Bringing the Lioness of Karbala to the West

Anna Gephart

As a non-Muslim American I was in my “World of Islam” class at American University ready to learn about Islamic history when my professor, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, introduced our class to the story of a seminal event in Islamic history, the tragedy of Karbala and one of the great heroic names to emerge from it, Zainab bint Ali. Zainab’s powerful story forever changed my perspective and my life: learning about her story is where my story begins.

The story of Zainab is one that is well-known in the Islamic world. (One of the sources of Zainab’s story came to us through the moving article by Dr. Amineh Hoti called: The Lionness of Karbala: ‘Alima’ Zainab’s Stand. Published in the Daily Times, Pakistan. 31 Aug. 2020,) Zainab was the highly respected granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad, the daughter of Fatima bint Muhammad and Ali ibn Talib and sister to Hassan and Hussain bin Ali. Muslims add the title Hazrat to these figures as a term of respect because they are widely revered and loved throughout the Muslim world.

Her family was in danger, as the Umayyad Caliph Yazid was fixed on hunting down and killing the male descendants of the Prophet. In the year 680 CE, Yazid and his giant army battled the tiny force led by Hussain ibn Ali who had fearlessly set out to challenge the tyranny and injustice of Yazid. At Karbala, Yazid had all water supply  cut off from the Prophet’s family and then ruthlessly attacked and killed them. Afterwards, he had his army take prisoners then looted and burned down their camp. Zainab’s two sons and her beloved brother, Hussain, were callously killed while she was taken as a prisoner.

Zainab and other prisoners were then taken to Yazid, who boasted of his strength and defeat of the Prophet’s family. There stood Zainab, a descendent of the Prophet who had just witnessed the brutal slaughter of her family and their supporters, before the tyrant who ordered their deaths. This same tyrant now further disrespected her brother, Hussain, by mocking Hussain’s severed head at his feet.

She had been taken prisoner and unveiled, pained by unimaginable sorrow in the immediate aftermath of her family’s murder. Yet, despite everything that she just went through, she showed great courage and strength. She held her head up high and spoke out against Yazid. She denounced his treatment of Hussain and her fellow prisoners. She powerfully denounced Yazid before his subjects and before God. She told Yazid that she had seen the Prophet himself kiss the head of Hussain that he disrespected. In this haunting part of her speech, she said to Yazid,

“I do not fear anyone except Him and do not complain to anyone else, and rely upon Him Alone. You may utilize your treachery, traps, and disloyalty, but I swear that the shame and disgrace, which you have earned by the treatment meted out to us, cannot be eradicated. You shall never be able to wipeout our memories, and inspiration from the midst, nor will you ever be able to wipe off the disgrace of these events. Your opinion is erroneous, and your days are numbered, and your wealth wasted on the Day when the caller will announce: “Beware! (Now) Verily the La’nah of Allah is on the oppressors and unjust.” (Hoti, 31 Aug. 2020)

It is said that the nobles in court, Muslims, Christians and Jews, were so moved they pleaded with the Caliph to show mercy. This is a 7th century woman speaking out with great bravery and eloquence against a powerful male tyrant. Though this alone was enough to inspire me, but Zainab’s story did not end here. After her moving and forceful rebuke, Yazid was coerced into letting the prisoners go out of fears of a potential rebellion in reaction to Zainab’s stunning act of defiance. Zainab then moved back to Medina and started educational centres of learning especially for women. She dedicated her life to promoting the education of women. Overnight she was creating a whole generation of females studying law, theology and promoting social activism. The world would never be the same again.

Zainab’s story is undeniably inspiring. This remarkable woman spoke against her oppressor at her lowest moment and then continued her already heroic story by establishing a place dedicated to the education of young female students. Her story is a great source of pride and inspiration throughout the Islamic world and is a tribute to feminist ideals all across the world. So, my question is, why had I never heard of her before?

I previously learned about feminists from the Western world through my time in school; figures like Joan of Arc, Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger, and many others. Yet, in Zainab bint Ali, I found a woman who exemplified feminist ideals all the way back in the seventh century, and I had never seen her noted as a major feminist figure. I have just started my in-depth journey of learning about Islam with this class, and while learning about Islam is giving me a new perspective, Zainab’s story resonated with me in a unique way.

Her story personally impacted me on many levels. First, it showed me that the power of a woman dates back farther than I had imagined. Second, this story made me angry. It made me angry because I had lived all my life without learning about such an influential feminist that predates many Western feminists I previously learned about. Zainab embodied a true hero and a feminist by standing up for justice and fostering an established learning system, and while she is respected and loved by the Islamic world, she seems to still be ignored by the Western world.

My knowledge of Islam before this class was limited, which is unfortunately common for many Americans. I had short lessons on different religions, including Islam, in middle school, and most of the history I learned in high school was Eurocentric. In fact, the only AP history classes available at my high school were centered on U.S. and European history.

My view of Islam and the whole other half of the world was skewed by this learning. Yet, when I learned of Zainab’s story, I was shocked that I had not been introduced to it earlier in my education. There has been new emphasis on learning about history that includes figures other than white men, yet this piece of history still has yet to leave its mark on the Western world.

Zainab is called Aqeela- e -Bani Hashim: “the Wise One of Bani Hashim”. Even today parents in the Muslim world name their daughters after her. Folk songs are sung in her praise. Here is an example:

“In Karbala’s ship of distress. From the burning haram, the protective shield showed up: Zainab!
… The Loyal Leader and Karbala’s hero: loyal lion Zainab.
The secrets of Zulfiqar, Zainab.
Patient and satisfied with God’s will, Zainab.
Ya Alima Zainab. Oh scientist Zainab. Problem-solver Zainab.”

The nephew Zainab had saved from his death at Karbala, Zain -al- Abideen (later given the title “The Ornament of the Worshippers”), became an ascetic and lived a quiet scholarly life. Karbala affected him so profoundly that even decades later when he drank water he cried profusely at the thought that his near and dear ones were denied it. When Zain died it was discovered that he had supported 100 families in charity secretly.

When I think of my younger self, I think of how Zainab would’ve impacted me. The knowledge of a seventh-century feminist would have changed my views, but, more importantly, the lessons she teaches – lessons of fighting for justice and being courageous even in one’s darkest hour – would have made a lasting impression on me, an impression that I firmly believe should be left on the whole world.

That is what fueled this article. That is why I hold Zainab as a strong feminist which I connect with and admire greatly despite our different cultures and eras. Her story is vital to the history of female empowerment and vital to the path of modern feminism. Zainab’s story must be told, not just in the context of Islamic history, but in the context of a modern feminist world that aspires to embody a universal humanism. I am thus delighted to introduce Hazrat Zainab for her courage, compassion and the promotion of knowledge. These qualities have inspired me to introduce her story to America as not only an Islamic role model, but a feminist role model for everyone.

Anna Gephart is a political science major studying at the School of Public Affairs, American University in Washington DC and is from Pennsylvania. She is focused on the dialogue of civilizations and the importance of teaching a diverse history.