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What does Ahl al-Bayt mean?
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What does Ahl al-Bayt mean?
Concise answer

Ahl al-Bayt is a Quranic, Hadith, and theological term meaning the family of the Noble Prophet of Islam (s). This term, with this meaning has been used in the Quran in the verse of purity (33:33).

All Shia commentators of the Quran and many Sunni ones – by using evidence and numerous traditions from the Noble Prophet (s), Imām ‘Alī, Imām Hassan, Imām Hussayn, Imām Sajjād, and other Imāms, (a) as well as Umm Salmeh, ‘Ā’ishah, Abū Sa‘īd Khadrī, Ibn ‘Abbās, and other companions – strongly believe that the verse of purity was revealed about the companions of the kisā’: Prophet Muhammad (s), ‘Alī, Fātimah, Hassan, and Hussayn (a). They also believe that the term Ahl al-Bayt means them.

Likewise, in many traditions narrated through Shia and Sunni sources, this term has been used to mean the rest of the Imāms as well, from Imām ‘Alī bin al-Hussayn (Imām Sajjād) until the Imam of the age (aj).

Detailed Answer

Ahl al-Bayt is a Quranic, Hadith, and theological term meaning the family of the Noble Prophet of Islam (s). This term with this meaning has been used in the Quran in the verse of purity (33:33):

 

انما یرید الله لیذهب عنکم الرجس اهل البیت و یطهرکم تطهیرا

Verily Allah desires to rid you of impurities, Ahl al-Bayt, and purify you; a through purification

 

The lexical meaning of ahl means love and closeness[1] and bayt means a place of living.[2] The lexical meaning of Ahl al-Bayt is a person’s family who he is close to[3] but, in a more general sense, it includes all of the people in one’s lineage, religion, house, hometown, city, or it is even used with partners.[4]

But those who make religious jargon: theologians, traditionalists, and commentators of the Quran say that the term Ahl al-Bayt which is used in the Quran has a specific meaning because they believe that there are many traditions related through the Prophet (s) and the Shia Imāms regarding this issue. Hence, this Quranic verse has a specific meaning.

There are differences of opinions amongst the commentators of the Quran, the traditionalists, and the theologians regarding who are included in the explanation of this verse:

1. Some Sunni commentators of the Quran believe that with taking the verses that come before this and after this verse into account (they are about the wives of the Prophet of Islam) this verse is only includes the wives of the Prophet (s). To support this claim they narrate a tradition by Ibn ‘Abbās regarding ‘Akramah, the murderer of Ibn Jubayr and Ibn Sā’ib, which stated: “‘Akramah was in the marketplace and screamed out that the Ahl al-Bayt of the Prophet (s) are only his wives and that he would perform mubāhilah with anyone who rejected that.”[5]

Some Sunni commentators of the Quran and all Shia commentators criticize this opinion and say that if the wives of the Prophet (s) were meant in this verse it would be suitable, just like the previous and later verses which were feminine, for the two you/s in this verse to be feminine as well. But, this is not the case; this sentence is addressed to the second person in a plural and masculine way which shows that what those commentators said was wrong.

Their using the tradition has also been criticized. Abū Hayyān Ghurnātī, who is Sunni, wrote that the tradition of Ibn ‘Abbās is not creditable. Ibn Kathīr also said that if what is meant by that tradition is that the verse of purity has been revealed about the Prophet’s wives it would be correct, but if what is meant is that the only instances of this verse are the Prophet’s wives and nobody else it would be incorrect because there are many traditions which negate that.[6]

But, as we have mentioned, Ibn Kathīr’s statement that ‘the verse is revealed about the Prophet’s wives’ is also not correct; first of all because, it is against the coherency of the verses and secondly, it is in opposition to traditions that he himself has accepted.

2. Another group of Sunni commentators of the Quran believe that Ahl al-Bayt in that verse refers to the Prophet’s wives as well as ‘Alī, Fātimah, Hassan, and Hussayn (a).[7] It should be noted that those who make this claim do not have any tradition to support it.

3. Some commentators of the Quran say that apparently the verse is general and includes all of the Prophet’s (s) family: his wives, children, close family members, and even his servants. Tha‘labī says that it includes all of the Hāshimite tribe or at least the believers of the Hāshimite tribe.[8] This view as well has no tradition to support it.

4. Some commentators of the Quran say that it is possible that the people meant by Ahl al-Bayt are those who are forbidden from accepting charity. This opinion is based on a tradition by Zayd bin Arqam who was asked: “Who are the Prophet’s (s) Ahl al-Bayt? Are the wives of the prophet (s) included?” He answered: “The wives are also part of the Ahl al-Bayt, but the Prophet’s (s) Ahl al-Bayt are people who are forbidden from accepting charity: the family of ‘Alī, the family of ‘Aqīl, the family of Ja‘far, and the family of ‘Abbās.”[9] According to Abū al-Fatūh Rāzī, this opinion is rare and does not have any certification.

