The Meaning of Ahl al-Bayt and Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq’s Clarification on Who the Term is Designated For
I leave behind me, amidst you, two great things, Holy Qur’an, the ‘Book of God’, and my progeny (itrat). Should you be attached to these two, never shall you go astray after me, for verily, these two will never be separated from each other until they meet at the ‘Spring of Kauthar’. Hadith Thaqlain 
According to the above hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (SAWS), a Muslim who wants to stay on Sirat-al-Mustakeem (The True Path), should hold unto both the Qur’an and the Ahl al-Bayt. What the ‘Book of God’ is, is quite obvious and needs no clarification, but there are some differences among the Muslims as to who the Ahl al-Bayt are.
In fact, there should not be any controversy over this issue because the Holy Prophet Muhammad himself had clarified this matter a number of times through very definite pronouncements. In this article, we shall examine some significant verses from the Holy Qur’an, the hadiths of the Prophet and historical events which took place during his lifetime, to see who the Ahl al-Bayt are. Commentaries of both Sunni and Shia traditionists and scholars who have thrown light on this subject shall also be considered.
First let us see what the term Ahl al-Bayt means.
Literally ‘Ahlal’ means ‘People’. For example, ‘Ahl al-Kitab’ means ‘People of the Book’; Ahl al-Jama’at means ‘People of the Gathering’. ‘Bayt’ means ‘House’, for example, ‘Baytullah’ means ‘House of Allah’.
‘Ahl al-Bayt’ thus means ‘People of the House.’
In Islamic terminology, this term is generally restricted to ‘People of the House of the Prophet and his Progeny’, specifically his family members and successors, but some Muslims assert that all Muslims belong to the family (Aal) of Muhammad.
A fair examination of such evidence, as that which follows, could scarcely allow us to escape the conclusions that have been arrived at on the issue of the question:
Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (AS) said to a questioner: “Know that none among the earlier communities in times gone by, nor among people that are no more, nor have we heard tell of any folk, that any of them were greater in wrong-doing than this community. For, verily they assert that there is nothing to distinguish them from the members of the House of their Prophet, and that the Ahl al-Bayt are not more excellent than the commonalty.
Now he who makes such an assertion is surely a greater imposter in the eyes of God and is guilty of a grave slander and a manifest crime. By this affirmation he is quit of Muhammad or the family of Muhammad until he repents and returns to the true faith by acknowledging the excellence of those on whom it has been bestowed by the Glorious and Almighty God among the members of the House of Prophecy, the Abode of Mercy, the Mine of Knowledge, the People of the Reminder, the Coevals of Angels. Now he who asserts that even by these attributes there is no excellence in them is entirely repudiated by the Ahl al-Bayt in this world and the hereafter.” 
When asked by a questioner, ‘Give me a proof from the Book of God to establish the dictum that the ‘progeny’ of Muhammad are specifically the members of his house, as distinguished from others’, the Imam replied:
“Very well, God, and He is the most truthful of speakers, said: ‘Lo! God preferred Adam and Nuh and the family of Ibrahim and the family of Imran above all his creatures.” 
And then the Imam clarified who the people were that were thus chosen and said:
“They were descendants one of another; and God is Hearer and Knower.  ‘And it is impossible to be of the progeny of the Prophet except through direct descent’.”
Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq has thus unequivocally declared that only the progeny of Prophet Muhammad through direct descent are the Ahl al-Bayt.
We shall now elaborate on this through ayats of the Holy Qur’an, supplemented with historical accounts and the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad.
The Famous Incident of Mubahala (The Contest of Prayer to God)
If anyone disputes with you concerning him (Jesus), after knowledge has been given to you, say (unto them, O Muhammad)! ‘Come, let us call our sons and your sons, our women and your women, and ourselves and yourselves. Then let us call on God to witness against each other and let us make the curse of God fall on those who lie. Holy Qur’an, Sura 3, Ayat 61
The above verse was revealed to the Prophet in Mecca in 10 A.H. (631-632 CE) which led to the famous event recorded in history as Mubahala (contest of prayer to God) with the Christians. A delegation of sixty Christians from Najran, led by their Chief Priest Abd al-Masih, came to Prophet Muhammad and asked him about his views about Jesus, to which he replied: “Jesus is the servant of God.” And when they discussed with him about the status and personality of Jesus in view of his miraculous birth, God sent a revelation to the Prophet which said:
“The likeness of Jesus in the sight of God is like the likeness of Adam. God created him from dust. Then God said to him ‘Be’ and he was. That is the truth from your Lord. Therefore do not be one of those who doubt.” (Sura 3, Ayats 59,60)
In spite of this revelation, which likened Jesus to Adam, the Christians continued to dispute and hence, the Qur’anic verse (3:61), mentioned above, called upon the Prophet to invite the Christians to settle the dispute by Mubahala. The Christians consulted amongst themselves and finally agreed to come for the Mubahala early next morning.
