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The cult of Muhammad’s granddaughter

· ​Al-Sayyida Zaynab ·

“The afflicted have recourse to the assembly of saints in order to invoke the help of its Immaculate President. None of the invocations addressed to her are lost on the way, whatever their origin, place or time. The President of the assembly, al-Sayyida Zaynab, listens attentively to the lamentations of all creatures, even the lament of the trees lashed by the wind”.

Gamal al-Ghitany (1945-2015)

The devout at the Syrian tomb of al-Sayyida Zaynab

In Islam there are women who enjoy a special status, like Mary, Mother of Jesus, and Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet. Beside these exemplary figures loved by all Muslims, there are not only others who are linked to a specific country, town or village who have dedicated their lives to God and to his Prophet, but also women who are the Prophet’s relatives.

In the heart of Cairo, in one of the city’s oldest and most popular neighbourhoods there is a large mausoleum, the destination of pilgrims from the whole of Egypt. It is believed that the body of al-Sayyida Zaynab rests there. Al-Sayyida, “the Lady”, is an honorific title attributed to the descendant of the Prophet Muhammad who is venerated most by Egyptian Muslims and in particular by the Sufis. Another sanctuary in a suburb of Damascus is also dedicated to Zaynab. After modest beginnings which date back to the 12th century, in the 1990s a reconstruction financed by Iranian funds transformed the Syrian sanctuary into a sumptuous mausoleum. These two tombs reflect two cults associated with Zaynab, two visions of the event which determined the first great split of the Muslim community in the seventh century and two ways of venerating the ahl al-bayt, the “people of the house”, an expression which refers to the Prophet’s family.

Mausoleum of al-Sayyida Zaynab in Damascus

Zaynab belongs to the second generation of the Prophet’s descendants. Fatimah, her mother, was the favourite daughter of Muhammad, born before the Hegira from his marriage with Khadija, Muhammad’s first and only wife. Muhammad’s male children all died at an early age and hisdescendance was passed down through Fatimah alone. Ali, Fatimah’s husband, was Muhammad’s cousin. He was the fourth of Muhhammad’s successors and the only one whose legitimacy is recognized by the Shi’ites. In the Shi’ite memory the figure of Zaynab is inseparably bound to the tragedy of the death of her brother, Husayn. Husayn, who had led a rebellion against the Ummayad Caliph Yazid in 680, was barbarically killed by Ummayad troops, after a strenuous resistance, near Karbala’ in Iraq. For the Shi’ites Husayn’s martyrdom not only marked the defeat of their political ambitions but also was the event around which crystallized their religious sense, pervaded by a strong cult of passion. Zaynab is the female protagonist of this tragedy. In the most ancient historical-hagiographical narratives Zaynab is the witness of this event, the survivor who recounted the injustices perpetrated by the Ummayads against her family. In Muslim piety she embodies the figure of sister and mother par excellence, comforter of the afflicted, tirelessly close to her dying brother and to the wounded in battle. Two eloquent sermons are attributed to her. They were given in defence of her brother and of her kinsmen killed in Karbala’ and against the tyranny and injustice of the Ummayads. These sermons have caused her to go down in history as a courageous woman who dared to challenge publicly the illegitimacy of the Caliph in power. Suffering and weeping for Husayn’s martyrdom and for the tragic fate met with by the Prophet’s grandsons are a source of redemption and salvation for the Shi’ites.

Loving the Prophet’s family is a duty for Muslims and the cult of Zaynab reflects the ways in which Sunnis and Shi’ites venerate the sacred family. This makes Zaynab a figure who at the same time both unites and divides. For devout Egyptians this love must be manifested through joyful expressions which are materialized in hymns and poems, as well as festivals that are held every year in honour of this saint of Cairo. Sufi confraternities, characterized by a strong love for the Prophet’s family, play a prominent role in the organization of these ceremonies.

