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Native name
Known forThe principal wife of the third Imam and the mother of fourth Imam
Spouse(s)Hussain b. Ali b. Abi Talib
ChildrenAli b. al-Hussain
  • Yazdgerd III (father)

Shahrbanu (lit. “Lady of the Land,” i.e., of Persia), is said to be the daughter of Yazdgerd III (r. 632-51), the last Sasanian king. According to the beliefs of the Shiʿites, in particular the Twelvers, and a substantial number of Sunnis, she became the principal wife of the third Imam, Hussain b. Ali, and the mother of the fourth Imam, Ali b. Hussain b. Ali Zayn al-Abedin. Consequently, the lineage of Imams, from the fourth to twelfth and final, would be her progeny. The personality of this saintly figure, especially revered in Persia, seems noteworthy and important since it links Imami Shiʿism to pre-Islamic Persia. In spite of her important location in popular culture, the earliest sources make no mention of the mother of Ali ibn Hussain, nor do they ascribe him with maternal royal ancestry. Therefore, Shahrbanu as a historical figure is debated.

Historicity[edit | edit source]

According to the oldest sources that have come down to us, the historic mother of the fourth Imam was not much of a princess. Ibn Saʿd (d. 844-45) and Ibn Qotayba (d. 889) describe her as a slave, originally from Sindh, called Gazala and/or Solafa.[1] Neither do any of the scholars of ancient history that have chronicled, at times with great attention to detail, the invasion of Persia by Muslim troops and the fate of the last Sasanian sovereign and her family, establish any relationship between the wife of Imam Hussain and one of the daughters of Yazdgerd III.[2] The same is true for a wide range of sources and authors quite different from each other, such as Ketab al-Kharaj by the Hanafite judge Abu Yusof (d. 798) and the Shah-Nama of the pro-Shiʿite Ferdowsi (d. 1019) both of whom, though surely for very different reasons, took an interest in the destiny of the last king of Sasanian Persia and his descendants.[3]

In his al-Kamel, the philologist Mobarrad (d. 900) seems to have been one of the very first to state that Solafa, the mother of Ali Zayn al-Abedin, was the daughter of Yazdgerd. He strongly emphasizes the nobility of the woman and, in general, the grandeur of the Persians.[4] However, his contemporary, Abu Hanifa Dinavari (d. ca. 895) only casts the daughter of “Kesra” as a captive in the presence of Ali, during his caliphate (656-61), refusing the latter’s offer to marry his elder son Hasan. The account does not even mention Imam Hussain. Ali thus liberates the princess, granting her total freedom.[5] The nobility and pride of the Persian princess as well as her complicity with Ali are henceforth to become quite regular themes of the account in its different versions as it develops. During the same period, the chronicler Yaʿqubi (d. 904) and the heresiographers Hasan b. Musa Nowbaḵti and Saʿd b. Abd-Allah (both d. ca. 912-13) are among the first Shiʿites to allude in passing to the fact that the mother of Imam Zayn al-Abedin was the daughter of the last Sasanian king.[6] In the second half of the 9th century, Saffar Qomi (d. 902-903) delivers a long and detailed version of the account, containing especially striking details, in the form of a Hadith or saying attributed to the fifth Imam Mohammad Baqir: under the second caliph ‘Omar (r. 634-44), the daughter of the last Sasanian king is brought captive to Medina. Light radiating from the visage of the princess illuminates the Prophet’s mosque where the caliph presides. An invocation in Persian by the Princess provokes the ruler’s temper. Ali intervenes in favor of the young princess and makes it clear to ‘Omar that events unfolding are beyond his understanding and that he should step aside. Ali then authorizes the princess, with whom he speaks in Persian, to freely choose her husband. The chosen one is Hussain to whom Ali announces the good news that the young woman will be the mother of his child, i.e. the next Imam.[7] Saffar’s account contains some noteworthy details: it is the first time that the account is presented in the form of an Imam’s Hadith, thus rendering it a sacred quality. It will subsequently become the first account in which the Persian princess is called Shahrbanu (and also Jahanshah, literally, “king of the world”).

