Zainab was the eldest daughter of Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu alaihi wa sallam). Eldest, and by default, a role-model, Zainab's story of loving, losing and loving again was probably the most painful yet most endearing of the four sisters.
As a young Arab woman, she was married to a wealthy man from Shams, a tribe of Quraish. However, as Islam came to Makkah, little did the family realize that Zainab's marriage had to be terminated, having to choose her beloved father over her husband.
Her tale is an emotional one, embalmed in tears — both sad and happy.
The Division of Makkah
When Prophet Muhammad received his first revelation, Zainab was already married to a kind and loving husband. His name was Abul-Aas ibn Rabi. Upon learning of her father's appointment as the last Prophet, Zainab along with her mother Khadijah, and her sisters Ruqayyah, Umm Kulthum and Fatimah were the first women and young girls who embraced Islam.
It frightened the Prophet's immediate family that he would incur a pressing amount of hatred from many enemies of Islam. Yet the five of them banded together, along with their male counterparts such as Ali ibn Abi Talib and Zaid ibn Haritha, who made up the first handful of Muslims.
Chaos erupted in the months that followed, as more and more of the poor and oppressed turned to Prophet Muhammad for protection. Islam was something new to them and extremely appealing. They were granted rights and complete freedom from those who overworked and tortured them.
Their reversion in silence was suddenly shattered when the Prophet received revelation to announce to Makkah that there was only one God worthy of worship, and he, Prophet Muhammad, was the final Messenger.
Families began to divide. Brothers lost brothers to this new alien faith. Parents lost children; and some children lost their parents. Husbands and wives disagreed and fought. Family heads were appalled at changes in religious beliefs of their son-in-laws and daughter-in-laws. Many were expelled from the family home.
Amongst them were Ruqayyah and Umm Kulthum. It is unclear as to whether the girls were already married or merely betrothed to the sons of Abu Lahab, but they were flung back into the arms of Prophet Muhammad and Khadijah upon the news of their reversion. The couple was relieved; the last thing they wanted for their daughters was for them to have an ardent enemy as a father-in-law.
Then, there was Zainab. In the clamor of confusion and a strong resistance to acceptance of Islam by the heavyweights of the Quraish, Zainab and Abul-Aas marriage remained intact. It definitely was not a smooth sailing journey for the young couple. The leaders of the Shamsite clan began to crack-down on their kinsman. Divorce, they screamed at him, she was contaminated with a mental disorder and a disgrace to the tribe.
Yet amidst the pressure and insult that fell upon Abul-Aas and his wife, they remained married amongst the controversies that surrounded their union. He remained "tolerant," as many scholars described a handful of the Prophet's family members who did not follow his footsteps to Islam.
Yet, tolerance was a feeble excuse for the proud pagan Arabs – tolerance did not exist – especially in a society that had suddenly been condemned by a man named Muhammad, who previously to his submission to One God, had been trusted by his community.
They would never be tolerant to this misfit, who asked them to abandon their statues and granted women equal privileges as men. The men promised Abul-Aas the wedding of his choice to the bride of his choice – the most beautiful, richest, well-connected virgin of Makkah – as long as he terminated his marriage to Zainab, the eldest daughter of the misfit named Muhammad.
The criticisms and pressure fell on deaf ears. He loved his wife and his mother-in-law, Khadijah, who was also his aunt. He also loved Prophet Muhammad, and would not sever ties with his family. In all adversities that surrounded them, Abul-Aas remained married to Zainab.
Alone in the Masses
The chaos was just the beginning. Passing years witnessed more and more influential persons venturing to the Kabah to pray behind Prophet Muhammad, Abu Jahl, Abu Lahab and their comrades decided it was time to eradicate this nuisance of a following, once and for all.
They boycotted the followers of Islam from engaging in any contracts with their non-Muslim tribes. For three years the early Muslims lost their wealth to the non-Muslims as they were unable to trade. Their health deteriorated as they were unable to purchase sustenance. They became outcasts of society, traitors to the proud pagan way.
It must have been difficult for Zainab, alone in the masses, a Muslim still amongst non-Muslims, still in love with her husband. He still remained tolerant but unaccepting of this strange faith; but she had been removed from her doting parents, her siblings and other important companions who remained close to her heart. By the time the ban was over, there was little time for Zainab to rejoice. Her mother passed away, and so did her grand uncle, Abu Talib, one of the few tolerant non-Muslims.
Just over a year later, the Muslims emigrated to Madinah, to start the first civilization known to mankind. Zainab was alone again – within the sea of non-believers – married to a man who did not share her love for Islam.
A Message for Zainab
The Battle of Badr marked the first fair battle between the Muslims and non-Muslims as the former sought to reclaim their possessions that had been confiscated during the boycott. It must have been horrendous for Zainab knowing that one army was being led by her father with a heavy burden upon him to protect the rights of his followers and that her husband stood by the enemy lines.
Sources narrate that there were tears in the Muslims' eyes as they fought against their brothers, cousins, uncles, neighbors, friends and former colleagues. It must have been no less teary for Zainab.
The outcome of Badr was also bittersweet for her. When her husband did not return from the battlefield, she knew he was being held captive by the Muslims, and her father was alive and safe.
