Zaynab bint Ali was the daughter of Hazrat Imam Ali(as) and his first wife Fatima. The Prophet Muhammad was her maternal grandfather and thus she is a member of ahl al-bayt (the household of the Prophet Muhammad) and is therefore often revered not only for her admirable characteristics and actions but also for her membership in and continuation of the biological line of the Prophet. Like other members of her family she became a great figure of sacrifice, strength, and piety in Islam – particularly in the Shi’a sect of the religion.
Zaynab was the third child of Ali and Fatimah. Sources suggest she was born in Medina in the 5th year of the Hijra (Wednesday,05 Jumadi' ul-Awwal, 5 A.H/October 03, 626 A.D Gregory Calendar ) .There is some debate over whether she was born on the 5th of Jumada al-awwal or the 1st of Sha'aban of the Islamic Calendar. Like her two elder brothers Hassan and Husayn, Zaynab was named by the Prophet Muhammad
The name "Zaynab" means "the adornment of her father" (Baap ki Zeenat in Urdu). Three of Ali’s daughters were in fact named Zaynab so sometimes the Zaynab we are concerned with is referred to as “Zaynab the elder
Fatimah died when Zaynab was seven years old. This tragic event at an early age may help to explain her special closeness with her brothers Hassan and Husayn.
Marriage and Family Life
When Zaynab came of age, she was married to her first cousin Abdullah ibn Ja'far, a nephew of Ali, in a simple ceremony. Although Zaynab's husband was a man of means, the couple is said to have lived a modest life. Much of their wealth was devoted to charity. Abdullah was sometimes called "the sea of munificence" or "the cloud of munificence".
The marriage of Zaynab did not diminish her strong attachment to her family. Ali felt a great affection for his daughter and son-in-law, so much so that in 37 AH when he became caliph and moved the capital from Medina to Kufa, Zaynab and Abdullah moved with him. Zaynab bore four sons — Ali, Aun, Muhammad, and Abbas — and one daughter, Umm Kulthum.
Some sources suggest that Zaynab held sessions to help other women study the Qur'an and learn more about Islam. According to one of her biographies, The Victory of Truth, she started this practiced in Medina and later continued it when she moved with her father and family to Kufa.
Zaynab and Karbala
At the death of the Muawiyah I(lanat ullah), Husayn was forced out of Mecca due to the assassins that were sent by Muawiyah's son Yazid I to kill Husayn during pilgrimage; thus, Husayn went to Kufa by the invitation of the people of Kufa for him to claim the leadership of the Muslim community. Zaynab accompanied him, as did most of his household. After Husayn and all his 72 companions were brutally killed at the Battle of Karbala by the order of Yazid, Zaynab was taken captive by the army of Yazid, Muawiyah's son and successor. Zaynab and the other survivors of Husayn's expedition, most of them women and children, were marched to Damascus, Yazid's capital, where they were held hostage. Tradition says that Zaynab, already in anguish due to the death of her brother Husayn and her sons Aun and Muhammad, was forced to march unveiled. This was an extreme indignity to inflict on a high-ranking Muslim woman, the granddaughter of Muhammad.
While captive in Damascus, Zaynab held the first majils, or lamentation assembly in the palace of Yazid to mourn the loss of her beloved brother Husayn.
In many ways Zaynab functioned as a model of defiance against oppression and other forms of injustice. When her nephew, ‘Ali Zayn al-‘Abidin, was sentenced to death by Ibn Ziyad, then governor of Kufa, she threw herself over him in a protective embrace yelling “By God, I won’t let go of him. If you’re going to kill him, you’ll have to kill me along with him”. Moved by Zaynab’s action, the captors spared Zayn’s life. Because Zayn was the only one of Husayn’s sons to survive the Battle of Karbala, this courageous action was pivotal in preserving the survival of an important part of ‘Ali genetic line and thus the future Imams in Shi’a Islam.
Another illustration of Zaynab’s pious defiance was when a Syrian in Yazid’s court demanded that he be given one of the younger captive girls, Fatima Kubra*. Zaynab cleverly diffuses this situation by suggesting that Syrian man is not worthy and does not have that type of authority. When Yazid claims he has the authority to decide either way, Zaynab issues a scathing retort, answering “You, a commander who has authority, are vilifying unjustly and oppress with your authority”.
This comment is representative of a larger sermon attributed to Zaynab in which she condemns Yazid and many of his actions, specifically focusing on his treatment of the household of the Prophet. The sermon is very eloquent and is reminiscent of the work in Qur'anic exegesis Zaynab did with other women in Medina and Kufa. The full text of this sermon is linked in the external links section below.
Eventually Yazid released his captives and allowed them to return to Medina. On the way back, the party stopped once again at Karbala to mourn the loss of Husayn and the others that died there.
Zaynab's Last Days
The exact date and place of her death is not clear but it is probable that she died in the year 62 A.H. some six months after her return to Medina. The anniversary of her death is said to be either the 11th or 21st of Jumada al-Thani, the 24th of Safar, or the 16th of Dhu al-Hijjah. Some suggest that her grave can be found within Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque in Damascus, Syria. Alternatively, many Sunnis believe her grave can be found within a different mosque (which also titled "Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque") that is located in Cairo. The Fatimid/Dawoodi Bohra support the claim that Zaynab is buried in Cairo. Their 52nd Dai, Mohammad Burhanuddin, made zarih (a cage-like structure surrounding the tomb) for the shrine in Cairo. The Fatimids and some others believe that the Mausoleum of Zaynab-al-Kubra in Damascus is actually the burial site of on of her sisters, Umm Kulthum bint Ali, (perhaps caused by confusion between 'Sugra' & 'Kubra'). There is some historical evidence suggesting Zaynab lived in Cairo near the end of her life.
- In Iran, her birthday is recognized as Nurse's Day possibly because she nursed children such as Husayn’s son ‘Ali among others but also because of her taking care of those wounded in the Battle of Karbala
- The ritual of majils, or lamentation assembly mourning the deaths of the Prophetic line, is still practiced as an integral part of Shi’i Islam.