Ahl al-Bayt (Arabic: أهل البيت, lit.'People of the House') refers to the family of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, though the term also has been extended in Sunni Islam to apply to all descendants of the Banu Hashim, Muhammad's clan, and even all Muslims.[1][2] In Shia Islam, the term is limited to Muhammad, his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, his daughter, Fatima, and their two sons, Hasan, and Husayn. However, a common Sunni view is to harmonize both interpretations to include Muhammad, Ali, Fatima, Hasan, Husayn, together with Muhammad's wives.[3]

While all Muslims revere the Ahl al-Bayt,[4][5] it is the Shia who hold the Ahl al-Bayt in the highest esteem, regarding them as infallible embodiments of divine wisdom and the perfect leaders for the Muslim community. The Twelver Shia also believe in the redemptive power of the pain and martyrdom endured by the Ahl al-Bayt, particularly by Husayn.[2][4]


Ahl al-bayt is literally translated to '(the) people of the house' and to 'household' in the absence of the definite article al-.[6] That is, when ahl (أهل) appears in construction with a person, it refers to his blood relatives but the word also acquires wider meanings with other nouns.[6] In particular, bayt (بَيْت) is translated as habitation and dwelling,[7] and thus the basic translation of ahl al-bayt is the 'inhabitants of a house' (or a tent).[6]

Who are the Ahl al-Bayt?

The phrase ahl al-bayt (lit.'people of the house') appears three times in the Quran and in relation to Abraham (11:73), Moses (28:12), and Muhammad (33:33).[6] Abraham's ahl al-bayt and Moses' ahl al-bayt in the Quran are unanimously understood by commentators as referring to the families of Abraham and Moses, respectively.[6] Elsewhere in the Quran, however, Noah's family is saved from the deluge, except his wife and one of his sons, about whom Noah's plea was rejected according to verse 11:46, "O Noah, he [your son] is not of your family (ahl)."[8] As a rule, in the Quran, merit is a criterion of membership to a prophet's ahl al-bayt,[7] and pagan or disloyal members of the families of the prophets are not excluded from God's punishment.[1][9] Muhammad's ahl al-bayt, simply referred to as the Ahl al-Bayt, appear in the last passage of the verse 33:33,[10] also known as the Verse of Purification,[11]

God only desires to remove defilement from you, O People of the House [Ahl al-Bayt], and to purify you completely.[10]

— Quran (33:33)

There are disagreements as to who belongs to Muhammad's ahl al-bayt above and what political privileges and responsibilities they have.[1] The majority of the traditions quoted by al-Tabari in his exegesis identify the Ahl al-Bayt with the Ahl al-Kisa, namely, Muhammad, Ali, Fatima, Hasan, and Husayn.[12][13][14] These traditions are also cited by a number of other early Sunni authorities, including Ahmad ibn Hanbal, al-Suyuti, and al-Hafiz al-Kabir.[15] Muhammad's wife, Umm Salama, relates in one version of the famous Hadith al-Kisa that Muhammad gathered Ali, Fatima, Hasan, and Husayn under his cloak and prayed, "O God, these are the people of my house and my closest family members; remove defilement from them and purify them completely."[6][1] Umm Salama reports that she then asked Muhammad, "Am I with thee, O Messenger of God?" but received the negative response, "Thou shalt obtain good. Thou shalt obtain good."[10] There also exists a version of this hadith in Sunni sources where Umm Salam is included in the Ahl al-Bayt.[3] Muhammad is said to have recited this passage of the Verse of Purification every morning when he passed by Fatima's house to remind her household of the fajr prayer.[16] In the Event of Mubahala, Muhammad again gathered Ali, Fatima, Hasan, and Husayn under his cloak and referred to them as the Ahl al-Bayt, according to a number of Sunni sources.[17][14] This makeup of the Ahl al-Bayt, shared also by Veccia Vaglieri,[16] is unanimously supported in Shia sources.[3] In their theology works, Ahl al-Bayt often also includes the remaining Shia Imams,[12] and the term is sometimes loosely applied in Shia writings to all descendants of Ali and Fatima.[12][18][19] The Verse of Purification is regarded by the Shia as evidence of the infallibility of the Ahl al-Bayt.[12]

