By Aftab Ahmad, New Age Islam
5 June 2014
Muslim opinion is divided about the meaning and application of the term Ahl-e-Bayt. A section of the Muslims are of the opinion that the term applies only to Hadhrat Fatima, Hadhrat Ali, Hadhrat Imam Hassan and Hadhrat Imam Hussain. To prove this, they quote the hadith in which the prophet (pbuh) covered all the four persons of his family in his cloak. This section excludes the holy wives of the Prophet (pbuh). The other section, particularly the Sunnis believe that the term Ahl-e-Bayt applies to the entire family of the holy Prophet (pbuh) including the holy wives of the Prophet (pbuh).
The hadith according to which the wives of the holy family are excluded from the Ahle-e-Bayt is this:
Safiyyah the daughter of Shaybah narrates that Ayeshah said, “The Holy Prophet (SAW) came out one morning wearing a cloak which had camel saddles woven on to it with black wool. Then Hasan bin Ali (RA) came and the Holy Prophet (SAW) took him under the cloak, and then Husain (RA) came and entered beneath it with the Holy Prophet (SAW). Then Fatimah came and the Holy Prophet (SAW) took her under the cloak. Next Ali came and the Holy Prophet (SAW) also included him beneath it. Then the Holy Prophet Muhammad (SAW) recited the verse, ‘Allah only desires to keep away (all kinds of) impurity from you, O ‘people of the house!’ (the Prophet’s family) and to totally purify you,’ (al-Ahzab 33:33).”
There is another hadith which is presented in favour of this view:
Umar bin Abi Salamah (RA) who was brought up by the Prophet (SAW) narrates that when the verse, “Allah only desires to keep away (all kinds of) impurity from you, O ‘people of the house!’ (the Prophet’s family) and to totally purify you,” (al-Ahzab 33:33), was revealed to the Holy Prophet (SAW) at the home of Umm Salamah he (SAW) called Fatimah, Hasan (RA) and Husain (RA) and covered them with a cloak. Ali was behind him (SAW), the Holy Prophet (SAW) also covered him under the same cloak and then said, “Oh Allah! These are my ahl-ul-bait (‘people of the house’) so keep impurity away from them and totally purify them.”
According to these hadiths, the term has assumed a specific religious meaning and has become a specific term denoting the holy family of the Prophet (pbuh).
However, the term Ahl-e-Bayt has been mentioned in the Quran on three occasions. And on all the three occasions it has meant the family of three prophets: Prophet Abraham, Prophet Moses and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
When the angels came to Prophet Abraham and told him that they had been sent to destroy the nation of Loth, they also gave his wife Sarah the good tidings of the birth of Ishaque. Sarah was happy to hear the good news but was also surprised as to how she could give birth to a son as both Prophet Abraham and she were very old. The verse revealed on the conversation is as follows:
“And his Wife was standing, and she smiled. Then We gave her good tidings of Isaac and after Isaac, Jacob. She said, "Woe to me! Shall I give birth while I am an old woman and this, my husband, is an old man? Indeed, this is an amazing thing!" They said, "Are you amazed at the decree of Allah ? May the mercy of Allah and His blessings be upon you, people of the house (Ahlul Bayt). Indeed, He is Praiseworthy and Honorable." “(Hud: 71-73)
The verse uses the term Ahlul Bayt (members of the family) for the family of Prophet Abraham and his wife Sarah and perhaps his son Ismail. It does not exclude Sarah.
Similarly, the term Ahlul Bayt is used to mean the family of Prophet Moses that is, his mother and sister.
When Pharaoh and his queen were looking for a wet nurse who could suckle child Moses, Moses’ sister who pretended to be a stranger suggested to him that the members of a family could take care of him hinting at the mother of Moses. Pharaoh was not aware that the woman was really the mother of Moses. The verse uses the word Ahl-e-Bayt for mother and sister of Moses.
“And she said to his sister, "Follow him"; so she watched him from a distance while they perceived not. And We had prevented from him [all] wet nurses before, so she said, "Shall I direct you to a household (Ahl-e-Bayt) that will be responsible for him for you while they are to him [for his upbringing] sincere?" “(Al Qasas:11-12)
Finally, the term Ahlul Bayt has been used to denote the family of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) including the wives of the holy Prophet (pbuh). The Quran addresses the holy wives of the Prophet (pbuh) in the following words very clearly:
“O wives of the Prophet, you are not like anyone among women. If you fear Allah, then do not be soft in speech [to men], lest he in whose heart is disease should covet, but speak with appropriate speech. And abide in your houses and do not display yourselves as [was] the display of the former times of ignorance. And establish prayer and give zakah and obey Allah and His Messenger. Allah intends only to remove from you the impurity [of sin], O people of the [Prophet's] household (Ahlul Bayt), and to purify you with [extensive] purification. “(Al Ahzab: 32-33)
The verses quoted above clearly address the holy wives of the Prophet(pbuh) and call them Ahlul Bayt. Thus, according to the Quran, the entire families of the prophets are called Ahlul Bayt and the verses do not excluded the wives of the prophets.
That the Quran does not use the term Ahlul Bayt solely for Prophet Muhammad’s family but also for other prophets’ family including the wives shows that the debate about the meaning and application of the term Ahlul Bayt has been needlessly started by a section of Muslims only to exclude the wives of the holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) from the definition of ‘family’.
Since this difference in opinion between two major sects of Islam is a major cause of contention and bad blood between them, this issue needs to be settled for once and for all. The entire family of the Prophet(pbuh) is respected to his ummah and not certain members of it. Secondly, on the pretext of this, all the descendants of Ahl-e-Bayt consider themselves superior to the rest of the ummah though the Prophet (pbuh) has said that a white man does not have any preference over a black person or vice versa, similarly an Ajami (non-Arab) does not have any preference over an Arab and vice versa only on the basis of race, colour or religious affiliation. The only basis for superiority is peity (taqwa). If that is taken as the standard, then the descendants of Ahl-e-Bayt of Prophet Abraham and that of Prophet Moses could also consider themselves superior to other nations. Then Jews would also be right to consider themselves the chosen one’s on earth which they actually did on the basis of being the descendants of the Ahl-e-Bayt of Prophet Moses. This line of thinking would be considered Jewish and not Islamic.
Aftab Ahmad is a columnist for New Age Islam. He has been studying the Holy Quran for some time.