The Prophet’s Household (Ahl al-Bayt) occupy a special position in Islam. God instructs His Messenger (s) in the Qur’an: ‘Say, ‘I do not ask you any reward for it except love of [my] relatives.’ (42:23) In other words, the only reward the Prophet was told to ask in return for delivering the message of Islam was that the people show respect and affection for his relatives – his Ahl al-Bayt. And it was this very verse that, in the aftermath of the massacre at Karbala, that Imam Zayn al-‘Abidin (a) appealed to during his captivity in Damascus to decry the terrible injustice that had been perpetrated against his father, Husayn (a) , the grandson of the Prophet.
The Ahl al-Bayt are given honours in the Qur’an not bestowed on any of the other believers, when God says: ‘Indeed God desires to repel all impurity from you, O Ahl al-Bayt, and purify you with a thorough purification.’ (33:33) Some interpreters have said that Ahl al-Bayt refers to the wives of the prophets, who are being addressed both before and after this statement. However, we see that when this verse was revealed the Prophet (s) himself took ‘Ali, Fatima, Hasan and Husayn beneath his cloak and said: ‘O God! These are the people of my household!’ This is famously known as the tradition of the cloak (hadith al-kisa’) and is narrated in the collections of Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmidhi and Nasa’i (four of the six most reliable Sunni books of hadith), as well as the Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal and the Tafsir of Tabari. Of particular interest is the account related by Ibn Hanbal, Tabari and Tirmidhi from the Prophet’s wife, Umm Salama, who – when she heard the Prophet utter these words – asked, ‘Am I not of your Ahl al-Bayt, O Messenger of God?’ And he replied: ‘No, but you will have a good outcome.’
In another well-known tradition, the Prophet (s) told his followers at the end of the farewell pilgrimage: ‘I am leaving two weighty things amongst you, the Qur’an and my Ahl al-Bayt.’ Variants of this account appear in Muslim, Tirmidhi and Ibn Hanbal’s Musnad. And while Sunni and Shi’a Muslims disagree about the significance of this statement, with the latter believing that this implies leadership while the former argue that it merely denotes a position of respect, both agree that it singles them out as having a position of particular importance for Islam and Muslims.
Indeed, the Ahl al-Bayt are not only connected to the Prophet by blood, but by oneness of spirit as well. The Prophet famously said: ‘I am of Husayn and Husayn is of me’ and ‘I am of Fatima and Fatima is of me, so whoever upsets Fatima has upset me and whoever upsets me has upset God.’ That is why when God instructed His Messenger to challenge the Christians of Najran after they disputed the Prophet’s proclamation on the non-divinity of Jesus (a) , He told him to say: ‘‘Come! Let us call our sons and your sons, our women and your women, ourselves and yourselves, then let us pray earnestly and call down God’s curse upon the liars.’ (3:61)
All accounts agree that for his “sons,” the Prophet brought Hassan and Husayn, for his “women,” he brought his daughter Fatima and for his “self,” he brought ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (a) . And it is this connection of blood and spirit to the Prophet that means the faithful must have ‘love for my relatives.’ This principle is further emphasised in numerous traditions, such as when the Prophet told ‘Ali (a) : ‘None will love you save a believer, none will hate you save a hypocrite,’ (Nasa’i). In another account, the Prophet saw Fatima and her two sons, whereat he turned to Zayd ibn. Arqam and said: ‘Whoever loves them, loves me, and whoever hates them, hates me.’ (Ta’rikh Damishq). On one occasion he saw Hassan and Husayn and said, ‘Whoever loves me and loves these two, their father and their mother, will be with me at my level on the Day of Judgement.’ (Tirmidhi) Ibn Hanbal narrates in his Merits of the Companions: ‘Whoever dislikes us, the Ahl al-Bayt, is a hypocrite.’ And the Mu’tazilite scholar, Zamakhshari, reports in his Tafsir al-Kashshaf: ‘Whoever dies hating the Household of Muhammad has died a disbeliever, and whoever dies hating the Household of Muhammad shall never smell the scent of Paradise.’ All of these traditions show that loving and venerating the Household of the Prophet are an essential component of the Islamic tradition.
