Racism & Islam

What does the ‘Ahlul Bayt’ mean?

Question:

Can you please define the notion of the ‘Ahlul Bayt’?

There is the idea that the Ahlul Bayt are five (Muhammad, Ali, Fatima, Hassan and Husayn, peace be upon them all). Then we say, the ’12 Imams of Ahlul Bayt’. Sometimes, it is suggested that Sayyeda Zeinab (a.s) or Abul Fadl al-Abbas (a.s) are included. We also have a famous narration that the outstanding companion Salman al-Farsi or Muhammadi was part of the Ahlul Bayt: Holy Prophet (s): ‘Salman is from us, the Ahlul Bayt’.

So, it seems that the notion of the ‘Ahlul Bayt’ is characterised by both lineage and/or spiritual achievement?

Answer:

Bismillah.

According to Prophetic narrations the appellation of ‘Ahlul-Bayt’ (the Family of the Prophet) is a religious expression and has three levels of meaning:

1. “The Five Noble People’: 

All Muslims are quite unanimous that the first meaning of Ahlul-Bayt (a.s) of the Prophet (P) that is mentioned in Ayatu-Tathir (33:33) are: the Holy Prophet, Fatima al-Zahra (Prophet’s daughter), Imam Ali (Prophet’s successor and son-in-law), Imam Hasan and Imam Husayn (Prophet’s two grandsons, peace be upon them).

The Shi’a also extend the meaning to include the 12 Imams.

So, Ahlul-Bayt originally means ‘the five noble chosen members of the Prophet’s family including his holiness’. Then it is extended in all its meanings to include all 12 of the holy Imams. The common characteristic of all the 14 members of Ahlul-Bayt (peace be upon them) is that they are all divinely protected (العصمة).

2. The Most Pious Offspring of the Prophet (P):

The second level is the category of the most noble biological offspring of the Holy Prophet (P) whose piety and character were outstanding although not to the level of the first group.

Sayyida Zainab, Al-Abbas, children of Ja’far al-Tayyar and Aqeel and all the youth of Bani-Hashem who were martyred in Karbala are leading examples of this meaning. According to Muslim in his Sahih, when Zaid Ibn Arqam – one of the companions of the Holy Prophet (P) – was asked about the meaning of Ahlul-Bayt (a.s) he said: “They are the offspring of Ali, the offspring of Aqeel, the offspring of Ja’far and the offspring of Abbas.” (Sahih Muslim, vol. 4 p.1872)

3. The Most Practicing Pious Muslims:

The third meaning of ‘Ahlul-Bayt’ is used to refer to the most pious practicing Muslims throughout history. The meaning of ‘Salman is from us Ahlul-Bayt’ should be understood in this category. Al-Halabi asked Imam Sadiq (a.s) concerning the meaning of the above Hadith about Salman (may God be pleased with him). The holy Imam explained:

Answered by: Sheikh Mansour Leghaei

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Might some Muslims reject Imam Mahdi if he doesn’t look Arab?

Question:

It is said that Jews of Medina rejected the Holy Prophet partly because he wasn’t from them, meaning from Bani-Israel or the Jewish people.

I wonder whether Imam Mahdi (ajtf) may in fact have a darker or dark skin colour and in fact be rejected by Arab Muslims (even Shia) and non-Arab Muslims who all imagined and assumed the Imam to appear in a certain way. Can you comment on this?

Answer:

Bismillah.

InshAllah Muslims of the age of reappearance will not deny his holiness.  According to narrations the Holy Prophet (s) has described Imam Mahdi (atfs) as looking like him in appearance and character:

Answered by: Sheikh Mansour Leghaei

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Did some Imams of Ahlul Bayt have dark skin colour?

Question:

From one of your lectures, my understanding is that about 7 Imams of Ahlul Bayt (a.s) had African mothers, and that our Imams were deliberately marrying them to break the widespread racist thoughts and teach people that piety is what truly matters.

In our narrations, do we get a sense of the appearance of some of our Imams having black skin colour?

From my experience, I have never heard any narration that refers to any of our Imams as اسود or ‘dark-skinned’. Can you comment on this, especially as dominant popular imaginations and visual representations of the Imams represent them as being ‘Arab-looking’ in colour?

Answer:

Bismillah.

Let’s begin by noting that according to the teachings of the holy Qur’an we are all from Prophet Adam’s (a.s) family, and hence often the Almighty Allah (swt) addresses all humans as ‘children of Adam’ (e.g. 37:26). No human’s place of birth, skin colour or nationality makes him Islamically superior or inferior to others. Islam clearly proclaims that “the most honourable of you (humans) with Allah are the ones who are most pious” (49:13).

The indigenous Arabs of Hijaz (where our holy Imams are born) were normally dark skinned; a colour referred to in Arabic as ‘Asmar’ (brunet), as a result of prolonged exposure to the sun.  

The mothers of seven Imams of Ahlul-Bayt [Imam Sajjad, Imam Kadhem, Imam Redha, Imam Jawad, Imam Hadi, Imam Askari and Imam Mahdi peace be upon them) were non-Arab. These particular Imams had African mothers, with the exception of Imam Sajjad (a.s) and Imam Mahdi (atfs). In fact, in addition to having African mothers, even some of the holy Imams (a.s) themselves are described as being dark skinned.

For example, Ibn Enaba, a renowned Shi’a genealogist of the 8th century (A.H), describes Imam Kadhem (a.s) in the following way:  

Apparently amongst all the Imams of Ahlul-Bayt (a.s), Imam Jawad (a.s) is more known for his dark skin. He is referred to in some narrations as

حَائِلَ‏ اللَّوْن

which means the one whose skin colour is different from his paternal ancestors and is much darker.

The late al-Kulayni reports a narration that some of the brothers and uncles of Imam Redha (a.s) denied Muhammad al-Jawad to be his biological son because “there has never been amongst us an Imam whose skin colour is so different from his paternal ancestors”! They thought Imam Redha (a.s) had fostered a slave boy! Finally, they engage an expert in physiognomy who could identify the biological traits of people by their common body language, and that expert confirms that Muhammad al-Jawad was Imam Redha’s biological son! Upon that Imam Redha (a.s) cries and reminds his brothers and uncles of a prophecy where the holy Prophet (P) had said about Imam Jawad (a.s): “How dear to me is the son of the most virtuous female slave[1], the son of a lady from Sudan whose breath is sweet and whose womb is divinely chosen.”

Similarly, Imam Hadi and Imam Askari (peace be upon them) were reportedly dark skinned.    

Answered by: Sheikh Mansour Leghaei


[1]  The expression of ‘a female slave’ here may have two meanings; she was originally taken as a slave, and/or that she was a slave of God, which is a very honourable title in monotheistic religions.

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