Her query was not met with denial, dismissal, or disparagement. Rather, a decisive verse was revealed – one that categorically explained the equal importance and reward for pious men and women in Islam:
إِنَّ الْمُسْلِمِينَ وَالْمُسْلِمَاتِ وَالْمُؤْمِنِينَ وَالْمُؤْمِنَاتِ وَالْقَانِتِينَ وَالْقَانِتَاتِ وَالصَّادِقِينَ وَالصَّادِقَاتِ وَالصَّابِرِينَ وَالصَّابِرَاتِ وَالْخَاشِعِينَ وَالْخَاشِعَاتِ وَالْمُتَصَدِّقِينَ وَالْمُتَصَدِّقَاتِ وَالصَّائِمِينَ وَالصَّائِمَاتِ وَالْحَافِظِينَ فُرُوجَهُمْ وَالْحَافِظَاتِ وَالذَّاكِرِينَ اللَّهَ كَثِيرًا وَالذَّاكِرَاتِ أَعَدَّ اللَّهُ لَهُم مَّغْفِرَةً وَأَجْرًا عَظِيمًا
“Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember Allāh often and the women who do so – for them, Allāh has prepared forgiveness and a great reward.”
Lessons from the life of Nusaybah bint Ka’b were taught to a young Zaynab al-Ghazali by her father. Al-Ghazali was an extraordinary woman who would go on to become a key leader of arguably the biggest Islamic movement in modern history: the Muslim Brotherhood. The only thing that distinguished her from her peers was her gender.
Long before my imprisonment in Guantanamo, I had read the book Return of the Pharaoh, in which al-Ghazali painfully describes her life, her work, and her imprisonment at the hands of the Egyptian regime under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser. However, it was only after my own experience of imprisonment and torture that I found a new appreciation for this remarkable woman.
Al-Ghazali’s prison memoir is as painful to read as it is inspirational. The original title of her book, Ayyām min Hayāti (Days from My Life), belies how she saw her time in prison. Her life was so much more than the six years she spent incarcerated, but it was how she faced those years that resounds through the ages.
Zaynab al-Ghazali al-Jubaili was born on 2nd January 1917 in Al-Daqahliyyah province in northern Egypt. Her father, a merchant and graduate of Al-Azhar University, taught Zaynab from a young age about the pivotal role women had played in the birth, defence, preservation, and propagation of Islam.
By the time she reached her teens, al-Ghazali was committed to advancing the cause of women in Egyptian society. She joined the Egyptian Feminist Union, but this was to be a short sojourn when she quickly resigned after concluding that Islam as a holistic ideology contained all that was needed to promote the cause of women. After all, her great childhood inspiration had been Umm ‘Ammārah (Nusaybah bint Ka’b, Allah be pleased with her). With renewed vigour, she founded Jamā’at Al-Sayyidāt Al-Muslimāt (Muslim Women’s Association) in 1936.
Through her hard work and commitment, Zaynab soon came to the attention of the founder and head of the Muslim Brotherhood (Al-Ikhwān Al-Muslimīn), Hassan al-Banna, who wanted her to lead the women’s branch of the organisation, the Muslim Sisterhood (Al-Akhawāt Al-Muslimāt).
Al-Banna had formed the Brotherhood in 1928, four years after the Ottoman Caliphate was abolished. The purpose of the organisation was to challenge the multitude of ideologies that had spread into the psyche of Muslims and to instil in them a vision and a method for the reestablishment of Islam and the caliphate. This mammoth task required Muslims to return to their faith through education and action, and it required everyone who believed in its aims to take part.
At first, al-Ghazali refused to join the Brotherhood but soon became convinced of its aims and merged her own organisation with it. By the time it was dissolved by the Egyptian government in 1964, Al-Akhawāt Al-Muslimāt had three million followers.
She had not intended to get married whilst pursuing her passions, but she eventually did. However, what stands out is that even in marriage, her single-minded devotion to the cause of Islam superseded everything. In her prenuptial agreement, she stated:
“If that day comes [when] a clash is apparent between your personal interests and economic activities on the one hand, and my Islamic work on the other, and that I find my married life is standing in the way of da’wah and the establishment of an Islamic state, then each of us should go our own way. I cannot ask you today to share with me this struggle, but it is my right on you not to stop me from jihād in the way of Allāh. Moreover, you should not ask me about my activities with other mujāhidīn, and let trust be full between us – a full trust between a man and a woman; a woman who, at the age of 18, gave her full life to Allāh and da’wah. In the event of any clash between the interests of the marriage contract and that of da’wah, our marriage will end, but da’wah will always remain rooted in me.”
She did not demand a dowry – which was her right – but she would not allow her marriage to impede her work, which she regarded as jihād. She was committed, and anyone close to her knew it. Her enemies would come to know it too.
In an all-male world, it is reasonable to say that Zaynab al-Ghazali was an anomaly. Yet this was not the case throughout the rise of Islam. In his masterful work on female scholars in Islam, Al-Muhaddithāt, Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi states:
“I do not know of another religious tradition which women were so central, so present, so active in its formative history. It follows that they were recognised as ‘senior’ is a social order in which authority was explicitly based upon commitment to and knowledge of the religion.”
Zaynab al-Ghazali had thousands of students, both male and female. She would teach them from books such as Tafsīr Ibn Kathīr, Zād Al-Ma’ād, Al-Targhīb wa Al-Tarhīb, Al-Muhalla, Al-Umm, Kitāb Al-Tawhīd, Fi Dhilāl Al-Qur’ān, and Ma’ālim fī Al-Tarīq. Her lectures in the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo were attended by up to 5,000 students. Amongst other things, she was a writer and editor for the Al-Da’wah magazine, ran an orphanage, and regularly had students attend her house.
