As a Muslim, I know I’m unaware of most aspects of my religion. I tend to focus on the primary “ways of being” and forget all other obligations. Finding out more about the Islamic religion has always been a goal of mine. As soon as I heard of the requirements of this project, I thought, Bingo! For the first time, I had the opportunity to spend some time figuring out answers to questions that affect me personally. The subject that came to my mind almost instantaneously was the famous story of Ahlul Bayt. This story of the first descendants and believers of the Muslim religion plays a significant role in demonstrating the beliefs and values of this discourse. There have been multiple instances where Ahlul Bayt was referenced in a conversation. Unaware of the whole story, I was always confused. I know that Ahlul Bayt refers to the “People of the House”, which includes Imam al-Husayn, the main character, and his family. I am aware that these individuals were experts in the interpretation of the Qur’an and utilized their knowledge to preach about Islam. However, they faced many threats and acts of violence brought forth by non-believers. Imam al-Husayn and his family were some of the first people to attempt to spread Islam, and their ideas weren’t accepted by many. They sacrificed their lives and endured endless torture for the sake of informing the public about the words of Allah. I am knowledgeable of the main concepts of the story, but still ignorant about the details. I know these individuals are significant to the Islamic religion since every year us Muslims spend forty days mourning over their loss, which is a time known as Ashura. The main questions I would like to acquire answers to from my search include: What is the story of Ahlul Bayt in Islam? And in what ways does it affect our “ways of being” in the Muslim community?
I figured the best way to gain information about this subject would be to interview individuals who are highly educated in the Muslim religion. At first, I thought of interviewing a Sheikh, a person considered to be a leader of a certain Muslim community or organization. Undoubtedly, one can learn everything there is to know about Islam through a Sheikh. Having studied the Qur’an, these individuals serve as guides the people could utilize when confused about a certain part of their obligations. Truthfully, I am ignorant when it comes down to consulting a Sheikh since I have never done so. I thought that with one trip to the mosque, I could easily meet with one of the leaders. However, I found out from a friend that Sheikhs have busy schedules and it takes time to meet with one. Now aware of this, I decided to consider who else I could interview while working on setting up an appointment with a Sheikh.
While pondering about who else I could talk to, I realized that my aunt, who is very informative of Islam herself, could lead me to someone who has studied the story of Ahlul Bayt vigorously. So, I decided to call my aunt and explain the situation to her. She informed me that the best person to consult would be her sister-in-law, Hajji Sabah. Apparently, Hajji Sabah studied the Muslim religion for thirteen years and has been teaching it for over twelve years. I was wowed when I heard of this and asked my aunt to set me up an appointment with her. The very next day my aunt called me yet again and told me Hajji Sabah would be waiting for me Tuesday October 14, 2014 at 11 A.M.
On Tuesday morning, I picked up my aunt and we met up with Hajji Sabah at my cousin’s house. Having met before, I was able to dive right into my interview questions. I began the interview by asking her “Who does Ahlul Bayt consist of?” Hajji Sabah replied, “Well, you have twelve Imams including Imam Ali, Imam Al-Hasan, Imam Al-Husayn, and the nine descendants of Imam al-Husayn. You also have Fatimah al-Zahra and Prophet Muhammad himself” (Beydoun). After gaining clarification as to who makes up Ahlul Bayt, I asked Hajji Sabah to begin the significant story. Hajji Sabah began the story with,
Ahul Bayt is the Household of the Holy Prophet. They were the people who continued passing along the message of the Holy Prophet. Their mission was to preach Islam, which is a way of life for mankind interpreted by the Qur’an. They were chosen to inform the people of the teachings, sayings, and actions of the Prophet. It all started when the Prophet found out he would rest in peace soon. Allah commanded him to convey his messages of Islam to the Imams, so that Islam would live on. Prophet Mohammad appointed Imam Ali as his successor in front of thousands of people at Gheeder Khum. Unfortunately, the people went against the Prophet’s word and elected a different successor (Beydoun).
At this point, I apologized for the interruption and asked Hajji Sabah why the people were against Imam Ali taking leadership. According to her, the people at the time weren’t fond of family successors. They rejected Imam Ali since he was the Prophet’s cousin (Beydoun). Hajji Sabah then continued the story by mentioning that the people chose Abu Baker to lead. Abu Baker was then succeeded by Omar, who was followed by Othman. After three failed attempts, the people realized “no one was as strong for such leadership as the one Prophet Muhammad appointed, Imam Ali.” Hajji Sabah informed me that a little after Imam Ali took over, he died and left the leadership in the hands of his son, Imam al-Hasan. However, yet again the people rejected the successor and chose Muaweya. Hajji Sabah said, “This chain of successors was ongoing but at the end none of the Imams were able to lead Islam and Allah’s word was broken,” (Beydoun)
According to Hajji Sabah, all the Imams lived under tyrant rulers. They were all deprived of caliphate and oppressed to the point of isolation (Beydoun). I interrupted her to ask “who were the tyrant rulers?” She replied with, “These rulers included Muaweya and Yazeed, basically Sunnis.” She mentioned that it was at this time that the two sects of Islam were formed, Shi’a and Sunnis (Beydoun). I was confused at this point because I had initially thought it was non-believers that caused such harm to the Imams. I mentioned my confusion to the Hajji and she explained to me that it wasn’t non-believers of the religion of Islam as a whole, but non-believers of the line of succession brought forth by Prophet Muhammad. Her exact words were, “family was chosen to succeed, but the “non-believers” preferred the friends of the Prophet rather than his family at the time,” (Beydoun). After clearing up my confusion, we picked up where we had left off and I asked Hajji Sabah, “How were the Imams killed?” She stated that they were killed in the most brutal ways and some were even jailed until death. For example, “Imam al-Hasan was poisoned, while Imam al-Husayn was beheaded after being tortured in Karbala by Yazeed,” added Hajji Sabah (Beydoun).