5. All Shia commentators of the Quran and many Sunni ones – using evidence and many traditions from the Noble Prophet (s), Imām ‘Alī, Imām Hassan, Imām Hussayn, Imām Sajjād, and other Imāms (a) as well as Umm Salmeh, ‘Ā’ishah, Abū Sa‘īd Khadrī, Ibn ‘Abbās, and other companions – strongly believe that the verse of purity was revealed about the companions of the kisā’: Prophet Muhammad (s), ‘Alī, Fātimah, Hassan, and Hussayn (a). They also believe that the term Ahl al-Bayt refers to them.

 

The only question which comes to mind is, why was an issue that does not include the Prophet’s (s) wives mentioned in the middle of verses regarding the duties of the Prophet’s wives?

There are many answers to this question, for example:

1. Tabarasī said: “This is not the only case where verses of the Quran are joined together on different matters. The Quran is full of similar cases. There are also many instances of such a thing in eloquent Arabic writings and poetry.”[10]

2. Allamah Tabātabā’ī (r) added another answer to this answer and wrote: “There is no proof that the verse «انما یرید الله لیذهب عنکم الرجس اهل البیت و یطهرکم تطهیراً» (Verily Allah desires to rid you of impurities, Ahl al-Bayt, and purify you; a through purification) was revealed along with those verses, on the other hand it is easily understood from traditions that this part was revealed separately and was, at the order of the Prophet (s) or when the verses of the Quran were gathered after his demise, put next to those verses.”[11]

3. The following has been mentioned in Tafsīr Namūnah: “The third answer that can be given for his question is that the Quran wants to tell the Prophet’s (s) wives: ‘You are in a family where some family members are infallible and some are people who have been raised under the shade of infallibility. Therefore it is incumbent for you to protect yourselves more than others and do not forget that being in a family that has five infallibles is a heavy responsibility; Allah and His creation have tremendous expectations of you.’”[12]

There are many traditions regarding the circumstances of the revelation of this verse and the meaning of this verse. These traditions can be divided into the following categories:

1. Traditions that clearly state that the circumstances of the revelation of this verse and the meaning of the verse – the meaning of the Ahl al-Bayt – are the five people of the cloak.[13]

2. Traditions which support the kisā’ tradition: traditions related by Abū Khadrī, Anas bin Mālik, Ibn ‘Abbās, Abū al-Hamrā’, and Abū Barazah which were related after the event of the kisā’ and after the revelation of this verse. The Prophet of Islam for 1 month, 40 days, six months, or nine months at the time of the morning prayer or at the times of the five daily prayers would go to the door of ‘Alī and Fātimah’s (a) house and say: “Peace be upon you, Ahl al-Bayt, and the mercies and blessings of Allah…” (السلام علیکم اهل البیت و رحمة الله و برکاته، الصلاة یرحمکم الله) He would then recite the verse of purity.[14]

In Sharh Ihqāqul Haqq[15] after collecting 70 famous Sunni sources in this regard it is mentioned that Shia sources are even more than this.[16]

So this matter is for certain from the viewpoint of traditions that the people meant in the verse 33:33 are the Prophet, ‘Alī, Fātimah, Hassan, and Hussayn (a).

This term Ahl al-Bayt in traditions has been used for the rest of the Imāms from Imām ‘Alī bin al-Hussayn (Imām Sajjād) to the Imām of the age (aj).

Abū Sa‘īd Khadrī narrated from the Messenger of Allah (s): “I will leave with you two weighty things: one, the book of Allah which is a rope lowered from the heavens to the Earth, and the other is my progeny and Ahl al-Bayt. These two will not be separated from each other until the Day of Resurection.”[17]

Abū Ghafārī says that the Noble Prophet (s) said: “The likeness of my Ahl al-Bayt is like that of Noah’s ark. Whoever jumps aboard is saved and whoever does not will drown.”[18]

Imām ‘Alī (a) said that the Noble Prophet of Islam (s) said: “I will leave two weighty things amongst you as a loan: the book of Allah and my Ahl al-Bayt. These two will not be separated from each other until the Day of Resurrection (like two fingers).”

Jābir asked: “O’ Messenger of Allah (a) who are your Ahl al-Bayt?”

The Prophet answered: “‘Alī, Fātimah, Hassan, Hussayn, and the Imāms from Hussayn’s (a) lineage until the Day of Ressurection.”[19]

Imām ‘Alī (a) said that he was in Umm Salmeh’s house visiting the Messenger of Allah (s) when the verse ‘Verily Allah desires to rid you of impurities, Ahl al-Bayt, and purify you; a through purification’ was revealed. The Prophet (s) said to him: “This verse was revealed about you, your sons Hassan (a) and Hussayn (a), and the Imāms from your lineage that will come.”

I (‘Alī) asked: “How many people will reach the position of being an Imām after you?”