She writes about how her husband dealt with the late-night intrusions:
“My righteous husband would hear the knock on the door in the middle of the night and would get up to answer it. He would let whoever was our visitor into our study room, then he would wake me up with extreme care and say, “Some of your children are in the study room and they must be tired from travelling. Before going back to sleep, please wake me up in case you pray in jamā’a if that is alright with you.” And indeed, I would wake him up.”
We would be hard pressed to find any husband so understanding and accepting today – and any woman so committed. But Zaynab al-Ghazali was being prepared by her Creator for a test that most men would fail.
Believing Gamal Abdel Nasser to support the cause of Islam, the Brotherhood had initially supported his military coup against King Farouk. However, after taking power, Nasser increasingly saw the Brotherhood as an existential threat. He accused them of attempting to assassinate him and had two of their leaders executed. These leaders were replaced by Abdul Fattah Ismail, Sayyid Qutb, and Zaynab al-Ghazali. Zaynab would be the only one of the three to survive Nasser’s coming purge.
At first, the military regime arrested rank-and-file Brotherhood members, then they went for the leadership. Al-Ghazali was mentally prepared for what was coming, but it was a shock nonetheless. In 1965, they finally came for her.
What happened over the next few days forms the most heart-wrenching part of Zaynab al-Ghazali’s ordeal. She was brutally tortured and humiliated in ways I find hard to read or relate. Dogs were unleashed on her and ripped out bits of her flesh. She was whipped, beaten, denied food and sanitation, made to sleep on a concrete floor, dressed in ripped and bloodied clothes, and threatened with rape and execution.
Her interrogators tried to force her to give up the names of her students and other members of the Brotherhood. She refused. They brought her students in front of her and lashed them in order to get them to denounce her. They refused. One of them was Mohammed Badie, a young man at the time, now imprisoned by the Egyptian government and facing a death sentence as the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood. I met him during the Arab Spring in 2012. Young students like Badie received hundreds of lashes while tied to a crucifix-like structure.
On another occasion during her interrogation, Zaynab al-Ghazali was placed in a cell that was slowly filled with water, in an attempt to terrorise her with the prospect of drowning.
Despite all of this, she held on to her cause and her faith. She had no water to make wudhū’ (ritual purification), but she did not let that or the pain from the torture prevent her from praying. She made tayammum (dry ablution) and bore the pain by mentioning all the names of Allāh, as well as reciting prayers and verses from the Qur’an.
Her torturers, who she named, mocked her faith and tested her resolve. They had forgotten they were Muslims, but she had not:
“His whips found every part of my body, the cruellest thing that jāhiliyyah [ignorance] had known both in terms of cruelty and bestiality. As the torture and pain intensified, I could not suppress my screams any longer. I raised my voice to Allāh. I repeated His great Name, ‘O Allāh! O Allāh!’ Whilst the whips tore into my body, my heart found contentment and affinity with Allāh. I lost consciousness, but they tried to awaken me to take more punishment. Blood poured from my feet, and unable to pull myself up, I tried to lean on the wall. Safwat persisted with his whip. I begged to be allowed to sit on the floor, but Shams Badran shouted, ‘No! No! Where is your God now? Call Him to save you from my hands! Yet call [Gamal Abdel] Nasser and you will see what will happen! Answer me, where is your God?’”
They asked her to write down the names of ‘everyone’ she knew in the Brotherhood. She took the pen and paper and, in another act of defiance, wrote:
“I have many friends, in many countries, who have known me through Islamic da’wah. Our movements on this Earth are for Allāh, and He leads those who choose His path. This path is the same as that which the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his Companions followed before us. Our aim is to spread Allāh’s message and to call for the implementation of His rule. I call you, in the Name of Allāh, to leave your jāhiliyyah, renew your Islam, pronounce the shahādah, and submit and repent to Allāh from this darkness that has swathed your hearts and which prevents you from doing any good deed. If you do so, perhaps Allāh will take you out of this abyss of jāhiliyyah and bring you to the light of Islam.”
When the torture failed, they attempted to entice her with offers of money, position, and power. They claimed others had accepted, but knowing this only hardened her resolve.
Her ordeal did not end there. Unbeknownst to her, Zaynab’s husband had been arrested for refusing attempts by the authorities to get him to divorce his wife. Not long after, she heard that he had died in prison.
In prison, she also received tragic news of the execution of her colleagues, Abdul Fattah Ismail and Sayyid Qutb. Shortly after this, she was taken to court and handed a 25-year sentence. This would have broken most people, but Zaynab had trust in the promise of Allāh – success in this life, or the next.
On 5th June 1967, Gamal Abdel Nasser died, only the torment for him would be far worse and much longer. Four years later, Zaynab al-Ghazali was freed under an amnesty by President Anwar Sadat. Before her release, she was asked to sign an agreement to desist with her da’wah activities. She refused.
After her release, she continued on her path of teaching and inspired generations around the world, until her death in 2005 at the age of 88.
The fortunes of the Muslim Brotherhood have gone from leading Egypt to mass imprisonment and killings in the space of a few years. Prison seems synonymous with their experiences, even as the last of Zaynab al-Ghazali’s students languish once again in Egyptian dungeons.
There is, however, a question that the legacy of Zaynab imposes on us. In our homes, communities, and countries, have we nurtured societies and environments that could ever produce the likes of Zaynab al-Ghazali, or have we capitulated?
 Al-Qur’ān 33:35