Ahl al-Kisa’ (Arabic: أهل الكساء, Ahl al-Kisā’), or the People of the Cloak, refers to the Islamic prophet, Muhammad; his daughter, Fatimah; his cousin and son-in-law Ali; and his two grandsons Hassan and Husayn.
They are also called Aal al-Aba (Arabic: آل العبا, Āl al-‘Abā) and in Persian as Panj-tan Aal-e Aba (Persian: پنج تن آل عبا, : Panj-tan-e Āl-e Abā) or simply Panj-tan (Persian: پنج تن), meaning the Five. The origin of this belief is found in the Hadith of the Event of the Cloak and the Hadith of Mubahala. This hadith is graded authentic by Shia Muslims and Sunnis, however many Sunnis plead a different interpretation.
It is one of the foundations of the Shia conception of the Imamah, which states that patrilineal descendants of Muhammad’s daughter have a special divine spiritual leadership over the Muslim community. The Ahl al-Kisa, along with their descendants, the Imams, form the Shia definition of Ahl al-Bayt, the “People of the House,” or the family of Muhammad.
The three larger branches of Shia Islam differ on the nature of the Ahl al-Kisa and the Imams. The two largest branches, the Twelvers and the Ismailis, consider them to be in a state of ismah, or infallibility: a belief originating from the verse of purification in the Quran.
In contrast, the third branch, the Zaidis, view them only as political figures with the duty to lead revolts against corrupt rulers and governments.
The Hadith of the Cloak (Arabic: حديث الكساء Hadith-e-Kisa) refers to the Ahl al-Kisa. The hadith is an account of an incident where Muhammad gathered Hassan, Husayn, Ali, and Fatimah under his cloak. This is referred to in several hadiths, including within Sahih Muslim, where Muhammad is quoted as saying Ahl al-Bayt, or the People of the House, from the second part of verse of purification (ayat ul-tahir).
This hadith is central to the Shia beliefs. For the Shia, it is the basis of the doctrine that the leader of the Muslims should be purified (per Quran 33:33) and from that particular direct line of descendants of Muhammad through Fatimah and Ali that have thus been purified by God. It also serves as the majority Shia doctrine that this line of descendants are infallible, pure, and sinless (ma`suum). The Shia believe that the hadith shows that Muhammad, Fatima, Ali, Hasan, and Husayn are the only members of the Ahl al-Bayt.
Generally, Sunnis also accept the spiritual significance of the event of purification as exalted in the Quran and elaborated upon by Saheeh Hadith (see below), but do not subscribe to the political authority that the Shia infer from this belief.
A narration attributed to ‘A’isha reports:
that God’s Apostle (may peace be upon him) went out one morning wearing a striped cloak of the black camel’s hair that there came Hasan b. ‘Ali. He wrapped him under it, then came Husain and he wrapped him under it along with the other one (Hasan). Then came Fatima and he took her under it, then came ‘Ali and he also took him under it and then said: God desires to take away any uncleanliness from you, O people of the household, and purify you (thorough purifying)”
Sunnis tend to view this as Sahih and have included it in Sahih Muslim
Certain Sunni scholars hold that the wives of Muhammad were included in the second part of the verse 33:33, since they are addressed in the beginning of verse 33:33. They reject the notion that the end of this verse would be a stand-alone blessing, meant exclusively for Muhammad, Ali, Fatima, Hasan and Husain, as they have in mind the context of the verse as a whole and the one preceding it. Albeit, most Sunni would accept the Sahih hadith and concur with the Shia that the special privilege is conferred on the five.
The Shia counter-argument is that the verse itself says “only,” implying that the blessing of this merit is exclusive to a single group and one other than the wives, i.e. God desires to keep away the uncleanness from “only” you, “O people of the House,” and not from anyone else, and this is why the six stern commandments of the other verses are given to the wives, because they are not protected and must act accordingly; the “people of the house”, on the other hand, need no such instructions. The Shia also point out that the rhetoric changes to a masculine tone in the final part of the verse whereas it was feminine before that.
The Shia also argue that the first part of the verse addresses a person or group in the feminine gender, while the second part addresses in the masculine gender, meaning that at least one person in the group is a male.
As Laudian Professor of Arabic at the University of Oxford, Wilfred Madelung made the following observation on the verse of purification:
Who are the ‘people of the house’ here? The pronoun referring to them is in the masculine plural, while the preceding part of the verse is in the feminine plural. This change of gender has evidently contributed to the birth of various accounts of a legendary character, attaching the latter part of the verse to the five People of the Mantle (ahl al-kisā’): Muhammad, ‘Ali, Fātima, Hasan and Husayn. In spite of the obvious Shia significance, the great majority of the reports quoted by al-Tabari in his commentary on this verse support this interpretation.”
