Night 7: How to Raise a Flag-Bearer like Abbas

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Gazing through the window of my room’s balcony, I was scrutinizing the setting sun and the lovely red and orange layers of clouds that had gathered as if to witness the momentary death of their most beloved star.

Soon after darkness had taken over the street, I could see rooms of various buildings getting lit one by one through the thin fabric of curtains behind windows here and there. The time of Maghreb had come and I found myself unfolding my prayer rug in order to continue my daily conversations with the creator of the sun I had just witnessed setting.

I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. I emptied the blackboard of my mind upon which dozens of last minute tasks, reminders, and to do lists were annotated. Instead of imposing thoughts I wanted my mind to perform, I for once, let my spirit dictate the partition whose rhythm would tell me which light my soul was swaying toward.

There is a unique peace one experiences when connecting with Allah (swt). And no matter how many times you’ve prayed before, every prayer comes with such a sweet and delicate sense of tranquility that one almost feels as if each of them carries within its core the pleasure of having discovered the ultimate way to achieve harmony.

I tried to think about this rather unique lightness of being I had experienced when my head had caressed this piece of clay. I wondered whether I had ever experienced such a feeling while indulging myself in another form of spiritual exercise or a mediation of any kind that would come close to the truthfulness I felt while kneeling on the soft tapestry of this Khorasani rug. When I thought about it long enough, I knew I had already experienced this complete tranquility. There was a name whose sweetness would always bring about reassurance in my life. A name whose strength has always helped me stare at mountains and overcome my own fears. A name my father had carried all his life. A name written on the first flag my eyes ever laid their sights on:


They said we stopped Abbas from quenching the thirst of Sakina
I said every Sakina of this world drinks water with Abbas on her lips

They said we brought the Flag of Abbas to the ground in Karbala
I said And God has raised his flag, in every corner of this world

They said we wanted to silence Zainab with the crushing of al-Abbas
I said You shouldn’t have forgotten that Ali’s blood runs in her veins

They said we cut Abu Fazl’s arms, so people would forget him
I said every mourner’s beating arms, are the two arms of al-Abbas

They asked why the wind never stops blowing around al-Abbas’ flag?
I said because the wind only finds peace when it kisses the flag of its Master.

Following the discussion started on the first night of Muharram in which I tried to analyze different ways in which Imam al-Husayn (as) and the tragedy of Karbala have shaped my life and faith, I would like to continue this series by answering the same question I had asked myself since the beginning of this blessed month: what does Husayn mean to me? What did his love do to me?

In the last piece of this series, I tried to analyze how Karbala had become for me a living example of the impact of marrying for the sake of Allah and how such a marriage could literally mean saving half of one’s faith. Now that I had a clear understanding of how my love for Imam al-Husayn had impacted my vision of marriage I naturally tried to ponder over a subject that is intricately related to it: motherhood. The question I asked myself was the following: How can one spark the loyalty of al-Abbas in a child? How can one raise a flag bearer like the son of Ali?

These questions can only be answered through a thorough analysis of the life of Abu Fazl. And although it is ultimately impossible to write words that could ever do justice to the greatness of al-Abbas, I have realized that we have successfully managed to convey some of the aspects of his personality and life in the forms of majalisses. If I were to ask any of the mourners of al-Husayn about the tragedy of al-Abbas, I am sure they would accurately narrate in their own words, significant moments in which Abu Fazl played a role in the unfolding of Karbala’s tragedy.

Besides being aware within my limited capacity of al-Abbas’ indescribable contributions in Karbala, I have realized that I have lived and experienced the legacy of al-Abbas through the lens of cultural traditions; a lens that unknowingly painted a slightly distorted and biased image of him in my mind.

This bias is best exemplified when we highlight al-Abbas’ pure lineage and the excellence of the house he grew up in. Often when the name of Abbas was taken, I would think of him as the son of Ali; I would think of him as the brother of Zainab, and the flag bearer of Husayn. I would think of him as the uncle of Sakina. Whenever I thought of Abbas, I would think of the moon, and how he is known as Qamr Banu Hashim.

I am sure I am not the only one for whom the name of al-Abbas triggered the same associations, and understandably so. Whenever the tragedy of al-Abbas is narrated from the pulpit, Husayn, Sakina and Zainab are the only names we hear. Therefore it is only natural for mourners of al-Abbas to experience the life of Abu Fazl through the role he played as a brother, as an uncle, and a flag bearer.

And in there lies the biggest tragedy of the legacy of Al-Abbas. As much as he is the everlasting shining moon of Banu Hashim, the definition of loyalty in the eyes of Husayn, the embodiment of peace for a sister like Zainab, and the uncle who was the source of Sakina’s pride, it is not possible to grasp even the most minute aspect of Abu Fazl’s personality without mentioning the name of Ummul Baneen.

