Love is a powerful theme that features throughout history, with the power to launch a thousand ships or destroy a country. Zainab, daughter of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is an example of the strength of love and a Muslim woman’s patience and courage.
Although her story does not feature as prominently in Islamic history as some other companions such as her mother, Khadijah, or her step-mother A’ishah, she experienced one of the most difficult struggles faced by Muslim women: the battle between true love and spiritual conviction.
Zainab bint Muhammad (PBUH) was the oldest child of Muhammad ibn Abdullah (PBUH) and Khadijah bint Khuwaylid (may Allah be pleased with her), born ten years before her father’s prophethood. Raised by the man known as as-Saadiq al-Ameen (the truthful and the trustworthy), and the woman famed throughout Makkah for her integrity of character and business acumen, Zainab grew to be a young woman who internalized the best of her parents’ qualities.
Zainab (may Allah be pleased with her) married her maternal cousin Abu’l ‘Aas ibn Rabee’ before the onset of her father’s prophethood. They loved each other dearly, and their marriage was one of the happiest in all of Makkah.
The first year of Muhammad’s Prophethood was a difficult one for Zainab. She instantly believed in her father’s Divine Message, but unfortunately, Abu’l ‘Aas refused to accept Islam.
“How can you not believe in him?” Zainab asked, confused. “You know that he is as-Saadiq al-Ameen, the most honest and trustworthy!”
Abu’l ‘Aas admitted that it was fear of the people of Makkah that held him back from believing in the Messenger of Allah. “What will the people say about me? They will say, ‘he betrayed his tribe and his forefathers to please his wife!’”
For Zainab, whose love for her husband was matched only by the love for her father, this was a terrible blow.
Abu’l ‘Aas, wracked with guilt but unwilling to fight the collective anger of Quraysh, begged his wife, “Will you not excuse me and understand my situation?” Her heart aching with longing that her husband would understand and accept the spiritual purity of Islam, Zainab answered, “Who will excuse you and understand you if I don’t? I will remain at your side until you understand the truth.”
Years passed, and as the intensity of opposition towards Islam grew, so did Zainab’s grief at how her father and the early Muslims were treated. Her husband protected her from the punishment that the rest of her family faced, but it could not assuage the emotional pain.
Eventually, the command came from above the seven heavens that it was time for Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to make hijrah to Madinah. Zainab was faced with the first, and one of the most difficult tests that she would have to go through. How could she choose between her father, the Messenger of Allah, and her husband, her one true love?
When she received permission from her father to stay in Makkah, her relief that she would not have to abandon her husband was coupled with the sorrow of having to part with her father, her sisters, and the remaining Muslims. Once again, despite being sheltered by her husband, Zainab felt the painful isolation of being the only Muslim living in Makkah.
The Messenger of Allah (PBUH) had emigrated to Medinah with the remaining members of his young Ummah… except for his daughter, Zainab. She had asked permission to stay behind in Makkah with her husband, Abu’l ‘Aas ibn Rabee’, who had sworn his loyalty and protection to her, and whom she could not bear to part with. For a little while, life was stable and, if not ideal, at least somewhat peaceful.
Soon enough, however, rumors of war began to spread. Within months, the Quraysh gathered a huge force and marched onto Badr – with Abu’l ‘Aas ibn Rabee’ amongst their ranks.
Tears streaming down her face, Zainab cried out to her Lord, “O Allah, I fear one day the sun may rise and my children become orphans, or that I will lose my father!”
When news of the Muslims’ victory at Badr came to Makkah, Zainab feared the worst. Was her father hurt? Was her husband dead? She soon learned that Abu’l ‘Aas had been captured as a prisoner of war. Overwhelmed with relief, but realizing that his fate was in the hands of the Muslims, she quickly decided to pay a ransom for his return. Wisely, she chose a wedding gift from her mother, Khadijah, and sent it to Madinah.
When Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) received the ransom for Abu’l ‘Aas, he immediately recognized what his daughter had sent. Instantly, he was flooded with memories of his wife Khadijah, and his hands trembled with emotion as his Companions watched him in surprise.
