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Why Was He Called Zayn al-Abidin?

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Imam Ali ibn Hussain, Zayn al-Abidin, al-Sajjad, peace be upon him, is the fourth Imam of the Shia school of thought. Although some aspects of his life have been shrouded in ambiguity, such as the place of his birth and the identity of his mother, other details regarding his eminence are accepted by almost all the followers of the different denominations of Islam.

Place and Date of Birth of Imam Zayn al-Abidin (a)

The majority of historians have stated that Imam Zayn al-Abidin (a) was born in Medina. However, some scholars such as Sheikh Baqir Sharif Qurashi[1] recount the birth of the Imam to have been in Kufa, where his father was during the government of his grandfather, Imam Ali (a).

Additionally, there are various reports regarding his date of birth as well. Scholars such as Tabarsi and Ibn Shahr Ashoub[2] believed him to have been born on the 15th of Jamadi al-Thani, contrary to those who report it to have been on the 5th of Sha’ban.[3]

Titles of Imam Zayn al-Abidin

Just as all other Imams before and after him, Imam Zayn al-Abidin has numerous titles and epithets that are all indicators of his most profound characteristics and reflect the different aspects of his identity. Though his given name is Ali, he was given over 40 titles and epithets throughout his life, some of which will be discussed in this article.

Epithets

The well-known epithet attributed to Imam Zayn al-Abidin, peace be upon him, is Abu al-Hassan (ابوالحسن), meaning the father of Hassan, alluding to one of his sons by that name. Other epithets mentioned for him are:

  • Abu al-Hussain[4]
  • Abu al-Muhammad[5]
  • Abu al-Qassim[6]
  • Abu Abdullah[7]

Other Titles

One of the most recognized features of Imam Zayn al-Abidin’s character was the magnitude of his worship and the extent of his devotion to praying and supplicating to the Lord. For this reason, most of his titles refer to this prominent aspect of his eminence’s personality. Titles such as Sayyid al-Sajidin, Zayn al-Abidin, and al-Sajjad are all testaments to this matter.

Al-Sajjad

The meaning of this title is “he who prostrates a lot.” A narration from Imam al-Baqir, peace be upon him, explains the reason behind this title where his eminence says:

Whenever my father counted a blessing bestowed to him by Allah, he would go into prostration (sajdah). And every time he recited a verse from the Holy Quran, he would go into prostration. And each time Allah dispelled a harm or treachery from him, he would fall into prostration. My father would prostrate after each prayer and would do so each time he succeeded in reconciling two people. All of this was to the extent that the effects of prostration were noticeable on his body.[8]

Zayn al-Abidin

Zayn al-Abidin translates to “the beauty of the worshippers,” and it is Imam al-Sajjad’s most famous title. His eminence was given this title because of the great extent of his worship. The Sunni scholar, Malik bin Anas, stated that Imam Zayn al-Abidin would perform a thousand units of prayer each day. For this reason, he was called Zayn al-Abidin.[9]

Zayn al-Abidin in a Narration from the Noble Prophet

Moreover, it has been stated that Imam Zayn al-Abidin was called by this title from the second century Hijri based on narration in ‘Ilal al-Sharai’ where every time the Sunni scholar Ibn Shahab Zuhari related a narration from Imam Zayn al-Abidin, he would address the Imam peace be upon him as Zayn al-Abidin. When asked why, he pointed to a hadith from the Noble Prophet, which stated, “On the Day of Judgment, a voice will call out, “Where is the beauty of the worshippers?” And I see my son Ali ibn Hussain stepping out from among the crowd.”[10]

Other Narrations on Zayn al-Abidin (a)

Another source reports that Imam Zayn al-Abidin, peace be upon him, was in his prayer niche one night. As he was performing his nightly vigils, he heard a voice from the unseen declare three times:

أنْتَ زَینُ الْعابدین

You are the beauty of the worshippers.[11]

From then forth, Imam Ali ibn al-Hussain (a) became famous as Zayn al-Abidin.              

Some Other Titles

  • Dhul Thafanat: the possessor of calluses. This was due to his myriad prostrations, which caused the skin in certain parts of his body to harden and become coarse.
  • Bakkā’: one who cries a lot. There have been a number of people throughout history who were given this title, including seven of the companions of the Noble Prophet who wept profusely after being left behind from the Battle of Tabuk, Prophet Adam, Prophet Jacob, Prophet Joseph, Lady Zahra, and Imam Zayn al-Abidin, peace be upon them all.
  • Ali al-‘Abid: Ali the worshiper
  • Qudwah al-Zahidin: the leader of the pious
  • Al-Mutahhajid: the observer of nightly vigils

[1] Sheikh Baqir Sharif Qurashi, An Analysis on the Life of Imam al-Sajjad, vol. 1, p. 53.

[2] Tabarsi, I’lam al-Wara, p. 256; Ibn Shahr Ashoub, Manaqib Aal Abi Talib, vol. 4, p. 175.

[3] Irbeli, Kashf al-Ghummah, vol. 2, p. 73.

[4] Qurashi, Hayat al-Imam Zayn al-Abidin, vol. 1, p. 39.

[5] Atarudi, Musnad al-Imam al-Sajjad, vol. 1, p. 182.

[6] Tabarsi, I’lam al-Wara, vol.1, p. 480.

[7] Al-Hassani, Sirah al-A’immah al-Ithna ‘Ashar, vol. 3, p. 175.

[8] Sheikh Saduq, ‘Ilal al-Sharai’, vol. 1, p. 133.

[9] Thahabi, al-‘Ibar, vol. 1, p. 83.

[10] Sheikh Saduq, ‘Ilal al-Sharai’, vol. 1, pp. 229-230.

[11] Irbili, Kashf al-Ghummah, vol. 2, p. 619.

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