Ahl Al-Bayt

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AHL AL-BAYT . The conception of the ahl al-bayt, "people of the house," "family," or "household" of the prophet Muammad plays a vital role in Islamic thought and piety. In the tashahhud portion of the ritual prayers, Muslims of all persuasions supplicate daily, "O God! Bless Muammad and his family (āl), as you blessed Abraham and his family."

Qurʾanic prophetology is pregnant with the notion of a hallowed lineage. God's chosen messengers among the Israelites are believed to have been descended from one another, as the Qurʾān states: "Truly, God chose Adam, Noah, the family of Abraham, and the family of ʿImrān above all the worlds, offspring, one after the other" (III:3334). The Qurʾān portrays the chosen among the families and descendants (āl, ahl, qurbā, and dhurrīya ) of the prophets as supportive of the messengers during their missions and included in God's merciful protection. They are often the prophets' material and spiritual legatees, heirs with respect to kingship (mulk ), rule (ukm ), wisdom (ikma ), the book (kitāb ) and the imamate (IV:54, VI:8491, XXIX:27, XXXVII:7677, LVII:26).

As with the families of the previous prophets, Muammad's family is accorded a special status in the Qurʾān, the prophetic tradition (adīth ), and the schools of religious law. At the outset of Muammad's mission, God commands him: "Warn your nearest kin (al-aqrabīn ), and lower your wing to the faithful who follow you" (XXVI:214215). The Qurʾān also makes certain monetary considerations for the Prophet's relations (dhī'l-qurbā ) (VIII:41, LIX:7), and on account of the sanctified status of the prophetic family, Muslim legal practice dictates that Muammad and his clan not touch the alms of the community, lest such defilements (awsākh ) pollute them. The purity of the family is most famously attested to in the verse known as tahīr (purification): "God desires only to remove impurity from you, O People of the House (ahl al-bayt ), and to purify you completely" (XXXIII:33).

Muslim tradition, in accordance with the widely reported adīth al-kisāʾ or al-ʿabāʾ, generally identifies Muammad himself; his daughter, Fāima; her husband and the cousin of the Prophet, ʿAlī; and the Prophet's two grandsons by this marriage, al-asan and al-usayn, as the nucleus of the "house." Shiism also allows for the imām s and, in a looser sense, other righteous progeny descended from ʿAlī and Fāima to be accounted as part of the family, while some Sunnī reports expand the term to include the Prophet's wives or the collateral branches of his relations, such as, the ʿAbbāsids or even the Umayyads. Al-Nabhānī provides a survey of reports on who is included among the ahl al-bayt (al-Sharaf al-muʿabbad li-āl Muammad, Cairo, 1381/1961, pp. 1034). It is, however, in light of the adīth al-kisā ʾ or al-ʿabāʾ, the "tradition of the mantle," that both Shīʿī and Sunnī commentators overwhelmingly interpret the verse of tahīr. According to this account, the Prophet wrapped himself and the other four members of his family in his mantle, solemnly declaring, "O God, these are the People of my House (ahl baytī )!" He then recited the Qurʾanic verse of purification. Frequently this incident is connected with the episode of mubāhala (mutual imprecation), which relates to the visit of a delegation of Christians from Najrān in the year 631632. The accounts relate that there was a dispute regarding Christology and it was decided to resort to the ritual of "mutual imprecation" to decide which party was in the right, that of Muammad or that of the Christian delegation. Thus Muammad is commanded in the Qurʾān III:61: "If anyone dispute with you in this matter [concerning Jesus] after the knowledge that has come to you, say: Come, let us call our sons and your sons, our women and your women, ourselves and yourselves, then let us swear an oath and place the curse of God on those who lie." Accordingly, the five members of the ahl al-bayt gathered for the ritual. However, the mubāhala is said to have been averted when the Christian side reached a conciliation with the Prophet.

In traditions recorded in both Shīʿī and Sunnī sources, the Prophet likens his family to Noah's ark, saying: "Among you, my ahl al-bayt is like the Ark of Noah. Whoso embarks therein is saved and whoso lags behind is drowned." In the well-known report known as the adīth al-thaqalayn (the tradition of the two weighty things), likewise found in both Shīʿī and Sunnī sources, he is reported to have said: "Verily, I am leaving with you two weighty things, the Book of God and my progeny, my ahl al-bayt. So long as you cling to these two, you will never go astray. Truly, they will not be parted from each other until they join me at the fountain [in paradise]."

In the Qurʾān XLII:23, Muammad is commanded to address his disciples as follows, "Say: I do not ask you for any recompense for this [the apostleship] save love for the kinsfolk (al-qurbā )." Here, "kinsfolk" is largely understood to be the Prophet's kinsfolk, though divergent interpretations exist as well. The general attitude is well represented in a statement of al-Shāfiʿī (d. 820), the eponymous founder of one of the four predominant Sunnī schools of jurisprudence, who is quoted as saying: "O members of the House of the Prophet, love for you is a duty to God that He has revealed in the Qurʾān. With respect to your great magnificence, it suffices to say that anyone who does not invoke blessings for you has not performed the daily prayer" (al-Nabhānī, p. 184). Along the same lines, Jaʿfar al-ādiq (d. 765), a descendant of the Prophet and one of the Shīʿī imām s, declares: "Everything has a foundation, and the foundation of Islam is loving us, the Prophet's family" (Amad b. Muammad al-Barqī, Kitāb al-maāsin, Najaf, 1964, p. 113). Certainly primarily Shīʿī, traditions also assign a numinous role to the family. The five family members are envisioned as beings of light, existing in pre-creation, whose names are derived from God's most beautiful names (see, for example, Furāt b. Ibrāhīm b. Furāt al-Kūfī, Tafsīr Furāt al-Kūfī, Najaf: al-Mabaʿa al-aidariyya, n.d., p. 11). Such reports provided fecund material for mystical speculation. In his Gujarati composition Muman Chitveī, for example, the fourteenth-century Ismaili sage Pīr adr al-Dīn interprets this idea by describing how the Almighty placed the pole star (qub ), luminous by the light of the five holy ones, in the firmament at the time of creation. Its brilliance was so overwhelming, however, that the heavens began to tremble uncontrollably. Only when the name ʿAlī was written on the corners of the universe was stability restored (To munīvar moī, Mumbai: Dhī Khojā Sindhī Chhāpākhānu, 1905, p. 3).

