Source: “Shia Islam AT A Glance” BY: Sheikh Abdul Jalil Nawee; and Shia Youth Inc. Website:


 Imam Ali ibn Husain (a.s.) known as Imam Zainul Abidin (a.s.), or Zayn al-Abidin (a.s.), or Imam al-Sajjad (a.s.)  was the fourth Shia imam.  He was born in Medina, in the year 38 AH. His mother, princess Shahrbanu, was the daughter of Yazdegerd, the last King of Persia.  In 61AH, the Holy Prophet Muhammad‘s (pbuh) grandson Imam Husain ibn Ali (a.s.) and a small group of supporters and relatives were killed at the Battle of Karbala by the large military forces of the Umayyad caliph Yazid, to whom Imam Husain (a.s.) had refused to give an oath of allegiance. Imam Zainul Abidin (a.s.) accompanied his father on a march toward Kufa; he was present at the Battle of Karbala but survived the battle because he was ill. Once the Umayyad troops had killed Imam Husain (a.s.) and his male followers, they looted the tents, humiliated women, and took the skin upon which he was laying. It is said that Shimr, commander of Yezid’s forces, was about to kill Imam Zainul Abidin (a.s.) but his aunt Sayyedah Zainab (s.a.) made Umar ibn Sa’ad, the Umayyad commander, spare his life. Imam Zainul Abidin (a.s.) and the enslaved women and children were taken to the Kuf


On the   day after Ashura , Omar ibn Sa’d and his soldiers   abused, mistreated, and chained  the Imam and  all of the surviving women and children, and   placed  them on bare camel backs to travel to Kufa to be presented to the Governor, Obaidullah ibn Ziyad (also known as Ibn Ziyad). While on their way, they passed    through the battlefield to witness a heart rending sight. It was the bodies of the martyrs, cut in pieces, dusty and bloodied, wounded, without heads, laying on the sand. The enemy being so merciless had neither buried them,  nor gave  an opportunity to    the surviving  members  to bury their   loved ones. The scene of carnage was such that Imam Zainul Abidin (a.s.) wept and cried so much   that   his conditions   got on  the verge of death himself. The captives were riding on camels without saddles, their faces unveiled for all to see, while ahead of them their arrogant captors were carrying the severed heads of their loved ones atop spears. The terrifying journey and heat of the desert exhausted them. When they reached Kufa they were forced to march through public roads and  streets . The women were  without any chadar or scarf on their heads.   They were brought to the court where Ibn Ziyad turned to Imam Zainul Abidin (who was still sick), and he asked: “What is your name?” Imam Zainul Abidin (a.s.) answered, “Ali, son of Al Husain.” Ibn Ziyad retorted, “Was not Ali Ibn Al Husain slain by Allah?”.  Imam Zainul Abidin answered, “My brother’s name was the same as mine, and he was slain by Ibn Ziyad’s soldiers.”  Ibn Ziyad retorted to intimidate him, “But your brother Ali was killed by Allah.” Zainul Abidin then quoted  verses of   the Holy Quran”  Taken aback, the arrogant and vindictive Ibn Ziyad turned to Zainul Abidin (who was still sick), and he asked: “What is your name?” Imam Zainul Abidin  (a.s.) answered, “Ali, son of Al Husain.” Ibn Ziyad retorted, “Was not Ali Ibn Al Husain slain by Allah?” Imam Zainul Abidin answered, “My brother’s name was the same as mine, and he was slain by Ibn Ziyad’s soldiers.” Imam Zainul Abidin   (a.s.) retorted, “Do you threaten me with death, Ibn Ziyad? Don’t you know that for us (Ahlul Bayt) to be slain is our tradition, and that martyrdom is an honor from Allah?”.  Ibn Ziyad  ordered that Zainul Abidin be shackled and  kept with the women in detention. Ibn Ziyad sent a message to Yazid informing him about the killing of Al-Husain and his companions and the capture of his womenfolk. Of course the message would take several weeks to get to Demascus, then several weeks for a reply to arrive, since the message had to be carried over more than 700 miles each way.


After about a month and seven days of captivity in Kufa, the captives were set off for Damascus with a large army of horsemen and footmen so that no one could intercept their journey. The caravan left Kufa on the eighteenth day of Safar 61 AH. They suffered untold hardships on their way to Damascus. The journey was long, tough, and exhausting, more so for children such as Al-Baaqir, who was only 4 year old.  Sakeena about 7 year old was on a bare back camel, and at one point she slipped from her camel and fell, but  luc kily she was saved. After this incident, the pitiless army changed the formation of the prisoners. Imam Zainul Abidin (a.s.) was already in shackles, but they tied his son, Al-Baaqir, on his back. Then the same rope was tied on his sister Sakeena’s neck so that Imam Zainul Abideen could not stand up straight. If he did stand straight, the rope would become tight and strangle Sakeena. After about 28 days of the deadly journey, on the 16th of Rabi ul- Awwal, the caravan reached  Damascus.

