Save for the love of my Relations

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.

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