Sayyida Nafisa was born in Makkah on the 11th of Rabi`a al-Awwal, the same night that the Prophet (s) was born, in the year 145 H. Her father had been appointed governor of Madinat al-Munawwara in the year 150 H. She accompanied her father to Madina at the tender age of five. There she memorized the entire Qur`an and studied Islamic jurisprudence in depth. Being extremely intelligent she also became adept in explaining the Qur`an despite her young age.
She was the daughter of al-Hasan al-Anwar, the son of Zaid al-Ablaj, son of al-Imam al-Hasan (r), brother of al-Imam al-Husayn (r), son of the Daughter of the Prophet (s) Sayyida Fatimat al-Zahra (r). She is from the family of the Prophet (s) about which Allah said in the Holy Qur`an “Allah only desires to keep away the uncleanness from you, O people of the House! and to purify you a (thorough) purifying.” [33: 33]
Young Nafisa frequented the grave of her grandfather the Prophet (s) (mulazamat qabri jaddiha al-Mustafa). The People of Madina loved her deeply. She became renowned for her abstemiousness (zuhd) and piety (taqwa), for fasting the day, spending the nights in prayer and for her excessive devotion to worshipping Allah (swt).
Sayyida Nafisa used to pray the five prayers regularly behind her father in Masjid an-Nabawi (s) from the age of six. Her father used to take her by the hand and enter inside the room of the grave of the Holy Prophet (s), which is the house of Sayyida `Ayesha (r). He would address the Prophet (s) directly saying: "Ya Rasullullah!, O Beloved Prophet of Allah! I am pleased with my daughter Nafisa!" He continued these visits repeatedly until one day the Prophet (s) appeared to him in a dream saying to him, “Ya Hasan, I am pleased with your daughter Nafisa, because you are pleased with her, and Allah is pleased with her because I am pleased with her.
She performed hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) thirty times ‑ most of them on foot. She would say, “I am following my grandfather Imam al-Husayn (r) in doing that, for he said, ‘I feel shy to meet my Lord having never walked to His House,'" for which reason he used to make the pilgrimage walking.
It is said that on her circumambulation around the Ka`aba, she asked Allah (swt) "O Allah! be satisfied with me (mati`ani bi-ridaaka `annee), I see nothing that veils You from me."
When Sayyida Nafisa was 44 years old she moved to Cairo. She arrived on the 26th of Ramadan in the year 193 H. On her way, she passed through the city of Arriche. When people knew of her arrival, they rushed forth en masse to meet her, for her renown as a devout worshipper and lady saint had preceded her. Historians say the men and women of Egypt went to receive her in a huge procession, riding on horses, camels, donkeys and on foot; waiting overnight in tents; greeting her in the morning with the chanting of 'la ilaha ill-Allah' and 'Allahu akbar', and accompanying her in a huge procession from Arriche to Cairo, according her great dignity and respect.
Sayyida Nafisa hosted most of the scholars of her time, experts in jurisprudence, hadith, and Qur`anic explanation. But by far the greatest scholarly gatherings were those she hosted for the pillars of tasawwuf and the pious of her time (Aqtab al-tasawwuf). Among these pillars of tasawwuf and fiqh was Imam al-Shafi`i who had moved to Egypt from Baghdad in 109 H., five years after Sayyida Nafisa's arrival in Cairo.
One day the governor of Egypt sent Sayyida Nafisa 100,000 dirhams (equivalent to perhaps millions of dollars in today's money). He said, "Take this money from me. I ask nothing in return, but I thank Allah for this opportunity to repent. I give this money to you because of your piety." She took that money as her own and distributed it to the poor until nothing remained. Princes, nobles and many ordinary people sent her gifts. She accepted them, then distribute them in whatever way she liked.
Sayyida Nafisa was renowned for asceticism and for living a life of hardship (zuhd). When asked what her meals consisted of, Zainab, daughter of her brother, replied, "My auntie used to eat once every three days. She had a basket hanging in her niche. Whenever she wanted something small to eat she would find something in that basket, sent from Allah (swt). She never ate anything other than food from her husband and that which Allah sent her as a gift."
The story is related that when Sayyida Nafisa arrived in Egypt and settled in her home, there was a non-Muslim family living beside her, whose daughter was paralyzed from the waist down. One day the girl’s mother brought her to Sayyida Nafisa to watch while she went shopping. She left her daughter in one corner of Sayyida Nafisa's house. Sayyida Nafisa began making ablution and water from her ablution flowed towards the girl. As the water touched the body of the girl, she experienced something strange. She began to take the water from Sayyida Nafisa’s ablution and rub it on her paralyzed feet and legs. Suddenly by Allah's (swt) Mercy, the paralysis disappeared completely and she was able to stand.
When she began to feel her death approaching, Sayyida Nafisa dug her grave with her own hands inside her home. Every day she would enter the grave and worship in it, as a reminder of the coming afterlife. She used to pray all her supererogatory prayers inside that grave. Al-Allama al-Ajhuri said, "She completed the Holy Qur`an while sitting in her grave six thousand times, and she granted the rewards of that recitation to all deceased Muslims."
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