Shi’ite poster portraying Zaynab who is weeping over the body of her brother Husayn

Cairo is the city of the Muslim world which has the greatest number of tombs, real or presumed, of members of the sacred family. Among these there is Zaynab, buried in Egypt together with her brother Husayn because, as the legend has it, she arrived here having been taken as a prisoner of war to the court of the Caliph of Damascus and having been publicly humiliated by the Caliph Yazid after the battle of Karbala’. According to Egyptian sources, having been banished from Damascus Zaynab chose to spend the last years of her life in Egypt because this country had given hospitality to prophets such as Moses and Joseph. This legend was elaborated to justify the presence of her tomb in this country; the first information about the mausoleum dates back to the 16th century and is based on the dreams and visions of Sufis to whom Zaynab appeared, revealing her burial place. The identification of her tomb permitted this woman to be symbolically joined to Husayn, he too being buried in Cairo, so that the two siblings are considered patron saints of Cairo today. According to the concurrent Shi’ite version Zaynab died in Damascus, a city in which she lived after the tragic event which marked her life. Attempts to demonstrate the presence of the saint’s body in Cairo or Damascus have succeeded one another from medieval times to our day and demonstrate the high reputation reserved for this woman, an inter-confessional saint.

“Saint” in this context should not be understood in the Christian sense; Zaynab is the object of veneration because she belonged to the noble family of the Prophet, and not because she was defined as a saint on the basis of miracles attributed to her. Rather hers is a hereditary holiness, a perfection due to the nobility of her blood and the inheritance of spiritual light from the Prophet, which was passed down to his descendants. Zaynab, in addition, shares in the holiness of Fatimah who lived in accordance with chastity and was to be preserved from hell, and to whom specific powers of intercession are attributed. Fatimah’s children enjoy a special status as descendants of the Prophet and are thus immaculate in the eyes of the devout. Lastly, the veneration of Zaynab is linked to love for the women of Islam’s sacred family, objects of great admiration and female models to emulate.

Zaynab’s figure was perceived in two ways which are reflected in the epithets by which she is invoked by devout Sunnis and Shi’ites. The Egyptian epithets originate in the biography narrated by Muslim historians of the Middle Ages: Merciful Mother and Protectress of the Weak; the aspect of the saint which is most exalted in Egypt is her maternal side. Zaynab is the protectress of women who turn to her to ask her for intercession when they have marital or fertility problems, a woman in whom to confide.

Zaynab is the bride, the pure virgin on whose tomb a wedding veil lies, which is changed every year on the occasion of the festivities in her honour. The Egyptian epithet par excellence is Umm Hashim, “Mother of Hashim”, a forebear of the Prophet known for her generosity and from whom Zaynab is supposed to have inherited this gift. Further, she is called Mother of the Poor, Mother of Orphans, Mother of the Weak: according to some scholars these epithets recall those with which Christians call on Mary, shedding light on the similarities between the cults of these two holy women. In Sufi circles Zaynab is called “President of the assembly of saints”: she is the high-ranking lady who presides over a heavenly court that meets regularly to administer the affairs of the living and resolve earthly injustices.

Zaynab is also deeply venerated by the Shi’ite communities of Lebanon, Syria and Iran. According to tradition she was the first to hold the session of lamentation for her late mourned brother, a ceremony which is still fundamental in Schi’ism today. Contemporary Shi’ite veneration of Zaynab received a strong impetus during the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when the figures of the tragedy of Karbala’ were mobilized to encourage opposition to the Western-type monarch and the establishment of the theocratic regime. The figure of Zaynab was politicized and was adopted as a symbol of the Muslim woman who fought against unjust power, exalting the eloquence of the “Lioness of Karbala’”, her ability to harangue, to criticize oppressors and to control herself in the face of disasters. Zaynab was the woman who cared for the sick, so that in Iran the National Day of Nurses is celebrated on her birthday. The political aspect of Zaynab had moreover already been highlighted from the 1960s in the most socially committed Egyptian circles, without however any confessional connotations.

A sweet mother who goes to the help of her children and a protectress of the oppressed: al-Sayidda Zaynab is a frontier saint who has confessional peculiarities but at the same time shows that devotion to the Prophet’s family is the most fertile ground on which the doctrinal differences between Sunnism and Shi’ism come together.

Arianna Tondi




St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 7, 2019