When they reached the outskirts of Damascus they were made to halt. Yazid was informed of their arrival and he fixed a date for their entry into the city. On the morning of the appointed day, the members of the family of the Prophet (pbuh) and the companions were led into Damascus. The city streets were decorated and music filled the air to celebrate the victory of Yazid. People came out in festive clothes and they rejoiced when they saw the procession of the  shackled persons together with  the heads of the martyrs atop the spears. The women, without hijab, along with the children were paraded through the main bazaars of Damascus. People of Demascus were asked to celebrate the demise of the rebels. However, many people in the streets shocked at the brutal and merciless treatment of women and children.


Yazid’s court was very expensively decorated, and having numerous guards around. At the moment however, the atmosphere of the court was somber and gloomy, sensing that a very big mistake had been committed, since already people in the streets were outraged. Being face to face Yazid  said, “Son of Al Husain, your father refused to recognize my throne and authority. You have seen what Allah did with him as a result of it.” Imam Zainul Abidin (a.s.) retorted indignantly by quoting  verses of the Holy Quran, “You are visited with afflictions in this world, pre ordained for you.” Then he added, “May the curse of Allah be upon those            who killed my father.”  In the days of detention  a number of exchanges took place in the court of Yazid. Each time Imam Zainul Abidin (a.s.) gave very powerful reply, by mostly quoting the Holy Quran.

 On one occasion Yazid asked the Sermonizer to give a speech condemning Imam Ali. The person obliged, then Imam Zainul Abidin asked permission to speak up before the people. After some hesitation Yazid consented. Imam Zainul Abidin then said:

  •  “O’ people! Allah Almighty has especially endowed us with valor, wisdom, and knowledge.       In the same way Allah has filled the hearts of the faithful with love for us.
  •  Not only this, but Allah exalted us to a higher position in comparison with any other descendant of  Prophet   Muhammad (pbuh). (Sahih Al-Bukhari Vol 4, Page 164).
  •  I am hereby acquainting all, irrespective of whether you know me or not, of the honor and     privilege I occupy:
  •  I am the offspring of the Lord of Mecca and Medina .  
  •  I am the issue of the Lord of Zamzam and Safa,
  •  I am the lineal descendant of him whose forefather had lifted in his cloak the Black Stone.
  •  I am the child of the one who mounted the Buraq and gone through the regions of Heavens.
  •  I am the son whose father’s death was mourned by the Angels, and by men and Jinn, …..
  •  I am the son whose father’s head was mounted on a spear and taken from one town to another.

 O people! I take witness that I thank Allah that He involved Ahlul Bayt in serious trials and also that at the same time the standard of guidance was in our hands, while the misguidance in other people’s hands…” When Imam Zainul Abidin (a.s.) finished his speech, the stunned people were weeping and crying, while others were choked into utter silence. All felt ashamed, degraded, and very much humiliated. Yazid ‘s so called victory  celebration turned into a mockery.


Imam Zainul Abidin (a.s.) loved his sister Sakeena very much. One night Sakeena started to cry in her sleep. When her mother Rabab asked her about the matter she replied that she saw her father in her dream telling her that he could not bear to see her in that grieving state any more. Hearing that. all women started to cry so loudly that the noise reached Yazid in the palace. He asked the guards what all the noise was about. When they told him what it was, Yazid ordered that Al-Husain’s head be taken to Sakeena in order to keep her quiet. When Sakeena saw the head she ran to it and hugged it. Sakeena complained to her father how the horrible men snatched her earrings, how they took away the women’s chadar (veils) and burned their tents. The loving daughter of Imam Husain (a.s.) suddenly, she got fainted and stopped breathing. She passed away in captivity in the dark prison. Her mother  started to cry loudly.  Sayyedah Zainab (s.a.)  held the body of Sakeena in her arms as Imam Zainul Abidin (a.s.) dug a grave for his sister Sakeena who was buried in the same burned, ripped clothes, right there in the prison. 