The Prophet responded: “After you Hassan (a), after him Hussayn (a), after Hussayn (a) his son ‘Alī (a), after ‘Alī (a) his son Muhammad (a), after Muhammad (a) his son Ja‘far (a), after Ja‘far (a) his son Mūsa (a), after Mūsa (a) his son ‘Alī (a), after ‘Alī (a) his son Muhammad (a), after Muhammad (a) his son ‘Alī (a), after ‘Alī (a) his son Hassan (a), and after Hassan (a) his son ‘Hujjat’ (the proof) (aj) will become Imāms. Their names, in the same order, have been written on the leg of the ‘arsh and I asked Allah about them. Allah told me that they are the Imāms after me, that they are pure and infallible and that their enemies are cursed.”[20]

There are many other traditions which state that the Ahl al-Bayt includes the 12 Imāms of the Shia creed. The Quranic point behind having the Ahl al-Bayt have such a high position is so that mankind can follow them on their paths to perfection and in to receive guidance (the main goal of the Quran is to guide mankind - الم ذلک الکتاب لاریب فیه هدی للمتقین – Alif-Lām-Mīm, that book without any doubt in it, a guidance for the pious.[21]). The Shia Imāms are the leaders and guides of the Ummah and because of this they are called the Ahl al-Bayt. Hence, the Noble Prophet (s), who is the real commentator of the Quran, used this term, Ahl al-Bayt, when he wanted to mention the religious leaders after himself.

For more information refer to the following subjects:

The Ahl al-Bayt of the Noble Prophet of Islam (s), Question 902

The role and goal of the Ahl al-Bayt, Question 900



[1] Fayūmī, Misbāh al-Munīr, p.28

[2] Ibid, p.68

[3] Ibid

[4] Rāghib Isfahānī, Mufradāt alfāz al-Quran, p.29

[5] Tabarī, Jāmi‘ al-Bayān fī Tafsīr al-Quran, v.22, p.7

[6] Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr al-Quran al-‘Azīm, v.5, p.452-453

[7] Fakhr al-Dīn, Tafsīr Kabīr, v.25, p.209; Baydāwī, Anwār al-Tanzīl wa Asrār al-Ta’wīl, v.4, p.163; Abū Hayyān, Al-Bahr al-Muhīt fī Tafsīr, v.7, p.232

[8] Qurtabī, Al-Jāma‘ li-Ahkām al-Quran, v.14, p.183; Alūsī, Rūh al-Ma‘ānī, v.22, p.14

[9] Abū Hayyān, Al-Bahr al-Muhīt fī Tafsīr, v.7, p. 231-232

[10] Tabarasī, Majma‘ al-Bayān, v.7, p. 560

[11] Allamah Tabātabā’ī, al-Mīzān, v.16, p. 312; Fakhr al-Dīn, Tafsīr Kabīr, v.25, p. 209; Baydāwī, Anwār al-Tanzīl wa Asrār al-Ta’wīl, v.4, p. 16; Abū Hayyān, Al-Bahr al-Muhīt fī Tafsīr, v.7, p.232; Qurtabī, Al-Jāma‘ li-Ahkām al-Quran, v.14, p.183; Alūsī, Rūh al-Ma‘ānī, v.22, p.14; Tabarasī, Majma‘ al-Bayān, v.7, p. 560;

[12] Tafsīr Namūnah, v.17, p.295

[13] Tabarī, Jāmi‘ al-Bayān fī Tafsīr al-Quran, v.22, p.6-7; Qurtabī, Al-Jāma‘ li-Ahkām al-Quran, v.14, p.183; Hākim, Al-Mustadrak, v.2, p.416, tradition 3146; Bukhārī, Al-Tārīkh, v.2, p.69-70; Tirmidhī, Sunan, v.5, p.663

[14] Tabarī, Jāmi‘ al-Bayān fī Tafsīr al-Quran, v.22, p.5-6; Bukhārī, Al-Kunya, p.25-26; Ahmad bin Hanbal, Musnad, v.4, p.259; Haskānī, Shawāhid al-Tanzīl, v.2, p.11-15; Sīūtī, Dar al-Manthūr, v.6, p.606-607

[15] Mar‘ashī, Sharh Ihqāq al-Haqq, v.2, p.502-547 and v.9, p.91-92

[16] The book Shinākh Nāmah Ahl al-Bayt by ‘Alī Rafī‘ī ‘Alāmrūdashtī, pages 301-308, was used in this article and for more information one can refer to it.

[17] Sahīh Tirmidhī, v.5, p.663 the chapter on the Prophet’s Ahl al-Bayt, tradition: 3788

[18] Hākim, Al-Mustadrak, v. 4, p.150; Dhahabī, Mīzān al-I‘tidāl, v.1, p.224

[19] Bihār al-Anwār, v.23, p.147

[20] Bihār al-Anwār, v.36, p.336, tradition 199

[21] Quran, 2:1-2

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