“And seek assistance through patience and prayer, and most surely it is a hard thing, except for the humble ones.” [Al-Baqarah, Verse 45]
The story of the life of Ali ibn al Hussain, otherwise known as Zainul Abideen or Al-Sajjad, is one which very few are familiar with; he was toiled and taken captive from one land to another from the time of the tragedy of Karbala until he returned to the city of the Prophet in Medina. He had seen things that one can only begin to imagine, and had this man fallen apart from the sheer greatness of the tragedy of his father, Hussain ibn Ali, one could not have blamed him. You can find out more about this here.
However, quite often after hearing about him, we are left with the impression that the life of Ali ibn al Hussain consisted of him walking around simply crying over the loss of his family. We are left with this image of a weak figure who could not function after the tragedy of Karbala and with this, we tend to overlook the greatness of his character and his contribution to history , the foundations of our supplications, and the most comprehensive charter for every kind of right that comes to the mind.
I feel that it is our duty to dispel this image and not limit him to this single image, giving him his true dues and rights.
Zainul Abideen (meaning the adornment or the best of worshippers) was an embodiment the ayah we opened with. This is only natural, considering that on the day of Ghadeer, the Prophet guaranteed that these two things, the Ahlulbayt and the Quran should go hand in hand and with them, one would never be led astray. Allah (swt) in Surat al Baqara gives us guidelines on how to behave in the face of adversity and affliction; he tells us to seek assistance through patience and prayer, two things that many of us struggle with.
After Karbala, Zainul Abideen exhibited unparalleled levels of patience. It goes without saying that his aunt, the great Zainab bint Ali, did the same too but what is it about his character that stands out above all else?
He was extremely ill at the time of the battle of Karbala and despite this, he was patient when his father told him to stay inside the tents as he understood that Allah (swt) had another plan for him, and that was to extend and prolong the lineage of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). To take the example of Qassim ibn al Hassan – when he was asked about how he viewed the idea of sacrifice in the way of Allah, to which he responded,
“In the way of your cause, [Hussain ibn Ali] it is sweeter than honey.”
This is the upbringing of the Ahlulbayt, to view sacrifice in the way of Allah in any way they could as a bounty – and still, Ali ibn al Hussain could not participate in this, and had to wait for his own contribution to Islam at a later date. As they were paraded from Karbala to Kufa, and then to Damascus, he was patient and awaiting Allah’s plan for him; he was weighed down quite literally with the shackles of the oppressors, but once more, he exhibited nothing but patience in the face of this.
In Kufa, his aunt Zainab, took the role of berating the people of Kufa who cried for the loss of Hussain ibn Ali. Many have asked why it was Zainab who took this role when Zainul Abideen quite easily could have done the same. It was Allah’s will to show the men of Banu Ummaya being put in their place by the words of a woman who, like her brother, was the symbol of justice. Here, she exhibits the importance of women to also take charge and make a change in any way possible, and this blessed woman gave such a powerful speech that her words alone became her sword.
To add to the patience of Zainul Abideen, he had the support of Sayeda Zainab in his journey. She was the one who looked after the women and children and who attempted to help him on this journey in any way he could. When she was asked by Ibn Ziyaad, “How did you find what Allah has destined for you?” After correcting him and reminding him that all that befell them was at his hands, her reply was, “I saw nothing but beauty.”
This is the role model of Zainul Abideen, the woman who saw beauty in all afflictions, was patience and steadfast in her forbearance in the face of the biggest of adversities.
What we need to focus on here is the actions of Ali ibn al Hussain in the face of all this; with all this, he never complained or said one word about his condition – instead, he remained patient and made shukr (thanked Allah) with every step. What we take from this is that patience is the essence of ibaada (worship). Without patience, we cannot claim to be fully understanding of Allah’s decree and will, something that he is said to have told his students:
“The position of patience in faith is like that of the head to the body, and he who has not patience, has no faith.”
It is often in life that we are faced by adversity and admittedly, there are many times in life where I have struggled to understand the purpose of the trouble I faced, but the example of the patience of Ali ibn al Hussain is something that one can practically learn from and implement in our life. To look at the tafseer (explanation and exegesis) of the verse quoted at the beginning of this piece, Allama Tabatabai suggests that the word isti’aana is to request help on issues that humans have no power over. To further this, it is to be resilient to the affliction that has befallen a person and to reconnect with the only being that can offer this, which is ultimately Allah (swt). And with this, the isti’aana – the help – can only be achieved by reminding oneself of the link with Allah and to hold on to His rope, being fully aware and believing His plan being infinitely better than any plan we had for ourselves.
The verse continues to say, ‘al-salat,’ meaning that prayer is the second requirement for patience to be strengthened to bring one out of the affliction that they are in. In the hectic lives that we live, with many of us being at school, university or work, sometimes we find that prayer becomes secondary. At times we need to squeeze in some time during the lunch break, or worse still, praying it late when the time of the prayer has passed. At other times, we lack an awareness for when the prayer is and so I am a firm believer that it is our duty to make our prayers the focal point for our lives, knowing its timings as well as we know when the next episode of our favourite TV show will come on.
Ali ibn al Hussain was given the title of Al-Sajjad for this very reason, for his constant kneeling in prayer and placing his forehead to the ground in prostration to Allah (swt). As was to be expected, he grew up with a value for prayers, appreciating that this was his way to connect with his Creator. It is said that after the tragedy of Karbala, this increased and strengthened ten fold, whereby he exerted all his effort and energy into glorifying Allah in his salah, praying throughout the night and bringing to us the most beautiful of supplications.
Upon his return to Medina, he was kept under close watch and it was difficult for him to preach to the people. As such, he didn’t shirk his duties but rather brought together students and continued the teachings of the Islam. He took the holy Prophet’s mosque as his school and from it, we see the rise of great companions and scholars. One such companion was Abu Hamza al Thumali (you can read more about him and this supplication here) and in the supplication attributed to him, he says:
“Why is it that every time I prepare myself for prayer and to stand before You, You make me sleepy and take away the beauty of my supplications and prayers?”
In saying this, he reminds us that the very act of prayer has to be carried out with its true dues and duties, and when done so, they quench the thirst of every believer afflicted with pain and loss. Here is a video of this supplication being recited in Arabic with English subtitles:
With this, he reinforces this idea of prayer being the pillar of belief and the structure of patience and when carried out properly, they are the very two objects that ease the final part of the verse
“And most surely, it is a hard thing except for the humble ones.”
Allama Tabatabai here suggests that the word “khushoo’” is about finding reverence and veneration, to find true love and respect; it is the final requirement for finding inner peace and acceptance of Allah’s will. To take hold in patience and salah and to truly love and respect every aspect of your affliction for when this is done, you have reached a stage of full belief in Allah (swt).
To humble one’s heart is a difficult thing as the strain of life can wear us down but Al-Sajjad gives us the recipe for this, to accept this fate and to work on strengthening your relationship with Allah (swt) to see His plan as grander than our own.
Ali ibn al Hussain is now buried in the city of Medina, close to his grandfather Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) in an unmarked grave in the cemetery of Jannatul Baqi’.