After completing the portion of the interview dealing with the story itself, I was satisfied with all the information I had acquired. Not only did I become aware of one of the most influential stories in my religion, but I was able to clear up my confusion of some aspects of Islam, including the whole dilemma between Shi’as and Sunnis. After taking a little break, I sat down again with Hajji Sabah and asked her, “In what way does this story affect who we are as Muslims, in other words, why is it so significant?” She began her response by stating that, “although they struggled, our great twelve Imams were still able to spread the word of Islam by preaching the teachings of the Prophet,” (Beydoun). She mentioned that the Imams didn’t focus on the teachings of worship only, including praying and fasting, but focused on how to live as a Muslim as well. “Such teachings encouraged people to feed the poor, avoid violence, tolerate other religions, obtain morality, look upon others as equal, and treat parents with respect,” added Hajji Sabah (Beydoun). She stated that one can’t understand everything from the Qur’an due to the complexity of the language used, so we tend to rely on the explanations and traditions of Ahlul Bayt to worship correctly (Beydoun). I realized and understood just how important this story is in my religion after the bold statements Hajji Sabah made. At this point, all my questions were answered and I thanked Hajji Sabah for her time and insight.
During my interview with Hajji Sabah, I was also informed that certain phrases from the Qur’an support the story of Ahlul Bayt. I took some time to research these phrases because no source is more credible than the Qur’an itself. In Hadith al-Thaqalayn, it was mentioned that “the Messenger of Allah (s) 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 Day of Judgment)’” (Hadith al-Thaqalayn). As stated in this excerpt, Prophet Muhammad not only reflected on the importance of the Qur’an but left behind his family, Ahlul Bayt, as interpreters of the words of Allah. When reading this phrase, it is apparent that Islam could not have prevailed without the influence and support of Ahlul Bayt. In addition, part of Surat al-Insan recites, “And they give food in spite of love for it to the needy, the orphan, and the captive,” (Surat Al-Insan). By “they”, the phrase is referring to Sayeda Fatimah Al-Zahra, Imam Ali, Imam al-Hasan, and Imam al-Husayn. These individuals from the Prophet’s Household fasted for three days because each day they fed someone that needed the food more than themselves, including a poor individual, an orphan, and a prisoner. It was such actions and traditions performed by Ahlul Bayt that brought forth the importance of helping the needy in the religion of Islam.
Going back to my dilemma of making an appointment with a Sheikh, I was sadly unable to do so. I called the Islamic Center of America but the secretary informed me it would be almost impossible to get a hold of any Sheikh at this time. She explained to me that with Ashura, a month filled with lectures and mourning over Ahlul Bayt, only a week away, the Sheikhs are busy preparing for their duties at the mosque. I was disappointed when I heard this because I was looking forward to sitting down with such a respected individual in our community. However, I do feel like Hajji Sabah did an amazing job at explaining the story to me. Her intellect about Ahlul Bayt provided me with a satisfactory amount of information about the subject.
This I-Search project couldn’t have been assigned at a better time. I pinpointed the topic and conducted my interview right before Ashura started. The Ashura program started on October 25th and ended on November 3rd. As mentioned earlier, Ashura is a time us Shia Muslims spend mourning over the torturous lives and deaths of Ahlul Bayt. For the first time, I attended the lectures being presented for the first ten days at the mosque. The lectures consisted of a reiteration of the story of Ahlul Bayt, with each day dedicated to one of the Imams. Working on this project gave me background information that I reflected upon during lectures. I was able to understand the concepts being presented at the mosque due to the foundation I built researching my question. This is kind of cheesy, but I’m honestly very proud of myself! I’m glad my research contributed to my involvement in the Ashura program this year, and I cannot wait to become more informed about the story as I attend lecture year after year.
All in all, I believe my questions were thoroughly answered. My interview with Hajji Sabah allowed me to gain insight on the true meaning of the story of Ahlul Bayt. I can now confidently participate in conversations dealing with this significant story. Instead of only knowing the Imams by name, I am now aware of the struggle they faced in order to spread the words of Allah. I also now know where most of the ethics and expected acts of kindness in Islam came from. This project opened my eyes to the importance of understanding religion. I plan on learning more and more about the traditions of Islam, so that I could fulfill all obligations with meaning.
Beydoun, Hajji Sabah. Personal interview. 14 October 2014.