Possibly because the previous injunctions are addressed at Muhammad's wives,[1] a number of Sunni authors, including Ibn Kathir and al-Wahidi, have exclusively interpreted ahl al-bayt in the Verse of Purification as Muhammad's wives.[12][6] Others have noted that the last passage of this verse is grammatically inconsistent with the previous injunctions (masculine plural versus feminine plural pronouns), and thus ahl al-bayt is not or is not limited to Muhammad's wives.[10][1][16] A number of Sunni hadiths, narrated for instance by Ibn Abbas and Ikrima, support the inclusion of Muhammad's wives in the Ahl al-Bayt.[20][20] In contrast, Leaman argues that marriage to a prophet does not guarantee inclusion in his ahl al-bayt because, in verse 11:73,[6] Sara is included in the ahl al-bayt of Abraham only after receiving the news of her imminent motherhood of two prophets, Isaac and Jacob. Likewise, Leaman suggests that Moses' mother is classed as a member of the ahl al-bayt, not for being married to Imran but for being the mother of Moses.[7] In support of their bid to inclusion in the Ahl al-Bayt, the Abbasids argued that women, noble and holy as they may be, could not be considered as source of pedigree (nasab) and that Muhammad's paternal uncle, Abbas, was equal to the father in his absence.[6][21]

As hinted above, various Sunni authors have widened the scope of Ahl al-Bayt to include Muhammad's clan (Banu Hashim),[6][4] Banu Muttalib,[3] the descendants of Muhammad's uncle, Abbas (Abbasids),[10][6][12] and even the descendants of Hashim's nephew, Umayya (Umayyads).[1][12] In particular, there exists an Abbasid version of the Hadith al-Kisa in Sunni sources, possibly intended to strengthen Abbasid claims to inclusion among the Ahl al-Bayt,[12] which was in turn the cornerstone of Abbasid claims to the caliphate.[6][1] Similarly, a Sunni version of the Hadith al-Thaqalayn interprets Ahl al-Bayt as the descendants of Ali and his brothers, Aqil and Jafar, and Muhammad's uncle, Abbas.[3][12] Abu Bakr and Umar have also been included in the Ahl al-Bayt by their supporters as they were both father-in-laws of Muhammad. These and the accounts about the inclusion of the Umayyads in the Ahl al-Bayt might have been posterior reactions to Abbasid claims to inclusion in the Ahl al-Bayt and their bid for legitimacy, according to Brunner.[1] Ahl al-Bayt has also been interpreted as the tribe of Quraysh[6][1] or the whole Muslim community by some,[3][1] such as Paret who identified bayt (lit.'house') in the Verse of Purification with Kaaba, though his theory has found few supporters, notably Sharon.[6][1][22]

According to Howard, a typical Sunni compromise is to interpret Ahl al-Bayt as the Ahl al-Kisa (Muhammad, Ali, Fatima, Hasan, Husayn) together with Muhammad's wives.[3] This view is shared by Goldziher and his coauthors,[12] and mentioned by Sharon,[6] though Madelung also includes the Banu Hashim in the Ahl al-Bayt in view of their blood relation to Muhammad.[20] In contrast, Shia limits the Ahl al-Bayt to Muhammad, Ali, Fatima, Hasan, and Husayn, pointing to authentic traditions that can be found in Sunni and Shia sources,[23][7] a view shared by Veccia Vaglieri and Jafri.[16]


Muslims venerate Muhammad's household.[4][2][5] In the Quran, families and descendants of the past prophets hold a prominent position. The previous prophets pray for special favors for their kin and offspring in the Quran, and after their deaths, their descendants become their spiritual and material heirs to keep their fathers' covenants intact.[24][25] Jafri suggests that the sanctity of a prophet's family was an accepted principle at the time of Muhammad,[26] and Muhammad's kin are mentioned in the Quran in various contexts, according to Madelung.[27] Verse 42:23 of the Quran, also known as the Verse of Mawadda, is often cited about the elevated status of the Ahl al-Bayt, particularly by the Shia.[28] This verse includes the passage

