ʿAli b. al-Hussain

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ʿAli b. al-Hussain b. ʿAli b. Abi Talib, Zayn al-ʿAbidin (“Ornament of the Worshippers”), is the fourth Imam of the Twelver Shi’a. His kunya is variously given as Abu ʿAbd Allah, Abu Bakr, Abu’l-Hussain, Abu’l-Hasan, etc. According to most sources, he was born in 38/658-59 in Medina. At Karbala, Zayn al-ʿAbidin is said to have been too ill to join in the fighting; after the battle Shamir b. Dhi ‘l-Jawshan found him lying on a mat in the women’s tent and ordered him to be killed but was overruled by ʿOmar b. Saʿd, the commander of the Syrian army. When ʿAli was brought before ʿObayd Allah b. Ziyad in Kufa, the governor ordered his execution, but relented after pleas by al-Hussain’s sister Zaynab. ʿAli and the other survivors were taken to Yazid in Damascus, and he sent them back to Medina. The mashhad ʿAli, forming part of the great mosque in Damascus, is said to have been built at the place of Zayn al-ʿAbidin’s incarceration.[1]

Birth[edit | edit source]

According to many sources he was born (in Medina) in 38/658-9, though the years 33, 36 and 37 are also given. If accounts that he had not reached puberty at the time of the Karbala massacre (61/680) are to be trusted, this would put his birthdate forward to the 40s/660s; these accounts are, however, rejected by al-Waqidi and other authorities.

His mother’s name is variously given as Barra, Qazala, Solafa, Jayda, etc.; some say that she was an umm walad [q.v.] from Sind (or Sijistan), while Shiʿi tradition has it that she was a daughter of the last Sasanid emperor Yazdagird III and that her Persian name was Jihanshah, Shahrbanu or Shahzanan. Some say she threw herself into the Euphrates after the battle, but others maintain that she was among the survivors of Karbala. Shiʿis refer to ʿAli as ibn al-khiyaratayn “the son of the two elect” since, according to a tradition of the Prophet, the Quraysh are the elect of the Arabs and the Persians are the elect of the non-Arabs.

In Karbala[edit | edit source]

ʿAli was present at the massacre of his family at Karbala in 61/680 but did not participate in the fighting, since he was ill, and thus survived the battle. Zayn al-ʿAbidin was not the only son of al-Hussain called ʿAli; another was killed at Karbala and is known as ʿAli al-Shahid. Some historians, including Ibn Saʿd, Ibn Qutayba, al-Baladhuri and al- Tabari, refer to him as ʿAli al-Akbar and to Zayn al-ʿAbidin as ʿAli al-Asqar. Others (e.g. al-Qazi al-Nuʿman) maintain that Zayn al-ʿAbidin was the older of the two, and accordingly refer to him as ʿAli al-Akbar and to his martyred brother as ʿAli al-Asqar. For many Twelver authors, the title ʿAli al-Asqar refers to an infant brother who was also killed at Karbala; some of these authors maintain that Zayn al-ʿAbidin was the middle brother (hence ʿAli al-Awsat), while the eldest was ʿAli al-Shahid; others reverse the position of the two older brothers.

According to the battle accounts, Shamer b. Dhi’l-Jawshan wanted to kill him despite his illness but was prevented by others, including ʿOmar b. Saʿd. When he was led as a prisoner before ʿObayd-Allah b. Ziad in Kufa, the latter ordered his execution but left him alive at the entreaty of his aunt, Zaynab. He was taken with the women to Yazid in Damascus, and he sent them back to Medina.

The Aftermath of Karbala[edit | edit source]

In Medina ʿAli led a pious life which earned him the honorifics Zayn al-ʿAbidin, al-Sajjad (“he who constantly prostrates himself”), al-Zaki (“the pure”) and Dhu ’l-Thafinat (referring to the calluses on his skin in the places touching the ground in prostration). Whenever the time of prayer drew near, he would tremble and go pale, and his devotional practices caused fears for his Health. He was counted among the bakkaʾun [q.v.], since for years he would weep for his father and the other martyrs of Karbala. He used to go out at night with his face covered in order to distribute charity (ṣadaqat al-sirr), and it was only after his death that people discovered the identity of their benefactor. When his body was washed, marks were found on his shoulders, the result of his carrying heavy loads of food at night for the poor.

