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The ‘Alids: The First Family of Islam, 750-1200

This book provides the first social history of the ‘Alids in the crucial five centuries from the ‘Abbasid Revolution to the Saljuqs (second/eighth to sixth/twelfth centuries).

The respect and veneration accorded to the family of the Prophet Muḥammad are unparalleled in Islamic society. Political or religious affiliations notwithstanding, the Prophet’s family – most importantly his descendants through his daughter Fāṭima and his cousin ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib, collectively known as the ʿAlids – were held in high esteem even by those who rejected their claims to the leadership of the Muslim community. Within the hierarchy of Islamic society, the ʿAlids were ‘a blood aristocracy without peer’.

Although they clearly occupied a privileged place among Muslims from the earliest period of Islam, the social prominence of the Prophet’s kin was by no means a foregone conclusion. In political as well as religious terms, those who became the heirs and successors to the Prophet in the majority of Muslim communities were generally not his descendants: Political authority came to be exercised by the caliphs while religious leadership went to the scholars. Yet, despite their virtual exclusion from the leadership of the Muslim communities, both politically and religiously, the ‘Alids nevertheless became the one indisputable nobility of Islam.

This book provides the first social history of the ‘Alids in the crucial five centuries from the ‘Abbasid Revolution to the Saljuqs (second/eighth to sixth/twelfth centuries). This period saw the formulation of many aspects still associated with the special position of sayyids and sharifs in Muslim societies, from their exemption from some of the rules that governed ordinary Muslims to the development of “Alidism’. In contrast to Shi‘ism, defined as the political and religious claims made by some members of the Prophet’s family or by others on their behalf, Alidism is characterised by a distinctly cross-sectarian reverence and support for the Prophet’s family. As even a staunch Sunni like Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328) notes: ‘There is no doubt that Muhammad’s family (al Muhammad) has a right on the Muslim society (umma) that no other people share and that they are entitled to an added love and affection to which no other branches of Quraysh are entitled. Because of the richness of the source material, this study focuses especially on the eastern part of the Islamic world, al-though the Prophet’s family certainly attained a position of similar distinction in other places as well. Their role and status varied considerably not only over time but also at any given time and from place to place. They could even seem contradictory: As some ‘Alids came to be revered as Shiite imams, others became scholars in a Sunni school of law. Some supported the Abbasids while others were persecuted by them. Some were fabulously wealthy; others were very poor. The ‘Alids were therefore by no means a homogeneous group. The one important phenomenon that united them despite their differences was their increasing sense of themselves as a distinct social force – as the First Family of Islam. To trace and explain its development is the aim of this book.

Bibliographic Information

Title: The ‘Alids: The First Family of Islam, 750-1200

Author(s): Teresa Bernheimer

Publisher: ‎Edinburgh University Press

Length: 128 pages

ISBN: 978-0748695843

Pub. Date: August 20, 2014

The Alids The first family of Islam, 750–1200

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