She was the daughter of Umaimah bint 'Abdul Muttalib bin Hashim, who was the Messenger of Allah's paternal aunt. Her brother was the distinguished general, 'Abdullah bin Jahsh. Another brother was a noted author of religious poetry, Abu Ahmad bin Jahsh. Her sister was another famous women Companion, Hamnah bint Jahsh. Her paternal uncles were the Leader of the Martyrs' Hamzah bin 'Abdul Muttalib, and 'Abbas bin 'Abdul Muttalib, who was renowned for his works of charity. Her paternal aunt was Safiyyah bint 'Abdul Muttalib bin Hashim.
She was born about thirty years before the Hijrah of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), She was influenced by the teachings of her brother, 'Abdullah bin Jahsh, to convert to Islam. Beautiful, intelligent, wise and of noble birth she was the envy of many.
The increasing popularity and influence of Islam roused a towering rage among the Quraysh; the new converts faced indescribable tortures. Some were made to lie on beds of coal, while others some were dragged naked across the burning desert sands. Still others were wrapped up in straw mats and strung over smoke, to suffocate them. Everyday saw new methods of the art of torturing these people who had sworn allegiance to the Allah.
The sole purpose was that they should give up the belief and practices of Islam. Makkah became too small to hold both them and the Quraysh. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) exhorted his followers and friends to be patient and brave, but finally he gave them orders to migrate; first to Abyssinia and then to Al-Madinah. Under the leadership of 'Abdullah bin Jahsh, the Jahsh family set out. The caravan included the blind poet Ahmad bin Jahsh, who was admired for his linguistic mastery. He wrote an epic poem depicting in detail the tortures inflicted by the Quraysh, the reasons for migration and the heroic deeds of the Muslims. This poem is considered to be a masterpiece of Arabic literature.
Time passed peacefully in Al-Madinah, and the ties between the immigrants and the Ansar, the original inhabitants created an atmosphere of brotherly love and affection. It seemed they were members of one united family. The best individual in the society was neither master nor slave, neither man nor woman, neither rich nor poor, but a God-fearing person of good character and morals.
In the context of such an ideal society the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) suggested to his cousin Zaynab that he had decided to get her engaged to Zayd bin Harithah, his adopted son and a freed slave. When Zaynab heard this she was stunned; she told him that she was from a noble family and she was neither keen nor willing to marry a freed slave. She was doubtful if they could get along with each other. He answered that he had chosen Zayd for her and she should accept him. Before Zaynab could answer him, an Ayah was revealed to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). This was Ayah of Surat At-Ahzab,
"It is not for a believer, man or woman, when Allah and His Messenger have decreed a matter that they should have any option in their decision. And whoever disbelieves Allah and His Messenger, he has indeed strayed into a plane error." [Noble Quran 33:36]
Thus Zaynab and Zayd were married, but separated as they were from totally different social backgrounds, and their marital life was far from peaceful.
Zaynab was biased and from the very beginning the relations were always strained. Zayd felt that the respect and importance that a husband should get from his wife was never given to him. Disappointed in his marriage, he went to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and told him that he was very upset as he and Zaynab seemed totally incompatible. The advice that he received from his mentor, Allah has incorporated in the Noble Quran,
"Keep your wife to yourself, and fear Allah." [Noble Quran 33:37]
But in spite of all the best efforts the marriage did not work out, and finally he divorced Zaynab.
