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Following the Quran, Sunnah & Ahl al-Bayt

Undoubtedly, the doctrine of the imamate was the most salient doctrine in all Shi’ism.

It constituted a nucleus around which almost every other doctrine, conviction and canon revolved, and was influenced by it, one way or another.

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The presence of an Imam in every age, it follows, is a must. In their capacities as the spiritual and political successors to Prophet Muhammad, Imams play the role of the divinely appointed authorities on all matters of faith and law in Muslim society. Their quality of being infallible is at once essential, considered necessary and assured.

As a result, Shi’is believe that the Sunni orthodox caliphs before ‘Ali were usurpers who usurped from ‘Ali his right to succeed the Prophet Muhammad. Those companions of the Prophet who neither supported nor sided with ‘Ali before and during the bloody civil wars, and, much worse, who supported and later accepted Mu’awiyah as caliph, as well as the subsequent Umayyad establishment, are to Shi’is far from being righteous. Some have even been accused of out-and-out hypocrisy as well as apostasy, having betrayed the Prophet Muhammad and his will and command concerning, most importantly, the matter of succession and leadership.

The righteousness of the companions after the Prophet’s death could be assessed by the extent of their de facto and palpable support and loyalty towards the household of the Prophet (ahl al-bayt) and their noble struggle and cause, which, if truth be told, connotes support for the Prophet and his heavenly mission.

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Without a doubt, the companions (sahabah), their immediate successors (tabi’un), and the latter’s successors (atba’ tabi’in), with their outstanding status and position in descending order as the best generations after the Prophet Muhammad, had more than a few chances to prove themselves and to display their right colors, because throughout the said epochs the members of ahl al-bayt went from one stern trial and tribulation to another. They and their valiant undertakings were in dire need of truly righteous individuals and ardent supporters. However, in the end many failed to stand up and be counted.

While trying to ascertain the superiority of ‘Ali and ahl al-bayt over the rest, believing that the imamate belonged firstly and exclusively to ‘Ali and then to his descendants with Fatimah, the Prophet’s daughter, on the grounds of clear designation and unambiguous appointment by the Prophet Muhammad, many Shi’is ultimately went to the point of slandering the leading Prophet’s companions and declaring them unbelievers, or at least accusing them of injustice and hostility for usurping ‘Ali’s succession right, and then when his deferred appointment finally came, for failing to fully side with him and subsequently with his progeny.

Shi’is try to substantiate their fundamental doctrines with proofs explicitly or implicitly derived from both the Quran and Sunnah. One of those proofs is the Prophet’s words that he was leaving two things to the people to follow, lest they go astray. Those two things are the Holy Quran and the members of his family (ahl al-bayt).

Indeed, this is one of the strongly established hadiths (traditions) and has been transmitted through many chains of transmission and in different versions. Both Shi’is and Sunnis agree on its authenticity and validity.

The Quran and ahl al-bayt are thus not to be separated. They will remain legitimate and applicable till the end of days, complementing each other in leading and guiding the people. Whoever follows them, therefore, will not fall into error and will reach true felicity in both worlds.

A Closer Study

In Shi’ism, by ahl al-bayt or the “members of the household” and “progeny” it is not meant all the descendants and relatives of the Prophet (peace be upon him). Rather, specific individuals are only meant, especially those “who are perfect in the religious sciences and are protected against error and sin so that they are qualified to guide and lead men. For Shi’ism (Ithna ʿAshariyyah or Twelvers), these individuals consist of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib and his eleven descendants who were chosen to the imamate one after another.” (Allamah Tabataba’i)

However, as regards the same authentic Prophet Muhammad’s words, the scholars considerably differ concerning the exact meaning and extent of ahl al-bayt. In any event, apart from ‘Ali, Fatimah, Al-Hasan and Al-Husayn, the wives of the Prophet, too, are included as members of ahl al-bayt, because the Quran mentions the whole idea in the context of lengthily addressing the wives of the Prophet. It follows that other daughters of the Prophet are also included within the definition.

According to some accounts, the members of the Prophet’s family are the family of ‘Ali, the family of ‘Aqil, the family of Ja’far and the family of ‘Abbas, since they were not permitted to receive charity after the Prophet had died.