[O Mohammad!] Say, I do not ask for any reward for this [the communication of the revelation], only the affection due to kin (al-qurba).[5][28]

— Quran (42:23)

The term al-qurba is interpreted by the Shia as Muhammad's close kin, namely, Ali, Fatima, Hasan, and Husayn.[29] This view also appears in the work of Ibn Ishaq,[30] who writes that, when asked, Muhammad specified these near relatives (al-qurba) as Ali, Fatima, Hasan, and Husayn.[5] Most Sunni authors, however, reject this view and offer various other interpretations.[31] For instance, the view preferred by al-Tabari is that verse 42:23 necessitates that Muslims love Muhammad because of their blood relations to him. Alternatively, Madelung holds that this verse demands love towards relatives in general.[28] Lalani enumerates the arguments, attributed to the fifth Shia Imam, al-Baqir, which challenge the prevailing Sunni views of his time.[32]

Another example is verse 3:61 of the Quran. After an inconclusive debate about Jesus with a Christian delegation from Najran, it was decided to engage in mubuhala, where both parties would pray to invoke God's curse upon whoever was the liar. This is when Muhammad is reported to have received verse 3:61 of the Quran, also known as the Verse of Mubahala, which reads[33][34][35][36]

If anyone dispute with you in this matter [concerning Jesus] after the knowledge which has come to you, say: Come, let us call our sons and your sons, our women and your women, ourselves and yourselves, then let us swear an oath and place the curse of God on those who lie.[37]

— Quran (3:61)

Madelung argues that 'our sons' in this verse must refer to Muhammad's grandchildren, Hasan and Husayn. In that case, he continues, it would be reasonable to also include their parents, Ali and Fatima, in the event.[37] Of those present there, Shia narrations about the event are unanimous that 'our women' refers to Fatima and 'ourselves' refers to Ali on Muhammad's side.[38] In contrast, most Sunni narrations quoted by al-Tabari do not name the participants of the event, while some other Sunni historians agree with the Shia view.[37][34][36] A number of accounts about the Event of Mubahala add that Muhammad, Ali, Fatimah, Hasan, and Husayn stood under Muhammad's cloak and this five also are known as the Ahl al-Kisa (lit.'family of the cloak').[39][14] Madelung writes that their inclusion by Muhammad in this ritual under circumstances of an intense religious significance and its sanction by the Quran could not have failed to raise the religious rank of his family.[37]

The Quran also reserves for Muhammad's kin a fifth (khums) of booty and a part of fay, that is, those properties conquered peacefully by Muslims.[28] Because alms-giving is considered an act of purification in Islam, this Quranic directive is seen as a compensation for the exclusion of Muhammad and his family from alms (sadaqa, zakat), given their state of purity in the Quran.[40]

Muhammad is said to have repeatedly emphasized the significance of the Ahl al-Bayt, for instance in his famous Hadith al-Thaqalayn, which is widely reported by Sunni and Shia authorities.[17][41][42][43] In particular, the version of this hadith that appears in Musnad Ibn Hanbal, a canonical Sunni source, is as follows:

I left among you two treasures which, if you cling to them, you shall not be led into error after me. One of them is greater than the other: The book of God, which is a rope stretched from Heaven to Earth, and my progeny, my ahl al-bayt. These two shall not be parted until they return to the Pool [of Abundance in Paradise].[17]

— Hadith al-Thaqalayn

There are several slightly different versions of this hadith in Sunni sources, suggesting that Muhammad might have repeated this statement on multiple occasions. In particular, the version that appears in As-Sunan al-Kubra, another canonical Sunni source, also includes the warning, "Be careful how you treat the two [treasures] after me."[44] In some Sunni versions of this hadith, the word sunna appears instead of ahl al-bayt.[3][1] Another instance is the Hadith of Noah's Arc, attributed to Muhammad and reported by many Sunni sources in various forms, according to Momen.[45] One version of the Hadith of Noah reads as, "The likeness of the people of my house is the ship of Noah: Whoever boards it is safe and whoever abandons it is drowned."[45][46][6] Also ascribed to Muhammad is the hadith, "By Him in Whose Hand is my soul, faith will never enter a person's heart until he loves them [Muhammad's family] for the sake of God and for the fact that they are my kin."[46]

