Ahl al-bayt, or “people of the house,” is a phrase used with reference to the family of the prophet Muhammad, particularly by the Shia. In early Arabian tribal society, it was a designation for a noble clan. It occurs only twice in the Qur_an, once in regard to Ibrahim’s family (11:73), but more significantly in a verse that states, “God only wishes to keep uncleaness away from you, O people of the house, and to purify you completely” (33:33). The context suggests that this statement pertains to women in Muhammad’s household, a view held by Sunni commentators. Some authorities have applied it more widely to descendants of Muhammad’s clan (Banu Hashim), the Abbasids, and even the whole community of Muslims. Since the eighth century C.E., however, the Shi_a and many Sunnis have maintained that Qur_an 33:33 refers specifically to five people: Muhammad, _Ali b. Abi Talib (Muhammad’s cousin), _Ali’s wife Fatima (Muhammad’s daughter), and their two children, Hasan and Husayn. Ulema invoke hadiths in support of this view, as seen in Tabari’s Jami_ al-bayan (c. tenth century C.E.). Thus, in South Asia, they are called “the five pure ones” (panjatan pak). They are also known as “people of the mantle” (kisa_) in remembrance of the occasion when the Prophet enveloped them with his mantle and recited this verse. Belief in the supermundane qualities of the ahl al-bayt and the imams descended from them form the core of Shi_ite devotion. They are the ideal locus of authority and salvation in all things, both worldly and spiritual. As pure, sinless, and embodiments of divine wisdom, they are held to be the perfect leaders for the Muslim community, as well as models for moral action. Many believe that they possess a divine light through which God created the universe, and that it is only through their living presence that the world exists. Twelver Shi_ite doctrine has emphasized that the pain and martyrdom endured by ahl al-bayt, particularly by Husayn, hold redemptive power for those who have faith in them and empathize with their suffering. Moreover, they anticipate the messianic return of the Twelfth Imam at the end of time, and the intercession of the holy family on the day of judgment.
During the middle ages, Nizari Isamaili da_is in northern India even identified the ahl al-bayt with Hindu gods (Brahma, Vishnu, Kalki, Shiva, and the goddess Shakti) and the Pandavas, the five heroes of the Mahabharata epic. The Shiite ritual calendar is distinguished by holidays commemorating events in the lives of the holy family, and it is common for the “hand of Fatima,” inscribed with their five names, to be displayed in processions and to be used as a talisman.
Sunnis also revere the ahl al-bayt, attributing to them many of the sacred qualities that the Shia do. This is especially so in Sufi tariqas (brotherhoods), most of which trace their spiritual lineage to Muhammad through _Ali. Several tariqas hold special veneration for the holy five and the imams, such as the Khalwatiyya, the Bektashiyya, and the Safawiyya, which established the Safavid dynasty in Iran (1502–1722). In many Muslim communities, high social status is attributed to those claiming to be sayyids and sharifs, blood-descendants of the ahl al-bayt. Indeed, many Muslim scholars and saints are members of these two groups, and their tombs often become pilgrimage centers. Although the Saudi-Wahhabi conquest of Arabia (nineteenth to early twentieth centuries) led to the destruction of many ahl al-bayt shrines (including Fatima’s tomb in Medina), elsewhere their shrines have attracted large numbers of pilgrims in modern times. These include those of _Ali (Najaf, Iraq), Husayn (Karbala, Iraq and Cairo, Egypt), _Ali al-Rida (the eighth imam; Mashhad, Iran), and also of women saints such as Sayyida Zaynab (_Ali’s daughter; Cairo) and Fatima al-Ma_suma (daughter of the seventh imam; Qom, Iran).
Nizari Ismailis (Khojas) make pilgrimages to their living imam, the Aga Khan, also a direct descendent of the Prophet’s household. Contemporary heads of state in several Muslim countries have claimed blood-descent from the family of the Prophet to obtain religious legitimacy for their rule: the _Alawid dynasty of Morocco (1631–present), Hashimite dynasty of Iraq (1921–1958) and of Jordan (1923–present), and many of the ruling mullahs in Iran, including the Ayatollah Khomeini (r. 1979–1989), whose tomb has become a popular Iranian Shi_ite shrine. Even former President Saddam Husayn of Iraq (r. 1979–2003) has claimed descent from ahl al-bayt.