The Companions
The Prophet's Household

Who are the Ahl-i Bayt?


The concept of Ahl-i Bayt (the family/household of the Prophet), which has continued to be problematic with its controversial and ambiguous traits since the early periods of the Islamic history, has a flexible structure in terms of the meaning of the term within the Arabic language. Although in its narrowest definition it denotes wife and children, it can also be used to describe all the relatives and the tribe in its broader sense. When we approach the issue from a religious point of view, it is not possible to pinpoint a definition in either the Holy Quran or in the sunnah (practices of the Prophet) that is connected to this expression. As the usages in these two very basic Islamic sources were utilized to provide evidence for definitions formed at later periods, in this aspect people resorted to very extreme views and strained interpretations. The martyrdom of Hussein was a turning point for the history of Islamic politics and also constituted the beginning of a new period for the abovementioned concept. The new definitions created and the accounts made up for these definitions during this period make it impossible for us to determine who or what the Ahl-i Bayt were.

The Concept of Ahl-i Bayt and the Period of Change:

The main differentiation related to the definition of Ahl-i Bayt was made by Ahl-i Sunnah (Sunni Muslims), who considered the issue within the framework of the Holy Quran and the sunnah, and attempted to bring about reasonable and logical explanations, and by the Shia Muslims who placed their arguments about belief and society upon this concept with the specific definition: "The Ahl-i Bayt consists of the Prophet (pbuh), Ali, Fatima, Hasan and Hussein as well as those who have descended from them." There is an apparent difference or a contrast between these two points of view. This is the crucial point in the concept of the Ahl-i Bayt. This term is used to mean "the family or the household" in all the periods and ages. When this expression is attributed to a person, it is believed to include his wife (wives), children and all the men and women who are close relatives. (1)

The Period of Prophet Muhammad

In the period of the Prophet (pbuh), the expression Ahl-i Bayt was used according to its dictionary definition. With this expression, the families and the children of a person were denoted. (2) The most important hadith (saying of the Prophet) connected to the Ahl-i Bayt is a body of hadith known as "Qisa," which has come to be regarded as the main evidence on the issue of Ahl-i Bayt. It is true that there are significant text differences between the reports within these accounts. Of the accounts presented as main evidence, particularly by the Shia Muslims, Aisha's account in the hadith sources is as follows: "One day, the Prophet went out of his house early in the morning wearing a black cloak. He encountered Hasan and he took him under his cloak. Then came Hussein and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) took him under his cloak too. Then Ali and Fatima came. He gathered all of them under his cloak and read (3) the verse: ‘O Ahl-i Bayt, Allah only wishes to remove all abomination from you and to make you pure and clean.'" (4)

Ummu Salama gave the following account: "One day Fatima came to the Prophet with a plate in her hand. The Prophet asked her: ‘Where is the son of my uncle?' When Fatima told him that Ali was at home, the Prophet said ‘Call him and his two sons in.' After they came, the Prophet sat Hasan and Hussein on his lap and ordered Ali to sit on his right and Fatima on his left. Then the Prophet covered them with his cloak, held the end of the cloak and supplicated to Allah, praying: (5)‘O Allah... This is my Ahl-i Bayt... therefore remove all abomination from them, and make them pure and clean.'"

The Period of Hulafa al-Rashidin (Four Rightly Guided Caliphs)

Since the term Ahl-i Bayt implied an affinity with Prophet Muhammad, many objected to the caliphate of Abu Baqr, because he did not come from Ahl-i Bayt. It is suggested that this group of people primarily consisting of Ali and Abbas, who both believed that Ali had a right to become the caliph due to his relationship with Prophet Muhammad and that his right had been usurped. Yet, it is very interesting that the expression Ahl-i Bayt was never used at this time. This provides us significant clues that this expression was shaped as a concept in later periods.

 The fact that Ali was shown as the center of in the caliphate problem in the first period, or in other words, the fact that the incidents occurred only around Ali, reflects a historical reality; due to the events that developed in following periods, the members of the Shia faith concentrated on this aspect, which had a great role in events. In this respect, we should not be misled by differences in the information conveyed or the expressions used within accounts of the Sunni or Shia sources.