Some scholars went so far as to extend the concept to the whole of the Banu Hashim and the Banu al-Mutallib. Some even thought that the whole Ummah (Muslim community) is the family of the Prophet (peace be upon him). (Tafsir Ibn Kathir; al-Nawawi’s Sharh Sahih Muslim)

Furthermore, not only that the Prophet is reported to have said that he was leaving the Quran and ahl al-bayt to the people to follow, but also, as per another authentic tradition, he said that he was leaving the Quran and his Sunnah (traditions and way of life) also to be followed. (Muwatta’ Malik ibn Anas)

What is the relationship between these two proclamations of the Prophet?

These two bona fide statements of Prophet Muhammad not only do not contradict each other, but also greatly support and explain each other. In their most profound actual meanings, they are like one.

The Prophet’s Sunnah, as a way of life, was perfectly typified by each and every member of his household, certainly more than anyone else, due to their constant proximity to and most intimate contacts with the Prophet which allowed them to be the immediate, and often first, recipients of his knowledge, wisdom and counsel. That qualified them to become the legitimate sources of Islamic jurisprudence, as well as the ideal exemplars to be emulated by the succeeding generations of Muslims.

Hence, the way of life of the members of the Prophet’s family – spirituality-wise — was in many ways the way of life of the Prophet Muhammad himself. Talking about the way of life of the Prophet’s family members is as good as talking about the way of life (Sunnah) of the Prophet.

This status of the Prophet’s family members was possible, principally, because of the successful functioning of the Prophet’s family as an institution and his houses as family education and development centers.

At any rate, however, in the two above mentioned hadiths (traditions) of the Prophet, it is meant that the Quran, first, the Prophet’s Sunnah, second, and then the members of the Prophet’s household, and by extension the closest companions of the Prophet, are guarantors that a person, or a society, that sticks to and follows them will not go astray. As a small digression, Muhammad Abu Zahrah stated that although both traditions (hadiths) are very sound and mutawatir (successive narration), the state of being mutawatir of the one with the words “the Quran and Sunnah” is stronger than the same state of the one with the words “the Quran and ahl al-bayt”.

It was owing to this undeniable veracity that the wives of the Prophet were instructed to keep maximizing the roles and functions of their houses, while unreservedly enjoying personal and family comfort, privacy and security in them. Their houses were to be transformed into the centers of learning and spiritual upbringing for the members of ahl al-bayt (the Prophet’s family), wherefrom all other Muslim houses and households were bound to benefit.

Their personalities, similarly, were to be transformed into inestimable sources of knowledge and guidance, ultimately positioning themselves as legitimate and substantial references to the Ummah (community). The Quran says:

{And stay quietly in your houses, and make not a dazzling display, like that of the former times of ignorance; and establish regular prayers, and give Zakat and obey Allah and His Messenger. And Allah only wishes to remove all abomination from you, you members of the Family (ahl al-bayt), and to make you pure and spotless. And recite what is rehearsed to you in your houses, of the Signs of Allah and His Wisdom: for Allah understands the finest mysteries and is well-acquainted (with them).} (Al-Ahzab 33:3334)

Surely, this was one of the reasons why the wives of the Prophet are called in the Quran “the Mothers of believers” (ummahat al-mu’minin). By analogy, the Prophet could also be looked at as the father of, or a fatherly figure to, believers. He is therefore reported to have said at the beginning of one of his hadiths (traditions):

“I am like a father to you, teaching you…” (Ibnu Majah, 313)

The Quran reveals that Prophet Lot described the women of his nation as his daughters. That said, it becomes apparent why some scholars — as mentioned earlier — were of the view that the whole Ummah (Muslim community) is the family (ahl al-bayt) of Prophet Muhammad.

Finally, in a somewhat reconciliatory tone, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, in his tafsir (exegesis) Mafatih al-Ghayb suggested that a Shi’i precept that the members of ahl al-bayt are like the ship of the Prophet Noah, and whoever embarks upon it will be saved, and a Sunni principle that the Prophet’s companions are like stars, so whomsoever the people follow, they will be guided – could be integrated into one broad and flexible ideology where both parties, to some extent, could be brought together.