Before the break of dawn, Prophet Muhammad sent one of his closest companions, Salman al-Farsi, to an open place to erect a small shelter for himself and for those whom he intended to take with him to the contest. At the appointed hour, the Christians witnessed the arrival of the Prophet with Husayn in his arms, Hasan holding his finger and walking beside him, Bibi Fatima following him, and Hazrat Ali behind her. Reaching the appointed spot, the Holy Prophet stationed himself with his daughter, his two grandsons and his cousin and son-in-law Hazrat Ali for the contest. Raising his hands to heaven, he said: “O Lord! these are the People of my House.”
The Chief Priest inquired about those who were accompanying the Prophet and when he was told who they were, he addressed his fellow Christians and said:
“Have you seen that he has come with the special members of his family so that he may make the contest of prayer with them, trusting in his truthfulness. By God! he would not have come with them if he was afraid that the proof would be against him. Therefore, be warned against the contest of prayer with him. By God! if it was not for the position of Caesar (the Byzantine emperor), I would submit to him. But (now) make peace with him on what can be agreed between you and him. Return to your land and think about it yourselves.”
The Christians readily accepted the advice counselled by their leader, who then went to the Prophet and said:
“We will not have the Mubalala, but we will make peace with you.”
This historical event has a great significance with regard to what it discloses about those who accompanied the Holy Prophet to the Mubahala. God’s command in this verse, regarding each kind of relative to be summoned for the event, is in the plural, i.e. to call the sons, women and the selves to invoke His curse on the liars, but the Holy Prophet took only his two grandchildren whereas there were innumerable other children amongst his followers, he took only one lady, his daughter, whereas there were nine other ladies in his own household who were his wives, among whom were the daughters of Abu Baqr and also of Umar, and he took only his cousin and son-in-law Hazrat Ali with him, whereas there were others who were also his companions. This choice of the Holy Prophet clearly shows that there were no other members among the children and women or the adults to be compared to these members of his household in their personal purity and holiness.
It was unquestionably and firmly established before the huge crowds of Muslims, as well as the non-Muslims to bear witness that only the Holy Prophet, his daughter Fatima, his grandsons Hasan and Husayn and his cousin and son-in-law Ali b. Abi Talib are the Ahl al-Bayt and no one else. 
The Protection of the Prophet’s Family under his Mantle
“.. And God’s wish is but to remove (every kind of) impurity from you, O People of the House and purify you (with) a thorough purification.” Holy Qur’an, Sura 33, Ayat 33
Amr Ibn Abi Salma, who was brought up by the Holy Prophet, relates:
“When this verse was revealed, the Holy Prophet was in the House of Umme-Salema. At the revelation of the above verse, the Holy Prophet assembled his daughter Fatima, her sons Hasan and Husayn, and her husband, his cousin Ali and covered the group including himself with his own mantle and addressing God said:
‘O God! these constitute my progeny. Keep them away from every kind of impurity, purified with perfect purification.’ Umme-Salema, the righteous wife of the Holy Prophet, witnessing this marvellous occasion, humbly submitted to the Holy Prophet: ‘O Apostle of God! May I also join the group?’ to which the Holy Prophet replied ‘No, remain in your own place. You are in goodness’.”
According to Sahih Sitta, which is the consolidation of sound prophetic traditions from six authentic collections, Umme-Salema said:
“I also caught hold of a corner of the mantle and wanted to get under it, but the Holy Prophet snatched it away from me and said, ‘You are in goodness but not of the Ahl al-Bayt.”
It is historically acknowledged that the Qur’anic verse (33:33), which was revealed once in the house of Umme-Salema, was repeated again in the house of Ayesha.
Ayesha reports that one day, when the Holy Prophet was enwrapped in a black mantle, there came to him his grandson Hasan and the Holy Prophet got him under the mantle. Then came Husayn (the other grandson) and he was also received in the similar manner by the Holy Prophet under the mantle. When came his daughter Fatima, the Holy Prophet took her under the mantle. In came Ali and the Holy Prophet also received him under the mantle, and then the Holy Prophet recited the above mentioned verse of Tatheer, i.e. purification.
