Sending Ṣalawat upon the Messenger of Allāh ﷺ is something we do every day in our daily ritual prayers. As Muslims we also strive to do them as part of our daily litanies to sustain us and nourish our souls, as well as before and after our supplications. We also do it whenever we hear or utter the blessed name of the Messenger of Allāh ﷺ, or when our souls are stirred by the thought of his beauty and perfection, or stirred by remembering all the immense love, care and compassion he had in his heart for us. Allāh (most great) addressed the believers saying:
إِنَّ اللَّهَ وَمَلَائِكَتَهُ يُصَلُّونَ عَلَى النَّبِيِّ يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا صَلُّوا عَلَيْهِ وَسَلِّمُوا تَسْلِيمًا
Allāh and His Angels send ṣalawāt upon the Prophet- so, you who believe, send ṣalawāt upon him and give him greetings of peace in abundance (33:56)
To fulfil this obligation to send ṣalawāt upon him, whether in prayer or when we hear his name, it is enough to say: Allāhumma ṣalli ʿalā Muḥammad. However, a Companion by the name of Bashīr asked, “As for the greeting of peace upon you (salām), we know how to do that, but how do we invoke the ṣalāt upon you?” He ﷺ went silent for so long that the Companions wished Bashīr had never asked that question. However, the Prophet ﷺ then spoke and taught them the formula known as the Ṣalāt Ibrāhīmiyya:
‘O Allāh send ṣalawāt upon Muḥammad and upon Muḥammad’s folk as You have sent ṣalawāt upon Ibrāhīm’s folk; You are worthy of all praise and glory. O Allāh bless Muḥammad and Muḥammad’s folk as You have blessed Ibrāhīm’s folk; You are worthy of all praise and glory.’
اللَّهُمَّ صَلِّ عَلَى مُحَمَّدٍ وَعَلَى آلِ مُحَمَّدٍ كَمَا صَلَّيْتَ عَلَى آلِ إِبْرَاهِيمَ إِنَّكَ حَمِيدٌ مَجِيدٌ اللَّهُمَّ بَارِكْ عَلَى مُحَمَّدٍ وَعَلَى آلِ مُحَمَّدٍ كَمَا بَارَكْتَ عَلَى آلِ إِبْرَاهِيمَ إِنَّكَ حَمِيدٌ مَجِيدٌ
That is the ḥadīth and wording preferred by Imām Bukhārī as the most authentic, and the one to be used when doing ṣalawāt both inside and outside the ritual prayer; it was also Imām Muslim’s second pick. Here is the wording from the ḥadīth preferred by Imām Muslim:
‘O Allāh send ṣalawāt upon Muḥammad and upon Muḥammad’s folk as You have sent ṣalawāt upon Ibrāhīm’s folk, and bless Muḥammad and Muḥammad’s folk as You have blessed Ibrāhīm’s folk in all the worlds. You are worthy of all praise and glory.’
اللَّهُمَّ صَلِّ عَلَى مُحَمَّدٍ وَعَلَى آلِ مُحَمَّدٍ كَمَا صَلَّيْتَ عَلَى آلِ إِبْرَاهِيمَ وَبَارِكْ عَلَى مُحَمَّدٍ وَعَلَى آلِ مُحَمَّدٍ كَمَا بَارَكْتَ عَلَى آلِ إِبْرَاهِيمَ فِى الْعَالَمِينَ إِنَّكَ حَمِيدٌ مَجِيدٌ
As you can see, the difference is small, and you can choose whichever one you prefer. But what is the secret of the Prophet’s silence, and what is the secret of this particular formula? We use it every day, but do we understand what it means? Do we know what immense blessings and mercy it contains for us, the Ummah of the Best of Creation ﷺ? You may have also noticed that these most authentic narrations do not say “Ibrāhīm and Ibrāhīm’s folk,” as people are usually taught to say, just “Ibrāhīm’s folk.” Why is that? In this article I will be presenting one interpretation, out of a number of them, on the meaning and purpose of this formula. This is the interpretation that I find is most in harmony with the Qurʾān, and links this formula directly to the Qurʾān. It is also the one that fits perfectly with the wording in the most authentic narrations preferred by Imāms Bukhārī and Muslim, and it is an interpretation championed by some of the greatest scholars of this religion, and you will find that they represent some of the top scholars not just of ḥadīth and jurisprudence but also of language and spirituality, starting with Imām al-Shāfiʿī. Before we begin, however, we must first establish who are the ‘folk of Muḥammad’ and ‘folk of Ibrāhīm’ who are mentioned in the formula.
