Zaynab bint ʿAlī

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ZAYNAB BINT ʿALĪ (c. ah 562; 626/7682 ce), daughter of ʿAlī ibn Abī ālib and Fāimah al-Zahrāʾ, was the first granddaughter of the prophet Muammad. She is best known for her courageous and eloquent role supporting her brother, the second Shīʿah Imām usayn, at the time of his martyrdom in the Battle of Karbala, and for protecting his family in the following months of Umayyad imprisonment.


Zaynab was born in Medina a few years after Muammad's immigration thereto in the early days of Shaʿbān of the year ah 5 (626 or 627 ce). She was the third child born to ʿAlī and Fāimahafter asan (the first Shīʿah imām ) and usaynwith about a year's interval between each child. Her birth was followed by that of a sister, Umm Kulthūm. Tradition states that Zaynab was named by Muammad, who attributed her name to divine inspiration.

Little is known of her early life. Muammad died when she was about five, followed by Fāimah a few months later. She married her paternal cousin ʿAbd Allāh (whose father was ʿAlī's brother Jaʿfar al-ayyār ibn Abī ālib, and whose mother was then ʿAlī's wife and hence Zaynab's own stepmother, Asmāʾ bint ʿUmays). Zaynab is reported to have had five children with ʿAbd Allāh: ʿAlī (known as ʿAlī al-Zaynabī, whose numerous descendants took pride in tracing their lineage to Zaynab), ʿAwn al-Akbar (killed at Karbala), ʿAbbās (no information about him), Muammad (possibly killed at Karbala), and one daughter named Umm Kulthūm (married to her paternal cousin Qāsim ibn Muammad ibn Jaʿfar ibn Abī ālib, after rejecting the suit of the Umayyad Yazīd ibn Muʿāwiya).

When Zaynab's father ʿAlī became caliph in 656 and moved his capital from Medina to Kūfah, Zaynab and ʿAbd Allāh accompanied him there. She lived in Kūfah through four years of military confrontations with the insurgent governor of Syria, Muʿāwiya ibn Abī Sufyān, and with the Iraqi Kharijite rebels, until ʿAlī was killed in 661 by one of the latter. She was then thirty-five years old.

Zaynab is mentioned a few times in the accounts of ʿAlī's caliphate as a devoted and beloved daughter. Moreover, it is reported that ʿAlī taught her a devotional poem that she often recited, and that she herself taught Qurʾān interpretation to women in her house in Kūfah. It is thus likely that she was trained by her father (who is considered the most learned of sages), and that she herself played a teaching role among the women of the early Muslim community.

After ʿAlī's death, his son asan stepped down from the caliphate and Muʿāwiya became the first Umayyad caliph. asan returned to Medina with the family, and was subsequently poisoned by Muʿāwiya in 669. There are reports of Zaynab's caring attendance on asan during his last few days.

asan was followed as head of the Prophet's family by his brother usayn. In 680, Muʿāwiya died, having appointed his son Yazīd to the caliphate. At that timeaccording to some sources, after consulting with Zaynabusayn refused to pledge allegiance to Yazīd, and set off with his family and supporters for Mecca and then Kūfah to meet up with his Kūfan supporters and overthrow Yazīd. Some of usayn's well-wishers tried to dissuade him from going, and these included Zaynab's husband ʿAbd Allāh (who had by then lost his sight, according to some sources), but when usayn remained adamant, ʿAbd Allāh sent Zaynab and his two sons ʿAwn and Muammad with him (there is conflicting evidence regarding whether this Muammad was ʿAbd Allāh's son from Zaynab or another wife).

En route to Kūfah, usayn's entourage was stopped at Karbala and surrounded by a military unit sent by the Umayyad governor of Kūfah, ʿUbayd Allāh ibn Ziyād. On 10 Muarram 61 (680), after three days without food or water in the scorching desert, usayn, his supporters, all but one of the men from his family, and many of the male children were slaughtered. They were reported to be seventy-two in number, including the family members, who numbered eighteen. ʿAwn and Muammad were among those killed, according to some reports, encouraged by their mother to fight in defense of their uncle. Zaynab was then fifty-four years old. Her grief-filled speeches are recorded by many historians.

