Zaynab is the granddaughter of the Prophet of Islam, the daughter of ‘Ali and Fatima, and the sister of Hasan and Husayn (peace be upon them all). She was born in a holy environment and raised in the laps of infallible parents; and so it was not a surprise to see that Zaynab reached to such a level of wisdom and righteousness that Shi‘i scholars describe her as “mahfuzatun ‘anil khata’ – protected from error.”
The most important event in Zaynab’s life is the tragedy of Karbala, a movement whose first stage was led by Imam Husayn and Zaynab led its second stage. In the post-Karbala events, the sermons of Zaynab are very significant, especially her sermon in the court of Yazid.
To understand the importance and far-reaching impact of Zaynab’s sermon, it is necessary to know the history of Sham and the Umayyid political strategies. In this article, I have tried to present the historical background of the sermon and its important salient features.
When the Great Prophet Muhammad (S) passed away in 11 AH, Islam was confined to the Arabian Peninsula. With the conquests of the caliphs, the Muslim empire expanded to include Sham, Egypt, Iraq and Persia.
In this historical timeframe, Sham was not confined to the present-day Syria; rather, until World War I, its borders included Lebanon, Jordan and the entire Palestine. This vast area of the Middle East is collectively known as “ash-Shamat – the Greater Syria”.1
During his reign, the First Caliph dispatched three armies to conquer Sham. One under the command of ‘Amr bin ‘As towards Palestine; another under the command of Abu ‘Ubaydah al-Jarrah towards Hims and a third under the command of Yazid bin Abi Sufyan, the elder son of Abu Sufyan, towards Damascus. Yazid bin Abi Sufyan was appointed in 13 AH by the First Caliph as the governor of Damascus.2 At the same time, his younger brother, Mu‘awiyah, was made the governor of Jordan.
Later on, the Second Caliph not only maintained the ranks of Abu Sufyan’s sons, he actually promoted them. In 18 AH, Yazid bin Abi Sufyan and other senior officers died because of an epidemic. Upon Yazid’s death, the Second Caliph appointed Mu‘awiyah bin Abi Sufyan to the governorship of Damascus and Jordan.3
The Third Caliph promoted Mu‘awiyah by making him the Governor General of Sham (covering Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine).4
With this brief historical survey, three points become clear:
1. Sham, during the Prophet’s life, was part of the Eastern Roman Empire and mostly a Christian territory.
2. From the first day of its conquest, whatever the people of Sham came to know of Islam was mostly through the lenses of the family of Abu Sufyan. Neither had the people of Sham visited the Prophet nor had they seen the people of Medina. Their only source of understanding Islamic ideals and values was the Banu Umayyah, specifically, the family of Abu Sufyan.
The family of Abu Sufyan fully exploited the ignorance of the people of Sham and brainwashed them. In order to project Mu‘awiyah as a close relative of the Prophet, dubious titles like “khalu ’l-mu’minin – the uncle of the believers” and “katibu ’l-wahy – the scribe of the revelation” were widely circulated about him.
I am using the term “dubious” because neither any of the other brothers-in-law of the Prophet (such as ‘Abdullah bin ‘Umar and Muhammad bin Abi Bakr) were ever known as “khalu ’l-mu’minin;”5 nor were Zayd bin Thabit or Khalid bin Sa‘id were so publicly known as “katibu ’l-wahy.”6
The reality is that after the conquest of Mecca, the Prophet (S) considered the people of Mecca, including Abu Sufyan and his family as “tulaqa’ – the freed slaves” and “mu’allafatu ’l-qulub – those whose hearts have to be reconciled [with Islam].”7 They were not given any official position by the Prophet as long as he was alive.
3. It was on basis of these twenty to twenty-two years of brainwashing the people of Sham and establishing his powerbase that Mu‘awiyah decided to oppose Amiru ’l- Mu’minin ‘Ali (a.s.) and even planned to fight him.
Exploiting the murder of the Third Caliph, Mu‘awiyah opposed the new ruler chosen by the ummah: Amiru ‘l- Mu’minin ‘Ali (a.s.). He had projected such a negative image of Amiru ’l-Mu’minin in the minds of the people of Sham that when they got the news that of ‘Ali’s assassination inside the Grand Mosque of Kufa, they started asking one another that “What was ‘Ali doing in the mosque?!” In their minds, ‘Ali and mosque could not co-exist together!
