The Sermon of Zaynab and Its Historical Background – Part 1

Sayyid Muhammad Rizvi

(Toronto, Canada)


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.

Conquest of Sham & the Family of Abu Sufyan

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 time frame, 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”.

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. 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.

The Third Caliph promoted Mu‘awiyah by making him the Governor General of Sham (covering Syria,Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine).

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;” nor were Zayd bin Thabit or Khalid bin Sa‘id were so publicly known as “katibu ’l-wahy.”

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].” 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 power base 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.

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About the author

He was born in 1957 in a family of ‘ulamã’ in Bihar, India. He comes from a region in Bihar (Siwan District, previously known as Saran) that has produced well-known Shi‘a scholars in the Indian sub-continent. Migrated to Africa with his parents where he received elementary education in English medium school. After that for two years, he studied Arabic and Farsi with his respected father and two other ‘alims in Dar-Es-salaam, Tanzania.

In 1972, at the age of fifteen, he went to the Hawza-e ‘Ilmiya-e Qum, Iran. During his ten years stay in Qum, he studied with various teachers; and moved from the levels of muqaddimãt to sutûh (equal to graduate level in secular universities) and, finally, attended the dars-e kharij (ijtihad lectures equal to post-graduate studies) of Ayatullah al-Uzma Shaikh Wahid Khurãsãni.

In 1982, he returned to India where he stayed at Gopalpur for about a year.

In June 1983, at the invitation of the Shia Muslim Community of British Columbia, he and his wife moved to Vancouver where he stayed till June 1991 and served Shi‘a Islam through his lectures, writings, and teachings. Based on his publications and educational background, in September 1987, the Simon Fraser University (Vancouver) admitted him in the post-graduate program at Masters’ level. This was even though he had no formal degree nor was he asked to sit for any exams. In 1990 he completed his thesis; and after successfully defending the thesis, was awarded the Master of Arts degree in History in 1991.

In July 1991, he moved to Toronto and till 1996 worked as the Director of Islamic Education & Information Center providing a variety of religious services to Shi‘as in North America. During this time, he was also involved in the founding of the As-Sadiq Islamic School, a full time Islamic school from KG to Grade 8 levels. Since July 1996, he has accepted the responsibilities of the Imam-e Jum‘a and Resident ‘Ãlim of the Jaffari Islamic Center / Jaffari Community Center.

He has traveled to most cities in Canada and U.S.A.; as well as to Australia, Guyana, Trinidad, United Kingdom, Dubai, Pakistan, Tanzania and Kenya for lectures.

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