After the massacre, the Umayyad army looted usayn's camp and set off with his women and children for the court of Ibn Ziyād. Upon reaching Kūfah, Zaynab, with the other women, was paraded unveiled and shackled through the very town where her father had ruled, with the heads of usayn and his companions raised on spears beside them. Ibn Ziyād then ordered the execution of usayn's only remaining son, the 23-year-old ʿAlī Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn (the third Shīʿah imām ); Zaynab protected his life saying Ibn Ziyād would have to kill her before he killed ʿAlī, which shamed him into withdrawing the execution order. A moving oration delivered by Zaynab in Kūfah is recorded in some sources. The prisoners were next sent to the court of the Umayyad caliph Yazīd in Damascus, where one of his Syrian followers asked for usayn's daughter Fāimah al-Kubrā, and once again it was Zaynab who came to the rescue and protected her honor. The family remained in Yazīd's prison for a time; the sources do not specify the number of days or months. The first assembly (majlis ) of mourning for usayn is said to have been held by Zaynab in prison. In Damascus, too, she is reported to have delivered a poignant oration.

Zaynab and her family were eventually released and escorted back to Medina. After her return to Medina, little is known of her in the year and a half before her death, except through much later, conflicting reports. According to one report, she stayed and died there. Another report states that due to persecution from the governor of Medina, she traveled to Fustat (later Cairo) in Egypt with several other women from the family of the Prophet; she lived in Fustat for over a year, narrating the Karbala tragedy and preaching the love of the family of the Prophet, and died there. A third report states that she went with her husband to his Syrian estates in a year of drought and died there. Sources also differ as to the year of her death. According to most of them, she died on 15 Rajab ah 62 (682 ce), when she was fifty-six years old.

Role in Muslim Piety

Zaynab is best remembered for her role in Karbala. Through the centuries, she has continued to hold a prominent place in Muarram orations, as well as in lamentation poetry composed in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and other languages commemorating the Karbala tragedy. She is portrayed in these variously as an object of pity, a compassionate saint, and a powerful intercessor. On a somewhat more militant note, she was used in pre-revolution Iran as a model for inspiring political opposition among womenin the Iranian revolution of 1979, female commandos came to be known as "the commandos of her holiness Zaynab" (Komāndo-hāye Hazrat-e Zaynab ).

Every day, hundreds of Muslim men and women, but especially women, visit the mausoleums dedicated to Zaynab in Damascus and Cairo. In fact, some scholars call Zaynab the patron saint of Muslim women. At the shrine, visitors ask for her help (madad), and they beseech her intercession (shafaʿa ) with God on their behalf for a myriad of petitions, such as curing illness, passing school examinations, or finding a good husband or wife for themselves or their children. Many miracles are attributed to her, such as the curing of chronic illness. Mostly Shīʿah visit the Damascus shrine, and Egyptian Sunnīs of a ūfī bent visit the Cairo shrine, where tens of thousands celebrate Zaynab's birthday (mawlid) for seven days annually.

Zaynab is known by several titles. She is called Zaynab al-Kubrā (the senior Zaynab) to distinguish her from Zaynab al-ughrā (the junior Zaynab, the name of her full sister, Umm Kulthūm, and also perhaps of another half-sister). Zaynab is called al-ʿAqīla (literally, "secluded one," or "pearl," perhaps connected to a suggested etymology of her name: zayn + ab, "adornment of father"), as well as Thānī-ye Zahrāʾ (the second Fāimah Zahrāʾ). In Egypt she is known as al-āhirah (the pure one) and by a number of "mother" epithets (Umm Hāshim, mother of the Prophet's family; Umm al-ʿawājiz, mother of the weak; Umm al-masākīn, mother of the poor; Umm al-yatāmā, mother of the orphans; and Umm Mir, mother of Egypt). She is also known simply as al-Sayyida (the Lady), a fitting title for a woman who came to be considered a role model for Muslim women, typifying courage, fortitude, leadership, eloquence, devotion, and faith.