Finally, in the year 40 AH, after the peace-treaty, Mu‘awiyah became the absolute ruler of the Muslim world.
The Umayyid government, established by Mu‘awiyah bin Abi Sufyan, was founded on two opposite strategies: propaganda and military might. And both these strategies were used with wicked shrewdness:
1. The domination over Sham was maintained by propaganda.
2. The domination of all other regions (Hijaz, Iraq, Yemen, Persia and Egypt) was maintained by military might.
For a better understanding of these two opposite political strategies, a survey of the present political strategy of the United State of America would be helpful. America’s domestic and foreign policies are based on two different strategies:
Domestic Policy: it is based on the liberal democratic system in which the public opinion is respected. Media, of course, plays a pivotal role in forming the public opinion; and, therefore, whatever party can mold the public opinion gets the majority votes. In such a democratic system, the public can even remove the President (e.g., Nixon) from the office.
Foreign Policy: the same democratic America, when pursing its own interests globally, very readily ignores the public opinion of other nations and uses its military might directly or through local dictators to impose its will.
Keeping these two different policies of America in mind, I apply that to Mu‘awiyah’s strategies: he maintained power within the country (i.e., Sham) on basis of propaganda, and he maintained power outside the country (i.e., Iraq, Hijaz, Yemen, Persia and Egypt) on basis of Sham’s military might.
In order to control the minds of the people of Sham, Mu‘awiyah had advised his son, Yazid, that whenever he would have to quell the uprisings in other countries, he should indeed use the Shami forces and once he has quelled the rebellion, he should bring the Shami forces back to their country “because if they stay [longer] in other countries, their behavior would change.”8
‘Behavioral change’ actually refers to the broadening of their minds and their exposure to the real image of the family of Abu Sufyan and its continuous opposition to the Prophet of Islam until it was finally subdued in the conquest of Mecca.
It was in such a context that Imam Husayn bin ‘Ali (a.s.) analyzed the Muslim world and he saw that the ummah was suffering from two problems: (1) Inside Sham, the Muslims suffered from ignorance and misinformation; and (2) outside Sham (Hijaz, Iraq, Persia, Yemen and Egypt), the Muslims suffered from apathy and a slumbering conscience.
Two different social ills required two different solutions: outside Sham, the ummah required “awakening;” and inside Sham, the ummah required “awareness.”
For revival of and awakening the slumbering conscience of the ummah, Husayn chose the path of martyrdom and sacrifice.
For creating awareness among the people of Sham and dispelling the misinformation from them, Husayn needed the help of the women of his family who would fulfill that task when taken as prisoners to Sham.
Husayn took the responsibility of awakening the slumbering conscience of the ummah while Zaynab took the responsibility of creating awareness among the people of Sham – that is why Zaynab is known as “Sharikatu ’l-Husayn – the Partner of Husayn.”
The summary of this analysis is that Mu‘awiyah had built an “iron curtain” around Sham which blocked any idea from reaching the people, and their minds remained intoxicated with Umayyid propaganda. This “wall of propaganda” was so strong that neither ‘Ali’s sword could bring it down nor could Hasan’s peace make a crack in it, and even Husayn’s innocent blood could not dampen its foundation. Indeed, that wall came crumbling down with the sermons of Lady Zaynab and Imam Zayn al-Abidin!
The court of Yazid was filled with senior officials, dignitaries of Sham, some ambassadors of foreign governments and religious leaders of other faiths. It was in such a setting that the family of Imam Husayn (a.s.) was brought in as prisoners without any veils or scarfs.
A herald was constantly announcing in the bazar as well as the imperial court that the head of a dissident is being brought who had rebelled against the caliph. The blessed head of Imam Husayn (a.s.) was presented to Yazid on a silver plate and placed in front of his throne.
Overcome with his apparent victory, Yazid started poking the blessed head of Imam Husayn (a.s.) with his stick and expressing his joy by reciting the following lines of a blasphemous poetry of ‘Abdullah bin az-Ziba‘ri:
The Hashimites9 staged a drama for domination
For there was no Divine news nor any revelation
Wish my ancestors killed in Badr would see
The pain of Khazraj caused by pointed spears
Yazid’s display of arrogance and blasphemous words prompted Lady Zaynab to stand up and address him in the court filled with the elite of Sham. The aura of her personality even as a prisoner and the eloquence of her speech were such that Yazid could not do anything to prevent her from speaking!
