Ali ibn Al-Hussain ibn Ali ibn Abu Talib is best known by his title, Ali Zain Al-Abideen, which means “the jewel among the devout”. His grandfather, Ali, was the fourth caliph, and the Prophet’s cousin who was taken into the Prophet’s home when he was young. His grandmother was Fatimah, the Prophet’s youngest daughter. His father was Al-Hussain, the younger of the Prophet’s two grandchildren whom he loved and reared. No surprise, then, that Ali Zain Al-Abideen should grow up in a home dedicated to Islamic learning.
Ali Zain Al-Abideen was born in year 38 AH, corresponding to 659 AD, two years before his noble grandfather, Ali ibn Abu Talib, was assassinated. Thus, he belongs to the generation of tabieen, which was the first generation to follow the Prophet’s companions. He was with his noble father, Al-Hussain, when he traveled from Madinah to Iraq, but his illness prevented him from taking part in the Battle of Karbala which ended in the killing of Al-Hussain and many members of his family. It was God’s will to spare Ali, so that the noble line of Al-Hussain should continue for a long time to come.
Ali Zain Al-Abideen was always sad, often weeping, because of the great tragedy he experienced. When some people raised up the matter with him, he told them: “The Prophet Jacob wept until he was almost blind when he lost his son Joseph, although he was uncertain that Joseph was dead. I have seen more than a dozen of my immediate family slaughtered in one day. Could you imagine my sorrow for them would ever disappear?”
His anguish, however, gave rise to three highly valuable and immensely beneficial results. The first was that he turned his back on all political conflicts. He would not concern himself with who ruled and who took over the reins of power. To him, all that was an insignificant triviality. However, he would not approve of injustice, no matter by whom it was perpetrated. He took it upon himself to do good to all people, so that they would benefit by his action and advice. But his abandonment of politics did not stop him from enjoining what is right or speaking out against injustice. He considered that to be an important duty that may not be left undone.
The second was that he turned all his attention to studying the Qur’an, Hadith and Fiqh attaining a very distinguished position in all these disciplines. His position as a direct descendent of the Prophet ensured for him a status of high respect among all Muslims. No scholar would have refused to come to him, but he was a man of great humility, willing to go to any scholar to attend his circle, even though he needed only to ask and the best knowledge would be brought to him. Someone once remonstrated with him about going to attend the circle of Zaid ibn Aslam, a distinguished scholar of low birth. Ali Zain Al-Abideen said to his interlocutor: “A man will sit where he is sure to benefit. Knowledge is to be sought wherever it happens to be.”
The third was that he was a man of great compassion, extremely generous. If he heard of any of his well-wishers, and practically all Muslims wished him well, to be unable to repay a debt, he would settle his debt. He once visited Muhammad ibn Usamah ibn Zaid, whose father the Prophet loved dearly, and found him weeping. Questioning him, the man said that he wept because he was unable to settle a large debt, amounting to 15000 dinars (the gold currency of the time). Ali Zain Al-Abideen said: “I will repay it.” And he immediately put effect to his promise.
But this was not all. He carried provisions and supplies of food to people in their homes at night, asking no servant or relative to help him, so that his charity remained secret. Muhammad ibn Ishaq reports: “Some poor people were receiving supplies and provisions without knowing who brought them. When Ali Zain Al-Abideen died, all that stopped and they realized that he was the man who looked after them. Moreover, after his death marks on his back and shoulders clearly indicated that he personally carried all these provisions to the homes of the poor.”
In fact, most of his donations were done at night, so that no one would know how much he gave to which person. But his kindness was demonstrated in other ways as well.
He was ready to forgive anyone whatever offense or unkind action he did. Once a cousin of his was very harsh to him. When it was evening, he went to his cousin’s house and said to him: “Cousin, if what you said about me was true, may God forgive me; and if it was untrue, may God forgive you. Peace be to you.” And he went away. His cousin immediately followed him and they reconciled.
In his scholarship, Ali Zain Al-Abideen was a man of high achievement. Imam Malik describes him as “a sea full of knowledge”. All six books of Hadith include traditions reported by him, which suggest that he was considered by all the main scholars as a highly reliable reporter of Hadith. His line of reporting was mainly through his father and grandfather, but he also reported Hadith through the main scholars of the tabieen generation and the Prophet’s companions.
Most scholars of Ali Zain Al-Abideen’s period did not write down their scholarship in the form of books. This was to develop later. They concentrated on verbal teaching, and Ali Zain Al-Abideen was a teacher of high repute. In fact his two sons, Muhammad and Zaid, were to become scholars of great distinction. We had introduced Imam Zaid in this series, and we will speak about Imam Muhammad Al-Baqir next week, God willing.
Ali Zain Al-Abideen died in 94 AH in Madinah. May God shower His blessings on him.