The Folk of our Master Muḥammad ﷺ
I have chosen to translate the word (āl) as folk because it captures the different possible meanings that it could hold in Arabic: it could mean one’s relatives, or it could mean one’s people in general, those who are close to a person or have a special connection to him. These are two different interpretations of the word āl, and until I establish which one I believe to be more correct, I wanted to use the more general term “folk” that could accept both meanings. The difference goes back to different theories on the linguistic origin of the word āl.
The great early authority on language Sībawayh held that āl is originally ahl (family), but that by a two-step transformation a new word came out of it which holds the same meaning: āl. His peer and contemporary al-Kisāʾī held that it comes from the word āla / yaʾūlu which means to return to. Those who are ascribed to someone or linked to him (they are his people, his followers, those close to him, etc), are known as his āl. This position is supported by the fact that the word āl, unlike ahl, is only used when referring to the people of connection to someone important.
The lexicographer al-Rāghib al-Isfahānī, author of the famous dictionary of Qurʾānic terms (al-Mufradāt fī gharīb al-Qur’ān) agreed with al-Kisāʾī. He held that the word āl is used to refer to all those who have a special connection to a person, and that relatives are also part of the āl, only because they too have a type of special connection, not because the word āl means ahl; those who are close supports of a person are also his āl. When the Qurʾān says:
This second meaning is the one chosen by Imām Mālik and a number of early ḥadīth masters and Mālikī jurists. Mālik said that they are those who follow the way of Muḥammad (ahl al-ittibāʿ lah). The early Mālikī ḥadīth scholar al-Jawhārī narrated this at the introduction of his work Musnad al-Muwaṭṭaʾ, to show the honour of learning and following the ḥadīth.
This view is also attributed to Imām Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq, who was the greatest scholar representing the descendants of the Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ in his age. Some of his followers complained to him saying, “The people claim that all the Muslims are the āl of the Prophet ﷺ.” He replied, “They lie and speak the truth at the same time.” They said, “What does that mean?” He said, “They lie if they say that the entire Ummah are his āl. However they are truthful in that those of them who fulfil the requirements of the Prophet’s Sharīʿah are his āl.”
Some, like the great Shāfiʿī scholar al-Qādi Ḥusayn, stated that the āl of the Prophet ﷺ are the people of taqwā. The Sufi and ḥadīth scholar al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī held that the āl of the Prophet ﷺ are those who succeed him in following in his way, especially the people of sincerity and piety known as the ṣiddiqūn. Likewise the great Imām al-Ṭībī, one of the greatest authorities in language as well as jurisprudence, wrote in his commentary on the ḥadīth collection Mishkāt al-maṣābīh: “I say: perhaps the āl should be understood in its general sense to refer to the pious and righteous people of the Ummah, and that the People of the Household therefore become part of that general meaning, by being of those most deserving to be among this category.”
A position like that of Imām al-Ṭībī was taken by Muḥyiddīn Ibn al-ʿArabī. He said:
Know that in the language of the Arabs, the āl of a person are those who are his special people, those who are close to him. Do not imagine, therefore, that the āl of Muḥammad ﷺ are the People of His Household only, for this term is not used by the Arabs in that way. Allāh (most high) said:
Ibn al-ʿArabī found support for his position in a dream vision related to him by Shaykh Kamāl al-Dīn ʿUthmān al-Abharī al-Shāfiʿī, whom he had met in the Masjid al-Aqsā in Jerusalem. The Shaykh said that he saw the Messenger of Allāh ﷺ say to him in a dream, “Every prophet has a support and an āl. The believer is my support and my āl.” He ﷺ repeated the last part again and again.