All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of the universe; and blessings be upon my grandfather, the chief of God’s messengers.
Indeed, Almighty Allah has spoken the truth when He said,
ثُمَّ كَانَ عَاقِبَةَ الَّذِينَ أَسَاءُوا السُّوأَىٰ أَنْ كَذَّبُوا بِآيَاتِ اللَّهِ وَكَانُوا بِهَا يَسْتَهْزِئُونَ
“Then the final state of those who do evil (deeds) was that they denied the signs of Allah and they used to ridicule them.” (30:10)
First comment: Zaynab puts an emphasis that the Prophet is “my grandfather;” he is from our family, from ‘Ali’s family; and not from your family, O Yazid!
Second comment: Zaynab’s mastery over the Qur’an become obvious by her selection of verses in this sermon. After praising Allah and asking for blessing upon the Prophet, she recites the first verse that is very befitting for the occasion and is fully applied on Yazid.
In other words, she is saying that O Yazid, the lines of poetry that you recited demonstrates that those who do evil deeds will eventually deny the Qur’an as a revelation and ridicule it. (The “signs of Allah” could refer to the Qur’an as well as the blessed head of Imam Husayn.)
Do you think, O Yazid, now that you have ‘seized the vastness of the earth from us and constrained the horizons upon us,’11 and that we are being herded like the prisoners—that Allah wishes humiliation for us and honor for you?
And that in this is a great importance for you with Allah? So you are being haughty and looking around exuberantly and happily since you see that the world is in your control and its affairs are lined up for you, and our country is exclusively for you and our government is purely for you.
But hold on and slow down! Have your forgotten Almighty Allah’s words:
وَلَا يَحْسَبَنَّ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا أَنَّمَا نُمْلِي لَهُمْ خَيْرٌ لِأَنْفُسِهِمْ ۚ إِنَّمَا نُمْلِي لَهُمْ لِيَزْدَادُوا إِثْمًا ۚ وَلَهُمْ عَذَابٌ مُهِينٌ
“Let the faithless not suppose that the respite that We grant them is good for their souls: We give them respite only that they may increase in sin, and [eventually] there is a humiliating punishment for them.” (3:178)
Third comment: Lady Zaynab did not address the ruthless ruler by his common titles; rather she addressed him by his name only. This was a slap on his face!
Fourth comment: Look at the courage of the daughter of “Allah’s lion:” right in the court of Yazid, she describes his rule and government as an usurped power and claims it to be her family’s right.
Fifth comment: By quoting the verse from Chapter Three, she tells Yazid that he should not considered his apparent victory as a sign of Allah’s pleasure. They may be delay in reprisal but it will eventually come.
O the son of the freed slave! Is it just that you cover your women and slave-girls with veils while you parade the daughters of Allah’s Messenger as prisoners?! You have torn their apparel coverings, exposed their faces, and the enemies ushered them on from one city to another. The dwellers of the caravansaries as well as the cities were looking towards them, and the people from near and far as well as the noble and the servants were scrutinizing their faces while they had neither a helper from their menfolk nor a protector from their protectors.
First comment: “O son of the freed slave!” In the imperial court of Yazid, right in presence of the elite and the government officials of Sham, Zaynab exposes his family background. At the conquest of Mecca in 8 AH, after seeing the strength of the Muslim army, Yazid’s grandfather, Abu Sufyan, and his family converted to Islam.
If Zaynab’s grandfather, the Prophet of Islam, had wished he could have made the people of Mecca (including Abu Sufyan and his family) as his personal slaves. But the Prophet manifested his benevolence and emancipated the people of Mecca by saying, “…Go, you are free…;”12 in other words, ‘I could have made your my slaves but I let you go as freed slaves.’
With such an exposure, the people of Sham heard for the first time that Yazid’s grandparents and father embraced Islam in the later years of the Prophet’s life and that they were the Prophet’s freed slaves. Such a revelation must have shattered the aura of “khalu ’l-mu’minin – the uncle of the believers” from the minds of the people of Sham!
