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The Excellences of the Imam Husayn in Sunni Hadith Tradition

The Excellences of the Imam Husayn
in Sunni Hadith Tradition

M. Ayoub
University of Toronto
Al-Serat, Vol XII (1986)

HUMAN history may be seen as a record of the eternal struggle between right and wrong, virtue and vice, good and evil, and righteousness and wickedness. This struggle was decreed by God when Adam, an earthly creature, was sent to earth to engage in this eternal battle. It is through this struggle that human beings can earn their eternal bliss in the Gardens of Paradise, or their eternal punishment in the Fire. In the history of nations this struggle often attains universal significance as that moment of the struggle can speak to all subsequent times and situations. Thus the Qur'an urges us over and over again to ponder the end of those who were before us, and how God dealt with them. In every case, moreover, a prophet or messenger of God was rejected by his people and killed or driven out. In this sense, therefore, the struggle is in the end between God and humankind, between truth and falsehood, and between right guidance and manifest error.

Nowhere is this struggle placed in sharper relief than in the life of the Prophet Muhammad, and the lives of the people of his House. The life and witness of the Imam Husayn in particular, has acquired special significance in Muslim piety. This is because he has provided a model for all martyrs in the way of God, for all time.

The purpose of this paper is to emphasize the universal significance of the Imam in Muslim tradition. It is important to observe that all the traditions cited in this essay are found in both Shi'i and Sunni hadith literature. But while in the Sunni community such traditions remain purely pietistic, Shi'i tradition has made them the basis of a complex theological system.

However, to appreciate the place of Husayn, 'the prince of martyrs', in Muslim history, a word must be said about the place of the Prophet's family (the ahl al-bayt) in Muslim piety. At the same time the people of the House of the Prophet Muhammad are not unique in the prophetic history of human societies. A word is, therefore, necessary concerning the families of other prophets, if we are to appreciate fully the devotion which Muslims throughout their long history have accorded the people of the House of Muhammad, the seal of the prophets.

Prophetic history begins, according to the Qur'an, with Adam, called safwat Allah (the elect of God). He was followed by Noah, the first of the prophets of power or resolve (ulu al-'azm). Noah was sent as a messenger by God to his people who rebelled against God's message, and were thus destroyed by the flood. Then came Abraham, the father of prophets. With his son Ishmael he built the Ka'ba, the first house for the worship of God.[1] Ishmael was also a prophet, and the ancestor of the prophets Shu'ayb, Salih, Hud, and finally Muhammad, the last messenger of God to humankind.

Isaac, Abraham's second son, was also a prophet and the father of prophets. Among his descendants were the family of 'Imran, the father of Moses, and Jesus, as well as other earlier prophets who were sent by God to the Children of Israel. The Qur'an declares that God has elected Adam, Noah, the family of Abraham and the family of 'Imran. It further states that they were a single progeny, one from the other'.[2] All the prophets and their families are therefore of one physical and spiritual lineage They and their households are the elect of God, purified and honoured over the rest of humankind.

The people of the House of the Prophet Muhammad were likewise chosen by God and purified from all evil and sin. The Muslim community did not, however, infer the status of the family of Muhammad from that of earlier prophets and their families.

Rather they too were chosen by God and purified from all evil and sin. Yet because Muhammad was the last prophet sent to guide humanity to God and the good, his descendants could not assume his prophetic role. Their mission was to be the Imams, or guides, of the Muslim community. Their task is to safeguard the message vouchsafed to Muhammad by God for humankind. Like many prophets, the Imams had to endure rejection by their people and much suffering at their hands; martyrdom in the cause of God was often their lot. Yet the greater the suffering, the greater is the reward and honour which God promises His prophets, friends (awliya'), and righteous servants. Thus the Prophet was asked: 'Who among men are those afflicted with the greatest calamity?' He replied: The prophets, then the pious, everyone according to the degree of his piety. A man is afflicted according to his faith (din); if his faith is durable, his affliction is accordingly increased, and if his faith is weak, his affliction is made lighter. Afflictions continue to oppress the worshipful servant until they leave him walking on the face of the earth without any sin cleaving to him. [3]