Ibn al-ʿArabī furthermore delved into the usage of the Arabs to extract more out of this meaning. He pointed out that the Arabs also used the word āl to describe the large image created by a mirage. Therefore the āl is something that appears grand and bigger than it really is because of a mirage. He said, “The āl of Muḥammad, therefore, are those who become great through Muḥammad. For Muḥammad is like a mirage which makes great what is in it.” In other words, if you are a follower of Muḥammad, you are magnified in worth and importance as a member of his Ummah and a follower of his way, so you become great through Muḥammad. That is when you become of his āl.
Others stressed the connection created by knowledge, not just action. Al-Rāghib al-Isfahānī held that those who followed the Prophet by way of imitation should be called his Ummah, but only those who carefully studied his Sunna in order to perfect both knowledge and practice should be called his āl for knowledge is an important component of that strong connection. Similarly, the Grammarian and Sufi author Abū ʿĀmir al-Nasawī said:
It is the scholars of ḥadīth who are the Messenger’s folk (āl al-Rasūl)
for though they did not accompany his person (nafsahu) they accompany his breaths (anfāsahu, i.e. his utterances)
A similar but more expansive opinion is that the ‘āl’ of the Prophet ﷺ refers to all those who follow him in the general sense of being part of his Ummah. This is the position of Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ, Imām al-Nawawī, the great linguist and jurist Abū Manṣūr al-Azharī al-Shāfiʿī, the Arabic lexicographer al-Fayrūzābādī who authored the great al-Qāmūs al-muḥīṭ, one of the most important and widely used classical Arabic dictionaries. It is also the position of the great scholar and knower of Allāh, Shaykh Aḥmad ibn Idrīs, who was asked, “Does the one invoking ṣalawāt upon the Prophet ﷺ need to add “and upon his Companions?” He replied, “There is no need, for they are already among his āl, for his āl are the believers amongst his Ummah.” It is worth noting here that not a single narration amongst the tens of narrations about ṣalawāt mentions the ‘Companions,’ and this itself supports the position that the word āl is wider than just family. This position is supported by a statement attributed to the great Companion our master Jābir ibn ʿAbdullāh (may Allāh be pleased with him). Imām al-Bayhaqī narrated that our master Jābir said: “The āl of Muḥammad are his Ummah.”
These last two meanings can both be right at the same time, in that the āl of Muḥammad are those who are part of his Ummah, who follow him and believe in him, and that those amongst them who have a special connection to the Prophet in being the inheritors of his knowledge, actions, and light, are more deserving of being called his āl. And those amongst the latter group who are also his descendants are even more deserving to be called his āl for having two types of close connection and relation to him ﷺ.
The Secret of the Ṣalāt Ibrāhīmiyya Formula
Now that we have looked at the meaning of the āl of Muḥammad ﷺ, we turn to the meaning of the Ṣalāt al-Ibrāhīmiyya. We begin with Imām al-Shāfiʿī, in a story narrated about him by Imām al-Ghazālī and by Abu l-Ḥusayn al-ʿImrānī in his famous work of Shāfiʿī fiqh al-Bayān. They wrote that Imām Shāfiʿī stated in one discussion that the intended meaning of the Ṣalāt al-Ibrāhīmiyya is the following: “O Allāh send ṣalawāt upon Muḥammad. O Allāh send ṣalawāt upon Muḥammad’s folk as You sent ṣalawāt upon Ibrāhīm’s folk.” Therefore the requested ṣalāt and blessings upon the Prophet ﷺ was independent of anything to do with the Prophet Ibrāhīm or his folk. They were only mentioned in the request for the ṣalāt and blessings upon the folk of Prophet ﷺ.
The great ‘Sultan of the Scholars’ ʿIzz al-Dīn Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām made the same point when he said that it was only the ṣalāt upon the Prophet’s folk which was being compared to the ṣalāt upon Ibrāhīm’s folk. The two ḥadīth masters Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī and his student Imām al-Sakhāwī defended this explanation.
