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Literally “people of the household,” ahl al-bayt refers to the family of the prophet Muhammad and his descendants. Shi’i Muslims are particularly devoted to the family of the Prophet-his cousin and son-in-law, `Ali ibn Abi Talib (d. 661), his daughter, Fatimah (d. 632), and their sons, Hasan (d. 669/7o) and Husayn (d. 680)-and the other imams, succeeding leaders of the community and descendants of the Prophet. The Shi’i believe that these figures embody special holiness and spiritual power and knowledge through their blood relationship with the Prophet and his attachment to them.

After the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632, the Muslim community experienced conflict over the means by which to determine a successor. One party argued for election and the other, the shi `at `Ali (the “party of `Ali”), was convinced that leaders could only come from among the ahl al-bayt, the immediate family of the Prophet and his descendants. The Shi’is believed `Ali to have been designated by the Prophet, guided by divine inspiration, as his successor, and they looked on him as the first imam, leader of the Shi`i community. However, `Ali did not become caliph, head of the entire Muslim community, until three others had held the position, and then only for five years before he was murdered. `All’s son Hasan, the second Shi`i imam, was coerced into giving up the caliphate to Mu`awiyah (r. 661-68o), governor of Damascus and Syria. After the death of Hasan and then of Mu`awiyah, Husayn was urged by `Ali’s supporters in Kufa (in present-dayIraq) to lead a revolt against Yazid, successor to Mu`awiyah. Accepting the call, Husayn, the third Shi`i imam, set out from Mecca for Kufa with his family. He was intercepted on the plains of Karbala near the Euphrates River by Yazid’s forces. From the second until the tenth of the month of Muharram in 68o, Husayn and his followers battled Yazid’s army. On the tenth, Husayn was killed. The females of his group were taken as captives to Damascus. There, Husayn’s sister, Zaynab, held the first majlis (mourning ceremony), setting a model for the many rituals of lamentation to follow, keeping the story of Husayn’s martyrdom alive and providing a means for believers to share in the passion of Husayn and his family.

The Twelver Shicis see the twelve imams, successors to the prophet Muhammad, as the true leaders of the Muslim community. They believe that each was persecuted by the reigning caliph and prevented from taking his rightful position. The twelfth imam is believed to have been taken into occultation by God in 873 or 874 to protect him from enemies. Concealed thus, the Hidden Imam or Mahdi will return for the final judgment.

In the temporary period of unavailability of the twelfth imam, the Shi`i have other means of connection with the venerated ahl al-bayt. Believing in the spiritual powers of the Prophet’s family and the imams, obtained through their suffering on behalf of God and the religious community, the Shi’is aim to gain closeness with these religious figures in order to share in their rewards from God. They are thus encouraged in a number of practices and rituals to form special relationships with the family and descendants of the Prophet and to join in their pain. People make pilgrimages to the shrines of the imams and to the tombs of their descendants where they profess their devotion, plead their causes, and provide donations in thanks for the granting of requests. Women are most active, particularly in local shrine visitation, as is clear from the research of Anne Betteridge (1985). Likewise, women are active in organizing and funding feasts in honor of the ahl al-bayt and hold readings or performances of the stories about Husayn and his family at Karbala. During the month of Muharram, Shi`i Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of Husayn by donating refreshments for other mourners and hosting or attending the mourning rituals to weep, chant mourning couplets, and practice self-flagellation. Believers can thereby join the family of the Prophet through participation in their anguish.

During the period of inaccessibility of the twelfth imam, the Shi’is rely on his representatives, the `ulama’ (religious scholars), for guidance. Ideally, each believer is to choose a living religious leader to provide direction in all areas of life. In following the models set by these representatives of the Hidden Imam, such as the ayatollah, Shi’i Muslims can feel assured of maintaining indirect contact with the holy line of imams, successors to the Prophet.

Relationships with the ahl al-bayt are intense and highly personal. Time and space are eliminated as believers think of the ahl al-bayt as their own brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters. In sharing their sorrows through intense, repetitious interactions and demonstrations of loyalty, believers become related to them and thus expect their consideration.

The Shi’is accept the events of Karbalaas a central paradigm of the religion and honor the Prophet’s family and the imams and their representatives as the spiritual leaders provided by God for his people. However, the related beliefs and practices of Shi’i Muslims are not uniform or static. Rather, they are subject to controversy and questioning (see Betteridge, 1989; Friedl, 1989; and Loeffler, 1988). individually variable (see Loeffler), and dynamic (see Ayoub, 1978; and Hegland, 1983). The interpretation and political implications of the Karbala events can evolve. As Mahmoud Ayoub points out (1978, p. 19), the martyrdom of Husayn provides the means of redemption for Shi`i Muslims either through the intercession of those who suffered at Karbala or through their example of self-sacrifice. For the first, believers attempt to join in the company of those who suffered at Karbala by commemorating their persecution and sharing their suffering, thus gaining their favor and assistance. For the second, believers attempt to follow their examples of sacrificing self for God, the cause of justice, and the religious community. They enlist in Husayn’s party by performing like actions. Both interpretations can carry potent impetus for political behavior (see Hegland, “Two Images of Husain: Accommodation and Revolution in an Iranian Village,” in Keddie, 1983, pp. 218-235). In viewing Husayn’s martyrdom as providing him and his family with the power to intercede, people perceive connection with those in positions of power as the best route to fulfilling needs. They are prompted to turn also to secular figures of power, striving to gain their favor and patronage. To demonstrate their devotion to Husayn and thus their political legitimacy, political leaders have sponsored mourning performances and rituals. If their supporters which to renew vows of loyalty to the imam and to their political leader, they will attend.