It could reasonably be said that the revelation of one and the same verse in the houses of two of the wives of the Holy Prophet was the divine plan to declare the exclusive position of the Ahl al-Bayt and that both the wives should bear witness to the event. Thus they could vouch for their exclusion from the Ahl al-Bayt and that any votaries, on behalf of the wives of the Holy Prophet, may not later attempt to include the wives in the term.
There is not a single tradition to show that the Holy Prophet considered the wives to have been included in the understanding of the verse 33:33. Some of the modern commentators have attempted to distort the phrase Allahumma Hawla’i, i.e. ‘O Lord! these are the People of my House’ as to mean ‘O Lord! these also are the People of my House ’.
Ibn Kathir a noted Sunni commentator, in his tafseer of the above ayat (33:33), writes that Ibn Hambal and Tirmizi have written that when the Prophet used to go for the morning prayers, he would pass by the door of Hazrat Bibi Fatima’s house. At that time he would say: “O Ahl al-Bayt! It is time for the salat.” He would then recite the above ayat (33:33). 
Ayesha, while going to the battle of Jamal, was asked about Ali ibn Abi Talib.
“You ask me about the one whom the Holy Prophet loved the most? By God! I saw the Holy Prophet taking Ali, Fatima, Hasan and Husayn under his mantle and saying:
‘O God! These and only these are my Ahl al-Bayt. Keep them away from every impurity’.
I asked the Holy Prophet: ‘Am I not of your Ahl al-Bayt?’
The Holy Prophet said, ‘No, you are not of my Ahl al-Bayt’.”
It was asked of Zahid Bin Arqam as to who constitute the Ahl al-Bayt, and if the wives are also included in them. The reply was that a wife is associated as long as the wedlock continues or the husband lives. If divorced or widowed the wife returns to her parents. The Ahl al-Bayt are those whose relationship is unbreakable or unceasable with the Holy Prophet. 
The Verse Concerning the Special Blessings for the Prophet
Verily God and his angels bless the Prophet: O ye who believe! Send your blessings on him and greet him with a worthy salutation. Holy Qur’an, Sura 33, Ayat 56
When this verse was revealed, some of the companions of the Prophet asked him about it and said:
“O messenger of God, we know how to greet you, but how are we to bless you?”
And the Prophet said,
“You should say ‘O God bless the Prophet and his Progeny, even as you had blessed Abraham and his Progeny. Verily: You (O God) are worthy of praise, full of Majesty’.”
In this way, the Prophet clarified to them how to send blessings made obligatory by God, and made clear that the blessings are for him and for his progeny. 
The above verse states that God and His Angels send their blessings to the Holy Prophet. The Holy Prophet’s inclusion of his progeny along with him in the recitation of the Salawat was perfectly justified in that his Aal, that is his progeny, is one with him in purity and personal grace (33:33).
To associate anybody else with the Aal will be an unwarranted and unacceptable fancy of the one who does it. For none else could ever be aligned with those purified by God himself.
Love for the Prophet’s Kith and Kin
That is of which God gives the glad tidings unto His servants who believe and do good deeds. ‘Say(O Muhammad! to mankind), I demand not of you any recompense for it (the toils of apostleship): save the love of (my) relatives. And whosoever earns good, we increase for him good therein, verily God is oft-Forgiving, the Appreciator (of good)’. Sura 42, Ayat 23
The Shi ‘a ulama say that once a group of people came to the Prophet saying:
“O Prophet of God, you came to us at the time when we had lost the way. God guided us through you. We were poor, God made us rich through you. Our wealth is at your disposal. Take from it what ever you like.”
It was on this occasion, say the learned from amongst the Shia’s, that the above verse relating to the love for the relatives was revealed. The Qur’anic expression, ‘the love for the relatives’ according to them means the love for ‘All, Fatima, Hasan, Husayn and their descendants.
Their opponents who do not approve of this explanation maintain that the above verse has been cancelled by another verse in the Qur’an which runs thus:
“Say, whatever I ask you regarding my return, it is for you; I depend for my reward on none but God and he is a witness to everything.”