In many Muslim communities, high social status is attributed to people claiming to be blood descendants of Ali and Fatima. They are called sayyids or sharifs.[19][4][18] According to Campo, Sunnis revere the Ahl al-Bayt,[4] though Brunner suggests that this was the case until modern times.[1] Most Sufi tariqs (brotherhoods) trace their spiritual chain to Muhammad through Ali and revere the Ahl al-Kisa as the Holy Five.[4] It is, however, the Shia who hold the Ahl al-Bayt in the highest esteem, regarding them as infallible embodiments of divine wisdom and the perfect leaders for the Muslim community. The Twelver Shia believe in the redemptive power of the pain and martyrdom endured by the Ahl al-Bayt, particularly by Husayn, for those who empathize with the suffering of the Ahl al-Bayt for their divine cause.[2][4] The Twelver Shia also await the messianic advent of Mahdi who would usher in an era of peace and justice by overcoming any injustice and oppression.[47][4] The Shia also ascribe cosmological importance to the Ahl al-Bayt in various texts, where it is said that God would not have created janna (paradise) and earth, Adam and Eve, or anything else if it were not for them.[3] According to Campo, several Muslim heads of state and politicians have claimed blood-descent from the family of Muhammad, including the Alawid dynasty of Morocco, the Hashimite dynasty of Iraq and of Jordan, and the leader of the Iranian revolution, Khomeini.[4]

See also



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Brunner 2014.
  2. ^ a b c d Campo 2009.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Goldziher, Arendonk & Tritton 2022.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Campo 2004.
  5. ^ a b c d Mavani 2013, p. 41.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Sharon 2004.
  7. ^ a b c d Leaman 2006.
  8. ^ Madelung 1997, pp. 9, 10.
  9. ^ Madelung 1997, p. 10.
  10. ^ a b c d e Nasr et al. 2015, p. 2331.
  11. ^ Abbas 2021, p. 65.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Howard 2011.
  13. ^ Madelung 1997, pp. 14, 15.
  14. ^ a b c Algar 2011.
  15. ^ Mavani 2013, p. 71.
  16. ^ a b c d Veccia Vaglieri 2022a.
  17. ^ a b c Momen 1985, p. 16.
  18. ^ a b Esposito 2004, p. 9.
  19. ^ a b Glassé 2001.
  20. ^ a b c Madelung 1997, p. 15.
  21. ^ Jafri 1979, p. 195.
  22. ^ Madelung 1997, p. 11.
  23. ^ Momen 1985, pp. 16, 17.
  24. ^ Madelung 1997, pp. 8–12.
  25. ^ Jafri 1979, pp. 15–17.
  26. ^ Jafri 1979, p. 17.
  27. ^ Madelung 1997, p. 12.
  28. ^ a b c d Madelung 1997, p. 13.
  29. ^ Lalani 2004, p. 66.
  30. ^ Mavani 2013, p. 60.
  31. ^ Nasr et al. 2015, p. 2691.
  32. ^ Lalani 2004, pp. 66, 67.
  33. ^ Madelung 1997, pp. 15, 16.
  34. ^ a b Momen 1985, p. 14.
  35. ^ Momen 1985, pp. 13, 14.
  36. ^ a b Bar-Asher & Kofsky 2002, p. 141.
  37. ^ a b c d Madelung 1997, p. 16.
  38. ^ Mavani 2013, pp. 71, 72.
  39. ^ Momen 1985, pp. 14, 16, 17.
  40. ^ Madelung 1997, p. 14.
  41. ^ Mavani 2013, p. 80.
  42. ^ Amir-Moezzi 2022.
  43. ^ Veccia Vaglieri 2022b.
  44. ^ Abbas 2021, p. 81.
  45. ^ a b Momen 1985, p. 17.
  46. ^ a b Nasr et al. 2015, p. 2332.
  47. ^ Mavani 2013, p. 240.


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Further reading