She was born to a family formed by the Prophet (PBUH), the most outstanding figure in history. The Prophet's wife Sayyeda Khadija (AS) a devoted woman, was her maternal grandmother, and her paternal grandmother was Fatima daughter of Assad, who mothered and nursed the Prophet (SAW). The members of the family, in trio hierarchical order, were all great.
Sayyeda Zainab (AS) was a brilliant star in the mandate sky that received rays of holiness from the five suns. It was through her holy origins and pious edification that she manifested so great a fortitude in Karbala (Iraq).
The life of the daughter of Sayyeda Al-Zahra (AS) was always laden with hardships, but she never feared coping with difficulties, this enhanced her endurance and elevated her soul.
The Birth of Sayyeda Zainab (s.a.)
There is divergence of opinions about the birth date of Sayyeda Zainab (AS). Some say it was in Medina 5th of Jamadi Al-Awwal, and others say it was 1st in the month of Shabaan, in the 6th Hijra year.
It was five years after the Muslims had accompanied the Prophet (PBUH) and his family in the migration (Hijrah) to Medina, when the Holy Prophet's daughter, Sayyeda Fatima (AS), gave birth to a little girl.
When her father, Imam Ali (AS), saw his daughter for the first time Imam Hussain (AS), who was then almost three years old, was with him. The boy exclaimed in delight, "O father, Allah has given me a sister."
At those words Imam Ali (AS) began to weep, and when Hussain (AS) asked why he was crying so, his father answered that he would soon come to know.
Sayyeda Fatima (AS) and Imam Ali (AS) did not name their child until a few days after her birth, for they awaited the Prophet's return from a journey so that he could propose the name.
When finally the baby girl was brought before him he held her in his lap and kissed her. The Angel Gabriel came to him and conveyed the name that was to be hers, and then he began to weep. The Prophet (PBUH) asked why Gabriel wept and he answered, "O Prophet of Allah.
From early on in life this girl will remain entangled in tribulations and trials in this world. First she will weep over your separation (from this world); thereafter she will bemoan the loss of her mother, then her father, and then her brother Hassan. After all this she will be confronted with the trials of the land of Karbala and the tribulations of that lonely desert, as a result of which her hair will turn gray and her back will be bent."
When the members of the family heard this prophecy they all broke down in tears. Imam Hussain (AS) now understood why earlier his father had also wept. Then the Prophet (PBUH) named her Zainab (AS).
One day, when Zainab (AS) was about five years old, she had a strange and terrible dream. A violent wind arose in the city and darkened the earth and the sky. The little girl was tossed hither and thither, and suddenly she found herself stuck in the branches of a huge tree. But the wind was so strong that it uprooted the tree. Zainab (AS) caught hold of a branch but that broke. In a panic she grabbed two twigs but these top gave way and she was left falling with no support. Then she woke up. When she told her grand-father, the Prophet (PBUH), about this dream he wept bitterly and said, "O my daughter. That tree is me who is shortly going to leave this world. The branches are your father Ali and your mother Fatima Zahra, and the twigs are your brothers Hassan and Hussain. They will all depart this world before you do, and you will suffer their separation and loss."
She had barely attained the tender age of seven when her beloved mother passed away. Her mother's death had closely followed her cherished grand-father's passing away. Sometime later Imam Ali (AS) married Umm ul-Banin, whose devotion and piety encouraged Zainab (AS) in her learning.
Whilst still a young girl she was fully able to care for and be responsible for the running of her father's household. As much as she cared for the comforts and ease of her brothers and sisters, in her own wants she was frugal and unstintingly generous to the poor, homeless and parentless. After her marriage her husband is reported as having said, "Zainab is the best housewife."
From very early on she developed an unbreakable bond of attachment to her brother Imam Hussain (AS). At times when as a baby in her mother's arms she could not be pacified and made to stop crying, she would quieter down upon being held by her brother, and there she would sit quietly gazing at his face. Before she would pray she used to first cast a glance at the face of her beloved brother.
One day Fatima (AS) mentioned the intensity of her daughter's love for Imam Hussain (AS) to the Prophet (PBUH). He breathed a deep sigh and said with moistened eyes, "My dear child, this child of mine Zainab would be confronted with a thousand and one calamities and face serious hardships in Karbala."
Zainab (AS) grew into a fine stature young woman. Of her physical appearance little is known. When the tragedy of Karbala befell her in her mid-fifties she was forced to go out uncovered. It was then that some people remarked that she appeared as a 'shining sun' and a 'piece of the moon'.
In her character she reflected the best attributes of those who raised her. In sobriety and serenity she was likened to Umm ul-Muminin Khadija, her grandmother (AS); in chastity and modesty to her mother Fatima Zahra (AS); in eloquence to her father Imam Ali (AS); in forbearance and patience to her brother Imam Hassan (AS); and in bravery and tranquillity of the heart to Imam Hussain (AS). Her face reflected her father's awe and her grandfather's reverence.
Ibn Abbas quoted Sayyeda Zahra (As) as having said that her daughter Zainab, like her father, was unparalleled in literary eloquence and courage. The speech she delivered in the assembly in presence of Yazid was at the zenith of eloquence and impressiveness. (Refer Famous Women, Dr. Ahmed Beheshti, and p.51)
After the demise of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), there came the period of distress and hardship in the life of Sayyeda Zainab (AS). She stood by her mother as far as the question of supreme mandate of her father was concerned. When her mother delivered the Fadak sermon, she was only 4 years old, but narrated the sermon so lucidly and expressively that the people from Bani Hashim remembered it by heart. Later the Shiite scholars recorded it that is why she is called Zainab the narrator of traditions.