Imam Zainul Abidin (a.s.) and  Sayyedah Zainab’s (s.a.) fearless speeches in the court, most of the Ummah came to know of the events of Karbala and its tragedy. Their hearts were stirred, they questioned, sympathized, and many  were mad at Yazid’s action. The continued captivity and humiliation of the family of the Prophet of Allah was bringing their cause to the attention of an ever increasing number of people of Demascus. This led some advisers to inform Yazid that there was dangerous unrest in Damascus. Yazid, though tyrant, got terrified. Even some members of his own family started to stay away from him. He               became worried and very restless, even sleepless. When it seemed to him that the family of the Holy Prophet had been so humiliated, and due to urgings of certain people about the public’s    growing dissension, he shifted the blame of Karbala massacre to Ibn Ziyad, the Governor of Kufa, and decided to release the captives. Surprisingly, Yazid sent for Imam Zainul Abidin, and when  he came Yazid treated him politely and respectfully, and informed him of his impending release  and asked if he wished for anything. The Imam said he would have to consult his aunt Zainab.  Arrangements were made to bring Zainab (s.a.) to Yazid. She arrived properly veiled. She asked, “O Yazid, since the day our leader Al-Husain was butchered, we have not had any opportunity     to mourn for him.” A large house was therefore provided for them in the residential sector of   Damascus. Sayyedah Zainab (s.a.) held her first gathering for the mourning and remembrance (Majlis e Azaa) of Imam Husain (a.s.). The women of the Quraish and Banu Hashim arrived clad in black for the mourning. Imam Zainul Abidin (a.s.) sat on the carpet and then Zainab told       the women of Syria some details of the atrocities dealt in Karbala, and some of its aftermath. This stirred their emotions, raised their sympathy, and they shed tears and mourned. They had not known about the events of Karbala and Kufa, but now when they went home and they told their men folk, all about the frightful events and the unparalleled unfairness. Thus the illusions of Yazid’s  victory gave way and his cover up was exposed and dispelled. The truth of Karbala became            known to almost every one in Demascus.

In Medina there was no news about the events of Karbala, but people were apprehensive, as if feeling there was  something dreadful impending. It was some time after Ashura when Yazid sent a messenger, Abdul Malik, to Medina to inform its governor Amr ibn Said al-Aas that Al-Husain ibn Ali and his companions had been killed in Karbala. The Governor, more conscious of the mood of the people, said that he himself could not make the news public, but that Abdul Malik, if he so wished, could make the public announcement. Accordingly, the following day Abdul Malik announced the news after the morning prayers. The news shocked every body, it was jarring, and it shook everyone to the core. There was an uproar and such an intense weeping from the homes of Banu Hashim, that women of Ahlul Bayt (a.s.) came out screaming: “What will you say when the Prophet asks you: ‘What have you done with my family after I left them?'” Every afternoon the supporters of Ahlul Bayt (a.s.), men and women would gather at Jannat al- Baqii cemetery for remembrance of the tragedy of Karbala. The mourning was so loud that the weeping and wailing could be heard from far away distance.


Yazid gave Zainab the choice of remaining in Damascus or returning to Medina. When Zainab (s.a.) decided to return to Medina he called Nu’man ibn Bashir, who had been a companion of the Holy Prophet (pbuh), and ordered him to make suitable arrangements for their journey. Horsemen, foot-soldiers, and adequate provisions were made available. Gaily decorated litters with velvet seats were provided, but Zainab ordered that these should be covered in black so that people would know the travelers were in mourning.Someone asked Imam Zainul Abidin (a.s.), after they were released from Syria, as to what was the hardest calamity in that whole period of captivity. He replied that the hardest part was the time when the Ahlul Bayt caravan was made to stop outside Damascus for four days. They were treated very poorly, with their hands tied; and little food or water. And the hardest moment was when Sakeena died and buried in the dungeon. When the citizens of Damascus came to know that the members of the Holy Prophet’s family were leaving, the women went to the house they were staying in for a last farewell. Many people accompanied caravan for part of the journey and then returned to their homes with utmost grief and  sadness.

 During the journey Nu’man ibn Bashir showed the Imam and other travelers every consideration and respect they deserved.  When the caravan reached Karbala on Safar 20,Hijrah 62, they found that Jabir ibn Abdullah Ansaari and some of the chiefs of Banu Hashim werealready there for they had come to pay homage at the grave of Imam Al-Husain. It isspeculated that upon arrival in Karbala, the severed heads of the  martyrs that the caravanbrought from Damascus were respectfully  rejoined with their respective bodies by  Imam Zainul Abidin (a.s.).  A Majlis e Aza was held to observe the martyrs first Arbaeen (40 Days mourning)  before they resumed their journey to Medina. Wherever the caravan stopped on its way, a Majlis e Azaa was held.  On learning of their arrival the people of Medina came out in large numbers to meet them.  When they reached the outskirts of Medina, Imam Zainul Abidin (a.s.) asked the women to ready themselves for entering Medina. Then they entered the city on foot, with black flags raised aloft. The caravan went straight to the grave of the Prophet (pbuh) where Zainab (s.a) prayed complaining to him about the massacre of his beloved grandson. Banu Hashim held Majlis every day to commemorate Imam Al-Husain (a.s) and his companions’ sacrifices in Karbala. The mourning and commemoration lasted for many days in Medina.