There is neither anything unusual about you nor any surprise in your actions. How can there be any hope of consideration from child of a person whose mouth spat the liver of the righteous ones and whose flesh grew upon the blood of the martyrs. A person who looks towards us with disdain, rancor, vendetta and secret grudge does not wait long before displaying his hatred towards us, the Ahlul Bayt.
First Comment: Zaynab now describes the behavioral profile of Yazid: a profile in which she cannot expect any justice because his character is influenced by his grandmother, Hind, a ruthless and immoral person. As a proof to the people of Sham, Zaynab refers to the Battle of Uhud in which Yazid’s grandmother ordered her slave to cut open the abdomen of Hamza (the Prophet’s uncle), from which she took out his liver and tried to chew on it. That is why Yazid’s grandmother came to be known as “akilatu ’l-akbad – the liver-eater.”
Second Comment: Lady Zaynab also exposes Yazid’s inner hatred towards the family of the Prophet (the Ahlul Bayt). She informs the people of Sham that the family of Abu Sufyan is not part of the family of the Prophet; on the contrary, their hearts are filled with hatred towards the family of the Prophet, and they don’t hesitate in expressing their rancor. This is so, while all Muslim sects believe that based on the verse of muwaddah (42:23), to love the Prophet’s family is an essential part of Islamic faith.
With happiness you call out your ancestors:
They would cheer and beam with joy
Saying: O Yazid, may you not be overcome
[You are reciting this] while bending down targeting the teeth of Abu ‘Abdillah [al-Husayn], chief of the youths of Paradise, and poking at them with your cane—your face had lit up with joy.
I swear by my life that by spilling the blood of Muhammad’s children and the star of the family of ‘Abdul Muttalib (i.e., Husayn), you have scratched the [old] wound and revived the [past] animosity.
You are loudly calling out your ancestors, and think that you are actually calling them! [They are dead and they can’t hear you!] Very soon, you will reach their place [in the hell], and at that time you would wish that you had become paralyzed and dumb so that you would have not said what you had said and not done what you had done.
O Allah, take our right [from those who had usurped it], take revenge from those who have oppressed us, and unleash Your wrath on one who has spilled our blood and killed our supporters.
First Comment: In the midst of the elite of Sham, Lady Zaynab describes the difference between the family of the Prophet and the family of Abu Sufyan: If the blessed head that Yazid is desecrating is that of the chief of the youths of Paradise, then what will be the eventual destination of Yazid? If the one who was killed is the chief of the youths of Paradise, then the killer cannot be from those who will be in Paradise!
Second Comment: Why was Imam Husayn (a.s.) killed? By repeating the poems recited by Yazid, Zaynab wanted to show that he killed Imam Husayn to avenge the death of his idol- worshipping/infidel ancestors who were killed in the Battle of Badr, the first battle in the history of Muslims.
In that battle, when the father, the brother and the uncle of Yazid’s grandmother challenged the Muslim fighters to a duel, the Prophet (S) sent some members of his family, the Banu Hashim: Hamzah, ‘Ubaydah and ‘Ali—it was by their swords that the leaders of idol-worshippers were killed.
By killing Imam Husayn and other members of the Prophet’s family, Yazid was avenging the death of his infidel ancestors.
Third Comment: O Yazid, you are calling out to your ancestors but soon you will also end up with them, and then you will regret and wish that your tongue had become dumb so that you would have recited the blasphemous poems, and had not got involved in killing Imam Husayn (a.s.)—but alas, regret at that time will be of no use.
(O Yazid,) you have done what you wanted to do. (By doing what you have done,) you have actually pierced your own skin and have torn your own flesh. You will surely be presented to the Messenger of Allah with your crime of spilling the blood of his descendants and your act of violating the sanctity of his family and relatives. At that time, Allah will unite them, end their separation, avenge those who oppressed them, and take their right from their enemies.