Recovering himself, the Messenger of Allah turned to his Companions and asked, “Do you agree to this ransom?” Understanding that their Prophet wanted nothing more than to make his daughter happy, the companions readily agreed.
Before Abu’l ‘Aas returned to Madinah, Prophet Muhammad took him aside and quietly informed him that a command had come from above the seven heavens: Allah decreed that no Muslim woman was allowed to remain with her non-Muslim husband. Abu’l ‘Aas promised to send Zainab to Madinah, and left for Makkah.
Zainab’s joy at seeing her husband return safely was made bittersweet by the knowledge that she now had a great choice to make: obey Allah’s order and be reunited with her father and sisters, or defy her Lord’s command and remain with her beloved husband.
As difficult as the test was, for Zainab there was only one real option. How could she disobey Allah and risk His Anger, when all that truly mattered was His Pleasure?
Abu’l ‘Aas knew that it was time to fulfill his promise to The Prophet, but the pain of having to send his wife away was too great for him to take her himself. Instead, he had his brother, Kinaanah ibn Rabee’, to escort her to Madinah.
When Kinaanah and Zainab began to head for the outskirts of Makkah, the Quraysh understood what was happening. Angry and resentful from their bitter defeat at Badr, some of the young men of Quraysh refused to let their enemy’s daughter leave so easily.
Led by a man named Habaar ibn al-Aswad, they quickly overtook the two travelers and attacked them. A spear struck Zainab’s camel, and in its agony, threw her from her saddle. She fell to the ground, and the sight of blood soaking her skirts confirmed that she had just lost the child she carried in her womb.
Realizing that not only had his sister-in-law been attacked, but that she had just suffered a miscarriage, Kinaanah knelt before her, nocked an arrow to his bow, and threatened, “By Allah, any man who approaches will do so with an arrow in his chest!”
The young men of Quraysh withdrew sullenly, slowly and painfully, Zainab and Kinaanah returned to Makkah. Abu Sufyan ibn Harb, a prominent leader amongst the Quraysh, and Zainab’s grand-uncle, came to quietly advise Kinaanah. “It is still too soon after our defeat at Badr for you to leave with this woman so publically. By Allah, we have nothing to gain by keeping her from her father and no revenge to be had, but if you travel so openly, it will be said that we have become weak. Wait a while, and then leave in secret.”
They waited long enough for Zainab to heal from her ordeal before embarking once again towards Madinah. This time, they were met with no opposition, and found Zaid ibn Harithah waiting for them on the outskirts of Makkah. As quickly as possible, Zainab followed Zaid ibn Harithah towards Madinah… and her father, the Messenger of Allah (PBUH).
Weary, wounded, and heart-sore, Zainab bint Muhammad finally arrived in Madinah, to the overwhelming joy of the Messenger of Allah (Peace and blessings be upon him), who rejoiced at the return of his eldest daughter. Zainab herself found comfort in being reunited with her father and sisters, but though her injuries had healed outwardly, the emotional ones took longer to fade away.
No one could take the place of Abu’l ‘Aas in her heart, and she spent her days quietly in the worship of Allah, begging Him to bring her husband back to her and guide him towards Islam.
Sometime later, Abu’l ‘Aas embarked on a journey with a merchant caravan, which was subsequently raided by a Muslim military unit. Once again a prisoner of the Muslim army, Abu’l ‘Aas was marched back to Madinah.
Zainab heard the news, and excited at the prospect of being reunited with her beloved, resolved once more to take action on his behalf.
Early one morning, the adhaan for salatul Fajr had been called, and the Muslims of Madinah were gathered behind The Prophet (PBUH) in preparation for prayer. Stepping forward amongst the lines of women, Zainab called out clearly, “O people! I have granted sanctuary to Abu’l ‘Aas ibn Rabee’!”
Stunned, the people remained silent and began their prayer. When the prayer was over, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) turned to the congregation and asked, “Have you all heard what I heard?”
They all nodded in confirmation.
The messenger of Allah continued, “In the Name of the One in Whose Hands my soul is, I knew nothing of this until I heard what you heard. Every Muslim has the right to grant sanctuary, and have it honored by all Muslims.”