Sayyeda Zainab's Marriage
When the time came for marriage, she was married in a simple ceremony to her first cousin, Abdullah Ibn Ja'far Tayyar. Her marriage settlement was equal to that of her mother's. Imam Ali (AS) told Ja'far not to prevent Zainab from going on a journey with Imam Hussain (AS), her brother.
Abdullah had been brought up under the direct care of the Prophet (PBUH). After his death, Imam Ali (AS) became his supporter and guardian until he came of age. He grew up to be a handsome youth with pleasing manners and was known for his sincere hospitality to guests and selfless generosity to the poor and needy.
Although Zainab's husband was a man of means, she lived a modest life, not a life of luxury. She and her husband were charitable to the needy people. The Arab tribes called Abdullah "the sea or the cloud of munificence".
The marriage of Zainab did not diminish her strong attachment to her family. Together this young couple had five children, of whom four were sons, Ali, Aun, Muhammad, and Abbas, and one daughter, Umm Kulthum.
In Medina it was Zainab's practice to hold regular meetings for women in which she shared her knowledge and taught them the precepts of the Deen of Islam as laid out in the Holy Quran. Her gatherings were well and regularly attended. She was able to impart the teachings with such clarity and eloquence that she became known as Fasihah (skillfully fluent) and Balighah (intensely eloquent).
In the thirty-seventh year A.H. (after Hijrah), Imam Ali (AS) moved to Kufa to finally take up his rightful position as khalifah. He was accompanied by his daughter Zainab (AS) and her husband. Her reputation as an inspiring teacher among the women had preceded her. There too women would throng to her daily sittings where they all benefited from her erudition, wisdom and scholarship in the exegesis of the Qur'an.
The depth and certainty of her knowledge earned her the name given to her by her nephew, Imam Ali Zayn ul-Abidin (AS), of Alimah Ghayr Mu'allamah, 'she who has knowledge without being taught'.
Sayyeda Zainab (AS) and Imamate
In her life Zainab (AS) always saw the evildoers, oppressors, insurgents and breakers of covenants defy the truth and Imam Ali (AS), the supporter of the truth and justice had to quell their revolts. Finally, an evil hand gave Imam Ali (AS) a stroke from a poisoned sword on his head in the mosque of Kufa. After Imam Ali (a.s.), his son Imam Hassan (AS) became the Caliph. Hassan was also greatly oppressed until at last he signed a peace treaty with the ruler of that time and moved to Kufa in the company of Zainab, her husband, and his own companions. Imam Hassan (AS) was poisoned by his treacherous wife Joda, by the order of the Caliph of that time. After Imam Hassan, Imam Hussain (AS) became the Imam, but the ruler of Syria Mavia violated the peace treaty and appointed his son Yazid as his successor and insisted that Imam Hussain (AS) should pledge allegiance to him. Imam Hussain refused to pledge allegiance and made up his mind to move to Mecca.
Zainab (AS) said farewell to her husband and went with her brother accompanied by her sons Muhammad and Aun. They reached Mecca in 61 Hijra year.
Imam Hussain (AS) was informed that some agents of the ruler of that time had come to Mecca to assassinate him while circumambulating the Holy Ka'bah. Imam Hussain (AS) deemed it advisable to move to Kufa and let people know of his secret mission. They arrived at Karbala on the 2nd Muharram. Zainab had heard from her grandfather and father that Karbala would be the place where Imam Hussain (AS) would be martyred.
Sayyeda Zainab (s.a.) in Karbala
Zainab (AS) is the shining sun in the history of Islam and of humanity. Her brother's name and Karbala associate the idea of freedom, justice, humanity, virtue, fighting against despotism, with the realization of the sovereignty of Allah. The history of Karbala is based on two pillars: the rising of Imam Hussain (AS) and the rising of Zainab (AS). She was an outstanding figure in the history of Karbala endowed with divine steadfastness and fortitude.
She sacrificed her two sons and one should not say anything if one devoted his life for the cause of Allah. After the martyrdom of her brother and her two sons, she said: "O my Lord! Accept our humble sacrifice to You."
When Zainab reached Kufa, she addressed people with fury words: "Praise to Allah, and may the blessing of Allah be upon Muhammad and his progeny. O people of Kufa, you are hypocrites and deceitful. You feign to be sorry for the death of my brother and his companions. May you always shed tears. I find nothing in you but flattery, evil acts and thoughts, pride and spite and ill will. By Allah! You deserve lasting sorrow instead of joy.
Shames on you, your hands are imbrued with the blood of the son of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), the one who was your sole refuge in case of adversity. By your evil act and disloyalty, you incurred the wrath of Allah against you. Woe betides you! No one will intercede with Allah for you." Her furious words provoked people of Kufa to avenge Hussain's martyrdom.
This frightened Ubaidullah and his cruel agents. She also delivered a furious sermon in the court of the caliph that made his authority and despotic rule feel undermined. She said: "I fear no one but Allah. Make whatever evil plot you can. Blazes are waiting for you in the hereafter. You'll he accountable to Allah for your atrocities."