I have often pondered over the reasons why the personality of Ummul Baneen has been so understudied even though her son played such a pivotal role in Karbala. Often, I have tried to ask why Imam al-Husayn and Lady Zainab were seen as children of both Imam Ali and Sayyida Zahra, but al-Abbas was seen mostly as the son of Ali and not the son of his mother.

There are two reasons why I think Ummul Baneen has not been given the credit she should be given in our narrations of the life of al-Abbas. The first one is that, unlike Imam Ali (as), she is not a masoom (an infallible), and that is perhaps the reason why we tend to associate the pure personality of al-Abbas with the perfection of Imam Ali (al) and Imam Husayn (as). The second reason why I think we have overlooked the role she played in Karbala is because she was not physically present in the land of Nainawa.

And despite both reasons being theologically, and historically correct, there is countless evidence that suggests dissociating al-Abbas from the personality of her mother is not only doing an injustice to the status of Ummul Baneen but also to the wisdom of Imam Ali (as) himself.

While reading through my reasoning, you might have understood that to answer the question ‘how to raise a son like al-Abbas’ it is not sufficient to analyze the pivotal role Abu Fazl played in Karbala no matter how significant it was. Rather one must understand how qualities that defined al-Abbas’ stand in Karbala such as loyalty, patience, and fearlessness, became traits of his personalities in the first place. And just like every child is the result of the upbringing of his parents, especially his mother, one must turn towards Ummul Baneen to fully understand al-Abbas. After all, who can better answer the question of how to raise a son like Abbas, than the mother of Abbas herself?

Amongst the many lessons one can learn about motherhood from the life of Ummul Baneen, one of the most important ones I find comes not from the mother of Abbas herself but from Imam Ali (as).

Indeed, when reading more about Ummul Baneen, I realized an important fact that defined her life even before she became the mother of al-Abbas. Before her demise, Sayyida Zahra had instructed Imam Ali to re-marry in order for her children not to miss the love of a mother and to get the proper attention they required. What I find fascinating is that this piece of advice given by Sayyida Zahra in her will was primarily intended for Imam Ali, a personality we revere as the epitome of perfection, while two of her children were also masoom and hence, devoid of any imperfection.

When I pondered over this matter, I realized that the first lesson of motherhood we can learn from the life of Ummul Baneen manifested itself in the need of Imam Ali to re-marry. Sayyida Zahra was very well aware of the status of Imam Ali (as) and the perfection of her sons, yet she insisted that Imam marries again. What Sayyida Zahra teaches us in her will is that even a perfect Imam cannot fulfill the role of a mother, and that fact is valid even if children you were to bring were perfect like Hassan and Husayn.

What I find even more interesting is that Imam Ali acted on Sayyida Zahra’s will in a very meticulous manner. It is said that few years after Sayyida Zahra’s death, Imam Ali was looking to remarry a woman that would give him a courageous son; one that could be there for Husayn on the day of Ashura. Amir al-Mumineen, went to his brother Aqeel who was known as a specialist of lineage and told him that he wanted to marry a woman whose family was known for their bravery. By doing this, the first lesson Imam Ali (as) teaches us is that spouse selection starts with looking for noble traits in the family of the spouse before even analyzing traits and moral characters of the person. More related to the topic of motherhood is the second lesson Imam Ali teaches us.  I find it astonishing that the man who lifted the door of Khyber by himself thought that he couldn’t bring to this world a son like al-Abbas with just any woman. Despite being the living definition of might and courage, Imam Ali sought these qualities in his future wife, and in the future mother of her child which again highlights the importance Islam has given to the role of mothers in parenthood.

Often when we mention the devotion of Ummul Baneen toward the house of Sayyida Zahra, we mention that her name was Fatimah and she herself asked Imam Ali (as) to call her by the name of Ummul Baneen in order not to remind al-Hassan (as) and al-Husayn (as) of their mother who had passed away.

Abdu-Razzaq Muqaram writes in “Qamar of Bani Hashim” (The hashimite moon) that Imam Ali (as) was once seated with al-Abbas on his laps and started kissing his arms while weeping bitterly when Ummul Baneen came enquiring. At that time Imam Ali revealed to the mother of al-Abbas that the arms of her son would be cut from his body. Ummul Baneen then asked why, and Imam Ali (as) told her that al-Abbas would part with his arms while defending al-Husayn (as).

