Karbala & The Role Of Women
The events of Karbala arose in the 61 AH as a result of the Prophet’s grandson, Sayyiduna Imam Hussain (may Allah be pleased with him) refusing to give his support to Yazid, who had become the leader of the Muslims at the time. Yazid wrote a letter to the governor of Medina at the time, asking him to demand allegiance from Sayyiduna Hussain (RA) or to threaten him with death. Sayyiduna Imam Hussain (RA) had received letters from the Muslims from the town of Kufa (Iraq) saying that they would support him if he challenged Yazid’s leadership. Gathering his supporters of about one hundred family members and friends, Sayyiduna Hussain had therefore set out from Medina to go to challenge Yazid. But on the journey, Sayyiduna Imam Hussain (RA) and his companions, including women and young members of the blessed family of the Prophet (pbuh) (Ahl-e-Bayt) were met by and challenged by Yazid’s army in a place called Karbala in Iraq, and the Battle of Karbala took place. During the battle, Sayyiduna Imam Hussain (RA) and all of his men were martyred, and the women in his family were taken prisoners. This day is known as the day of Ashura which falls on the 10th day of Murahham. On this day the Muslim community commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (ra) and his family.
Why take women?
The question that is sometimes raised in why did Imam Husain (may Allah be pleased with him) take his family with him to Karbala? He was advised by his advisers to leave them behind, and he knew that if he took them, their likely fate was martyrdom. So why did he not leave them behind or leave them to stay in a safe place? Imam Hussain (RA) took with him all his family members, including women and children. He knew that the women, who included his wife, his sisters and daughters, would play a very important role, even if that role was not on the actual battlefield. The battle of Karbala can be seen as having two elements:
1. The martyrdom of Imam Hussain (may Allah be pleased with him) and his companions during the actual battle; and
2. Accomplishing a wider mission of spreading the message of the battle. There was a role for both men and women in battle. The main role of the men was to take part in the physical battle, to fight Yazid’s army in the battlefield and we have heard the tragic stories of what went on in the battlefield. The Women did have a role in supporting and encouraging the men who participated in the actual battle. However, the main role of the women can be seen in the second element, in spreading the true account of Karbala after the event and delivering the messages from the battle.
The Resilience of Sayyida Zaynab (may Allah be pleased with her)
The account of one woman in particular stands out. That woman was Zaynab bint Ali, the sister of Imam Hussain (RA). After the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (RA) at Karbala and his male companions, all the women and children were arrested and taken to Damascus in Syrian on camelback via Kufa. During the journey, the women were deliberately kept tired and hungry, and were mistreated. This was on top of the grief they were all suffering as a result of the martyrdoms of their male relatives. Yazid’s aim was to publicly humiliate them to and ridicule them to the point where Imam Hussain’s (RA) followers lost all public support. However, Sayyida Zaynab, a brave and bold woman, addressed Muslims everywhere along the way, exposing Yazid and his evil actions, his un-Islamic acts, and telling the Muslim world about the atrocities that were committed in Karbala. Sayyidah Zaynab and the Imam’s entire family were kept in prison in Damascus in Syria. They were brought to Yazid’s court, and Sayyida Zaynab gave a famous speech in which she rejected Yazid’s claims of being the caliph – or leader of the Muslims – at the time and thoroughly exposed him for what he really was.
She stood and said:
“God says, and He says the truth, the end of miscreants will be awful, those who belied the signs of God and mocked them. Oh Yazid, do you feel that you have made our life miserable and existence impossible? And you think that God has dishonoured us and that you have been honoured and elevated? This apparent success of yours is the result of grandeur of your might and lofty status for which you are proud…. You feel that you have conquered the whole world and your affairs are organised and that our domain is now under you control… Wait! Wait! Let not your ignorance make you so elated for have you not heard God’s words –
“Let not those who disbelieve think that our giving them respite is good for themselves. We only give respite to them so that they may increase in sins and for them is a disgraceful chastisement. (3:177)….”
Sayyida never shied from her mission, so much so that Yazid had to release her and the Imam’s entire family, they were sent back to Madina. The speeches of Sayyida Zaynab and her female companions fulfilled the role of carrying forward the messages of Karbala that we are hearing about today. Imagine if Imam Hussain (RA) had taken the advice of his advisers and set off to meet Yazid without his family – without their accounts, the true story of what happened in the battlefield may never have come out. Syeda Zainab’s role was exemplary, It showed how bold Muslim women were and how they played a key role in consolidating Islamic teachings. Today, despite so much progress and the spread of education, so many Muslim women are suppressed, they are thought of as having no role outside the home at all. However, here was Princess Zainab from the Imam’s family who became a public speaker to save Islamic values. Sayyida Zaynab was the eldest Princess among the women of the Imam’s family. The leadership of the family thus fell to Sayeda Zaynab, and she proved to be more than what was expected of her. Today, women have to learn much from her example and leadership qualities. Her public role in the Karbala saga has much to teach us. It shows that the attitude we sometimes come across that women have no place outside the home and cannot take any kind of role in public life does not fit the history of some of the greatest and most influential women of early Islam. There are great lessons to be learnt from the other honourable women who played a role in Karbala too. The sacrifices they made are unspeakable. They sacrificed things a thousand times greater than the sacrifices we complain about. They lost their husbands, brothers, and children, their protectors and their hope – they lost everything until there was nothing more left for them to loose. They lost everything, and yet they stayed strong for the sake of Allah, for the sake of spreading Imam Hussein’s (as) message. May Allah (swt) enable us all to follow the example of these great noble women, and to spread the message of Islam in whatever way we can and be prepared to make sacrifices for the sake of our Deen.
Dr Qari Muhammad Asim
Imam, Makkah Masjid Leeds