However, that hypothetically suggested ideology would be closer to the Sunni sentiment, by reason of their unbigoted and unprejudiced position on ahl al-bayt, than to the Shi’i sentiment, owing to their fairly rigid and opinionated position on a number of the Prophet’s companions.

Fakhr al-Din al-Razi said in the context of explaining the meaning of verse 23 that the verse illustrates the obligation of loving and honoring at once ahl al-bayt and the companions of the Prophet. However, such a feat could be achieved only if one follows the examples of the people of ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah who amalgamated the love of ahl al-bayt with the love of the companions. Anything short of this modus operandi will not work.

Fakhr al-Din al-Razi then went on to elaborate that the people were in a sea of religious duties and responsibilities (bahr al-taklif) and were pounded by waves of doubts, greed and lusts. They thus needed two things: firstly, a “ship” free from all defects and cracks; and secondly, the rising and luminous guiding stars.

So, when a person embarks upon a strong ship and sees those bright guiding stars, he looks forward to having a safe journey for the conditions were perfect.

Similarly, the people of ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah in the past boarded a robust ship of love for ahl al-bayt and directed their gazes towards the guiding stars of the Prophet’s companions, trusting and hoping that by the grace of God they will thus navigate to a point of securing happiness and wellbeing in this world and in the Hereafter.

Call for Sunni-Shi’a Dialogue

Surely, if that blueprint worked before, it could still work today for both Sunnis and Shi’is. Today, more than ever, Sunni-Shi’a relations stand at a crossroads whereby the worth and prestige of the whole Ummah are at stake. Whether a course of hope, understating, dialogue, tolerance and even compromise, or a course of bigotry, prejudice, fanaticism, aggression and myopia, will be undertaken, it is entirely and solely up to Sunnis and Shi’is to decide, at individual and institutional levels, for the consequences of which they alone will be answerable. Nobody else will ever care; and nobody else ever did.

A series of unconditional, earnest and sincere Sunni-Shi’a dialogues, it follows, is a must. The sooner the matter kicks off, the better. Obviously, such is the current Muslim situation that both mainstream Sunnis and Shi’is are set to lose nothing thereby, gaining almost everything.

It is a startling phenomenon that many of us proudly call for and actively participate in dialogues with Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, etc. – which is completely correct – but spurn the prospect of doing the same with those who share with us the same Quran, Prophet, God, qiblah and most fundamental religious beliefs, rites and values.

Sunnis and Shi’is have more in common than what appears to casual observers. What can genuinely unite or bring us closer to one another greatly outweighs that which at present painfully alienates and separates us. The latter is to be meticulously reviewed and re-evaluated against the background of the former.

If the major and unfounded reciprocal prejudices and preconceptions are done away with and transcended by both sides, if the scourge of dodgy and manipulative politics, which is at once a continuation and a side-effect of a long and complicated history, is triumphed over at best or mitigated at least, and if a great many fluid fiqh or jurisprudential matters are put into perspective in the spirit of ethics of disagreement (adab al-ikhtilaf), what will then remain in front of us are the core Islamic subjects which are common to all of us but which have been greatly obscured and even deliberately manipulated.

Some of those fundamental Islamic themes which ought to bring and keep us together, and to eclipse and counterbalance those matters which divide and keep us apart, are worshipping and obeying the only God, following the Quran and the perfect example of the Prophet Muhammad, the brotherhood and unity of all Muslims, the inviolability of the life, blood, property and honor of each and every Muslim, socio-economic justice, freedom, human dignity, education, development, security, moderation, tolerance, open-mindedness, tackling the common threats and enemies of Islam and Muslims from within and without, etc.

These themes and their spirit and magnitude, coupled with joint sincerity, transparency and goodwill, are to constitute a platform for every Sunni-Shi’a dialogue initiative. Their revitalizing and ultimate realization are to signify the goal of all such schemes and projects.

This article is based on the author’s forthcoming book: “The Origins of Shi’ism and Sunnism”. It’s published with the author’s kind permission.