So do not let [your act of] killing them fill your excitement. [Do not you remember what Allah has said:]
وَلَا تَحْسَبَنَّ الَّذِينَ قُتِلُوا فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ أَمْوَاتًا ۚ بَلْ أَحْيَاءٌ عِنْدَ رَبِّهِمْ يُرْزَقُونَ
فَرِحِينَ بِمَا آتَاهُمُ اللَّهُ مِنْ فَضْلِهِ
And do not consider those who are killed in the way of Allah as dead; rather they are alive with their Lord, being sustained; they are pleased with what Allah has given to them out of His grace. (3:169-170)
It suffices for you to know that (on the day of judgement), Allah will be the Judge, the Messenger of Allah will be plaintiff [against you], and Jibra’il will be the supporter [of the Prophet]. Those who facilitated [the government] for you and imposed you on the necks of the Muslims will soon know how evil shall be the recompense of the transgressors, and who among you will be in the worst place and the most misguided.
First Comment: Zaynab is reminding Yazid that don’t think by killing my brother and family, you have eliminated them. No, not at all; they are martyrs in the way of Allah – they live not only in the other world, sustained by Almighty’s grace, but they will always live in the hearts of the believers.
Second Comment: With Allah as the judge, the Prophet as the plaintiff and Jibra’il as the witness what chance has Yazid escaping retribution on the day of judgement?! This is a point on what those Muslims should also reflect who go around preaching that Yazid is among the “forgiven ones”!
Plan your stratagem, strive to your maximum, and put your best efforts but, by Allah, neither will you be able to erase our memory [from the people’s minds] nor can you destroy our revelation, nor can you reach our heights, and your shame [for killing Husayn] cannot be washed out.
Your idea is nothing but wrong, your days are numbered, and your gathering will soon disperse - the day when the herald will announce: Verily the curse of Allah is on the oppressors!
First Comment: Zaynab challenges Yazid on his own turf to do whatever is within his power but he will not be able to erase the religion of her grandfather or the Qur’an which was revealed upon him or the love for his family that is found in hearts of the Muslims.
Second Comment: Since Zaynab always maintained the zikr and remembrance of Allah even in the most difficult of times (to the extent that in spite of hunger and thirst, and having witnessed the murder of eighteen members of her family in one day, she did not forget her night nafila on the eve of 11th Muharram)—and so Allah has also kept the memory of Zaynab always alive in hearts of the people.
Even centuries after her passing away, Zaynab’s name is remembered and mentioned all over the world whereas Yazid’s name has become like a swear word. No one knows of Yazid’s grave whereas there are two famous shrines associated to Zaynab: one in Damascus and another in Cairo, and both shrines are filled with visitors and pilgrims whose prayers are answered in those places!
So all praise is due to Allah who granted our ancestors the bliss and our present generation the honor of martyrdom; and we ask Allah to complete their reward and give them even more, and make us their worthy successors. He is indeed Merciful and Loving; Allah is sufficient for us and He is the best supporter.
Finally, the true face of the family of Abu Sufyan was exposed to the people of Sham by this sermon. Let alone the Muslims of Sham, even the Jewish, Christians and foreign representatives stationed in Damascus criticized Yazid for violating the sanctity of the family of his own Prophet by killing its men and imprisoning its women.
The sermon of Lady Zaynab and the sermon of Imam Zayn Al-Abidin complement one another: Zaynab’s sermon formed the “tabarra” dimension and Imam Zayn Al-Abidin’s sermon formed the “tawalla” dimension: the former exposed the real identity of Abu Sufyan’s family while the latter introduced the real image of the Prophet’s family.
Both these sermons brought down the “iron curtain” erected by the family of Abu Sufyan around Sham, and the government of Abu Sufyan’s family crumbled in such a way that Yazid’s son, Mu‘awiyah, refused to sit on the throne and the Umayyid government moved to the family of Marwan.
This was the beginning of the end of the Umayyid power.
وَسَيَعْلَمُ الَّذِينَ ظَلَمُوا أَيَّ مُنْقَلَبٍ يَنْقَلِبُونَ
And the wrongdoers will soon know to what destination they will return. (26:227)
- 1. Yaqut bin ‘Abdullah al-Humawi, Mu‘jamu ’l-Buldan, vol. 3 (Beirut: Dar Sadir, 1995) p. 312 under “ash-Sham”. Ash-Shamat, in the plural form, refers to the various regions in ash-Sham.