According to Laura Veccia Vaglieri in Encyclopaedia of Islam
A verse of the Ḳurʾān (XXXIII, 33) says: “God wishes only to remove from you the uncleanness, O People of the House” (Ahl al-bayt [q.v.]). The preceding verses contain instructions to the wives of the Prophet, and there the verbs and pronouns are in the feminine plural; but in this verse, addressed to the People of the House, the pronouns are in the masculine plural. Thus, it has been said, it is no longer a question of the Prophet’s wives, or of them alone. To whom then does it refer? The expression Ahl al-bayt can only mean “Family of the Prophet”. The privilege accorded by God to the latter (originally entirely spiritual, but later not merely so) naturally led all the relatives of Muḥammad—those nearest to him, those belonging to the collateral branches of the family, and beyond this such groups of the community as the Anṣār, or indeed the whole of the community—to claim a place in the Ahl al-bayt. But there is a story given in many traditions according to which Muḥammad sheltered under his cloak (or under a covering or under a sort of tent), in varying circumstances ¶ (including the occasion when he was preparing for the mubāhala ), his grandchildren al-Ḥasan and al-Ḥusayn, his daughter Fāṭima and his son-in-law ʿAlī; and so it is these five who are given the title Ahl al-kisāʾ [q.v.] or “People of the Mantle”. Efforts have been made to include among the latter Muḥammad’s wives; in general however the number of the privileged is limited to these five.
According to the Sunni hadith collections, it is narrated that during the 9th through the 10th year after hijra, an Arab Christian envoy from Najran (currently in northern Yemen and partly in Saudi Arabia) came to the Muhammad to argue which of the two parties erred in its doctrine concerning Jesus (Quran 3:61). Muhammad offered to do the Arabic tradition known as Mubahala, where each conflicting party should cover themselves, and together all parties ask God sincerely to destroy and inflict with curses on the lying party and their families. Muhammad, to prove to them that he is a prophet, brought his daughter Fatimah and his surviving grandchildren, Hasan and Hussain, and Ali ibn Abi Talib and came back to the Christians and said this is my family (ahl) and covered himself and his family with a cloak.
The Shia believe this authentic hadith proves whom the Qur’an is referring to when it mentions the Ahl al-Bayt which includes only Ali, Fatimah, and their descendants. Meanwhile, most Sunni sources are in agreement with Shia belief saying that only the Ahl al-Kisa, Muhammad, his daughter Fatimah and his two grandsons, Hasan and Husayn, and Ali ibn Abi Talib, participated the occasion – none of his wives, other grandchildren or sons-in-law were selected.
The Shia celebrate this event as Eid-e Mubahala. This hadith provides the background for the “purification verse” or ayah al-tatheer from surah Al-Ahzab in the Quran whereby God explicitly identified the Ahlul Bayt:
And abide quietly in your homes, and do not flaunt your charms as they used to flaunt them in the old days of pagan ignorance; and be constant in prayer, and render the purifying dues, and pay heed unto God and His Apostle: God wishes to remove all filth and impurity from you, O People of the House of the Prophet, and to render you utterly free of all pollution. (33:33)
The tradition about this hadith goes from different sources to Fatimah, the daughter of Muhammad. She narrated that once her father visited her home, he had fever and was not feeling well, he asked for a Yemeni cloak which Fatimah brought to him and folded it around him. Later he was joined in that Yemeni cloak by his grandsons Hassan and Husayn, who were followed by their father Ali, who was cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad. Finally, Fatimah asked the permission to enter that cloak. When all five of them joined together under the cloak, Muhammad narrated the Quranic verse 33:33 to those under the cloak that all five of them are chosen ones, and he further stated that he wants from God to keep all impurities out of reach and away from all of us. Muhammad then prayed to God to declare all five of them as his Ahl al-Bayt and keep away the Najasat (impurities). At that request, God immediately sent Gabriel to reveal to Muhammad that all the five under the cloak are dearest and closest to God and they are Tahir (purest of the pure) without any traces of impurities.
The hadith of the cloak and the purification verse was utilized at various times by the Ahl al-Bayt to assert their beliefs to political and spiritual leadership of the Muslim community. For example, at the gathering that was convened after the death of Umar in 644 to select a caliph, Ali made the following argument: “Is there any among us apart from myself concerning whom the “purification verse” was revealed?” When they answered “no” he proceeded: “The People of the House are overflowing with abundant virtue, for the Quran says, ‘God wishes to remove all filth and impurity from you O House of the Prophet, and to render you utterly free of pollution.’ (33:33) God has therefore removed from us all evil, outer and inner, and placed us firmly on the path of truth and righteousness.”
Some Sunni scholars remark that the “purification verse” was revealed concerning five people: Muhammad, Ali, Fatimah, Hassan and Husayn. Others maintain that the “purification verse” cannot refer to the inerrancy of the Imams because the context in which it occurs relates to the wives of Muhammad and necessitates that it, too, should refer to them, or that at the very least they cannot be excluded from the category it addresses. If it were to imply inerrancy, then the wives of Muhammad would also have to be inerrant, a belief that Sunni scholars do not hold. Shia scholars, however, do believe in the infallibility of Muhammad. Ibn Kathir in his tafsir of the relevant verse says “the [Sunni] scholars are unanimously agreed that [Muhammad’s wives] were the reason for revelation in this case…but others may be included by way of generalization.”
Nevertheless, according to the Sunni historian al-Tabari, the term ahl al-bayt refers to ‘Ali, Fatima, Hasan, and Husayn. In reference to verse 33:33, L. Veccia Vaglieri, in her Encyclopedia of Islam article entitled “Fatima”, writes:
[…] the preceding verses contain instructions to the wives of Muhammed, and there the verbs and pronouns are in the feminine plural; but in this verse, addressed to the People of the House, the pronouns are in the masculine plural. Thus, it has been said, it is no longer a question of Muhammed’s wives, or of them alone…. The expression Ahl al-bayt can only mean “Family of the Prophet”.