(Lecture delivered by Mowlana Syed Aftab Haider at the Ahlul Bait (a.s) Islamic Centre, Ottery, Cape Town on 7 November 2015)

25 Muharram marks the martyrdom of Imam Zain al-Abidin al-Sajjad (AS), who is the fourth Imam of Ahlul Bayt (AS). He is Imam Ali ibn Husayn (AS), the son of Imam Husayn (AS).

Imam Zain al-Abidin was present in Karbala, where there were 3 Imams of Ahlul Bayt (AS) present, namely:

– Imam Husayn (AS)

– His son, Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS), and also

– The son of Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS), Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (AS) (fifth Imam of Ahlul Bayt (AS), as a young child.

Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) Established Remembrance of the Tragedy of Karbala

When we speak about this great Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS), we always speak with the background of the tragedy of Karbala, because that is the central issue in the life of Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS). He lived for 35 years after Karbala, but throughout his life the main focus and emphasis was Karbala and the uprising of Imam Husayn (AS).

One of the main issues in the life of this fourth Imam of Ahlul Bayt (AS) was to keep Karbala’s memory and remembrance alive, despite all the conspiracies and plans to divert people’s attention from this heinous crime by the Umayyad dynasty. He countered this plan in the most sublime manner, by establishing this very institution of Aza – mourning and commemorating Karbala.

We see all these different aspects globally of love and grief for the tragedy of Karbala, which was established by Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS). No one lived in more difficult conditions than Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS). There was unrelenting pressure. Anyone suspected with affiliation to Ahlul Bayt (AS) were summarily killed.

Imam Jafar Sadiq (AS) said about Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS): “The number of followers committed to Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) did not exceed 6.”

This was the most difficult isolated times that Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) lived. Despite this, Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) has a responsibility to keep Karbala alive, together with Sayeda Zainab (SA). This was their mission. They kept it alive through emotion and tears. They are the ones to establish institution of remembering Karbala.

Uprising in Medina and Mecca

The people of Medina sent a delegation to Damascus to see what is happening, after hearing what took place at Karbala. Yazid and his administration bribed this delegation with a warm reception and gifts to paint a rosy picture of them. When this delegation returned to Medina, the leader of this delegation stood on the mimbar of our Holy Prophet’s (SAWA) mosque, describing the shocking situation, saying that what they saw with their our own eyes is worse than what they heard.

The whole of Medina revolted. This caused Yazid to send an army led by a merciless criminal, Muslim bin Aqaba, to conquer and crush Medina. The worst atrocities were committed here, including our Holy Prophet’s (SAWA) mosque desecrated and Sahaba being killed.

From there was an uprising in Mecca. The same army of Yazid turned to Mecca after destroying Medina and crushed the resistance there as well. Again, the worst atrocities were committed here. They even threw fire on the Kabah and it was burnt down.

Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) Penetrates the Hearts of the People

Another very important aspect of the life of Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) is that for 35 years he cried about Karbala, reminding people about Karbala’s thirst when he would see them drinking water. Also, he reminded people of the difficulties of Karbala when they were experiencing personal difficulties.

Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) as leader of this era has a responsibility.

Umayyad dynasty in this time became overly brutal and ruthless. They disdainfully wiped out any semblance of resistance against their rule. Furthermore, they openly promoted corruption. They changed Medina from the capital of Islam and our Holy Prophet (SAWA) to the city of music, partying and corruption. People were not concerned about Halaal and Haraam, and nobody had the courage to resist against them, and in this situation Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) presented spirituality in this merciless, material and sinful society. He was the face of spirituality, Taqwa and obedience to Almighty Allah (SWT).

This is how Ahlul Bayt (AS) worked – not only by sword. Their penetration was in the hearts of the people, through their Taqwa, spirituality, akhlaaq, etc.

Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) adopted the strategy of drawing people toward Almighty Allah (SWT), particularly those who were drawn in dunya. He did it through dua and recitation of the Holy Quran. It is well recorded in history that when he recited the Holy Quran, it created a very tranquil environment, bringing people to a standstill through his beautiful recitation. Amazing is the level of spirituality of Ahlul Bayt (AS).

Let us look at Imam Zain al-Abidin’s (AS) approach. Someone comes to Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) in this terrible time, when almost the whole society is corrupt and evil. This person makes this dua in front of Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS), due to the depths of despair that the society had reached with Umayyad rule: “O Allah make me independent from your creation. I don’t want anything from your creation. I only want to be with you.”

Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) replied that this is not a correct prayer. He explains that Almighty Allah (SWT) created us needing each other, so we should not ask to be independent from each other. He provides this deep, reflective response: “O Allah protect me from the worst of your creation”. This is the spirit of Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) even in that most difficult time.

The strategy of Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) was to combat against the evil through his character and Akhlaaq.

One of the main problems during Umayyad rule was to discriminate between rich and poor, Arab and non-Arab. There was a whole class which emerged from the time of the third Khaliph called Mawali – these were slaves regarded as third class citizens. They were treated terribly.

Bani Umayya were completely merciless. They were purely a reverse gear to Islam. Everything which Islam brought was replaced, such as humanity, Taqwa, dignity, equality, etc. Everything to do with Jahiliyya was brought back, which Islam opposed.

Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) and the Treatment of Slaves

Remarkable in the life of Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) is his extraordinary compassion towards slaves. He would buy them and free them, on any excuse. Before the start of Ramadaan, Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) would obtain lots of slaves. Whenever they made mistakes in Ramadaan, he would maintain a register of their mistakes with their names. Towards the end of Ramadaan he would gather them together, and read to them from this register of mistakes.

They noted that Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) did not reprimand them.

He asks them all to turn to Almighty Allah (SWT) together with him to say:

“O Allah, Ali ibnal Husayn is your slave, who has made too many mistakes, and you never reprimanded him, but You Allah said to Your slave that if you will be soft towards your slave then Allah will also be soft towards you. So I request you all to bear witness now that Ali ibnal Husayn was very kind to his slaves and therefore, O Allah, please be kind to your slave Ali ibnal Husayn Zain al-Abidin (AS)”

Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) would free them before Eid, with gifts. This is his Akhlaaq.

When Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) married a slave girl, the 5th Umayyad Khaliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan from Damascus sent him a message saying: “Imam, you are from a very high ranking family, but you marrying a slave? This is not suitable for you.” Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) replied to him saying: “You are still stuck in Jahiliyya mentality of racism and class. This is against Muslim identity.”

One day a female slave was pouring the water from a jug for Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) to perform Wudhu. By mistake this metallic jug slipped on Imam’s hand which hurt him. She got worried, but she was smart. She recited the following verse from the Holy Quran, which speaks about the quality of a mu’min:

وَالْكَاظِمِينَ الْغَيْظَ وَالْعَافِينَ عَنِ النَّاسِ وَاللّهُ يُحِبُّ الْمُحْسِنِينَ

“…who restrain anger and who pardon the people – and Allah loves the doers of good” (Surah Aale-Imraan, Chapter 3, verse 134)

In response to this slave’s recitation of the above verse, Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) says: “I have restrained my anger and I forgive you and I free you.” This explains the level of kindness of Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS).

Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) showed impeccable Akhlaaq and principles despite these extremely difficult circumstances he had to endure in the aftermath of Karbala.

Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) and Hajj

Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) would love going for Hajj. He would join a caravan where nobody knows him, so that he can serve the people in that group. He does not want to be in a crowd where people recognize him and treat him differently as a VIP.

Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) would wash and wipe the feet of people travelling to Hajj. Traveling would be very difficult those days, with lots of walking. People would bring helpers along for this purpose.

There was a time when someone recognized Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) washing his feet. This person objected strongly, feeling highly guilty. Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) slowly moved away from this caravan.

He moves to another caravan, and again he was recognized. He was asked why he is doing this humble work, and he replied by saying he does not want to be recognized. Again, an illustration of the sublime humility of Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS).

In Mecca, during Hajj, Tawaf is being performed around Kabah. It is a huge crowd. All of a sudden a big entourage arrives from Bani Umayya (the same practice we see from despotic rulers of today). It is the crown prince coming. Security is trying to clear the way so that he can go right through to the front. Crowd was so heavy that the security could not break. They then requested that he sits and waits until the crowd calms down then it will be easier for them to create a path for him to pass straight through to the Hajarul Aswad.

All of sudden they see someone enters the Haram without any pomp and glamour, very humbly, head bowed, with all dignity walks in. As soon as this huge crowd saw him, they broke up giving him a straight path to the Hajarul Aswad. It is none other than Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS)!

The crown prince was very surprised to see this, wondering why the crowd did not open up for him, despite coming with all the security as a high ranking official in the Umayyad dynasty.

The following response rendered by a poet in close proximity became a point of reflection in history:

You don’t know who is he, and it does not matter,

Kabah knows him, Haram knows him, Safa knows him, Marwah knows him,

Mash’ar knows him, Zamzam knows him

So what, if you don’t know him?

Let me tell you who is he. He is the son of the best of the people on the earth.

His mother, the best of the women

His father, the best of the men

His grandfather, the best of the creation

And still you don’t know him?

Let me tell you who is he…

He is the one whose grandfather placed this Hajarul Aswad where it is today

He is the one, when he walks, dignity is sacrificed on him

He is the purist and most knowledgeable

He is son of Fatima.

By his grandfather, Prophethood of all the previous prophets ended.

At the conclusion of this moving poetry an order of arrest came for him to be imprisoned for his worst crime, namely his love of Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) and Ahlul Bayt (AS)!

Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) together with Sayeda Zainab (SA) and other ladies of Ahlul Bayt (AS) kept Aza alive for the tragedy of Karbala. This institution is their lasting legacy. This is what they taught us.

People were complaining from that time already, like today, asking how long are you going to cry Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS)? He replies by narrating the story of Nabi Yaqub (AS) crying for his one Yusuf (AS), even though he had 12 sons, and despite being sure that one day he will be reunited with Yusuf (AS). He cried endlessly, to the point where he went blind. Imam Zain al-Abidin (AS) goes further to lament their loss of 18 Yusuf’s in one afternoon on the day of Ashura!