Ahl Al-Bayt

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Ahl al-bayt, or “people of the house,” is a phrase used with reference to the family of the prophet Muhammad, particularly by the Shiʻa. In early Arabian tribal society, it was a designation for a noble clan. Thus, the term Ahl al-Bayt in its most generalized understanding refers to the descendants of the Prophet’s forbear Hashem, who had been a Bayt or a family possessing honor among the pre-Islamic Qoraysh; during the Islamic period the term continues to refer to all the descendants of Hashem. However, the vast majority of the traditions quoted by Tabari explain Ahl al-Bayt as referring to the Prophet, ʿAli, Fatima, Hasan, and Hussain; in some of these traditions the Prophet gathers the others under his cloak (Al-e ʿAba).

In the Qur’an[edit | edit source]

Ahl al-bayt occurs only twice in the Qur'an, once in regard to Ibrahim's family (11:73), but more significantly in a verse that states, “God only wishes to keep evil away from you, O people of the house, and to purify you completely" (33:33). The context suggests that this statement pertains to women in Muhammad's household, a view held by Sunni commentators. Some authorities have applied it more widely to descendants of Muhammad's clan (Banu Hashim), the Abbasids, and even the whole community of Muslims. Since the eighth century C.E., however, the Shi’a and many Sunnis have maintained that Qur'an 33:33 refers specifically to five people: Muhammad, Ali b. Abi Talib (Muhammad's cousin), 'Ali's wife Fatima (Muhammad's daughter), and their two children, Hasan and Hussain. Ulema invoke hadiths in support of this view, as seen in Tabari's Jami' al-bayan (c. tenth century C.E.). Thus, in South Asia, they are called "the five pure ones" (panjatan pak). They are also known as “people of the mantle” (kisa') in remembrance of the occasion when the Prophet enveloped them with his mantle and recited this verse.

Significance[edit | edit source]

Belief in the supermundane qualities of the ahl al-bayt and the imams descended from them form the core of Shi'ite devotion. They are the ideal locus of authority and salvation in all things, both worldly and spiritual. As pure, sinless, and embodiments of divine wisdom, they are held to be the perfect leaders for the Muslim community, as well as models for moral action. Many believe that they possess a divine light through which God created the universe, and that it is only through their living presence that the world exists. Twelver Shi'ite doctrine has emphasized that the pain and martyrdom endured by ahl al-bayt, particularly by Hussain, hold redemptive power for those who have faith in them and empathize with their suffering. Moreover, they anticipate the messianic return of the Twelfth Imam at the end of time, and the intercession of the holy family on the day of judgment.

Sunnis also revere the ahl al-bayt, attributing to them many of the sacred qualities that the Shiʻa do. This is especially so in Sufi tariqas (brotherhoods), most of which trace their spiritual lineage to Muhammad through 'Ali. Several tariqas hold special veneration for the holy five and the imams, such as the Khalwatiyya, the Bektashiyya, and the Safawiyya, which established the Safavid dynasty in Iran (1502-1722). In many Muslim communities, high social status is attributed to those claiming to be sayyids and sharifs, blood-descendants of the ahl al-bayt. Indeed, many Muslim scholars and saints are members of these two groups, and their tombs often become pilgrimage centers.

Although the Saudi-Wahhabi conquest of Arabia (nineteenth to early twentieth centuries) led to the destruction of many ahl al-bayt shrines (including Fatima's tomb in Medina), elsewhere their shrines have attracted large numbers of pilgrims in modern times. These include those of Ali (Najaf, Iraq), Hussain (Karbala, Iraq and Cairo, Egypt), Ali al-Riza (the eighth imam; Mashhad, Iran), and also of women saints such as Sayyida Zaynab (Ali's daughter; Cairo) and Fatima al-Ma'suma (daughter of the seventh imam; Qom, Iran).

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

  • Ayoub, Mahmoud. Redemptive Suffering in Islam: A Study of the Devotional Aspects of ‘Ashura in Twelver Shi’ism. The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1978. Hoffman- Ladd, Valerie J. “Devotion to the Prophet and His Family in Egyptian Sufism. “International Journal of Middle East Studies 24 (1992): 615- 637. Schubel, Vernon James. Religious Performance in Contemporary Islam: Shi’i Devotional Rituals in South Asia. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

Source[edit | edit source]

  • [Juan Eduardo Campo (2004). Encyclopedia of Islam and Muslim World. Macmillan: US (p: 25-26) Encyclopedia of Islam and Muslim World]