A number of designations, roughly synonymous with the term ahl al-bayt, became popular in the Muslim world. In the more restrictive sense, terms such as ahl (or āl ) al-kisā ʾ (or al-ʿabāʾ ), "the people of the mantle," or in Persian-speaking and Persian-influenced areas, panj tan-i pāk, "the five pure ones," are prevalent, while in the more general sense of the descendants of the Prophet, epithets such as āl al-nabī, āl al-rasūl or āl yāsīn are widespread.

Throughout Islamic history, the descendants of the Prophet, often styled as sayyids or sharīfs, have been the focus of particular respect. Shīʿī imām s, along with many ūfī shaykhs, Sunnī political leaders and Muslim religious scholars of various persuasions, have often drawn tremendous legitimacy and authority from their illustrious descent from the Prophet. In modern times one may cite the imām of the Ismailis, Prince Karim Aga Khan, and the ruling families of Morocco and Jordan as cases in point. The descendants of the ahl al-bayt have frequently formed a distinct social class in Muslim societies, sometimes even recognizable by distinguishing forms of dress, the green turban being particularly noteworthy. At the same time, a conception exists of a spiritual ahl al-bayt, sometimes referred to as the bayt al-way, "the house of prophecy," into which the devotees of the prophetic family may be initiated, while unrighteous blood relations may be excluded. Thus one has the Prophet's celebrated dictum about his Persian disciple: "Salmān is one of us, the ahl al-bayt."

The theme of devotion to the members of the family has touched many aspects of Islamic piety, literature, architecture, iconography, and mystical thought through the ages. For example, the great poet ʿAbd al-Ramān Jāmī (d. 1492), an initiate of the Naqshbandī ūfī order, declares that praise of the ahl al-bayt ennobles the encomiast (Mathnawīhā-yi Haft Awrang, Tehran, 1351 S/1972, p. 145), while Sanāʾī (d. 1121), in a section of his adīqa, pleads for divine pardon in the name of his love for the Prophet's kinsfolk (adīqat al-aqīqa wa sharīʿat al-arīqa, ed. Mudarris Raawī, Tehran, 1329 S/1950, pp. 642643). Remarkably, domestic architecture in parts of Tajikistan and Xinjiang is centered on five columns, interpreted by the inhabitants as representative of the five purified ones of the Prophet's family. In the early twenty-first century the members of the Prophet's household continue to be celebrated in songs and invoked in prayers and are even the subjects of numerous web pages on the internet.


Scholarly research on the concept of the ahl al-bayt has overwhelmingly concentrated on the political implications of this term in the early Muslim community. In this connection see Moshe Sharon's Black Banners from the East (Leiden, 1983); "Ahl al-bayt People of the House," Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 8, no. 2 (1986): 169184; and "The Umayyads as ahl al-bayt," Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 14 (1991): 115152. An earlier but widely quoted study by Rudi Paret suggested that the term ahl al-bayt in the Qurʾān referred to the adherents of the cult of the House, that is, the Kaʿbah. See his "Der Plan einer neuen, leicht kommentierten Koranübersetzung," in Orientalistische Studien Enno Littmann zu seinem 60. Geburtstag, edited by R. Paret (Leiden, 1935). Wilferd Madelung provides a meticulous and in-depth examination of previous opinion and articulates his own conclusions in The Succession to Muammad (Cambridge, U.K., 1997). Early Shīʿī traditions, including of course those related to the ahl al-bayt, are examined in Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, Le Guide Divin Dans Le Shiʿisme Originel, translated as The Divine Guide in Early Shiʾism (Albany, N.Y., 1994); Lynda G. Clarke, "Early Doctrine of the Shiʿah, According to the Shiʿi Sources" (Ph.D. diss., McGill University, 1994); Meir M. Bar-Asher, Scripture and Exegesis in Early Imāmī Shiism (Leiden, 1999); and S. Husain M. Jafri, Origins and Early Development of Shiʿa Islam (London, 1979). The incident of the mubāhala is dealt with in Louis Massignon, "La Mubāhala de Medine et l'hyperdulie de Fāima," reproduced in Opera Minora, Tome I, pp. 550572 (Beirut, Lebanon, 1963); Abdelmadjid Méziane, "Le sense de la mubāhala d'après la tradition islamique," Islamo-christiana 2 (1976): 5967; and Rudolph Strothman, "Die Mubahala in Tradition und Liturgie," Islam 33 (1957): 529. Massignon's article "Salman Pak et les premices spirituelles de l'Islam Iranien," reproduced in Opera Minora, Tome I, pp. 443483 (Beirut, Lebanon, 1963), discusses the role of Salmān's initiation in Islamic piety. The appearance of the ahl al-bayt in Persian iconography is elaborated in Maria Vittoria Fontana, "Iconografia dellʾAhl al-Bayt: immagini di arte persiana dal XII al XX secolo" (Naples, Italy, 1994) (Supplemento n. 78 agli Annali vol. 54 [1994], fasc. 1). Reference to the most important primary source materials may be found in the above-cited texts, and in the articles in this encyclopedia on ʿAlī, usayn, and Fāima.

Shafique N. Virani (2005)