Karbala & The Remarkable Strength of Women

Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque

Karbala & The Role Of Women

The events of Karbala happened in 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 second Umayyad Caliph. 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 if he declines. Meanwhile, Sayyiduna Hussain (RA) had received letters from the Muslims of the town of Kufa (Iraq) saying that they would support him if he challenged Yazid’s leadership. Gathering his supporters of about 100 family members and friends, Sayyiduna Hussain decided to set out from Medina to challenge Yazid. However, along their journey, Sayyiduna Hussain (RA) and his companions, including women and young members of the blessed family of the Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H) (Ahl-e-Bayt) were met and challenged by Yazid’s army in a place called Karbala in Iraq, where the Battle of Karbala took place. During this battle, Sayyiduna Imam Hussain (RA) and all of his men were martyred, while the women in his family were taken as prisoners. This day is known as the day of ‘Ashura’ which falls on the 10th day of Muharram. It is on this day that Muslims all over the world commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (RA) and his family.

Why take women along?

The question that is sometimes raised is why did Imam Hussain (RA) take his family with him to Karbala? His advisers had told him to leave them behind, and he knew that if he took them, their likely fate was martyrdom. So, why did he not just leave them behind or leave them to stay in a safe place? Imam Hussain (RA) knew that the women, who included his wife, sisters and daughters, would all play a very important role, even if that role was not on the actual battlefield. The battle of Karbala can be understood as having two elements:

1. The martyrdom of Imam Hussain (RA) and his companions during the actual physical battle and
2. Accomplishing the wider mission of spreading the message of the battle.

Both men and women played an important role in the battle of Karbala. The main role of the men was to take part in the physical battle, fighting Yazid’s army in the battlefield from which we know the numerous tragic stories. The women, on the other hand, played a role in supporting and encouraging the men who participated in battle. Not only that, but the main role of women can actually be seen in the second element- in spreading the true account of Karbala after the event and delivering the messages from battle.

The Resilience of Sayyida Zaynab (may Allah be pleased with her)

The account of one woman in particular stands out- Zaynab bint Ali, the sister of Imam Hussain (RA). After the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (RA) and his male companions at Karbala, all the women and children were arrested and taken to Damascus in Syria on camelback via Kufa. During the journey, the women were deliberately kept tired and hungry, and were badly mistreated. This was on top of the grief they were already suffering as a result of the martyrdoms of their male relatives. Yazid’s aim was to publicly humiliate 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, un-Islamic actions, 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. When they were brought to Yazid’s court, Sayyidah 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.

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 your 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)….”

Sayyidah Zaynab never shied away from her mission, so much so that Yazid had to release her and the Imam’s entire family and send them back to Madinah. The speeches of Sayyida Zaynab and her female companions fulfilled the role of carrying forward the messages of Karbala that we hear 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 been known. 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 the spread of education, so many Muslim women continue to be suppressed, viewed as having little to no role outside of the private domain of the household. However, here was Syeda Zaynab from the Imam’s family, who became an influential public speaker saving and upholding Islamic values. Syeda Zaynab was the eldest amongst the women of the Imam’s family. The leadership of the family thus fell to her, and she proved to be more than willing and capable.

Today’s women have much to learn from her strength and leadership qualities. Her public role in the Karbala saga teaches us many life lessons. It reminds us 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 actually 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, and the sacrifices they made. They sacrificed things a thousand times greater than the sacrifices we complain about today. They lost their husbands, brothers, and children– they lost everything until there was nothing more left for them to loose. Despite suffering such tremendous loss, they stayed strong for the sake of Allah, for the sake of spreading Imam Hussein’s (RA) 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, InshaAllah. 

Dr Qari Muhammad Asim
Imam, Makkah Masjid Leeds
@Qari Asim

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