The invoking of blessings upon the Prophet is a Qur’anic injunction

Invoking blessings on the Prophet, known as salawat, is an integral part of prayer based on Qur’anic injunction:

“Indeed Allah and His angels bless the Prophet! O you who believe, invoke blessing on him (salloo ‘alayhi) and greet him with the full greeting of peace” (33:56).

Upon receiving the revelation of this verse, the companions of the Prophet asked him how they should invoke blessing on him, and he instructed them to say:

‘Allahumma salli ala Muhammad wa-aali Muhammad kama sallayta, ala Ibrahim wa-aali Ibrahim.’

‘O Allah, send Your blessings on Muhammad and the family of Muhammad in the same way as You sent Your blessing on [Nabi] Ibrahim and the family of Ibrahim’
(Kazemi, Justice and Remembrance p 17).

Another ayat says:

‘Say: I ask you for no reward, save love of the near of kin’ (42: 23).

Kazemi explains that “according to several of the most important commentators of the Qurʼan, the referent of ‘near of kin’ in this verse is the Prophet’s Ahl al-Bayt. Love of the Prophet’s family is thus explicitly called for by the revelation, without this excluding the more general import of the verse, love of all those with whom one shares close kinship ties” (Justice and Remembrance p 17.

The Ahl al-Bayt are referred to in a Qurʼanic verse as being pure

‘God only wisheth to remove from you all impurity, O People of the House, and to purify you with a complete purification’ (33: 33)

Although there have been several interpretations of who constitute the Ahl al Bayt, numerous  important early sources report that the Prophet called for Faṭima, Ali, and their two sons Ḥasan and Ḥusayn, and said, ‘This is my Ahl al-Bayt.’

The Hadith of the Prophet explains the spiritual importance of the Ahl al-Bayt:

‘I am leaving among you two matters of great weight (al-thaqalayn), the Book of Allah and my kindred (itrati – [the pure family]), the People of my House (Ahl al-Bayt), and these two shall never be separated until they return to me at the Pool [of Kawthar in Paradise on the Day of Judgement]…’

Kazemi notes that the “extent to which the Prophet’s family are to be revered by all Muslims is also indicated in the fact that blessings are to be invoked on his al, or progeny, as part of the blessings to be invoked upon him” (Justice and Remembrance  p 17). Devotion to the Prophet and the Ahl al-Bayt is an important feature of Shia piety and Sufi tradition.

A sixteenth-century Ottoman miniature depicting angels decorating the Ka’ba on the birth of the Prophet. Source: Faith and Practices in Islamic Traditions, The Institute of Ismaili Studies

Successor to the Prophet
Upon the Prophet’s death, a small group held that the Prophet had designated Ali as his successor (Imam) based on divine command  This minority group came to be known as shi’at Ali, “party of Ali,” or simply Shi’a. The Shi’a believed that the Islamic message contained inner truths that could not be understood through human reason and therefore, the successor was also responsible to explain the message of Islam. A person with such qualifications, according to the Shi’a, could belong only to the Prophet’s family (ahl al-bayt), “whose members alone could provide the legitimate channel for explaining and interpreting the teachings of Islam” (Daftary, A Short History of the Ismailis p 24).

The Shi’a emphasised the importance of the Imam’s kinship to the Prophet as pre-requisite for possessing the required religious knowledge (‘ilm) and authority. The Shi’a also held that after Ali the leadership, or Imamat, of the Muslim community was the exclusive prerogative of descendants of Ali belonging to the ahl al-bayt.

In the Shia Ismaili interpretation, this hereditary leadership has continued today in Mawlana Hazar Imam Aga Khan IV as the forty-ninth Alid (descendant of Ali) Imam, and the salawat is recited:

Allahumma salli ala Muhammadin wa-aali Muhammad.

O Allah, send Your blessings on Muhammad and his family.

Further reading: Hazrat Fatima’s Tasbih

Sources:
Arzina Lalani, Early Shi‘i Thought: The Teachings of Imam Muhammad al-Baqir, I.B. Tauris, London 2000
Azim Nanji, The Imamat in Ismailism, The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Farhad Daftary, A Short History of the Ismailis, Edinburgh University Press, 1998
Reza Shah Kazemi, Justice and Remembrance: Introducing the Spirituality of Imam ‘Ali, I.B. Tauris, London, 2006

Contributed by Nimira Dewji. Nimira is an invited writer although she has contributed several articles in the past (view previous articles). She also has her own blog – Nimirasblog – where she writes short articles on Ismaili history and Muslim civilisations. When not researching and writing, Nimira volunteers at a shelter for the unhoused, and at a women’s shelter. She can be reached at nimirasblog@gmail.com.

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