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Syed Husain M. Jafri
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


An honorific title popularly used for the descendants of the prophet Muḥammad, especially those who descend from his second grandson, Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī, the son of Muḥammad's daughter Fāṭimah, sayyid literally means lord, master, prince, or one who possesses glory, honor, dignity, eminence, or exalted position among his people. It was commonly used by the Arabs before Islam for those who possessed these qualities, either by birth or through noble deeds and magnanimous acts. In pre-Islamic literature such expressions as “he was or became chief, lord, or master [sayyid] of his people” can be found. Sayyid was even used to refer to animals, for example, “my she-camel left behind all other camels or beasts [sayyids].” Sayyid was also typically the name for the head of a tribe or clan, as in the Qurʿān (33:67): “And they (the unbelievers) would say: ‘Our Lord: we obeyed our chiefs [sayyids] and our great ones, and they misled us.’ ” The Qurʿān also uses sayyid in praise of the prophet Yaḥyā: “God gives you glad tidings of Yaḥyā, verifying the truth of a word from God, and be besides noble [sayyid], chaste, and a Prophet of a goodly company of the righteous” (sūrah3:39).

In Mecca the ancestors of Muḥammad—Quṣayy, ʿAbd Manāf, Hāshim, and ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib—being the custodians of the Kaʿbah, the most venerated sanctuary of the Arabian Peninsula, were called “sayyids of their times.” The Prophet's grandfather, ʿAbd al- Muṭṭalib, has been particularly described by the sources as “the leader [sayyid] of the Quraysh until his death.” The Prophet, being fully conscious of his lineal distinctions, is reported to have said: “Allāh chose Ismāʿīl from the sons of Ibrāhīm, and from the sons of Ismāʿīl the Banū Kinānah, and from Banū Kinānah the Quraysh, and from the Quraysh the Banū Hāshim; consequently, I am the best of you as regards family and the best of you as regards genealogy.” In him, therefore, lineal dignity and personal qualities as the recipient of divine revelation and Apostle of God found their highest manifestation. This was duly recognized by the ummah (community), and he was called, in his own lifetime, the sayyid par excellence. Among the most popular epithets with which the Prophet is addressed by the ummah are sayyid al-nās, sayyid al-bashar, sayyid al-ʿArab, sayyid al-mursalīn, sayyid al-anbiyāʿ, that is, lord of mankind, humanity, the Arabs, the apostles, the prophets.

It was, therefore, natural that the Prophet's lineal distinctions and his own exalted position as sayyid should be extended to his family members and descendants. Numerous traditions are recorded by both the Sunnī and Shīʿī in which the Prophet reportedly bestowed great distinctions and honors on his daughter Fāṭimah, his son-in-law ʿAlī ibnAbī Ṭālib (d. 661), and his two grandsons Ḥasan (d. 671) and Ḥusayn (d. 680). For example, he declared ʿAlī “sayyid in this world and a sayyid in the next”. He also called ʿAlī “Sayyid al-Muslimīn,” lord of the Muslims. He exalted the status of his daughter, saying: “Fāṭimah is the sayyidah [mistress] of the women of the World [ʿālamīn]”; “sayyidah of the women of my community”; and “sayyidah of the women of the dwellers in Paradise.” Similarly, for his grandsons he emphatically declared: “al-Ḥasan and al-Ḥusayn are the sayyids [lords] of young men among the inhabitants of Paradise,” and “the two lords of the young men of my community.”

Since the Prophet had no offspring from his son, who died in infancy, his grandsons from his daughter were given the unique privilege of being called Ibn Rasūl Allāh, sons of the Prophet of God. In justification of this, Muḥammad said: “All the sons of one mother trace themselves back to an agnate, except the sons of Fāṭimah, for I am their nearest relative and their agnate.” In another tradition, the Prophet says: “every bond of relationship and consanguinity [thabat wa-nasab] will be severed on the day of resurrection except mine.”

It is against this background that the title sayyid became an exclusive distinction of the descendants of the Prophet in the male lines of Ḥasan and Ḥusayn. In the early period, the title sharīf was also used for both grandsons, but gradually sharīf came to be more commonly used for the descendants of Ḥasan, while sayyid became the title of the descendants of Ḥusayn. See SHARīF. After ʿAlī and Ḥasan, the first two imams respectively, there were nine imams and their brothers in the male line of Ḥusayn (the twelfth imam went into occultation while still a child). The sayyids are thus mainly those who are in the line of descent from the nine imams and their brothers from Ḥusayn to Ḥasan al- ʿAskarī, the eleventh imam (d. 873).

