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

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

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

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


The first social history of the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad in early Islam. This first in-depth study of the 'Alids focuses on the crucial formative period from the Abbasid Revolution of 750 to the Saljuq period of 1100. Exploring their rise from both a religious point of view and as a social phenomenon, Bernheimer investigates how they attained and extended the family's status over the centuries.The 'Alids are the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, the elite family of Islam. The respect and veneration they are accorded is unparalleled in Islamic society, regardless of political or religious affiliation. And they have played a major role Islamic history, from famous early rebels to the founders and eponyms of major Islamic sects, and from 9th-century Moroccan and 10th-century Egyptian rulers to the current King of Jordan, the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Aga Khan.


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 ʿAlids nevertheless became the one indisputable nobility of Islam.

This book provides the first social history of the ʿAlids in the crucial five centuries from the ʿAbbāsid Revolution to the Saljūqs (second/eighth to sixth/twelfth centuries). This period saw the formulation of many aspects still associated with the special position of sayyids and sharīfs in Muslim societies, from their exemption from some of the rules that governed ordinary Muslims to the development of ‘ʿAlidism’. In contrast to Shiʿism, defined as the political and religious claims made by some members of the Prophet’s family or by others on their behalf, ʿAlidism 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 Muḥammad’s family (āl Muḥammad) 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

1 Richard Bulliet, The Patricians of Nishapur : A Study in Medieval Islamic Social History (Cambridge, MA, 1972), p. 234.

2 Ibn Taymiyya, Minhāj al-sunna al-nabawiyya, cited in Kazuo Morimoto, ‘Introduction’, in Kazuo Morimoto (ed.), Sayyids and Sharifs in Muslim Societies: The Living Links to the Prophet (London/New York, 2012), p. 2.

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