Arabs thought it was wrong for a man to marry the widow or divorcee of his adopted son. Allah wanted to abolish this uncivilized custom, so He sent the Angel Jibril to tell the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) in secret that Zaynab would one day be his wife. He was very distressed as it was against the accepted norm of behavior. He feared social censure and was very ashamed and embarrassed at the implications. But the decision had been made in the heavens by Allah and soon he received the revelation,
"And (remember) when you said to him (Zayd bin Harithah) on whom Allah has bestowed grace (by guiding him to Islam) and you have done favour (by manumitting him): "Keep your wife to yourself, and fear Allah." But you hid in yourself that which Allah will make manifest, you did fear the people (i.e., their saying that Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) married the divorced wife of his manumitted slave) whereas Allah had a better right that you should fear Him. So when Zayd had accomplished his desire from her (i.e. divorced her), We gave her to you in marriage, so that there may be no difficulty to the believers in respect of (the marriage of) the wives of their adopted sons when the latter have no desire to keep them. And Allah's Command must be fulfilled." [Noble Quran 33:37]
When Zaynab completed her period of waiting, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) sent her a proposal through Zayd bin Harithah. When he went to her, she was kneading dough; keeping his back turned to her, he gave her the Prophet's message, that he wanted her to join the select group of the Mothers of the believers. She said she could not answer immediately, but would have to consult her Maker. She began praying to Allah for guidance. She was still in the middle of her prayer, when the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) received a revelation that the marriage had already been performed in the Heavens by Allah Himself. After this Heavenly order, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) immediately went to Zaynab without observing any of the formalities that were observed with acquaintances and friends. He did not inform her in advance nor did ask for permission. There are some exceptional points to be noted regarding this marriage.
Only the order of the Quran was based as a guardian or a witness.
It abolished a barbaric custom that equated a blood relationship with an adoptive one; in which the father could not marry an adopted son's ex-wife or widow.
Zaynab used to say very proudly to the other Mother of the Believers that her marriage had been performed not by her family but by Allah above the Heavens with His beloved Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him).
When the hypocrites criticized the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) for this marriage, Allah replied,
"There is no blame on the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) in that which Allah has made legal for him. That has been Allah's way with those who have passed away of (the Prophets of) old. And the Command of Allah is a decree determined. Those who convey the Message of Allah and fear Him, and fear none save Allah. And Sufficient is Allah as a Reckoner." [Noble Quran 33:38-39]
And to clarify the finer points still further he revealed Ayat which again are part of Surat Al-Ahzab,
"Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but he is the Messenger of Allah and the last of the Prophets. And Allah is Ever All-Aware of everything." [Noble Quran 33:40]
On this occasion Allah revealed the order clarifying the position of adopted sons as,
"Nor has he made your adopted sons your real sons. That is but your saying with your mouths. But Allah says the truth, and He guides to the (Right) Way. Call them (the adopted sons) by (the names of) their fathers, that is more just with Allah." [Noble Quran 33:4-5]
On the occasion of this wedding Allah revealed revelation regarding Hijab and also made it clear that no man could marry any of the Mothers of the Believers after the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). These two commands were revealed in Ayat of the same Surat,
"O you who believe! Enter not the Prophet's houses, unless permission is given to you for a meal, (and then) not (so early as) to wait for its preparation. But when you are invited, enter, and when you have taken your meal, disperse without sitting for a talk. Verily, such (behavior) annoys the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), and he is shy of (asking) you (to go); but Allah is not shy of (telling you) the truth. And when you ask (his wives) for anything you want, ask them from behind a screen that is purer for your hearts and for their hearts. And it is not (right) for you that you should annoy Allah's Messenger, nor that you should ever marry his wives after him (his death). Verily, with Allah that shall be an enormity." [Noble Quran 33:53]
'A'ishah says that in terms of values and position, Zaynab was her equal. She said she had never seen any other person who was so eager to get closer to Allah to gain nearness to Him she was more charitable than most, and her generous behavior with relatives was impeccable. When 'A'ishah was wrongfully accused, the whole of Al-Madinah was polluted with taunts and filthy talk; in fact even the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was disturbed. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) asked Zaynab what her opinion was of 'A'ishah. The noble character of this lady is revealed in her answer; she promptly said she did not wish to be involved, and did not want to defile and taint her ears, her eyes and her tongue with such terrible accusations. Swearing by Allah she said, she found 'A'ishah to be a truly God-fearing lady of exemplary character. She found in her the most wonderful traits of integrity, sincerity and honesty. She said she had not seen in her anything but goodness and virtue. 'A'ishah narrated that Zaynab very easily could have taken advantage of the situation and passed derogatory remarks about her, for after all, in a sense they were rivals. 'A'ishah says she never forgot the fact that she stood by her at the worst time in her life when almost the whole world had turned against her.