- 2. Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa ’n-Nihayah, vol. 7 (Beirut: Daru ’l-Fikr, 1986) p. 3, 31; Khayru ’d-Din Zirkili, al-A‘lam, vol. 7 (Beirut: Daru ‘l-‘Ilm, 1989) p. 615; Ibnu ’l-Athir, Usdu ’l-Ghabah, vol. 4 (Beirut: Daru ’l-Fikr, 1989) p. 715; at-Tabari, Ta’rikh, vol. 3 (Beirut: Daru ’t-Turath, 1967) p. 387.
- 3. Al-Bidayah wa ’n-Nihayah, vol. 8, p. 21; Ibn Khaldun, Ta’rikh ((Beirut: Daru ’l-Fikr, 1988) p. 544, 575; at-Tabari, Ta’rikh, vol. 4, p. 289.
- 4. Ibn Sa‘d, at-Tabaqatu ’l-Kubra, vol. 7 (Beirut: Daru ’l-Kutub al- ‘Ilmiyyah, 1999) p. 285.
- 5. From the Sunni point of view, ‘Aisha (daughter of Abu Bakr) and Hafsa (daughter of ‘Umar) are considered more esteemed wives of the Prophet than Habiba (daughter of Abu Sufyan). So their brothers, Muhammad bin Abi Bakr and ‘Abdullah bin ‘Umar, were worthier of being called khalu ’l-mu’minin, more so when they were also sons of the first and the second caliphs respectively.
This seems to be an attempt of inventing same kind of a title that has been given by Allah to the wives of the Prophet in the Qur’an itself (33:6). Those who invented the title of khalu ’l-mu’minin for Mu‘awiyah did not reflect on the reason why the wives of the Prophet have been named as “ummahatu ’l-mi’minin – mothers of the believers.” It was so that they, unlike other Muslim widows, cannot remarry anyone; this was out of respect for the Prophet – there are just like their mothers.
No such significance has been extended to the Prophet’s brothers-in-law; otherwise, they would not be able to marry anyone since they would become the “maternal uncle” of all Muslim women -- a khal cannot marry his niece! So there is no basis for the title “khalu ’l-mu’minin.”
- 6. It is amazing to see some Muslims so easily duped by false propaganda. If being katibu ’l-wahy was indeed a special honour, then why those who had been with the Prophet from the beginning of the revelation to his death (for more than 22 years) are not known by this title whereas someone who came into the fold of Islam only in the last 3 years of revelation is known as katibu ’l-wahy?!
Moreover, Sunni scholars themselves say that Mu‘awiyah was not the katibu ’l-wahy, he was the scribe for some of the letters that the Prophet would write to the tribes. See adh-Dhahabi, Sayr A‘lami ’n- Nubala’, vol. 3 (Beirut: Mu’assasatu ’r-Risalah, 1993) p. 123; Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, al-Isabah fi ’t-Tamiyzi ’s-Sahabah, vol. 6 (Beirut: Daru ’l- Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995) p. 121.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that among those who used to write the revelation whenever the Prophet would dictate to them also were two individuals (‘Abdullah bin Abi Sarah and an ex-Christian) who both used to change what was being dictated, and upon discovery, both fled from the Prophet and his faith!
- 7. See at-Tabari, Ta’rikh, vol. 3, p. 61. This refers to those who are not fully convinced of Islam but can be helped with charity with the hope that they hearts could be reconciled with Islam.
- 8. Ibnu ’l-Athir, al-Kamil, vol. 4 (Beirut: Dar Sadir, 1965) p. 6; at-Tabari, Ta’rikh, vol. 5, p. 323.
- 9. This refers in general to Banu Hashim, the family of the Prophet.
- 10. The text of this sermon is presented here from one Sunni and two Shi‘i sources: Ahmad bin Abi Tahir Tayfur (d. 280), Balaghatu ’n-Nisa’ (Cairo: Madrasa Walid ‘Abbas I, 1908) p. 25-27; Ahmad bin Abi Talib at-Tabrisi, al-Ihtjaj, vol. 2 (Najaf: Daru ’n-Nu‘man, 1966) p. 35-37; Ibn Ta’us, al-Malhuf ‘ala Qatla ’t-Tufuf (Qum: Daru ’l-Uswah, 1425 AH), p. 215-218.
- 11. It means that you have made us prisoners and taken away our freedom to move around.
- 12. At-Tabari, Ta’rikh, vol. 3, p. 61.