In fact, we can see that loving the Prophet’s Household and faith are inseparable, as illustrated by the words of Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (a) : ‘Is it enough for a person to embellish himself as one of our followers by claiming to love us? By God our followers are only those who fear God and obey Him…’ before going on to enumerate their moral qualities.
So while the Sunni-Shi’a debate is rooted in a disagreement about the status and rights of the Ahl al-Bayt, there is absolutely no disagreement about their pre-eminence amongst Muslims; it is for this reason that we see all the classical schools of the Islamic intellectual tradition – whether Sunni or Shi’a – held the Prophet’s Household in the highest regard. Imam Shafi’i – the founder of one of the four schools of Sunni law – was arrested, accused of harbouring Shi’a sympathies. When the Caliph, Harun al-Rashid, interrogated him, asking: ‘Are you a rafidi?’ He is said to have given the memorable reply, ‘If loving the Household of Muhammad makes me a rafidi, then let the world bear witness that I am a rafidi!’ [rafidi was derogatory term used to describe the followers of Ali ibn Abi Talib (a) ]
Indeed, at a time when there are extremists on both sides eager to stoke the fires of sectarian hatred, the Prophet’s Household represent a powerful source of Islamic unity; not only are they revered by all Muslims, but they them-selves lived by the principle of unity and set an example for us all to follow.
Imam Ali (a) , in spite of his well-attested dispute with Abu Bakr, Umar and ‘Uthman, nevertheless advised them and admonished them in the interests of Islam and Muslims; his efforts to mediate between ‘Uthman and those who had rebelled against the latter’s rule clearly show that he was committed to maintaining a unified Islamic polity. Despite the keen sense of injustice he felt, he did not press for his rights without regard for the well-being of the Muslims, but spent his life and his Caliphate striving to hold together the Muslim community. It is tragically poetic that a man who devoted his life to unity was murdered by the member of an extremist sect who considered all other Muslims to be disbelievers.
Husayn ibn Ali (a) too, provides a striking model of unity in the face of adversity; when he rose up against the tyranny of Yazid ibn Mu’awiya, he did not use the language of sectarianism, but promised to bring about reform in the community of his grandfather, the Prophet, and revive the latter’s teachings. That is why Muslims of all persuasions, including some like Zuhayr ibn al-Qayn, who had been known for their opposition to Imam ‘Ali (a) , joined his cause. And that is why his brutal massacre and that of his followers at Karbala evoked outrage amongst all Muslims, delivering a moral defeat from which the Umayyad dynasty could never recover.
Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq (a) , in particular, represents an immensely important figure of Islamic unity. Far from being hostile to those who did not recognise his position as a divinely-appointed leader, he focused his energies on disseminating the true teachings of the Prophet. We are told that his school in Kufa was attended by more than four thousand students, the majority of whom were not Shi’a. Moreover, a number of major Sunni scholars are counted amongst his students. One of these is Abu Hanifa – the founder of the Hanafi School – who famously said of his years studying with al-Sadiq: ‘Were it not for those two years, Nu’man would have perished!’ Another is Malik b. Anas – the founder of the Maliki school – who, as well as narrating the Imam’s legal opinions in his Muwatta’, is reported to have said: ‘No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor mind conceived [of a man] better than Ja’far al-Sadiq, whether in merit, knowledge, worship or piety!’ And all later Sunni scholars and authorities had only praise for him.
While nothing can erase the distinction between the Shi’a and Sunni traditions and nor would it be desirable to do so, the shared love and reverence that all Muslims feel for the Ahl al-Bayt can serve as a common ground and source of unity at a time when the extremists are desperately trying to divide Muslims, whether in Britain, Syria, Bahrain, Pakistan or elsewhere. We must remember that the same extremists who desecrate and vandalise the shrines of the Prophet’s descendants are doing the same to the graves of the Prophet’s companions and the famous scholars of Sunni Islam wherever they find an opportunity; and the same extremists who broadcast hatred and vilification of Sunni religious figures direct that same hatred towards Shi’a religious scholars who disagree with them.
In these dire times, the Prophet’s Household do not only provide a shared object of love and respect, but they also provide a shining example of how it is possible to overcome our differences, without trying to pretend they don’t exist.
Written by Alexander Khaleeli
This article was originally published in Islam Today magazine.