One of my earliest memories is of laying my head in my mother’s lap as she silently wept during a majlis, a gathering where a scholar recites the history of the slaughter of Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) family. She would gently stroke my hair with one hand and use the other to dab her tears with the ends of her shawl. Looking up at my mother, I could feel an immense sadness in her, a melancholy I myself now feel every year at this time. It is Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar and the time we remember the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) grandson, Imam Hussein.
For me, Muharram is about azadari, or mourning for the family of the Prophet (pbuh), and about commemorating the courage of the women who survived the slaughter. The descendants of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) were martyred in Karbala after refusing to pledge allegiance to Yazid, a corrupt and destructive leader. Yazid’s army intercepted Imam Hussein’s caravan at Karbala, where they beheaded the Imam, murdered his family and companions, including his six-month-old son, and took the women and children prisoners. I grew up learning about Zainab.
Zainab was Imam Hussain’s sister, the daughter of Fatima and Ali, and the granddaughter of the Prophet of Islam (pbuh). It was she who took on the mantle of leadership when her beloved brother was beheaded. Yazid’s army had mercilessly murdered all of the Prophet’s male relatives in the Battle of Karbala, save one—Imam Hussein’s ill son, Zain ul Abideen—and as the soldiers prepared to kill him as well, ensuring that no male heirs would survive, Zainab dared to approach them. It was because of her pleas and her convincing, that the soldiers spared her nephew’s life. Although Imam Zain ul Abideen lived, Yazid’s army ransacked the besieged caravan’s tents and marched Zain and the women to what is now Syria. The bedraggled group was brought before Yazid’s court and it was here that Zainab’s courage shone bright, when instead of cowering before the tyrant who had just slaughtered so many of her loved ones, she delivered a defiant speech.
O enemy of Allah and O son of the enemy of Allah! I swear by Allah that I consider you to be humble and not fit even to be reprimanded and reproached. But what am I to do? Our eyes are shedding tears, our hearts are burning, and our martyrs cannot come to life by our reprimanding and reproaching you. The sacred bodies of the martyrs have been placed at the disposal of the wolves and other carnivorous animals. If you have gained something today by shedding blood, you will certainly be a loser on the Day of Judgment. On that day nothing but your deeds will count.
Yazid thought he had legitimized his leadership by murdering his critic, Imam Hussein, but he was wrong—he still had Imam Hussein’s sister to contend with. That day she spoke with a fury and eloquence that stunned the court. Yazid proceeded to imprison Zainab and the rest of the group, but as a result of Zainab’s impassioned speech, word spread of the ruthless manner in which Yazid’s army had slaughtered the Prophet Muhammad’s family. Yazid, fearing an uprising, released the women, allowing them to return to their home in Medina.
Upon her return to Medina, Zainab did not quietly fade away into obscurity, instead spending her remaining years retelling the story of what had happened at Karbala in order to ensure that Yazid would not bury the truth and revise history. In fact, the tradition she established 1300 years ago of gathering Muslims together to orally relay the history of the events at Karbala, continues to this day.
Wherever there is a woman speaking up against injustice, Zainab is beside her. Wherever there is a sister looking after her brother, Zainab is holding her up. Where there is a woman refusing to be frightened into silence, Zainab is there too. In Myanmar, in Pakistan, in the United States and across the globe, next to every strong woman is Zainab, granddaughter of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
Fatima Syed is a physician currently completing her training in endocrinology in Philadelphia. She also has a background in social policy and advocacy. She originally hails from Virginia.