AHL-E BAYT (Ahl al-Bayt), the “family of the house” or “household,” i.e., of the Prophet. In pre-Islamic Arabia bayt included the meaning of a noble family within a tribe (Ebn Manẓūr, Lesān al-ʿarab al-moḥīṭ, ed. Y. Ḵayyāṭ, I, Beirut, n.d., p. 292). Thus the term Ahl al-Bayt in its most generalized understanding refers to the descendents of the Prophet’s forbear Hāšem, who had been a bayt or a family possessing honor among the pre-Islamic Qorayš; during the Islamic period the term continues to refer to all the descendents of Hāšem, including the ʿAbbasids. In a tradition Zayd b. Arqam interprets Ahl al-Bayt as the families of ʿAlī, ʿAqīl, Jaʿfar, and ʿAbbās (Ebn Kaṯīr, Tafsīr al-Qorʾān al-ʿaẓīm III, Beirut, 1969, p. 486). There is some evidence that the Omayyads claimed that the honor of this bayt went back not to Hāšem but to ʿAbd Manāf; thus they attempted to include themselves among its members (W. M. Watt, The Formative Period of Islam, Edinburgh, 1973, p. 39).
The phrase Ahl al-Bayt occurs in Koran 33:33: “God only intends to keep evil away from you, Family of the Household, and to purify you thoroughly.” The vast majority of the traditions quoted by Ṭabarī explain Ahl al-Bayt in this verse as referring to the Prophet, ʿAlī, Fāṭema, Ḥasan, and Ḥosayn; in some of these traditions the Prophet gathers the others under his cloak (see Āl-e ʿAbā). However, Ṭabarī does include one tradition that interprets Ahl al-Bayt as referring to the Prophet’s wives (Jāmeʿ al-bayān XXII, 3rd ed., Cairo, 1968, pp. 6-8). The first interpretation is strenuously supported by Shiʿite commentators (ʿAlī b. Ebrāhīm al-Qomī, Tafsīr al-Qomī, ed. S. Ṭ. Mūsawī Jazāʾerī, II, Naǰaf, 1387/1967, p. 193). Much later Ebn Kaṯīr suggests in his commentary that Ahl al-Bayt includes the wives of the Prophet, but he is not prepared positively to exclude ʿAlī, Fāṭema, Ḥasan, and Ḥosayn. A typical Sunni compromise is to make Ahl al-Bayt in this verse refer both to the wives of the Prophet and to ʿAlī and Fāṭema (Lesān al-ʿarab, loc. cit.). Shiʿite writers generally refer to Ahl al-Bayt in the loose sense of the totality of the descendents of ʿAlī and Fāṭema, but in theological writings they reserve it for ʿAlī, Fāṭema, Ḥasan, Ḥosayn, and the remaining Imams. The Koranic verse is regarded as evidence that all of them were without sin (Shaikh Ṭūsī, Tafsīr al-tebyān, ed. A. Ḥ. Qasīr, VIII, Naǰaf, 1968, pp. 307-08; Ṭabarī, Maǰmaʿ al-bayān fī tafsīr al-Qorʾān, ed. A. Šaʿrānī, 5th ed., VIII, Tehran, 1395/1975, p. 358; Faḵr-al-dīn Ṭerīhī, Maǰmaʿ al-baḥrayn, ed. S. A. Ḥosaynī, II, Naǰaf, n.d., pp. 193-94).
See also EI2 I, pp. 257-58.
(I. K. A. Howard)
Originally Published: December 15, 1984
Last Updated: July 28, 2011
This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 6, p. 635
I. K. A. Howard, “Ahl-E Bayt,” Encyclopædia Iranica, I/6, p. 635; an updated version is available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/ahl-e-bayt (accessed on 16 March 2014).