Abu’l ‘Aas was released into Zainab’s custody, but they were both warned that as they were no longer considered husband and wife by the Shari’ah, they had to keep their distance from each other.
In the meantime, Prophet Muhammad gathered the wealth that the Muslims had captured from Abu’l ‘Aas’ caravan and informed them, “I know of nothing but good from my son-in-law; he has never broken an oath and he has never lied. Will you agree to return his wealth to him?”
Eager to please their Messenger, the Companions agreed and Abu’l ‘Aas was given everything which he had in possession at the time of his capture.
The only thing Zainab wanted now was for her beloved to accept Islam and be her husband once again. She beseeched him constantly, but just as before, he quietly refused. With tears in her eyes, Zainab watched Abu’l ‘Aas pack his belongings and leave for Makkah. It was as though her heart was breaking all over again, as she watched the only man she had ever loved leave her for a third time.
Unbeknownst to her, Abu’l ‘Aas went to Makkah for only one purpose. He swiftly distributed the property he had on him to its rightful owners, and ensured that nothing stayed with him that did not belong to him.
“O people of Quraysh!” he announced in the public square. “Have I withheld the property or goods from you, that you entrusted me with?”
They all confirmed that they had received their property and that they trusted him fully.
“Then I declare Laa ilaaha illAllah, Muhammadun RasulAllah!” Liberated, he continued, “By Allah, nothing stopped me from accepting Islam in Madinah except that I feared you would believe that I became Muslim only to steal your money. Now that it has been returned to you, I am free to declare my Islam.”
Without delay, overwhelmed with excitement to be rejoined with the love of his life, Zainab, one final time, Abu’l ‘Aas returned to Madinah.
Breathless from the exertions of his journey, Abu’l ‘Aas immediately approached The Prophet and declared not only his Islam, but his desire to be Zainab’s husband once more.
Smiling, Prophet Muhammad took Abu’l ‘Aas to Zainab’s house so that he could ask her himself. The expression of delirious, joyous love on her face was all the answer they needed…
Zainab bint Muhammad (PBUH) spent the remainder of her life in Madinah with her husband, Abu’l ‘Aas, and her two children – Umamah, her daughter, and Ali, her son. Umamah was the first of The Prophet’s grandchildren, and deeply beloved to him.
Abu Qatadah narrates a hadith found in Bukhaari and Muslim that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) used to take Umamah bint Abi’l ‘Aas to the masjid with him, and lead the prayers while carrying her.
A’ishah narrates that one day, The Prophet (PBUH) received a gold necklace unlike anything they had every seen before. All the wives of The Prophet were gathered in one house, and Umamah was a young girl playing in the sand next to the house.
Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) asked his wives, “What do you think of this necklace?” They all replied that it was amazing and unlike anything they had seen before.
He then said, “I will put it on the neck of the one most beloved to me from Ahlul Bayt (his family).”
A’ishah says that “the world became dark” (she was afraid that he would give it one of his other wives rather than her,” and she was sure that the other wives felt the same.
He then called for Umamah and placed the jewelry around her neck, leaving everyone satisfied and happy.
(Al-Haythami in Al-Mujma’)
This was not the only time that he singled her out for gifts. At one time, an-Najaashi sent many precious gifts, amongst them gold rings and precious stones from Abyssinia. Using a stick (or his fingers), The Prophet touched them and called Umamah and told her “Beautify yourself with this, my daughter.”
Zainab bint Muhammad (PBUH) died in the seventh year after the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, leaving behind her grief-stricken husband and her two children, Ali and Umamah.
After her death, they were both raised in the household of Allah’s Messenger and cared for by their aunt, Fatimah (May Allah be pleased with her). After the deaths of The Prophet, Fatimah, and eventually their father Abu’l ‘Aas as well, they were placed under the guardianship of azZubair ibn al-Awwaam. It is said that Ali ibn Abu’l ‘Aas was martyred in the Battle of Yarmouk; as for Umamah, she grew up to marry Ali ibn Abi Talib, during the khilaafah of Umar ibn al-Khattab.