With the expansion of the Islamic empire and changing sociopolitical conditions from the seventh century onward, the descendants of the Prophet moved to various parts of the Islamic world. It was especially during the Umayyad (661–750) and ʿAbbāsid (749–1258) periods that the descendants of the Prophet, considered by the caliphs as a threat to their authority, had to take refuge in far-flung areas. A great number of sayyids migrated initially to Yemen and Iran, where they found conditions more congenial. Later migrations took place mainly from these two countries to other parts of the world. Sind, in the Indian subcontinent, was another place to which the sayyids migrated very early on. In course of time, their number multiplied, and in every Muslim country today numerous sayyid families are well established. Wherever they settled, they were treated with extraordinary respect and veneration because of their direct relation to the Prophet. The Muslims of newly conquered areas, being converts from different faiths, thought it their religious duty to pay utmost regard to the progeny of the Prophet.

Sentimentally and psychologically, the Muslims’ love and respect for the descendants of the Prophet has been, in fact, a natural result of love and respect for the Prophet himself. Socially, the status of the sayyids is so elevated that a non-sayyid would not dare marry a sayyidah, daughter of a sayyid, whereas it would be an honor for a non-sayyid to give his daughter in marriage to a sayyid. Also, one may not sit if a sayyid is standing. In rural Punjab, Sind, and other parts of the Indian subcontinent, people will not sit beside sayyids but prefer to sit on the floor. Sayyids are also the first to be greeted, even by those in authority. In royal courts and ceremonies sayyids are exempted from paying the usual signs of respect, such as touching the ground, prostrating themselves, or continuing to stand before a king.

Sayyids are also distinguished in a number of other ways. For example, zakāt (alms) or other ṣadaqāt (charities) cannot be given to them. This is because the Prophet is reported to have frequently said of ṣadaqāt: “It is the filth of men see also QURʿāN9:103] and permitted neither to Muḥammad nor the family of Muḥammad.” To save them from financial hardship and to maintain their dignity, a special form of tax, called khums, is paid to the sayyids, a tax that was originally meant for the Prophet himself. During Muslim rule in India, as in other Muslim countries, distinguished and learned sayyid families were granted gifts of landed properties and rich stipends. See KHUMS AND ZAKāT.

The sayyids, especially in medieval times, as persons who distinguished themselves by religious learning and pious life, were acknowledged as saints. In fact, most of the Ṣūfī masters or founders of various Ṣūfī orders were the descendants of the Prophet, and it was through their efforts that a majority of non-Muslims converted to Islam. That is particularly the case of the Muslims in the Indian subcontinent. There are a number of tombs in Sind, Punjab, Delhi, and Rajasthan that are centers of pilgrimage and veneration for the Muslims of those regions. Similarly, in Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and other Muslim countries, tombs of sayyids and sayyidahs are frequently visited by the people to invoke their blessings. These saint-sayyids are considered intermediaries between God and the devotees.

To acknowledge their spiritual as well as social supremacy, the sayyids are also called shāh (king) in most parts of Pakistan. In Iran and Turkey the title sayyid is sometimes interchangeable with mīr, and perhaps it is because of Iranian influence that in Sind mīr is also used for sayyids, especially for those who hold political authority as well.

In modern times, with changing sociocultural conditions and with rather uncertain pedigrees, the traditional reverence has weakened. Still, the sayyids today constitute a respectable class in Muslim societies.

See also ʿALī IBN ABī ṬāLIB; FāṭIMAH; ḤUSAYN IBN ʿALī (626–680);KHUMS; MUḥAMMAD, subentry on LIFE OF THE PROPHET; SHARīF; SUFISM, subentry on ṢūFī ORDERS; and ZAKāT.


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For pre-Islamic aspects of the title Sayyid, see Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān al-ʿArab, vol. 4, pp. 215ff (Cairo, 1882), and Edward W. Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon, vol. 4, pp. 1460–1462 (Beirut, 1982). Both works cite references from pre-Islamic literature and the term's subsequent usages in the Islamic period, including references from the Qurʿān and ḥadīth literature. Cornelis van Arendonk, “Sharīf,” in E. J. Brill's First Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol. 7, pp. 324–329 (Leiden, Netherlands, 1987), gives a comprehensive bibliography of sharīf and sayyid and their use in different regions. Ignácz Goldziher, Muslim Studies, vol. 1, pp. 45–98, translated by C. R. Barber and S. M. Stern (London, 1967), is an in-depth study of original sources for the Arab concept of family honor and dignity. Ibn Hishām, Sīrat Rasūl Allāh, vol. 1, pp. 131–145 (Cairo, 1936), is the oldest and best original source for the study of the exalted position of the Prophet's ancestry. Standard Sunnī and Shīʿī collections of Prophetic traditions provide examples of assigning the title Sayyid to ʿAlī, Fāṭimah, al-Ḥasan, and al-Ḥusayn. For use of the title sayyid for the twelve imams from the House of the Prophet and their descendants in different periods and regions, see the following:

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