The Persian dimension as a result of Persian used for the first time in the midst of a text in Arabic, as well as the royalty are greatly magnified, still much more noticeably than in Mobarrad. The “Persianism” is magnified even more so than in Mobarrad both in terms of royalty and language (Persian is used for the first time in the midst of a text in Arabic). The most important point is the role ascribed to Ali: protection of the princess and perfect complicity with her; the fact that he speaks her language and insists upon her freedom and nobility of rank, his violent reaction towards ‘Omar, making him understand that he is not up to the situation, prediction of the birth of the future imam; all fully justify for a Shiʿite believer the mention of light of glory (farr(ah))[8] that the princess bears as well as the fact that this light could even illuminate the Prophet’s mosque where the caliph of the Muslims resides. This fact acquires its fullest significance when one takes into consideration the key importance of the light of Divine Alliance (nur al-wilayah) in Imamism.[9] Thus, from Imam Zayn al-Abedin onwards, the Shiʿite Imams will be the bearers of a two-fold light: that of wilayah from Ali and Fatima (thus of Muhammad) and the glorious light from the ancient kings of Persia, as transmitted by Shahrbanu.

Further Development in Historical Sources[edit | edit source]

From the 10th to the 12th century, several Persian authors will reprise and at times considerably develop elements from the Hadith reported by Saffar Qomi. Understandably, most of them are Persians and Imami Shiʿite traditionists such as Mohammad b. Yaʿqub Kolayni (d. 940), Abu Jaʿfar Ibn Rostam Tabari (fl. 11th cent.), Qotb-al-Din Ravandi (d. 1177-78) or Ibn Shahrashub Mazandarani (d. 1192), but one also finds Sunni “homme de lettre” such as Kaykaus b. Iskandar b. Qabus (fl. 11th cent.), author of Qabus-nama.[10] Among some authors, the dialogue in Persian between Ali and Shahrbanu becomes much longer; at the same time, the nobility, wisdom and liberty of the princess, more frequently compared to Fatima is emphatically noted. Again, by means of the Persian language and the grandeur of royal Persian ancestry the “Persianism” is magnified.

However, the gradual emergence of this version does not prevent the development of other slightly different versions. In some accounts, the role of the princess is split into two parts. For example, in the Etbat al-wasiya, attributed to Masʿudi (d. 956-57), the story takes place under the caliphate of ‘Omar and in this case two daughters of Yazdgerd are given in marriage, with Ali’s consent no doubt, to his sons: Hasan marries Shahrbanu and Hussain weds Jahanshah.[11] In Shaykh Mofid’s (d. 1022) account, under Ali’s caliphate, the elder daughter of the Persian king, here named Shah-e zanan (lit.: “king of ladies” cf. the title of Fatima, sayyedat al-nesaʾ) marries Hussain, while a second unnamed daughter is given in marriage to the son of Abu Bakr, Mohammad.[12] Finally, let us cite the account narrated by Mofid’s master, the famous Ibn Babuya known as Shaykh Saduq, (d. 991) who in his ʿOyun akhbar al-Reza, relates a Hadith going back to the eighth Imam Riza in which the latter, finding himself in Khorasan as inheritor to the Abbasid caliph Maʾmun (r. 813-33), confirms the link that exists between the Imams and the Persians. As proof, he tells the story of the capture, under the reign of ʿOthman, of the two daughters of Yazdgerd and their marriage to the Imams Hasan and Hussain. According to this account, both women are said to die while in labor, notably the wife of Hussain who passes away after giving birth to Imam Zayn al-Abedin.[13]

Thus, at least in its literary written versions, the story of Shahrbanu will have attained its fullest scope from the 9th to the 12th century. Writers of later periods, whether Imami or not, to this day will do no more than reproduce many of the accounts that have just been presented.[14]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Ibn Saʿd V, p. 211; Ibn Qotayba, pp. 214-15.
  2. Balāḏori 1866, pp. 262 ff.; idem 1974, pp. 102-103 and 146; Ṭabari I, 1879-1901, p. 2887 = Ṭabari IV 1960, p. 302; Ebn ʿAbd Rabbeh III, pp. 103 ff.
  3. Abu Yusof, p. 30; Ferdowsi IX, pp. 358 ff.
  4. Mobarrad II, pp. 645-66.
  5. Dinavari, p. 163.
  6. Yaʿqubi II, pp. 246-47 and 303; Nowbakhti, p. 53; Ashʿari, p. 70.
  7. Ṣaffar, p. 335, no. 8
  8. Gnoli 1962; Duchesne-Guillemin 1979.
  9. Amir-Moezzi 1992, pp.75-112.
  10. Bibliography.
  11. Pseudo?-Masʿudi, p. 170.
  12. Mofid, pp. 137-38.
  13. Ibn Babuya, chap. 35, no. 6, II, p. 128.
  14. for these sources, Amir-Moezzi, 2002a, p. 511 and n. 49.

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

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Source[edit | edit source]