent, their children gathered around them, knowing full well that this night might be their last together as a family. Sorrowful yet firm in their faith in Allah, they knew that their qadar (destiny) could not be averted. Though tears fell from Zaynab’s eyes, she spent the night in prayer seeking the support of her Lord alone.
The next morning, on the 10th of Muḥarram –the day that Musa had been saved from Pharaoh—Allah gave Al-Ḥussain a victory of his own: shahada, martyrdom in the cause of justice against oppression. The death of Al-Ḥussain was, in and of itself, a lesson to the Ummah: to understand that though injustice and oppression may seem to be powerful today, just as they seemed powerful when Al-Ḥussain was killed, Allah alone is the Most Powerful. Victory in the sight of Allah does not always mean that the enemies of Islam are immediately destroyed with a miracle, but that their destruction in the Hereafter will be eternal and all the more painful.
The Story of the 10th of Muharram
Zaynab bint ʿAli’s jihâd, however, did not end on the Day of ʿÂshûra’. On that day, she lost her youngest son and her brother both; as though that were not enough grief to bear, she and her remaining family members were captured by Ibn Ziyâd and brought to him as prisoners of war.
Dignified even in seeming defeat, Zaynab’s demeanor irritated Ibn Ziyâd, who snapped, “Who is this woman?”
Her slave girl responded, “This is Zaynab, daughter of Fatimah, daughter of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ.”
Sneering, Ibn Ziyâd said, “Praise be to Allah who humiliated and killed you all.”
Eyes flashing, Zaynab responded,
Rather, praise be to Allah Who honored us with His prophet and thoroughly purified us from filth! It is only the morally corrupt who are humiliated by Allah and the depraved who are disproven, and those are not us, O Ibn Ziyâd!
Angered, Ibn Ziyâd asked her, “How do you find what Allah has done with your family?”
Steadfast as ever, she replied:
They were appointed death and thus went forth to their resting places. Allah will gather [a gathering] between them and you, and you will dispute with each other before Him on Resurrection Day.
Discomfited and taken aback, Ibn Ziyâd turned his attention to Zaynab’s nephew, Zayn Al-ʿÂbidîn ibn Al-Ḥussain, who had been severely injured during the battle. “Who are you?” Ibn Ziyâd demanded to know.
As dignified as his aunt, the young boy answered,
I am ʿAli ibn Al-Ḥussain.
“Didn’t Allah kill ʿAli ibn Al-Ḥussain?” Ibn Ziyâd retorted.
“I had an older brother named Ali [ibn ʿAli ibn Al-Ḥussain] whom your men killed,” Zayn Al-ʿÂbidîn said calmly.
Ibn Ziyâd snapped, “Rather, Allah killed him!”
The boy recited Qur’anic verses in response:
Allah takes the souls at the time of their death. [Sûrat Al-Zumar, 39:42]
No soul can ever die except by Allah’s leave and at a term appointed. [Sûrat Âl ʿImrân, 3:145]
Furious, Ibn Ziyâd summoned his executioner and commanded that the boy be killed immediately. Zaynab immediately stepped forward and drew her nephew into her embrace, declaring for all to hear,
O Ibn Ziyâd, if this is the case, then kill me with him!
Knowing that to have a defenseless woman killed would be a mark against his own reputation, Ibn Ziyâd commented sourly, “What kind of kinship is this? I think that it is as if she wants me to kill her! Leave him be.”
After this altercation with Ibn Ziyâd, the household of Zaynab bint ʿAli was sent to Syria to face Yazîd ibn Muʿâwiyah himself. As they were brought forth to his court, a member of Yazîd’s entourage caught sight of Zaynab’s niece, Fâṭimah bint Al-Ḥussain—a beautiful young woman—and demanded that she be given to him as a gift.
Infuriated by this disregard for the dignity of her family—the family of the Prophet, Zaynab bint ʿAli once again strode forward and spoke fearlessly:
This is neither your right nor his!” she declared to Yazîd.
Angered in turn, Yazîd snarled, “You have lied. This is certainly my right, and if I wanted to [give her to him], I would.”
“No, by Allah!” Zaynab swore, “Allah did not permit you this unless she leaves our faith and practices another religion.”
“How dare you direct such speech toward me!” Yazîd exploded. “The only ones who left the religion are your father and brother!”
“It is through the religion of my father, brother, and grandfather that you, your father, and your grandfather were guided,” Zaynab parried. She paused, and then delivered the speech that became famed throughout history for its eloquence, its ferocity, and its passion.
To be continued, inshâ’Allah, in Part 2…