ʿAli studiously avoided any involvement with the authorities and adopted a quiescent attitude towards the Umayyads and the Zubayrid anti-caliphate. Shiʿi authors maintain that ʿAli’s dealings with the authorities were based on taqiyya. ʿAli proved magnanimous even when wronged: Hisham b. Ismaʿil used to insult him during his four years as governor of Medina, yet after Hisham’s dismissal by al-Walid (7 Rabiʿ I 87/26 February 706) ʿAli forbade his family and friends to speak ill of him. A famous story has it that when the future caliph Hisham b. ʿAbd al-Malik came to Mecca on pilgrimage, he was unable to approach the Kaʿba because of the crowds; for ʿAli, however, the crowds parted, allowing him unhindered access. On that occasion, al-Farazdaq [q.v.] is said to have improvised a poem in praise of ʿAli, thereby arousing Hisham’s ire; but the eulogy, which exists in various versions, has been judged to be mostly or entirely unauthentic. [2]

His relations with Mukhtar, the Shiʿite rebel in Kufa, were cautious. It is unlikely that (as some sources state) the latter originally offered to put his movement under the auspices of ʿAli b. Hussain, rather than of his uncle Muhammad b. Hanafiya, or that he sent the head of ʿOmar b. Saʿd to him, rather than to his uncle. In Sunnite collections of Hadith ʿAli b. Hussain appears as a transmitter from ʿAbdallah b. ʿAbbas, his uncle Hasan, his father, ʿAmr b. ʿOthman, and others. The chief transmitter from him was Zohri, who is said to have described him as the most excellent of the Hashimites. He was involved in a dispute with his cousin Hasan b. Hasan about the administration of the sadaqat of ʿAli b. Abi Talib but soon agreed to leave it to the Hasanid; nevertheless, Imamite sources maintain that he became the administrator of ʿAli’s sadaqat.

In Shiʿite hagiography[edit | edit source]

Imam ʿAli b. Hussain appears in particular as the perfect worshipper. Like his grandfather ʿAli, he prayed 1,000 rakʿas every day and night. During the month of Ramazan, he would utter nothing but prayer, imploring God’s forgiveness and glorifying and magnifying him. His constant prostration in worship earned him his honorifics Sajjad, Zayn-al-ʿAbidin, and Dhu’l-thafenat, the latter referring to the seven calluses which every year formed on, and fell off, his skin in the sports touching the ground in prostration. He was also of matchless generosity in giving alms and presents to the poor. Thus, he permanently provided 100 families in Medina with their sustenance. Every night he went out with a sack of food on his back, knocking at the doors of the indigent, and gave freely to whoever answered while covering his face in order not to be recognized. Thus, he was held to be stingy during his lifetime, and only after his death did many people find out that their livelihood had come from him. Among the miracles he worked were: the speaking of the Black Stone of the Kaʿba in favor of his claim to the imamate in the presence of his rival Muhammad b. Hanafiya, his conversing with a gazelle in the desert, and his restoring youth to a 113-year-old woman. Shiʿite tradition ascribes to him, besides some devotional poetry and short texts, a collection of prayers for various occasions known as al-Sahifat al-kamela, which enjoyed great popularity, especially in the Safavid period, when it was translated into Persian and received numerous commentaries. Several supplements to the original collection have been gathered by late scholars. A Resalat al-hoquq, on the rights of God upon man, also ascribed to him, is reproduced in two versions in Ebn Babuya’s Ketab al-khesal and Ebn Shoʿba’s Toḥaf al-ʿoqul. Some Shiʿite sources assert that his death was due to poisoning by the caliph Walid or by Hisham b. Abd-al-Malik.

Death[edit | edit source]

Zayn al-ʿAbidin is said to have died in 94/712 or 95/713; other dates mentioned are 92, 93, 99 and 100. He was buried in al-Baqi cemetery. Shiʿi authors maintain that he was poisoned on the orders of the reigning caliph al-Walid or his brother Hisham. He is said to have had between eight and fifteen offspring, of whom four were sons from his wife Umm ʿAbd Allah bt. al-Hasan b. ʿAli, the rest being from concubines.

Works[edit | edit source]

A number of short texts are ascribed to Zayn al-ʿAbidin, including a certain al-Sahifa fi ’l-zuhd.[3] He is also credited with a Risalat al-Ḥuquq , preserved (in two versions) in two 4th/10th century works: Ibn Babawayh’s al-Khisal [4] and Ibn Shuʿba’s Tuhaf al-ʿuqul.[5] ʿAli’s collection of prayers known as al-Sahifa al-kamila or al-Sahifa [ al-kamila ] al-sajjadiyya gained wide popularity; there are numerous redactions and over twenty commentaries, and it was translated into Persian in the Safavid period. Fifteen “whispered prayers” (munajat) ascribed to Zayn al-ʿAbidin have been added to several modern editions of the Sahifa: an English translation of the entire work is now available.[6]

Sources[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. cf.L. Pouzet, Damas au VIIe /XIIIe siècle ,Beirut 1988, 352
  2. see J. Hell, “Al-Farazdaḳs Loblied auf ʿAli ibn al-Ḥusain,” Festschrift Eduard Sachau, Berlin, 1915, pp. 368-74; J. Weiss in Der Islam VII, 1917, pp. 126ff.
  3. Kulini, Kafi , viii, 14-7
  4. Najaf 1391/1971, 529-36
  5. Beirut 1394/1974, 184-95
  6. Imam Zayn al-ʿAbidin ʿAli b. al-Hussain, The Psalms of Islam: al-Sahifat al-kamilat al-sajjadiyya , tr. with an introd. and annotation by W.C. Chittick, London 1988