During the Iranian Revolution of 1979, believers saw Husayn as an example to follow and thus were willing to become martyrs on behalf of justice. Believers could see themselves as powerful and active, able to resist inappropriate leaders and to bring about positive changes in society. Shi’i Muslims have often united for political action at different levels through their connections as joint participants in the passion of ahl al-bayt. Fatimah and Zaynab are held up as models for the perfect Muslim woman and examples to follow in political action. The organization “Sisters of Zaynab” inIranrecruits women to political causes. The ayatollahs, as representatives of the Hidden Imam, and thereby of the beloved ahl al-bayt as well, can exert strong political persuasion through their counsel to followers.

Today, many Shi`i believers in various locations continue to feel themselves members of the ahl al-bayt through their own sense of persecution. They share in the suffering of the family of the Prophet and of the imams through the wrongs done to themselves as well as through remembrance of Karbala. Whether in quiet, personal devotion and the seeking of intercession, or by courageously joining the party of Husayn through taking up his cause of justice, practicing Shi`i Muslims find comfort and strength through their relationship with the revered ahl al-bayt.

[See also Imam;Karbala; Mahdi; Muhammad, article on Life of the Prophet; Muharram; Shi’i Islam, historical overview article; and the biographies of `Ali and Husayn.]


Ayoub, Mahmoud M. Redemptive Suffering in Islam: A Study of the Devotional Aspects of `Ashura’ in Twelver Shi`ism.The Hague, 1978. Excellent presentation of popular piety surrounding the Martyr of Karbala and his family, based on research inIranon the oral tradition of the suffering of the Holy Family.

Betteridge, Anne. “Ziarat: Pilgrimage to the Shrines ofShiraz.” Ph.D. diss.,UniversityofChicago, 1985.

Betteridge, Anne. “The Controversial Vows of Urban Muslim Women inIran.” In Unspoken Worlds: Women’s Religious Lives, edited by Nancy Auer Falk and Rita M. Gross, pp. 102-111.Belmont,Calif., 1989.

Chelkowski, Peter, ed. Ta`ziyeh: Ritual and Drama inIran.New York, 1979. Collection of articles about Muharram performances inIranand elsewhere.

Cole, Juan R. I., and Nikki R. Keddie, eds. Shi’ism and Social Protest.New Haven, 1986. Eleven case studies by researchers in several disciples on the interaction of Shi’i belief and practice resulting in political activism.

Femea, Elizabeth W. Guests of the Sheik.New York, 1989. Delightful portrayal of the religious beliefs and practices of southern Iraqi Shi’i women, through an intimate view of their ongoing, everyday lives.

Fischer, Michael M. J., and Mehdi Abedi. Debating Muslims: Cultural Dialogues in Postmodernity and Tradition.Madison,Wis., 1990. Personal perspectives on Shi’i Islam, including memoirs of participation in Muharram rituals and discussion of religious beliefs and practices among Iranian immigrants in theU.S.

Fried], Erika. “Islam and Tribal Women in a Village inIran.” Unspoken Worlds: Women’s Religious Lives, edited by Nancy Auer Falk and Rita M. Gross, pp. 125-133.Belmont,Calif., 1989.

Hegland, Mary Elaine. “Ritual and Revolution inIran.” In Culture and Political Change, edited by Myron J. Aronoff, pp. 75-100.New Brunswick,N.J., 1983.

Keddie, Nikki R., ed., Religion and Politics inIran: Shi’ism from Quietism to Revolution.New Haven, 1983. Collection of articles tracing the political developments in ShM Islam leading to the Iranian Revolution.

Loeffler, Reinhold. Islam in Practice: Religious Beliefs in aPersianVillage.Albany,N.Y., 1988. Stresses the diversity and creativity of Shl’i beliefs and how they relate to existential conditions through the words and lives of twenty-one individuals.

Momen, Moojan. An Introduction to Shi’i Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shi’ism.New Haven, 1985. Thorough presentation of the development and theological aspects of the religion. Mottahedeh, Roy P. The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics inIran.New York, 1985. Outstanding work on the history of Shi`i Islam and its contemporary directions, told through the training, thoughts, and life of one modern ayatollah.

Norton, Augustus Richard. Amal and the Shi`a: Struggle for the Soul ofLebanon.Austin, 1987. Political scientist traces the development of the Sh!’i Amal Militia and the group’s interactions with other powers in the area.

Pinault, David. The Shiites: Ritual and Popular Piety in a Muslim Community.New York, 1992. Fine study of the history of Shi`i Islam and its practice inHyderabad,India, based on observation of the Muharram rituals and interviews.

Tabataba’i, Muhammad Husayn. Shiite Islam. Translated by Seyyed Hossein Nasr.Albany,N.Y., 1975. Significant introduction to Shiism written by a contemporary, learned Shi`i scholar.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/ahl-al-bayt/

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