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Sayyeda Zeinab: the 7th-Century Heroine of Karbala

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Sayyeda Zeinab Shrine

Damascus.

It is well known in this region that powerful foreign and domestic forces in nearly every country, but particularly Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, are increasingly acting, for purely political purposes, to ignite a bloody internecine conflict within Islam. Indeed, the 3/17/13 attacks targeting four Sunni sheiks in Beirut that led to immediate road blockings in Beirut, Sidon, and the Bekaa Valley is a reminder of the vulnerability of Lebanon's own delicate sectarian balance to potential chaos.

The seemingly rapid escalation of Shia-Sunni sectarian strife pulsating back and forth across Syria and in and out of Iraq and Lebanon appear to some analysts to be unstoppable.  This week the UN Security Council expressed alarm that rising sectarian violence threatened a return to civil war in Lebanon. The sect targeted for destruction is mainly, but not exclusively, Shia Muslims, and a potential conflagration among a few Muslim sects is smoldering from Yemen to Libya to Pakistan and in more than a dozen countries. Places of worship are being attacked with the hope of creating flight and destruction among so-called kuffar (infidels) and other alleged "enemies of Allah."

As the violence continues in parts of Syria it is not always clear who exactly is behind, for example, the thefts of antiquities from museums and shops, the carting off of medical equipment from hospitals, the widespread stripping of certain factories in places like Aleppo and moving their assets to Turkey, apparently with little if any objection from Ankara, and the damaging of mainly Christian and Shia places of worship. But there is little doubt that Islamist extremists are behind many of these crimes.  Against this backdrop of targeting religious institutions and  shrines of minority sects in Syria, it is little wonder that following serious attacks on the Sayedda Zeinab Shrine near the village of Zoa south of Damascus, one as recently as last month, that Shia Muslims and others across the world are deeply concerned about its safety. Three recent attacks on the resting place of Zeinab bint Ali, the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh), has also led to speculation that certain elements may launch a "false-flag' attack to ignite conflict between Sunni and Shia. Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups such as Jabhat al Nursa and Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) have pledged to defeat Lebanon's Hezbollah in the name of Allah.

Tens of thousands of Shia pilgrims and others from around the world visit this Damascus suburb every year, most to pray at the Sayyeda Zeinab shrine. It was also one of the reasons why I wanted to go there.

But trying to get to Sayyeda Zeinab has not been easy these past few months. In fact this observer's new lucky number may be five.  Because that is the number of times I thought I had a deal with a driver to take me from central Damascus to the Zeinab shrine. But each time, shortly before our scheduled departure, the driver invariably called to tell me his car broke down or he had to attend a family event or that the road had been hit by a mortar and was impassable, or he could not find any benzene. Taxis are understandably a bit spooked in Damascus these days and as with the road to the airport there are sometimes snipers peering around and an occasional IED or two.  Fortunately some fellows from Lebanon who are among those guarding the Zeinab shrine sent me a message that it was ok to come and I trusted their judgment.  Finally I found a driver and he took me to Fao without problems.  However, he was unwilling to wait for me while I visited the Shrine and he abruptly split, even before I had a chance to pay him, leaving me to find another way to return to Damascus.

As this observer exited the Shrine, having performed absolution-type prayers for myself and friends in Lebanon and Syria who specifically asked me to, I was approached by a middle-aged woman who turned out to be from Homs.  She had lost her home and her neighborhood was emptied by shelling so she came to the village of Fao, which she thought would be safe. But as she told me later she wanted also to be near Zeinab bint Ali, the 7th-century Heroine of Karbala, during these uncertain times.

One resident who lives near the Sayedda Zeinab told this observer that during the most recent attack on the shrine, the bomber detonated an explosives-packed van that he drove into a parking lot about 50 meters from the shrine. The blast shattered the shrine's windows, knocked down chandeliers and ceiling fans, and cracked some of its mosaic walls. He added that some of the newly arrived militiamen at Sayyeda Zeinab were motivated partly by the desire to prevent a repeat of the wholesale sectarian violence that followed the 2006 attack on the Iraq's Shiite Imam al-Askari Mosque, blamed on Al-Qaeda, which cost thousands of lives, both Sunni and Shia.

The story of Zeinab at Karbala, and her subsequent life, like the passion play of Karbala itself, is history that one never tires of hearing.  I had read about both but when this obviously devout woman who told me her name was Miriam, approached me, assuming, I guess, that I was a tourist unfamiliar with this holy place, which was true, I was pleased to sit with her, to be quiet, and to listen.

Miriam summarized the Battle of Karbala in October 680, in present-day Iraq, and how it is commemorated during Ashoura (October tenth) by millions across religious divides because of its universal message of resistance to oppression, relentless pursuit of justice, and even sacrificing one's life for the good of the community. The actual battle pitted a grandson of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Hussein bin Ali, one of two of Zeinab's brother killed that day, against the caliph of the time in the first of a series of succession crises that shaped the unfortunate historic split between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

I was amazed that, like me, and others from various countries and cultures that I have crossed paths with over the past few years in this region who were also raised in a Christian tradition, my new friend Miriam viewed the 7th-century suffering of Hussein Ibn Ali and those who were martyred at Karbala in some ways similar to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ at Calvary, 700 years earlier. We both lit up at the realization that the other exactly understood this connection and the historic resistance ethos that Karbala and Calvary have meant for mankind and the current relevance of both working together for humanity as pillars of the Resistance.

But Miriam shed even more light for this admittedly dim observer by mentioning another woman, in some ways much like Zeinab, who was from Europe.  As a group of chadored Iranian women gathered around us, with a Farsi interpreter relating Miriam's words, our group shared a common and rapt spirituality. Miriam told us that, during this month of recognizing women's accomplishments, she was reminded of the similarity between Zeinab bint Ali and La Pucelle d'Orleans, known as Jeanne d'Arc, who was falsely accused of heresy and burned alive at the stake for resisting the English occupation of her country.

Miriam explained many parallels between the "two sisters of Resistance" as she called them, even quoting from memory the historic speech of Zeinab in Damascus to Yazid, the killer of her family including her bothers Hussein and Abbas and their dozens of followers and relatives at Karbala in present-day Iraq.

On the 11th Muharram, 61 AH, after the battle of Karbala, the caravan of the captives, including Zeinab, were marched through the city of Kufa and Sham. For one year they stayed captives in a Damascus prison. Zeinab encouraged resistance among her fellow prisoners and fearlessly faced Yazid and recited to him the wrongs he had done. Her address to Yazid ends with a black-clad Zeinab addressing Yazid. "You will not succeed in erasing our memory," she says.

Miriam explained that Zeinab bint Ali, like La Pucelle d'Orelans, was devout, frugal, and unstintingly generous to the poor, homeless, and parentless. Both communicated with Allah and were fierce defenders of justice, the cause for which they both willingly sacrificed themselves. Through her good works Zeinab helped her community to know the principles and practices of Islam.

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