In both Sunni and Shi'i Muslim tradition, one important event symbolizes the status of the ahl al-bayt and the human as well as spiritual dimensions of their relation to the Prophet. This is the tradition or episode of al-kisa' (the mantle, or cloak) which the Prophet spread over himself and Fatima his daughter, 'Ali, and their two sons Hasan and Husayn. This tradition has come down to us in a number of versions, each stressing one or another aspect of the excellences of the family of the Prophet and his love for them. Ahmad b. Hanbal relates on the authority of Umm Salama, the Prophet's wife, that he said to Fatima one day: 'Bring me your husband and two sons.' When they had all come together he spread over them a mantle, and laying his hand over them, he said: 'O God, these are the people of the House of Muhammad! Let therefore your prayers and blessings descend upon Muhammad and the people of the House of Muhammad; for you are worthy of all praise and glory.' Umm Salama continued: 'I then lifted the mantle to enter in with them, but he pulled it away from my hand saying, "You too shall come to a good end". [4]

The point which this version of the kisa' tradition emphasizes is that the ahl al-bayt are only the five: Muhammad, 'Ali, Fatima, and their two sons Hasan and Husayn. Umm Salama, one of the most highly venerated of the Prophet's wives, was denied this special status. We shall have more to say about this point, as it is emphasized in almost every version of this tradition.

In another highly interesting version of the kisa' tradition, related on the authority of 'Abd Allah b. Jafar b. Abi Talib, we read: As the Apostle of God saw mercy descending, he demanded: 'Call them for me, call them for me!' Safiyya asked: 'Who should we call, O Messenger of God?' He answered: 'Call the people of my household: 'Ali, Fatima, Hasan, and Husayn.' When they were brought, he spread a mantle over them; then lifting his hands to heaven said: 'O God, these are the people of my House; bless, O God, Muhammad and the people of the House of Muhammad!' God then sent down the verse: Surely God wishes to remove all abomination from you, O People of the House, and purify you with a thorough purification. [5]

This version of the tradition provides the meaning of the kisa' and the basis of its significance. The mantle is a symbol of divine mercy and blessing covering the Prophet and his holy family. It is, moreover, a source or haven of consolation and serenity in the face of the great sufferings and martyrdom which the Prophet's family had to endure after him. In this infinite source of divine mercy, the pious also share in times of sufferings and afflictions. The kisa' finally sets apart the 'holy five' from the rest of the faithful, and distinguishes them from the rest of the Prophet's family.

The event of the kisa' provides the occasion for the revelation of the verse of purification just cited. Before the sectarian conflicts which split the Muslim community set in, classical tradition was almost unanimous in interpreting this verse as referring to the Prophet, his daughter Fatima al-Zahra' (the Radiant), her husband and cousin,' Ali, and their two sons Hasan and Husayn. [6]

In still another version of the kisa' tradition, the continuity of the Prophet's family with those of earlier prophets is clearly indicated. Wathila b. al-Asqa', on whose authority this tradition in most of its variants is related, reports the following prayer uttered by the Prophet: O God, as you have bestowed your blessings, mercy, forgiveness, and pleasure upon Abraham and the family of Abraham, so they ['Ali, Fatima, Hasan and Husayn] are of me and I am of them! Bestow, therefore, your blessings, mercy, forgiveness and pleasure upon me and them.' [7]

This prayer echoes a prayer which Muslims repeat daily: O God, bless Muhammad and the people of the House of Muhammad, as you have blessed Abraham and the people of the House of Abraham among all beings.

The House of Muhammad is, therefore, for all Muslims, 'the household of prophethood and the frequenting place of angels'. The famous Qur'an commentator al-Suyuti quotes a tradition attributed to Umm Salama in interpretation of the verse of purification: This verse was sent down in my house ... There were in the house then, seven: Gabriel and Michael, and 'Ali, Fatima, Hasan, and Husayn, and I stood at the door of the house. I asked: 'O Messenger of God, am I not of the People of the House?' He said: 'You shall indeed come to a good end! You are, however, one of the wives of the Prophet.' [8]

The close friendship between the Prophet and the holy family, a relationship which went far beyond the bond of blood relation, may be seen in the incident of the mubahala, or prayer ordeal, with which the Prophet challenged the Christians of Najran.[9] In the mubahala verse of the Qur'an, God orders the Prophet and his opponents to 'Call together our sons and your sons, our women and your women, and ourselves and yourselves.' In the view of most Qur'an commentators and traditionists, the Prophet's sons are Hasan and Husayn, 'his women' refers to Fatima, and 'his self' refers, apart from himself, to 'Ali. When the people of Najran saw them, they recognized their high status with God, and with great trepidation they declined the mubahala and opted instead for peace.