The Shia’s refute this argument by saying that the second verse which has been quoted by their opponents and which according to them has a nullifying effect on the first one was either revealed before the first verse, (‘I demand not of you any recompense for it, save the love of my relatives’) or after it. If it was revealed before the verse which asks the believers to love the Prophet’s relatives (42:23) then it cannot cancel it. On the other hand, if it was revealed after the verse pertaining to ‘the love for the relatives’, it makes the first verse all the more emphatic. For the verse:
‘Say, whatever I ask you in the way of return, is meant for you’,
means that the love for the relatives of the Prophet which he asked for from the believers is really for their benefit, in this that God will be pleased with them. This is corroborated by the saying of Imam Ja’far-as Sadiq which is as follows:
“If a servant of God was to worship Him between the rukn and the muqam in the Ka’ba until his physical body begins to dissolve, his devotion will not be recognised by God if he does not approach him through us.” 
The verse is clear in its meaning that the Holy Prophet is being commanded by God to ask the believers to love his kith and kin, i.e. the Holy Ahl al-Bayt and that would be in return for his Apostolic services. This command has a very wide and extensive meaning which tells the Muslims that if they wished to pay the return for the Prophet’s service, and be always on the right path, they should follow his Ahl al-Bayt, for these are the ones whom God has himself purified (33:33), these are the truthful ones and the custodian of the original Word of God and its correct interpretation.
When the Messenger of God was asked as to who were his kith and kin, he replied:
“Ali, Fatima, Hasan and Husayn.”
He further stated:
“He who loves them, loves me. He who hates them, hates me. None but a mumin loves Ali and none but a hypocrite hates Me.”
It is said that in the days of the Prophet, mu’mins could not be distinguished from the hypocrites by anything, but their love for Ali. The Prophet ordained and exhorted his followers to love Ali, and God enjoined it as a duty on the Muslims in general.
Imam Muhammad al-Baqir was asked to explain the meaning of the above verse (42:23). He explained it by saying,
“It is the duty of every mumin to love us who are the Ahl al-Bayt, the kith and kin of Muhammad.”
He further said, “He who loves us will again rise with us on the Day of Judgement.” Again he said: “Religion is nothing but love.” God says: “He made you love your faith and adorned it in your hearts.” (49:7) 
In conclusion, the Ahl al-Bayt are the progeny of the Holy Prophet by direct descent, his kith and kin. Thus only the Panjetan Pak – the five holy ones – protected under the mantle of the Prophet Muhammad and the progeny of the Prophet Muhammad by direct descent, that is the rightful Imams including the Imam-e-Zaman, are the Ahl al-Bayt.
The references for the squared brackets are as follows:
1. Another translation of the Hadith:
The Messenger of Allah – may Allah bestow peace and benedictions upon him and his Progeny – said:
“Verily, I am leaving behind two precious things (thaqalayn) among you: the Book of God and my kindred (`itrah), my household (Ahl al-Bayt), for indeed, the two will never separate until they come back to me by the Pond (of al Kawthar on the Judgement’s Day).”
2. The Book of Faith from the Da’a’im al-Islam of al-Qadi al-Nu’man tr. by Asaf A.A. Fyzee, page 37
3. Holy Qur’an, Sura 3, Ayat 33
4. Holy Qur’an, Sura 3, Ayat 34
5. The Book of Faith tr. by Asaf A.A. Fyzee, page 36
6. The Holy Quran, tr. by Mir Ahmed Ali pages 183-185
7. Tafsir, Ibne Kathir, Part 4, Chapter 2, page 4
8. The Holy Quran, tr. by Mir Ahmed Ali pages 666-669
9. The Book of Faith tr. by Asaf A.A. Fyzee, page 34
10. Life and Lecture of the Grand Missionary Al-Shirazi, tr. by Professor Jawad Muscati and Khan Bahadur A.M. Moulvi, pages 136-137
11. Code of Conduct for the followers of lmam, tr. by Prof. Javad Muscati and Khan Bahadur Prof. A. Moulvi, pages 21-22
Literary Reading adapted by Simerg from article “The Qur’an and the Ahlal-Bayt” byFarhad Husseinali Patni, Ilm Volume 8, Number 4 (March 1984), published by His Highness Prince Aga Khan Shia Imami Ismailia Association for the United Kingdom (under the new Ismaili Constitution ordained in 1986 by the current 49th Imam of the Ismailis, His Highness the Aga Khan, this Ismaili institution has since been known as the Shia Imami Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board for the United Kingdom – or as the case may apply for each individual country).