Imām al-Ṭībī had a very similar explanation. He realised that in the Ṣalāt Ibrāhīmiyya, when the Prophet ﷺ said “as You have sent ṣalawāt upon Ibrāhīm’s folk… as You have blessed Ibrāhīm’s folk,” he must have been referring to something already known from before, already mentioned somewhere else. That could only be one thing: the saying of Allāh (most great),
رَحْمَتُ اللهِ وَبَرَكَاتُهُ عَلَيْكُمْ أَهْلَ الْبَيْتِ إِنَّهُ حَمِيدٌ مَّجِيدٌ
The mercy of Allāh and His blessings be upon you, people of this house! He is worthy of all praise and glory (11:73)
Al-Ṭībī realised that the Messenger of Allāh’s formula was closely linked to, and inspired by, this verse of the Qurʾān. The Prophet ﷺ ended the Ṣalāt Ibrāhīmiyya by invoking the same attributes of Allāh linked to the descent of mercy and blessings upon the household of Ibrāhīm. The blessings are also mentioned in both, and those with connection to each prophet (āl/ahl) are mentioned in both. Al-Ṭībī concluded that the word ‘ṣalāt’ in the Ibrāhīmiyya Formula therefore must correspond to the mercy mentioned in the verse.
Al-Ṭībī understood that the whole intention of the Ṣalāt Ibrāhīmiyya was for the sake of the Ummah, not for the Prophet himself ﷺ. The Prophet ﷺ saw the mercy and blessings Allāh gave to the people of the Household of Prophet Ibrāhīm (peace be upon him), and wanted these blessings for his Ummah. Therefore the entire reason he fashioned this formula is for the sake of his Ummah. Though the ṣalāt was originally about him, by adding his followers and asking for them what was given to Prophet Ibrāhīm’s folk, he ﷺ was shifting the focus of the ṣalāt to his Ummah. So the mention of the Prophet ﷺ is not a separate request — as in the understanding attributed to Imām Shāfiʿī — rather it becomes only a way of leading to the mention of his Ummah and asking for them the mercy and blessings given to the Ahl al-Bayt of Prophet Ibrāhīm. This is exactly how Al-Fayrūzābādī also understood the structure of the Ṣalāt Ibrāhīmiyya when he expanded in detail upon the position held by Ibn al-ʿArabī.
What are those blessings the Prophet ﷺ wanted for his Ummah? Al-Ṭībī quoted al-Zamakhsharī’s narration that the mercy in the verse refers to the prophecy granted to some of the sons and descendants of Ibrāhīm, and concluded that the Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ was asking Allāh to honour the pious and pure people of his Ummah in a way similar to how He (عز و جل) honoured the Prophets from amongst the Children of Israel. Muḥyiddīn Ibn al-ʿArabī and al-Fayrūzābādī gave almost the same explanation.
Ibn Ḥajar and al-Sakhāwī summarised the explanation of al-Fayrūzābādī. They stated that the meaning of the Ṣalāt Ibrāhīmiyya becomes the following:
O Allāh, send ṣalawāt upon Muḥammad ﷺ and the followers of Muḥammad by making from amongst them scholars and pious people who reach the highest ranks possible, as You have made from amongst Ibrāhīm’s folk Prophets and Messengers. O Allāh, as You have given revelation to those Prophets and Messengers from Ibrāhīm’s folk, make from the Ummah of Muḥammad ﷺ those who are inspired (muḥaddathūn), and give them some of the attributes of the Prophets.
This is because the Prophet ﷺ had spoken in the most authentic aḥādīth about some of the portions of prophecy that were still available to the members of his Ummah, such as true dream visions, inspiration, good character and right guidance.
Ibn Ḥajar then said: “This is a good explanation, if we accept his claim that this is what was meant by the term ‘ṣalāt.’” The great ḥadīth master al-Sakhāwī concluded by saying that there is immense benefit in this explanation of al-Fayrūzābādī.