After Uthman was martyred, with the support and effort of the rebels, people presented their allegiance to Ali. Then Ali made a speech, which is significant as it provides clues as to what he was going to do and what the main requirements would be. In his sermon (6)  he does not imply that the caliphate was his right or that this right had been usurped. We again see that there is no emphasis about the Ahl-i Bayt in the incidents that occurred after Ali became caliph. It can be seen that this expression was shaped as a political concept and emerged in later periods.

The Image of the Ahl-i Bayt in the Political Struggles of Hasan and Hussein

The fact that allegiance was pledged to Hasan as caliph actually involves many different aspects in terms of the environment and the conditions at the time. When we look at the accounts, we come across the expression Ahl-i Bayt being used as a term at this time. The following statements, which were included in the speech given to the people of Qufa by Hasan, are significant in this respect: "O People, you know me. If there is anyone who does not know me, I am the son of Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah, who warns, heralds, and invites people to Allah. I am from the Ahl-i Bayt. The people of the Ahl-i Bayt are removed from every fault and purified by Allah. I am from the Ahl-i Bayt which was described by Prophet Muhammad as: ‘Whoso brings a good deed will receive tenfold the like thereof' and who are obliged to be loved on the order of Allah. The good deeds referred to in this verse are good deeds shown to the Ahl-i Bayt. (7) Thus, not only did Hasan say that he was from the Ahl-i Bayt, but he also stated the characteristics and virtues of the Ahl-i Bayt. These expressions are important because they are in parallel with the utterances of Shia thought on the virtues and superior qualities of the Ahl-i Bayt. However, we can understand from this speech and further activities of Hasan that he did not think that he should be caliph merely because he was of the Ahl-i Bayt. Hasan said: "Allah revealed the following verse about us: ‘O Ahl-i Bayt, Allah wants to remove you from all kinds of faults and to purify you'". The people around him asked: "Are you one of them?" and Hasan answered in the affirmative. (8) The fact that the people asked "Are you one of them?" shows that they did not know who belonged to the Ahl-i Bayt and who did not; therefore we can conclude that this was not a widely used term at that time.

Just like Hasan, Hussein also made a speech when he found himself in a difficult situation; he appealed to the consciences of the Muslims who were listening to him. Although Hussein mentions the connection between himself, Prophet Muhammad and leading figures of the Companions, the term Ahl-i Bayt was not used in this speech. Another interesting point is that the term Ahl-i Bayt was not used by the people who were with Hussein either. If the term had been used, it would have been a significant base for these accounts and the following events.

The Importance Attached to Hussein after His Martyrdom

We see the first significant examples of the term Ahl-i Bayt being used for political purposes after the martyrdom of Hussein. Some ideas that emerged in this period, in which the Shia Muslims had not yet taken on a clear formation, were based on the idea of revenging the Ahl-i Bayt and the claim that the caliphate by right was theirs. They asserted that the people who had become caliphs before the Ahl-i Bayt had wrongfully seized this position and that no one except the Ahl-i Bayt could be a caliph. This interpretation of the term Ahl-i Bayt marks the separation in the definition process from earlier periods and draws the term into political events. These opinions on Ahl-i Bayt were developed along with some concepts of politics and beliefs, and they caused the emergence of political and intellectual schools, and even the Shia movement, which was the first separation of belief in the Islamic world.

None of the Ahl-i Bayt, whether they were descended from Hasan or Hussein, or the children of Ali who were borne by wives other than Fatima, were involved in any rebellion for a period of nearly fifty years until the uprising of Zayd ibn Ali in 122/740. (9) Ali ibn Hussein and his sons Muhammad ibn Ali (al-Bakr) and Jafar ibn Ali (as-Sadiq), all descendents of the Ahl-i Bayt, could have used the Ahl-i Bayt case and could have claimed rights, but they were not interested in politics and they maintained good relations with the Umayyad family. (10) On the other hand, the most important point that catches our attention in the uprising of Zayd ibn Ali, the grandson of Hussein, in 122/740, is that the term Ahl-i Bayt was used frequently as a base point. When Zayd received the allegiance from the people of Qufa, he said, "We invite you to the Book of Allah, the sunnah of the Holy Prophet, to make jihad against cruel people, to defend weak people, to compensate for the losses of the people who have suffered from injustice, to remove cruelty, and to help the Ahl-i Bayt. Will you obey?" (11) Another interesting point is that Abdullah ibn Muawiyah, the grandson of Abdullah ibn Jafar ibn Abi Talib (descending from the Prophet's uncle, Abi Talib), used the slogan "ar-Riza min Al-i Muhammad" in his uprising in 127/744. (12)  The fact that Abdullah benefited from the features exclusive to the Al-i Muhammad must be the result of the affection and respect shown to the Ahl-i Bayt in that period. The fact that the people of Qufa said "Invite people to you, the Hashim tribe deserves the caliphate more than the Marwan tribe" (13) demonstrates this psychosocial condition to some extent.