It is said that upon hearing the news, Ummul Baneen cried and expressed gratitude toward Allah (swt) for her son was to display a character she had instilled in him from the very day he was born: an utmost loyalty toward the house of the Ahlul-Bayt. Often when we think of a narration or an incident in history that would define a father’s devotion to the will of Allah (swt) we narrate the story of Prophet Ibrahim (s) and how he was set to sacrifice the life of his son Ismail for the sake of Allah (swt). It took enormous courage for Prophet Ibrahim to part himself from his beloved Ismail for whom he had an immense attachment.If the willingness to sacrifice Ismail became the most beloved act of worship of prophet Ibrahim in the eyes of God, and knowing that the prophethood he was entitled to meant that he had a spiritual level that was above the common man, what can be said about the status Ummul Baneen had reached in the eyes of Allah, knowing that unlike Prophet Ibrahim (s), she was not a prophet, and hence, did not benefit from the same divine perfect judgement?

Another moment in the life of Ummul Baneen, which is very relevant to this discussion, is the patience she showed when she first heard about the tragedy of Karbala. According to Sheikh Abdullah Mamaqani in “Tanqih-ul-Maqal,” when Ummul Baneen first got the news of events that happened in Karbala, she inquired about Imam al-Husayn. Instead of answering her question about what had happened to Aba Abdillah, Bishr ibn Hadhlam told Ummul Baneen about the martyrdom of her son Jafar. Again, she inquired about what had happened to Aba Abdillah, to which Bishr replied, “May Allah accept the martyrdom of your son Abdullah.” Again Ummul Baneen inquired about the fate of al-Husayn and again, Bishr replied saying, “May Allah accept the martyrdom of your son, Uthman.” Finally, she asked again about what had happened to her Imam, Bishr said, “May Allah accept the martyrdom of your beloved son al-Abbas.” At that time, it is said that a pain took over Ummul Baneen as she sat on the ground. And while looking at Bishr, she gathered herself and said, “May my offspring and all what is under the blue sky be sacrificed for Aba Abdullah al-Husayn. If Imam Husayn is alive, the martyrdom of all my four sons does not matter.”

Her statement parallels a key concept conveyed in our beloved dua, Ziarat Ashura:

Bi Abi anta wa Ummi 

(May my father and mother be sacrificed for you).

How many of us have actually pondered over the depth of this sentence? How many of us have actually thought about the possibility of losing one of our parents for the sake of Imam al-Husayn? Now, pushing the reasoning of this declaration a bit further, it is a well established fact that is common across culture; inherently, the love of parents for their children exceeds the love of children for their parents in the sense that the former one is one of the most selfless expression of divine love on earth. Having said that, and knowing how hard it is to pronounce those words in Ziarat Ashura about the willingness to sacrifice our parents for the love of Imam al-Husayn, we can perhaps better grasp Ummul Baneen’s loyalty and love for the family of the Prophet (s) as she did not state her willingness to sacrifice her parents, but was ready to sacrifice all of her sons for the sake of her Imam.

The question that was asked in this article was the following: How can one spark the loyalty of al-Abbas in a child? How can one raise a flag bearer like the son of Ali?

Through the life of Ummul baneen I came to the conclusion that one can only raise a son like Abbas when emulating the motherhood of Ummul Baneen. We often find the loyalty of al-Abbas to be astonishing and having no other equal. Although it is true that the loyalty of al-Abbas had no equivalent in Karbala, one must acknowledge that this loyalty wouldn’t have existed without the motherhood of Ummul Baneen. From this perspective, one must therefore acknowledge, that al-Abbas is the might of Ali as much as he is the loyalty of Ummul Baneen. He is the pride of Sayyida Zainab, as much as he is the patience of Ummul Baneen, and he is a lover of al-Husayn as much as a lover of al-Husayn was his mother, Ummul Baneen.

Therefore, to further answer the question of raising flag bearers of Islam in our house, the first step one must undertake is to perfect its own religion and loyalty toward Aba Abdullah in order to then be able to instill it in our children. Through the life of Ummul Baneen, we have a thriving example of the status one can reach with sheer devotion for this house. She was the mother of al-Abbas, who we call Bab ul Hawaij (the door to fulfillment of people’s need), the only personality outside the 14 infallibles whose shrine became a source of salvation for the followers of Ahlul Bayt. If you truly want to know what status Ummul Baneen had attained in the eyes of Ahlul Bayt remember she is buried in Jannatul Baqi, next to the Prophet’s aunts Safiyyah and ‘ Atikah, and four of our Infallible Imams.
I would like to dedicate this modest article to all mothers who have set Ummul Baneen as their role model; to every household in which the flag of Abbas is raised. Finally, I would like to dedicate this article to Abu Fazl himself whose status can best be appreciated in the beauty of this urdu couplet:

Na jane kis zaroorat ka naam hai Abbas 

(Abbas is the name of the necessity)

Ali  ko hath uthane pare dua ke liye 

(For which Ali had to raise his arms in prayers)

Editor’s note: This is a part of a series of personal reflections during the blessed and holy nights of Muharram by guest contributor, Reza Abbas Farishta. Read more here.

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