People of Kufa  feeling themselves to be  responsible for the tragedy of Karbala and tried to compensate for it by throwing themselves into the struggle to obtain vengeance for Imam Husain’s (a.s.) blood. They were seeking an opportunity for action, until Mukhtar al-Thaqafi came to Kufa and claimed to represent Imam Zayn al-Abedin (a.s.), who was still in Medina. Mukhtar soon gained the authority of a leader and took vengeance on those who were involved in Imam Husain’s (a.s.) killing.  Umar ibn Sa’ad and Shimr were executed and Ibn Ziyad killed in a battle..Their heads were sent to Imam Zayn al-Abedin (a,s,).  Around this time, the question of the right of succession between Imam Ali ibn al-Husain (a.s.) and Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah gained the most attention. Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah (brother of Imam Husain a.s.) was a pious, brave man whom many considered as their Imam. The Shia sects said that Imam Zayn al-Abedin (a.s.) had the right to inherit the Imamah, because his father, Imam Husain (a.s.) had designated him as the next Imam. Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah said he was more worthy because he was the son of Imam Ali (a.s.). But Imam Zayn al-Abidin (a.s.) replied to his uncle, “Fear God and make no such claim”. After the death of Ibn Zubayr, the governor of Medina, Imam Zayn al-Abedin (a.s.) and Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah agreed to go to Mecca and appeal to the Black Stone to determine which one of them was the true successor. They went to Kaaba, where the Black Stone was placed. Muhammad Ibn al-Hanafiyyah prayed for a sign but no answer came. Afterwards, Imam Zayn al-Abedin(a.s.) prayed and the Black Stone became agitated and nearly fell off the wall; thus came the answer that Imam Zayn-al-Abidin (a.s.) was the true Imam after Imam Husain (a.s.), an answer to which Muhammad Ibn al-Hanafiyyah consented.  After this settlement, Imam Zayn al-Abedin (a.s.) returned to Medina and led a quiet life with a few companions who referred to him for answers to religious questions.

Imam’s Social status:

Imam Ali ibn al-Husayn (a.s.) was respected by his followers, who considered him as the fourth imam, and by the circle of Medinan scholars who considered him as an eminent traditional. The lawyer Said ibn al-Musayyib and the jurist  al-Zuhri—though attached to the court of the Umayyad—were among his admirers. Al-Zuhri gave him the honorific title Zayn al-Abedin—the ornament of worshipers—and narrated many Hadiths from him. Evidence for his high position among people comes from an ode of an event told by the well-known Arab poet Farazdaq. This ode mentions an occasion when the Caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik was overshadowed by the respect people showed to the imam. It was the time of Hajj when both of them were trying to reach the Black Stone through the crowd turning around the Kaaba. The people gave way to Imam Zayn al-Abedin (a.s.) while Hisham struggled desperately. This deeply offended the Caliph, who sarcastically asked to whom the people had shown such respect. Farazdaq, who was present there, composed an ode addressing Hisham’s question; it is considered a masterpiece of Arabic literature and the most reliable contemporaneous document describing Imam Zayn al-Abidin (a.s.). It is also related when asked about asceticism, Imam Zayn al-Abidin (a.s.) replied, “Asceticism is of ten degrees: The highest degree of asceticism is the lowest degree of piety. The highest degree of piety is the lowest degree of certainty. The highest degree of certainty is the lowest degree of satisfaction. Asceticism is in one verse of Allah’s Book: ‘Hence that you may not grieve for what has escaped you, nor be exultant at what He has given you”.
Several accounts record Imam Zainul Abidin’s (a.s.) deep sorrow over the massacre. It is said that for twenty years, he continued  weeping when food was placed before him. One day a servant said to him, “O son of Allah’s Messenger! Is it not time for your sorrow to come to an end?” He replied, “Woe upon you! Jacob (Yaqub) the prophet had twelve sons, and Allah made one of them disappear”. Prophet Jacob cried so much that he went blind.”

According to Shia belief, Imam Zayn al-Abidin (a.s.) was poisoned by Umayyad ruler Al-Walid through the instigation of the Umayyad caliph, Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik in Medina. The date of his death is most often given as Muharram 25, 85AH.  He lived for 57 years, was buried next to his uncle, Imam Hasan (a.s.), in the cemetery of Al-Baqi’ in Medina.  After his death, many people discovered that their livelihoods had come from him. He would go out with a sack of food on his back, knocking at the doors of more than 100 families, and gave freely to whoever answered while covering his face to avoid being recognized.
 Next Week – Part #6,  A Brief Life History of the 5th Imam Muhammad Al-Baqir (a.s.), insha’Allah.

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