Tradition asserts that the Prophet sensed the hostility which his community was to show to the People of his House after him. He is said to have often declared, 'I am at war against him who fights against you, and will show peace toward him who shows peace to you.' This invective is strongly put in a tradition related on the authority of Abu Bakr, the Prophet's famous Companion and the first caliph. He said: I saw the Messenger of God pitch a tent in which he placed 'Ali, Fatima, Hasan, and Husayn. He then declared: 'O Muslims, I am at war against anyone who wars against the people of this tent, and am at peace with those who show peace toward them. I am a friend to those who befriend them. He who shows love toward them shall be one of a happy ancestry and good birth. Nor would anyone hate them except that he be of miserable ancestry and evil birth. [10]

Love for the Prophet's family is enjoined by God in the Qur'an, where He says: Say, 'I ask no other reward of you save love of my next of kin' (42:23). Qur'an commentators have generally agreed that 'the next of kin' here intended are the ahl al-bayt. [11]

The People of the House of the Prophet Muhammad have been for the pious an example of generosity, steadfastness in the face of hardship, and a source of solace in time of trials and afflictions. After days of fasting and prayers for the health of the two sick children Hasan and Husayn, the family fed the few morsels of dry bread and dates for which 'Ali had laboured so hard to the needy. On the first evening, we are told, a beggar came. On the second, it was an orphan, and on the third, a captive. To each in turn, they gave the loaf of barley bread and few dates which Fatima had prepared for the family to break their fast. Thus God sent down the verse: They give food to eat, even though they cherish it, to the needy, the orphan and the captive. [12] Yet, in the end, God sent down a celestial table to feed His friends.

Early tradition shows a tension in the relationship of the Prophet to the community and in the relationship of the latter to the holy family. Much of the literature reflecting this tension was most likely the product of a later age, but projected back to the time of the Prophet and his Companions. Here love for the Prophet's family is not simply recommended as a pious act, but is presented as a challenge, and in a harsh reproaching tone. Furthermore, it is on this love to the ahl al-bayt that rewards and punishments on the Last Day are predicated.[13] Thus we are told that the Prophet said: He who desires the pleasure to live my life, die my death and dwell in a garden of Eden which my Lord has planted, let him be a friend to 'Ali after me. Let him also be a friend to his friends. Let him finally be guided by the Imams after me, for they are my progeny. They were created of my clay, and have been vouchsafed knowledge and understanding. Woe to those of my community who deny their superiority, and those who violate the demands of kindness to my next of kin. May God not grant them my intercession.' [14]

In another tradition, the Prophet promises his intercession to those who honour his descendants, provide them with whatever needs they may have, and those who love them with their heart and profess this love with their tongues. [15]

It has already been stressed that the ahl al-bayt share with the prophets of old and their descendants a high status and divine favour, but not the office of prophethood. They share, moreover, with the Prophet Muhammad the prerogative of intercession. This is expressed in hagiographical language, a language common to both Sunni and Shi'i tradition. One such common example may suffice to demonstrate the devotion in the piety of both traditions to the Prophet and the people of his household.

The Qur'an tells us that Adam received certain words of God which earned him God's forgiveness and mercy: Adam received words from his Lord, and He turned towards him; for He is relenting, compassionate (2:37). Suyuti reports that Ibn 'Abbas, the famous traditionist and authority on the Qur'an, asked the Prophet about the words which Adam received. The Prophet answered: 'He prayed saying, "O God, for the sake of Muhammad, 'Ali, Fatima, Hasan and Husayn, do turn toward me", and He turned toward him.' [16] In another highly dramatic version of this tradition, Adam is taught the words as the only means by which God would accept his repentance and forgive him. 'Ali, we are told, enquired of the Prophet concerning the verse under discussion. The Prophet told him that when Adam and his wife were expelled from Paradise, Adam wept bitterly over his sin for a hundred years. Finally, Gabriel came to him and spoke thus on God's behalf: O Adam, did I not create you with my own hand? Did I not breathe into you of my spirit? Did I not command my angels to bow down before you? Did I not provide you with Eve my servant?' 'Yes', Adam answered. Gabriel asked: 'What then is the cause of this weeping?' Adam replied, 'Why should I not weep when I have been expelled from the proximity of the All-Merciful?' The angel then said: 'You must pray fervently with these words, and God will accept your repentance and forgive your sin. Say: "O God, I beseech you for the sake of Muhammad and the people of the household of Muhammad; nor is there any god but you. I have done evil, and have wronged my soul. Turn towards me for you are relenting, compassionate." [17]

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