This explanation of the ṣalāt fits perfectly with the meaning I expanded on in a previous article. There I quoted al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī who stated that the meaning of ṣalāt is for Allāh to give the believers a light in their hearts. When this light shines upon the hearts of the believers they will attain both outward and inward taqwā, and will possess the faculty known as furqān: a light with which one is able to distinguish between truth and falsehood as mentioned in verse 8:29. Therefore this explanation of ṣalāt goes perfectly with al-Fayrūzābādī’s interpretation of the Ṣalāt Ibrāhīmiyya. The Prophet ﷺ was asking Allāh (most great) to shine a light upon the hearts of his followers in order to spiritually raise them to the highest ranks and grant them guidance, knowledge, and inspiration.
Here we conclude with one more beneficial point Ibn al-ʿArabī made:
Allāh did not command us to invoke ṣalawāt upon Muḥammad’s folk in the Qurʾān, only upon our master Muḥammad ﷺ himself. However, the Messenger of Allāh ﷺ wanted for his Ummah those blessings Allāh gave the Prophets from the House of Ibrāhīm. The Prophet ﷺ could not have taught us this formula of ṣalawāt upon him except through revelation from Allāh, and through what he was shown from Allāh.
What do these statements from Ibn al-ʿArabī help us understand? It helps us understand the period of silence that overtook the Prophet ﷺ:
When the verse telling us to invoke ṣalawāt and send greetings of peace upon the Prophet ﷺ was revealed, the Prophet ﷺ did not explain how it should be done. It would have sufficed to say “O Allāh send ṣalawāt upon Muḥammad.” However, after he was asked about it by his Companions, the Prophet ﷺ went silent until his Companions felt bad and wished that they never asked that question. But it seems that during this silence, the Prophet ﷺ thought of the verse about the mercy and blessings of Allāh upon the House of Ibrāhīm, and he sought permission from his Lord — most generous is He — to include his Ummah in the standard formula of ṣalawāt, so that they receive a portion of what he ﷺ receives. He ﷺ sought permission from his most generous Lord to give his Ummah the like of which He gave to the Prophets from House of Ibrāhīm, at least what could be given to non-prophets. This meant asking for them the highest ranks, inspiration (rather than the revelation given to the Prophets); an increase in the light in their hearts that would give them the ability to distinguish between truth and falsehood, and the ability of their hearts to see with the light of Allāh. The Prophet ﷺ remained silent as he awaited a response from Allāh (most great), and he waited to be shown a formula of ṣalawāt that would answer his request. The generous Lord answered and gave the Beloved what he asked for, and the Prophet ﷺ was shown the Ṣalāt Ibrāhīmiyya as a gift to his followers.
What a compassionate and loving Prophet, and what a generous Lord!
And that is the secret of the Ṣalāt Ibrāhīmiyya. And Allāh most great knows best.
I will conclude with a formula of ṣalawāt which, according to the narration in the Sunan of Ibn Mājah, the Companion Ibn Masʿūd (may Allah be pleased with him) fashioned himself to add before the Ṣalāt Ibrāhīmiyya, with the intention to make his ṣalawāt more beautiful and more excellent:
اللَّهُمَّ اجْعَلْ صَلاَتَكَ وَرَحْمَتَكَ وَبَرَكَاتِكَ عَلَى سَيِّدِ الْمُرْسَلِينَ وَإِمَامِ الْمُتَّقِينَ وَخَاتَمِ النَّبِيِّينَ مُحَمَّدٍ عَبْدِكَ وَرَسُولِكَ إِمَامِ الْخَيْرِ وَقَائِدِ الْخَيْرِ وَرَسُولِ الرَّحْمَةِ
O Allāh send Your ṣalawāt and mercies and blessings upon the Chief of the Messengers, the Imām of the Pious, the Seal of the Prophets Muḥammad, Your servant and Messenger, the Imām to Goodness, the Leader to Goodness, and the Messenger of Mercy!
This article is an abridgement of a longer version which can be read here. The longer version contains lengthier arguments and discussions, footnotes and references. It deals in more depth, from a ḥadīth science point of view, on why some versions include “Ibrāhīm and Ibrāhīm’s folk” while others only include “Ibrāhīm’s folk” and why Imāms Bukhārī and Muslim preferred the latter version, but later scholars came to always choose the longer version. It also discusses the main point of evidence used by those who say that the “āl of Muḥammad” are his relatives.
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