AHL-BAYT – the family of Prophet Muhammad,–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 Ali ibn Abi Ṭâlib. Sadly, her name and personality are unfamiliar to many of us, though she was the granddaughter of the Prophet, the daughter of Fâṭimah bint Muhammad and Ali ibn Abi Ṭâlib.
She was born in the year 5 AH, during the lifetime of the Prophet and was in fact named by him, after his daughter and her aunt, Zaynab bint Muhammad . She was the third child of Fatimah—daughter of the Prophet —and Ali—nephew and son-in-law of the Prophet —born after her brothers Al-Hassan and Al-Hussein. Though the Prophet 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 . However, her father waited until a man of equal standing came to propose: her cousin, Abdullâh ibn Ja'far ibn Abi Ṭâlib.
Though Abdullâh 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-Âbidin, referred to her as, âlima ghayr mu'allama (‘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 âbida (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 Ali 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 inescapable, 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 Mu'âwiyah ibn Abi Sufyân, the ascension of Yazîd ibn Mu'âwiyah 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.
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 bay'â (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 Mu'âwiyah 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 Ali’s jihâd, however, did not end on the Day of Âshûra’. 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.”
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-Âbidîn 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 Ali ibn Al-Ḥussain.
“Didn’t Allah kill Ali ibn Al-Ḥussain?” Ibn Ziyâd retorted.
“I had an older brother named Ali [ibn Al-Ḥussain] whom your men killed,” Zayn Al-Âbidîn 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 Imrân, 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 Ali was sent to Syria to face Yazîd ibn Mu'âwiyah 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 Ali 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.
The Speech Before the Khalifah
The granddaughter of Prophet Muhammad, 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.
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 aboutAhl 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.