The primary source of information on the Karbala tragedy, and of Zaynab's role in it, is the account of the Umayyad author Abū Mikhnaf Lū ibn Yayā preserved in the early medieval historical works; Abū Mikhnaf's original work Maqtal al-usayn (The killing of al-usayn) is probably lost, and the various manuscripts and editions thereof are most likely reworked and corrupted versions (see Ursula Sezgin, Abū Minaf: Ein Beitrag zur Historiographie der umaiyadischen Zeit, Leiden, 1971, pp. 116123). Much of the original Abū Mikhnaf account rendered by al-abarī is found in English translation in The History of al-abarī: An Annotated Translation, vol. 19, The Caliphate of Yazīd b. Mu ʿāwiyah, translated by I. K. A. Howard (Albany, N.Y., 1990). Al-Balādhurī also narrates the Karbala tragedy on Abū Mikhnaf's authority in Ansāb al-Ashrāf, vol. 2, edited by M. B. al-Mamūdī (Beirut, 1977). The text of Zaynab's Damascus oration is recorded by the early scholar Amad ibn Abī Tāhir Tayfūr in his Kitāb Balāghāt al-nisāʾ, edited by ʿAbd al-amīd Hindāwī (Cairo, 1998, pp. 7073). A book devoted to the Karbala tragedy that includes the texts of Zaynab's Kūfah and Damascus orations (pp. 5657, 6971) is al-Luhūf fī qatlā al-ufūf (Beirut, 1992) by the later medieval historian Ibn āwūs al-usaynī, who also bases his narrative on Abū Mikhnaf's authority.

In European languages, there are no monographs about Zaynab's life. There is one anthropological study of her birthday celebrations in Cairo and the rituals associated with visiting her shrine: Nadia Abu Zahra, The Pure and Powerful: Studies in Contemporary Muslim Society (Berkshire, U.K., and Ithaca, N.Y., 1997). There are also several articles about various aspects of Zaynab's role in Muslim piety, including David Pinault, "Zaynab bint Alī and the Place of the Women of the Households of the First Imāms in Shiʿite Devotional Literature," in Women in the Medieval Islamic World: Power, Patronage, and Piety, edited by Gavin Hambly (New York, 1998), pp. 6998; Diane D'Souza, "The Figure of Zaynab in Shīʿī Devotional Life," Bulletin of the Henry Martyn Institute of Islamic Studies 17, no. 1 (1998): pp. 3153; Andreas D'Souza, "'Zaynab I Am Coming!': The Transformative Power of Nawah," Bulletin of the Henry Martyn Institute of Islamic Studies 16, nos. 3 and 4 (1997): 8394; Anna Madoeuf, "Quand le temps revele l'espace: Les fetes de usayn et de Zaynab au Caire," Geographie et Cultures 21 (1997): 7192; Irene Calzoni, "Shiʿite Mausoleums in Syria with Particular Reference to Sayyida Zaynab's Mausoleum," Convegno sul tema la Sh ʿia nell 'Imapero Ottomano (Rome, 1993): 191201; and Valerie J. Hoffman-Ladd, "Devotion to the Prophet and His Family in Egyptian Sufism," International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 24 (1992): 615637.

In Arabic, there are several monographs about the life of Zaynab, and these also address the issue of her burial place with differing conclusions. These include: asan Mūsā affār, al-Marʾa al- ʿAīma: Qirāʾa fi ­ayāt al-Sayyida Zaynab bint ʿAlī (London and Beirut, 2000); Amad Shukr al-usaynī, al-Shams al-āliʿa wa al-Anwār al-Sāiʿa: ʿAqīlat al-Imāma wa al-Wilāya al-Sayyida Zaynab al-Kubrā (Beirut, 1999); Muammad asanayn al-Sābiqī, Marqad al-ʿAqīla Zaynab (Beirut, 1979); and ʿAlī Amad Shalabī, Ibnat al-Zahraʾ Baalat Karbalāʾ Zaynab raiya Allāh ʿanhā (Cairo, 1972). An encyclopedia entry on Zaynab is provided by asan al-Amīn in his Aʿyān al-Shīʿa, vol. 7 (Beirut, 1983), pp. 137142.

B. Tahera Qutbuddin (2005)