extract from http://www.al-islam.org/al-serat/Excellences-Ayoub.htm

In both Sunni and Shi'i Muslim tradition, one important event symbolizes the status of the ahl al-bayt and the human as well as spiritual dimensions of their relation to the Prophet. This is the tradition or episode of al-kisa' (the mantle, or cloak) which the Prophet spread over himself and Fatima his daughter, 'Ali, and their two sons Hasan and Husayn. This tradition has come down to us in a number of versions, each stressing one or another aspect of the excellences of the family of the Prophet and his love for them. Ahmad b. Hanbal relates on the authority of Umm Salama, the Prophet's wife, that he said to Fatima one day:

'Bring me your husband and two sons.' When they had all come together he spread over them a mantle, and laying his hand over them, he said: 'O God, these are the people of the House of Muhammad! Let therefore your prayers and blessings descend upon Muhammad and the people of the House of Muhammad; for you are worthy of all praise and glory.' Umm Salama continued: 'I then lifted the mantle to enter in with them, but he pulled it away from my hand saying, "You too shall come to a good end".[4]

The point which this version of the kisa' tradition emphasizes is that the ahl al-bayt are only the five: Muhammad, 'Ali, Fatima, and their two sons Hasan and Husayn. Umm Salama, one of the most highly venerated of the Prophet's wives, was denied this special status. We shall have more to say about this point, as it is emphasized in almost every version of this tradition.

In another highly interesting version of the kisa' tradition, related on the authority of 'Abd Allah b. Jafar b. Abi Talib, we read:

As the Apostle of God saw mercy descending, he demanded: 'Call them for me, call them for me!' Safiyya asked: 'Who should we call, O Messenger of God?' He answered: 'Call the people of my household: 'Ali, Fatima, Hasan, and Husayn.' When they were brought, he spread a mantle over them; then lifting his hands to heaven said: 'O God, these are the people of my House; bless, O God, Muhammad and the people of the House of Muhammad!' God then sent down the verse: Surely God wishes to remove all abomination from you, O People of the House, and purify you with a thorough purification. [5]

This version of the tradition provides the meaning of the kisa' and the basis of its significance. The mantle is a symbol of divine mercy and blessing covering the Prophet and his holy family. It is, moreover, a source or haven of consolation and serenity in the face of the great sufferings and martyrdom which the Prophet's family had to endure after him. In this infinite source of divine mercy, the pious also share in times of sufferings and afflictions. The kisa' finally sets apart the 'holy five' from the rest of the faithful, and distinguishes them from the rest of the Prophet's family.

The event of the kisa' provides the occasion for the revelation of the verse of purification just cited. Before the sectarian conflicts which split the Muslim community set in, classical tradition was almost unanimous in interpreting this verse as referring to the Prophet, his daughter Fatima al-Zahra' (the Radiant), her husband and cousin,' Ali, and their two sons Hasan and Husayn. [6]

In still another version of the kisa' tradition, the continuity of the Prophet's family with those of earlier prophets is clearly indicated. Wathila b. al-Asqa', on whose authority this tradition in most of its variants is related, reports the following prayer uttered by the Prophet:

O God, as you have bestowed your blessings, mercy, forgiveness, and pleasure upon Abraham and the family of Abraham, so they ['Ali, Fatima, Hasan and Husayn] are of me and I am of them! Bestow, therefore, your blessings, mercy, forgiveness and pleasure upon me and them.' [7]

This prayer echoes a prayer which Muslims repeat daily:

O God, bless Muhammad and the people of the House of Muhammad, as you have blessed Abraham and the people of the House of Abraham among all beings.

The House of Muhammad is, therefore, for all Muslims, 'the household of prophethood and the frequenting place of angels'. The famous Qur'an commentator al-Suyuti quotes a tradition attributed to Umm Salama in interpretation of the verse of purification:

This verse was sent down in my house ... There were in the house then, seven: Gabriel and Michael, and 'Ali, Fatima, Hasan, and Husayn, and I stood at the door of the house. I asked: 'O Messenger of God, am I not of the People of the House?' He said: 'You shall indeed come to a good end! You are, however, one of the wives of the Prophet.' [8]

The close friendship between the Prophet and the holy family, a relationship which went far beyond the bond of blood relation, may be seen in the incident of the mubahala, or prayer ordeal, with which the Prophet challenged the Christians of Najran.[9] In the mubahala verse of the Qur'an, God orders the Prophet and his opponents to 'Call together our sons and your sons, our women and your women, and ourselves and yourselves.' In the view of most Qur'an commentators and traditionists, the Prophet's sons are Hasan and Husayn, 'his women' refers to Fatima, and 'his self' refers, apart from himself, to 'Ali. When the people of Najran saw them, they recognized their high status with God, and with great trepidation they declined the mubahala and opted instead for peace.

Tradition asserts that the Prophet sensed the hostility which his community was to show to the People of his House after him. He is said to have often declared, 'I am at war against him who fights against you, and will show peace toward him who shows peace to you.' This invective is strongly put in a tradition related on the authority of Abu Bakr, the Prophet's famous Companion and the first caliph. He said:

I saw the Messenger of God pitch a tent in which he placed 'Ali, Fatima, Hasan, and Husayn. He then declared: 'O Muslims, I am at war against anyone who wars against the people of this tent, and am at peace with those who show peace toward them. I am a friend to those who befriend them. He who shows love toward them shall be one of a happy ancestry and good birth. Nor would anyone hate them except that he be of miserable ancestry and evil birth. [10]

Love for the Prophet's family is enjoined by God in the Qur'an, where He says: Say, 'I ask no other reward of you save love of my next of kin' (42:23). Qur'an commentators have generally agreed that 'the next of kin' here intended are the ahl al-bayt. [11]

The People of the House of the Prophet Muhammad have been for the pious an example of generosity, steadfastness in the face of hardship, and a source of solace in time of trials and afflictions. After days of fasting and prayers for the health of the two sick children Hasan and Husayn, the family fed the few morsels of dry bread and dates for which 'Ali had laboured so hard to the needy. On the first evening, we are told, a beggar came. On the second, it was an orphan, and on the third, a captive. To each in turn, they gave the loaf of barley bread and few dates which Fatima had prepared for the family to break their fast. Thus God sent down the verse: They give food to eat, even though they cherish it, to the needy, the orphan and the captive.[12] Yet, in the end, God sent down a celestial table to feed His friends.

[4] Ahmad b. Hanbal, Musnad (Cairo, 1313), IV, 323.

[5] Abu 'Abd Allah Muhammad b. Abd Allah al-Nisaburi, Mustadrak al-sahihayn (Haydarabad [Deccan], 1324), III, 147. See also 33:33.

[6] See, for example, the commentary on this verse in al-Zamakhshari and al-Tabari.

[7] Ala al-Din Ali al-Muttaqi b. Husam al-Din al-Hindi, Kanz al-'ummal (Haydarabad [Deccan], 1312), p. 217.

[8] See the commentary on 33: 33 in al-Suyuti, Al-Durr al-manthur.

9] See 3:61. see also Muhammad b. 'Isa al-Tirmidhi, Sahih al-Tirmidhi (Cairo, 1920), II, 300, and Ibn Hanbal, I, 185.

[10] Abu Ja'far Ahmad al-Muhibb al-Tabari, Al-Riyad al-nadira (Cairo, n.d.), II, 199 For other versions of this tradition, see Murtada al-Husayni al-Fayruzabadi, Fada'il al-khamsa fi sihah al- sitta (Najaf, 1384), p. 252.

[11] See the commentaries on this verse in al-Zamakhshari, al-Tabari, and al-Suyuti.