A Forgotten Visionary for Humanity: Ali Zayn al-Abidin

“My God, who has possessed the taste of the sweetness of Your love and then wanted another in place of You?”

“My God, who has possessed the taste of the sweetness of Your love and then wanted another in place of You?”

Writing this small piece is only another opportunity for me to remind myself and others of what could have been in the history of Islam and perhaps humanity. I am referring to a visionary of the 7th century by the name of Ali, son of Husayn, who was great-grandson of Prophet Muhammad. He was known as Zayn al Abidin (the beauty of the worshippers). His intellectual and spiritual vision for society as evidenced in his array of supplications in al-Sahifa al-Sajjadiyyah (the Book of Sajjad) is a largely forgotten legacy by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. With this melancholic whisper and glimmer of hope, may you allow me to share some thoughts on what his contribution to us can still be, God willing.

Who was Zayn al-Abidin?

Zayn al-Abidin is widely reported to have been born on 5th Sha’ban 38 AH/659 CE in Madinah, where he lived most of his life. He was known for his knowledge, charity, ethics and devotion to God. His parents were the revered martyr of Islam and grandson of Prophet Muhammad, al-Husayn, son of ‘Ali and his mother was Shahzanan (whose name may also have been Shahrbanawayh), the daughter of Yazdigard, son of Choesroe, the Sassanid King of Persia. When his father was martyred at the hands of Yazid, son of Mu’awiyah’s army on 10th Muharram 61/680 in Karbala, Iraq (known as the Day of ‘Ashura), he became the only son to survive the Massacre of Karbala.

Zayn al-Abidin was 23 years old at the time but was ill and could not fight in the battle. He witnessed Yazid’s sheer inhumanity and saw the women and children in his tent being beaten and looted. He himself was put in chains and dragged to Kufa and Damascus along with the surviving women and children. If there was ever a historical paradigm for all Muslims to unite under the principles of justice and humanity, then it is the Massacre of Karbala. If there was ever a figure that depicted survival and patience amongst the worst of human atrocities, then it is Zayn al-Abidin.

After Karbala, Zayn al-Abidin guided the Muslim community in very restricted circumstances. Unable to preach openly, he began to express deep and diverse supplications to all those that listened. These supplications have been translated from Arabic to English through the noble efforts of William Chittick in a book known as ‘The Psalms of Islam’ which is al-Sahifa al-Sajjadiyyah, Zayn al-Abidin’s whispered prayers and his Treatise of Rights (Risalat al-Huquq). I only want to share with you some ideas of Zayn al-Abidin to show us how much we can benefit from him.

Humanity and human dignity

Zayn al-Abidin believed that God deserves to be praised because he gave us knowledge to appreciate and glorify Him for the many favours He has bestowed upon us. These include our ability to think and behave morally to the extent that if we did not thank God for these blessings, we would have left the bounds of humanity (insaniyyah) and drowned in bestiality (bahimiyyah). He expands on these notions in another supplication of his, known as the Supplication for the Noble Traits of Character (Makarim al-Akhlaq) and delineates the duties human beings owe to God, their souls and each other in the Treatise of Rights.

Whilst Prophet Muhammad and indeed, Zayn al-Abidin brought a vision of human dignity in Islam, Muslims themselves have not formulated a framework or principles about human dignity itself from these notions. This is one of the reasons why today, Muslim scholars have not legally abolished slavery and therefore do not recognise the concept of modern slavery, i.e a person does not have to be owned to be a slave but only exploited. So trafficked women, forced labourers, domestic servitude and child slavery and the over 40 million people in such slavery are not recognised as legal categories in Islam. Yet Zayn al-Abidin speaks about humanity-oriented notions in is supplications and freed slaves himself.

The God of love

Far from the barbaric, harsh and unyielding God of Islam depicted in Western media (and at times by Muslims themselves), Zayn al-Abidin had an enduring and loving view of God. His states in the supplication I quoted that:

God originated creatures…and then sent them out on the way out of His love.

He later delves into his affectionate relationship with God in his “Whispered Prayer of the Lovers” exclaiming:

My God, who has possessed the taste of the sweetness of Your love and then wanted another in place of You?

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Such inspiring and heart-warming thoughts about God are enough to show the true God of Islam; a God whose foundation is mercy, not hate and a God who prefers to be understood than ritualised.

Moreover, his many supplications on the diversity of life itself from overcoming struggle, obtaining success, abstaining from sin, perfecting morals, seeking repentance from God, protection from Satan, praying for parents and children, enduring sickness, remembering death and more render al-Sahifa al-Sajjadiyyah as a kind of prayer and meditation manual for life. Apart from the translation given to us by Chittick, no one has undertaken the task of making these supplications universally accessible in a format and method that touches the heart of all human beings, not just Muslims.

Islam can be socially relevant

Zayn al-Abidin’s unique ability in combining spiritual, theological, moral and legal concepts makes a marked difference in the recitations that Muslims seem to select almost robotically in their holy months. A pertinent example is his understanding of Ramadhan which, according to him, is not just a month for Muslims. After explaining the spiritual and legal duties associated with fasting, he radically changes his tone stating:

“Give us success in this month to tighten our bonds of kin with devotion and gifts, attend to our neighbours with bestowal and giving, rid our possessions from claims, purify them through paying the alms, go back to him who has gone far from us, treat justly him who has wronged us, make peace with him who shows enmity toward us…”

Here, he is emphasising that Ramadhan is not just about individual spirituality but public spirituality. The whole community should be uplifted by this month – relationships should be strengthened, gifts should be given to others, neighbours should be looked after, charity should increase, peace should be made between enemies and an overall compassion should be shown to the whole society. This is without qualification and so it applies to all people in society – not just Muslims. He clearly wanted Ramadhan to be a month in which all human beings benefited, regardless of their religion, race or creed. It is a month in which God’s Mercy is especially made manifest and should be made manifest through His creatures’ actions. Unfortunately today, Ramadhan is a month only for Muslims and does not have a social and ethical vision by which the whole humanity can be elevated. The majority of Muslim centres cater for Muslims only and so Muslims are fed – the neighbours, poor and even those that may oppose Muslims are not invited to eat or participate in the blessing of Ramadhan with the exception of a few token interfaith and charity events. Zayn al-Abidin’s vision is exemplary – through the power of supplication he is educating the Muslim mind to think universally, socially and ethical and not just regard Ramadhan as a month of ritual worship.

A sad death but a sad legacy?

Zayn al-Abidin was poisoned by al-Walid, son of ‘Abd al-Malik at the age of 57 years due to fear of his growing popularity and leadership in society and died in 713 CE. He is buried in Jannat al-Baqi (the Garden of al-Baqi) in Madinah.

Despite the notable figures that are buried alongside him, the Saudi Arabian regime gives this honoured graveyard no respect. Mausoleums and parts of this cemetery have been demolished since 1925 and are continually being demolished. Moreover there are heavy restrictions for Muslims visiting the graveyard to the extent that one cannot pay respects to him for fear of accusations of shirk (polytheism). There also reports of visitors being beaten up for simply reciting ziyarat (visitation rites) outside of Jannat al-Baqi.

Zayn al-Abidin’s death is a sad one but I wonder if his legacy should also suffer the same fate. I guess the answer to that question lies with us.