Back in Madinah, Prophet Muhammad was collecting blood money for the captives. One by one he freed the captives as the blood money trickled in. When it came to Abul-Aas' package, the Prophet paled, as attached to the money was an onyx necklace – one that belonged to Khadijah. The Prophet remembered the day she had given it to Zainab, when he had given her away in marriage to the man who was awaiting for his freedom.
He ordered for the money and the necklace to be returned to his estranged daughter, along with her husband. However, he spoke gently with Abul-Aas, to free Zainab from her marriage, as by then, a revelation directed that she could no longer be married to a non-Muslim man.
Her departure was heartbreaking. She left to live her life as a Muslim without barriers, but Abul-Aas was still using Islam as a barrier for their relationship. He was still unable to forsake the beliefs of his fore-fathers.
As she left for Madinah, the men of the Abd Shams tribe became outraged that a woman of their clan was being transported to the Muslims. They had barely recovered from the vile defeat in Badr.
They mobilized a small troop to stop her from moving back to her family. A man called Habbar galloped viciously and pointed in front of her carriage brandishing a spear upon Zainab and her young daughter Umamah. Her brother-in-law, by the name of Kinanah – who was her escort - reasoned with the men and turned the carriage to head back to Makkah before anyone was hurt. Some say Zainab fell from her camel, others say she was so frightened at Habbar's threat. Either way, many believed she miscarried a child that was blossoming within her - a memory of her marriage to her husband.
The Family Reunion
Kinanah later transported Zainab and Umamah by night where they safely arrived at Madinah to be reunited with her family. By then, her sister Ruqayyah had died, but she still had father and her youngest two siblings. She also had Umamah.
Zainab was finally able to live her life as a liberated Muslim, attending prayers with her family and working towards the betterment of a progressive society. During her time at Madinah, she also experienced a perilous siege upon the Muslim community. The people of Makkah were back to attack the Muslims in Madinah. Her father along with his consultative panel strategized to play on the defensive, digging a trench around the vulnerable border of Madinah. "The Battle of the Trench," as it was called, marked a disfavorable turning point for the army from Makkah.
After approximately two weeks of attempts to attack, the Quraish failed miserably to penetrate Madinah, but the siege was not over. A Jewish tribe living within Madinah had allied with the foreign influence and was prepared to attack the Muslims from within. By the grace of Allah, Prophet Muhammad and his men were able to intercept the attacks.
From then on, the Arabs of Makkah had lost all integrity as a nation; they even lost credibility in their trades – which was their livelihood all this while.
The Second Reunion
Months followed and the Muslims were instructed to sabotage trade caravans from Makkah that were travelling past Madinah. A caravan returning from Syria was captured by Zaid, one of the Prophet's companions. The merchandise and employees were brought to Madinah.
However, one man, amongst a few, escaped.
He made his way carefully to Madinah in the middle of the night, and by some miracle he knocked on the right door. Zainab let him in. In all of his despair, he knew he could trust her.
He told her that he was troubled by the confiscation of many goods that were held in his trust as a result from barter trades in Syria. The people of Makkah trusted him and he needed to return the goods to their purchasers. He also feared for his safety.
Zainab left quietly for dawn prayers with her family members. She stood amongst the female congregation, in the front row, with her sisters and the Mothers of Believers (the Prophet's wives). As she saw her father with a congregation of men, Zainab waited for a moment of silence and cried out with all her heart, "O people, I give protection to Abul-Aas, the son of Rabi."
Concerned by her situation, her father hurried over to Zainab. She repeated her message to the Prophet and he calmly reminded her "Receive him with all honor, but let him not come to you as a husband, for you are not his by law." He then turned to his followers and beseeched them to have mercy upon his former son-in-law who was also his late wife's nephew. He was still a relative.
All of the merchandise that fell under Abul-Aas purview was returned to him, in hopes he would embrace Islam. When asked whether he would join them as a brother in faith and acquire the goods that he possessed, he answered, "It were a bad beginning to my Islam, that I should betray my trust."
After returning the goods to Makkah, Abul-Aas made his way back to Madinah and embraced Islam. The Prophet reinstated his marriage to Zainab. It was one of the happiest days of his family and the city of Makkah rejoiced at their reunion.
Love Lives On
Zainab died not long after she was reunited with her husband, but her love stretches beyond her lifetime. Women today face all sorts of dilemmas and atrocities with respect to their families, marriages, statuses, careers and personal lives; those who have faith pull through.
Zainab, the daughter of Prophet Muhammad, persevered through the most horrific mental torture that her marriage could endure during the advent of Islam. She watched her family suffer as they were marginalized from society.
She was abandoned several times, forcing herself to live amongst non-Muslims who despised her father. She feared her father's life as she did for her husband's on several occasions and sometimes at the same time.
There were times when her own life was threatened and her divorce took a toll on her mental and physical self. She was torn between two loves time and time again; yet she chose each time – and chose wisely – one man above the other man, both whom she loved dearly.
The driving force behind Zainab's steadfastness could only be one thing – her faith – her undying love for the one religion that saved her life on many occasions, her father's life and her husband's life – it was the choice of Islam.