As a consequence, after this period a process of change started terminologically and the term Ahl-i Bayt became distanced from the interpretation of the Holy Quran and the hadiths, which had been based on lexical terms, and became a concept based on the political and belief system of a certain group.

1) Ibn Manzur, Jamaluddîn Muhammad Mukrim, Lisanu´l-Arab, Beirut, (1300, Islamic Calendar), XI/29; Ibn Sidah, Abu´l-Hasan Ali ibn Ismail, al-Muhassas, Thk: Comission, Beirut, Thz., I/III, p. 129;Firuzabadi, Majduddin Muhammad ibn Ya´kub,al-Qamusu´l-Muhit,  Damascus,(1306,Islamic Calendar) h. 111/331,332; Azhari, Abu Mansur Muhammad ibn Ahmad, Tehzibu´l-Lugha, Thk: Muhammad Abdu´l-Mun´im el-Hafaji, Muhammad Ferruh, Cairo, 1964, VI/418; Zabidi, MuhibbuddinAbu´l-Feyz Sayyid Muhammad Murtaza, Taju´l-Arus, Beirut, (1306, Islamic Calendar), VII/217.

2) Tirmidhi, Edahi, 8.

3) Muslim, Fadailu´s-Sahaba, 61.

4)Al Ahzab 33:33.

5) Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, VI/298; Tabari, Abû Ja´far Muhammad ibn Jarir, Jami al-Bayan an Ta´vili Ayi´l-Quran, (Tafsiru´t-Tabari), Cairo, 1954, XXII/6, 7; For different variations of this hadith See: Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, VI /296; VI/304 and 305.

6) Sayf ibn Omar, ed-Dabi al-Asadi, al-Fitnatu ve Wak´aiu´l-Jamal, Tasn: Ahmet Ratib Armush,Beirut, 1993, p.95.

7) Isfahani, Abu al-Farac Ali ibn Hussain, Makatilu at-Talibiyyîn, Thk: Sayyid Ahmad Sakar, Beirut, 1987, s.62; Safwat, Camharatu Hutabi al-Arab, H/7,8.

8) Ibn Kasir, Abu a´l-Fida Ismail, Tafsîru a´l-Qur´ani a´l-Azim, Beirut, 1970, V/459; Ibn Hanbal, al-Musnadu Ahli a´l-Bayt, Thk: Abdullah al-Laysî al-Ansari,  Beirut,   1988,  s. 10; Moreover, in some accounts, it is reported that this statement was made by Ali ibn Husssain (Zaynal Abidin) not Hazrat Hassan. Tabari, Tafsir, XXII/8; Haytami, 11/656.

9) Watt, W. Montgomery, Islam Dusuncesinin Tesekkul Devri translated by: Ethem Ruhi Figlali, Ank.1981, p. 57.

10) Ya´kubi, 11/303 vd.

11) Tabarî, History, VII/172,173; Balâzurî, Ansâb, IH/434; Ibn A´sam, VHI/316,317; Ibnu a´l-Asîr, al-Kâmil, V/233; Ziriqlî, IH/99.

12) Muslim, Fadailu´s-Sahaba, 61.

13) Isfahânî, el-Agânt, XII/228.

For the complete text, see M. Bahauddin Varol, Hicri I. Asırda Ehl-i Beyt İmajı (The Image of Ahl-i Bayt in 1st century After Hijrah


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