The second half of Muharram is when the history of Karbala unfolds in all its effects. This is when the women and children held prisoner by Yazid ibn Mawviyah are marched in shackles on a three-day journey to Kufa. But when the people of Kufa recognise who the prisoners are and they are addressed by Bibi Zaynab (SA), the army fears an uprising. The prisoners are then sent off to Damascus through deserted terrain, a journey lasting 18 days in which several of the children die.
This is the tale told by a brave and lonely woman, a learned alima, trained by her father as a teacher of the Quran. It is in Karbala that Bibi Zaynab (SA) shows what she is capable of: the faith kept by her resilient grandmother, the piety of her mother and the courage and firm principles of her father; she spoke publicly against the enemy at every given opportunity and her khutbas are still savoured in Muslim history.
In many ways, Bibi Zaynab bint Ali (SA) is the first among alternate historians of Islam who saved the true account of the massacre of Karbala so court historians could not distort it later for coming generations. The last living child of Hazrat Ali (RA) and Bibi Fatimah Zehra (RA), she lived for two years after Karbala and not only survived the worst of times but assumed the leadership of the lost and the betrayed, pulling the ailing Ali ibn Hussain out of the fire set to the tents, gathering the women taunted and tormented by the soldiers and taking charge of the traumatised children.
She later trained an army of women from Karbala to carry the message to far off lands, a reminder of which is the shrine to the seven bibian in Lahore at Bibian Sahib. Bibi Zaynab’s story is recounted not only so that we may grieve over the brutal murder of her brother Hussain ibn Ali (AS), the killing of her two young sons Awn and Muhammad, the loss of all members of the family and all the friends and ashiq-e-Hussain, but so that we may remember what it means to stand for truth and justice in the worst of times. She is a reminder to us of what it means to be a woman held captive by a tyrannical and unjust male order and how to rise to the occasion.
In this, she followed in the footsteps of her mother, Bibi Fatimah Zehra (RA), who bears the legacy of the prophet as a daughter, a clear message to the followers of Muhammad (PBUH) about the importance of female heirs. She too was a learned and independent woman who had challenged the rulers of her time. Only a few of the khutbas of Bibi Fatimah (RA) to the court survive, but they bear testimony to her clear mind and sound learning of the Quran.
The Bibi did not live long after the prophet — some historians say a mere three months or so — but she grieved all night and all day after him. It is said that her husband, Hazrat Ali (RA), made her a room near the extant graveyard in Medina, Jannat al Baqi now razed to the ground by the house of Saud, where she sat and lamented not only the death of her father or over the premonition of the deaths to come to her family. Bibi Fatimah Zehra grieved over the state of the Muslims and drew attention to how far they were drifting from the message of her father, reverting to the ignorant ways he had suffered so hard to save them from.
In most historical chronicles, Bibi Fatimah (RA) is said to have died quite young, around the age of 18 or 22 years, from injuries sustained after the house of Ali was set on fire. Why has recorded history saved such few details of this significant young woman who groomed her children so well that they stood against the tryant till the end and will be remembered for all times to come. The strength of her character and the extent of animosity against her may be gauged from how the Bibi was buried in the dead of night in the presence of few people. She lies in an unmarked grave in Medina to this day, safe from desecration of graves that the house of Saud has wreaked upon all historical sites next to the haram of the prophet.
Bibi Fatimah, too, had a mother to emulate. Unfortunately, history has made a secret of the first wife of the prophet of Islam, Bibi Khadijatul Kubra (RA), his sole companion for over 28 years, an educated and confident young woman who conducted a successful business in the Hejaz of the time when burying female children was a cultural norm. All we are told about her is that she was much older and probably divorced and that it was she who proposed to the young prophet who conducted business for her. In the alternate contestation of history, the age difference is minimal, a creation of political historians to distance and discredit her in comparison to the younger wives.
She is the first woman who believed in the message and is said to have prayed alongside the prophet and young Ali in Baitullah. Bibi Khadijah (RA) died ill and destitute during the hardship of the migration from Mekkah to Medina, but the words of this wise woman in history have not survived, while we have thousands of ahadith attributed to the prophet from his later wives who barely knew him a decade but were politically more active.
Bibi Zaynab (SA), her mother and her grandmother are the women we know from the closest family of the prophet of Islam (PBUH) — women who prayed alongside him and lived in graveyards in trying times. The first mentioned marched through the graveyard that was Karbala where all loved ones were killed in front of her eyes, the bodies looted and plundered by the mercenaries, slashed into pieces in hatred, and then beheaded. There were many mothers in Karbala, at least nine who lost sons to the battle, and many of them were not from Bani Hashim, the family of the prophet. It never was about saving the family and the lineage is drawn based on the strength of character and on learning. These are the brave and wise women who not only visited shrines but who are enshrined in their death, have towns and mosques named after them where everyone comes to pray, and are adored as role models to this day.
The human project of writing history may perhaps remain a political act, forever in the service of the powerful, but history is not a given set of facts and more akin to lived learning that is ever changing and growing. In the examples of women from the house of the Prophet (PBUH), we have much to learn that applies to present times. Lose them and you lose your bearings.
Take the recent incident that took place in Pakpattan at the shrine of Baba Farid on the eve of Ashura, 9 Muharram, the commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, when the “Bahishti Darwaza” is opened for men to pass through. This was when two high-ranking female officials ceremonially opened and passed through the “Bahishti Darwaza” to the shrine that the Chishtia pirs and male custodians were set in a frenzy. The pirs claim no woman has passed through this special gate for over 700 years, not even state dignitaries like Benazir Bhutto and Bushra Khan, and demand punitive action against these officials. The repartee of the women civil servants was that they were not acting as women but as “high-ranking officers” invited to the ceremonial inauguration.
This incident may be dismissed as what goes on at most shrines taken over by Auqaf after General Ziaul Haq who enforced the Saudi brand of Wahabism to what are a majoritarian Sunni, not Salafi people. But did all evil, at least in Pakistan, begin with the dead General? How were we reading history before that — the history of Muslims in general, and of women in particular? What was happening at the shrine over the 700 years the Chishtia order claims no woman was allowed to enter the shrine room where the grave is? It appears that the self-appointed pirs have not read their primary texts so that on the eve of Ashura they appear unaware that the only custodians and caretakers of the bahishti darwaza are Imam Hassan (AS) and Imam Hussain (AS) for men, and Bibi Fatimah Zehra (RA) for women.