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Ali ibn Husayn

Ali ibn Husayn, Zainul Abideen, (658 - 713) (alternative spellings include bin, ben for the middle word and Hussain, Husain, Hussein, etc. for the patronomic) was the fourth Shi'a Imam (see Shia Imams). He was the son of Hussein bin Ali and the great-grandson of Muhammad. Zainul Abideen, or the more accurate Arabic version Zayn al-Abideen, literally translates to "Jewel of the Worshippers". Alternative spellings include Zainal Abidin, Zain Al-Abidin, or even Zainulabideen and variations of the single-word form. In non-academic contexts, especially amongst devotees, that is often the exclusive way he is referred to.

Ali ibn Hussein, Zainul Abideen, was born in Medina in 658. His parents were Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet and the Third Imam of Shia Islam, and his wife Shahr Banu, the daughter of the last Sassanid emperor, Yazdegerd III. He is thus also called Ibn al-Khiyaratayn, or "son of the best two", meaning the Quraysh among the Arabs and the Persians among the non-Arabs. According to some accounts, his mother was brought as a captive to Medina during the caliphate of Umar, who wanted to sell her. Ali suggested instead that she be offered her choice of the Muslim men as husband and that her dower be paid from the public treasury. Umar agreed and she chose Ali's son Hussein. She is said to have died shortly after giving birth to her only son Ali. He was about two years old when his grandfather, the fourth Caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib was killed.

At the Battle of Karbala, Hussein and most of his family were killed. Zainul Abideen survived because he was too sick to fight, and was bedridden. Afterwards, he was taken prisoner by the Umayyad forces and transported to Damascus where he was made a prisoner of the Caliph, Yazid I. Eventually, he was freed, and returned to Medina where he generally lived a quiet life engaging in teaching the tenets of Islam.

Several accounts are related concerning his grief over the tragedy of Karbala. It is said that for twenty years, whenever food was placed before him, he would weep. One day a servant said to him, "O son of God's Messenger! Is it not time for your sorrow to come to an end?" He replied, "Woe upon you! Jacob the prophet had twelve sons, and God made one of them disappear. His eyes turned white from constant weeping, his head turned grey out of sorrow, and his back became bent in gloom [cf. 12: 84], though his son was alive in this world. But I watched while my father, my brother, my uncle, and seventeen members of my family were slaughtered all around me. How should my sorrow come to an end?"

Zainul Abideen resided in Medina until his death in c. 712-714 (94 or 95 AH). Some claim that he was poisoned by theh Caliph of the day, Waleed bin Abdul Malik Marwan. He was buried in Jannat ul-Baqi, the cemetery in Medina where other important figures of Islamic history are buried. He was the object both of great sympathy because of the massacre of his family and of veneration as the great-grandson of the Prophet. He dedicated his life to learning and worship and became an authority on prophetic traditions and law, but he was known mostly for his nobility of character and his piety, which earned him his sobriquet (Zainul Abideen) within his lifetime.

It is said that he would pray one thousand units (rakaahs) of prayer in every twenty four hour period. (Muslims are obliged to complete 17 units as part of their daily duties.) It is for this reason that he was bestowed the title of al-Sayyid al-Saajideen, the lord of the prostraters, and Zain al-Abideen by the people of Medina.

He is regarded as the source of the third holiest book in Shi'a Islam after the Qur'an and the Nahj al Balagha (the collection of the works of Ali , the Sahifa al-Sajjadiyya, commonly referred to as the Psalms of the Household of the Prophet.

The issue of who succeeded him as Imam led to a split within Shi'ism. While the Twelver Shi'a believe that it was Muhammad al-Baqir, his son, who succeeded him while another (minority) community, the Zaidiyyah believe it was Ali's other son, Zaid.

Zainul Abideen had many staunch supporters such as Sa'id bin Jubayr.

He fathered fifteen children, eleven boys and four girls.

Preceded by:
Shia Imams Succeeded by:
Muhammad al-Baqir
Preceded by:
Zaidi Imams Succeeded by:
Zaid ibn Ali

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Last updated: 08-16-2005 13:24:43