On one occasion Zaynab called Safiyyah a Jewess and this deeply distressed the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). In fact he was so upset that he stopped talking to her. Zaynab felt guilty and realized that she committed a grave mistake and offended the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). Finally she requested 'A'ishah to advocate her case with him and tell him that she was sincerely repentant; she was the only one who could talk to him in such a direct manner. When the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) visited 'A'ishah, she looked for an opportune moment and brought up the subject, pleading the case for Zaynab. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) forgave her and family life returned to normal in the household.
When Zaynab passed away 'A'ishah recalled an occasion when the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), said that among the Mother of the Believers, she would meet him first who had the longest arms. Zaynab was short compared to the others and naturally her arms were also shorter. All the ladies took this statement literally and started measuring their arms. It was only upon the death of Zaynab that they realized what this meant. It really meant that the person with the longest arms was the most generous or liberal person, who only thought of how she could benefit others. There was an implicit prophesy in this statement, which became clear when Zaynab passed away. It meant she would meet him in Paradise before the others. And she passed away before any of the other wives of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). 'A'ishah says Zaynab worked with her own hands, and what she thus earned she spent on works of charity. She said she was a God-fearing, straight-forward lady who practiced abstinence. All her actions were aimed at pleasing Allah. Sometimes she could lose her temper, but then she was quick to repent and ask for forgiveness. She was very pure at heart and never carried resentments and grudges.
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) had a very organized routine. After the 'Asr prayers he would visit the different apartments to inquire about the well being of the ladies of his household. He was always very just in the attention he paid to them and the amount of time he spent with each one of them. Once Zaynab received some special honey from a relative, and it so happened that this was the Prophet's favourite. Whenever she offered it to him he would spend some time longer in her apartment, as it took time to really flavor and enjoy it. The other wives felt impatient and restless waiting for their turn with him. So 'A'ishah, Sawdah, and Hafsah worked out a plan. Each of them would tell him that there was a peculiar smell in his mouth. And if all of them said the same thing he would certainly believe them and realize that the only thing which could have given him bad breath would have been the honey he just had. Since he was very concerned about personal hygiene, he would definitely stop eating the honey. Of course the three Mothers of the Believers did what they did, not out of spite, but because they loved him and wanted him to come to them sooner. In fact Allah has Himself spoken of them in the highest terms of respect in the Quran.
"O wives of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) you are not like any other women." [Noble Quran 33:32]
And it happened as they planned; the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) developed a distaste for honey and decided he would never eat it again. In the case of an ordinary human being this may not have been a problem. But the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was swearing not to have something that actually was not forbidden by Allah ; this could lead to any follower of his also forswearing something not forbidden by Allah. So Allah rebuked him,
"O Prophet! Why do you forbid (for yourself) that which Allah has allowed to you, seeking to please your wives? And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful." [Noble Quran 66:1]
As a result the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) broke the oath he had taken and performed the penance for this in accordance with the injunctions of Allah.
Zaynab made a little mosque in a corner of her house and used to spend a lot of time there in prayer and meditation. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) would also pray there sometimes. She believed strongly in asking Allah for counsel through prayer and supplication, before taking any action. All her life's major decisions were made in this way. In fact even when the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) proposed she turned to prayer for guidance.
This righteous lady died during the caliphate of 'Umar Faruq at the age of fifty-three. When she realized she was about to meet her Maker, she told the people around her that she already prepared a shroud for herself. If 'Umar Faruq sent one for her, one should be used and the other given away in charity. She was such a modest lady that a curtain was drawn in front of her dead body, even though it was wrapped in a shroud.
'Umar Faruq led the funeral prayers and all her close relatives - Usamah bin Zayd, Muhammad bin' Abdullah bin Jahsh, 'Abdullah bin Abi Ahmad bin Jahsh and Muhammad bin Talhah bin 'Abdullah got down into the grave to lower her gently into her final resting place in Jannatul Baqi'.
She was so generous and soft-hearted that the poor and distressed of the city broke into tears when they heard they lost their benefactress and patron. On her death she left a house which was bought by Walid bin 'Abdul Malik for fifty thousand Dirhams and included by him in the precincts of the Prophet's Mosque at Al-Madinah.
"O the one in (complete) rest and satisfaction! Come back to your Lord - well pleased and well pleasing. Enter you then among My (honored) servants, and enter you My Paradise." [Noble Quran 89:27-30]
Source: "Great Women of Islam" - by Dar-us-Salam Publications