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The Sayyids are descendants of Ali, the son-in-law of Mohammed by Fatima, Mohammed's daughter; and those found in South Asia today are the representatives of the Sayyids who, during the Muslim supremacy, flocked to India as religious teachers, soldiers, and adventurers, from Turkey, Arabia, and central Asia.

Sayyids, found widespread in South Asia, are Sunni Muslims, but in northern Gujarat many are Shia Muslims at heart, though all profess to be Sunnis. The Shia Sayyids there form a distinct community, their chief bond of union being the secret celebration of Shia religious rites. As a class, Sayyids are by their profession obliged to show that they are Religious and are careful to observe all the rites enjoined by the Quran.

As a rule, a Sayyid's daughter marries only another Sayyid, preferably chosen from among some exclusive classes of Sayyids. Family trees are examined and every care taken that the accepted suitor is a Sayyid both on the father's and mother's side. But many take wives from any of the four chief Muslim classes and sometimes, though rarely, from among the higher of the local or "irregular" Muslim communities. Sayyid boys' names generally end in "Ali" or "Husain," and occasionally in "Shah."

Sayyids are landlords, religious teachers, soldiers, constables, and servants. In Gujarat there is a class of Sayyid beggars belonging to the Bukhari stock. They wander over Gujarat in groups of two to five, mainly during the month of Ramadan, and are famous for their creativity in inventing tales of distress.

Many of the Pathan tribes in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, such as the Bangash of Kohat and the Mishwanis of the Hazara border, claim Sayyid origin. The apostles who completed the conversion of the Pathans to Islam were also called "Sayyids" if they came from the west, and "Sheikhs" if they came from the east; hence, doubtless, many Pathans falsely claim Sayyid origin. In Afghanistan the Sayyids control much of the commerce, as their holy character allows them to pass unharmed where other Pathans would be murdered.

The Sayyids had a short-lived dynasty in India, which reigned at Delhi during the first half of the fifteenth century. Their name again figures in Indian history at the breakup of the Mogul Empire, when two Sayyid brothers created and dethroned emperors at their will. In 1901 the total number of Sayyids in India was 1,339,734. This number included many well-known and influential families. The first Muslim appointed to the Council to India and the first appointed to the Privy Council were both Sayyids.

See also Muslim; Pathan


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The word sayyid is derived from the Arabic root "to be lord over, to rule" and is commonly used to refer to a descendant of the prophet Muhammad (normally through his grandson al-Husayn), but can also, more generally, signify a holy person (also called wali). Descendants of the Prophet are accorded respect, particularly in Shi˓ism, but also in Sunni Islam. In Shi˓ism, respect is generally preserved for descendants of Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet, through her marriage to Imam ˓Ali. In Twelver Shi˓ism, sayyids gain this respect through their genealogy, including relation to one of the Twelve Imams, and many contemporary Shi˓ite families claim sayyid status. In Zaydi Shi˓ism, the leader of the community must be a descendant of the Prophet for his rule to be legitimate. In Sunni Islam, sayyids have certain legal privileges over non-sayyids. In all these branches of Islam, the privileged status of sayyids is perhaps most obvious in the rules concerning marriage, where a sayyida (female descendant) should marry only a sayyid to preserve the "equity" (kafa˓a) status in the marriage. In popular religion, descendants of the Prophet in all branches of Islam are often viewed as channels for divine blessing (baraka). The colloquial term sidi, derived from sayyid, is used as an honorific before Muslim saints, especially in North Africa. It does not always imply that the saint is a descendant of the Prophet.

See alsoSharif .


Gilsenan, Michael. Recognising Islam: Religion and Society in theModern Middle East. London: Croom Helm, 1982.

Robert Gleave

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sayyid a Muslim claiming descent from Muhammad through Husayn, the prophet's younger grandson. The word is Arabic, and means literally ‘lord, prince’.

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Sayyid (title of descendant of Muḥammad): see SAIYID.