Attack On Fatima’s House

The attack on Fatima’s house refers to a disputed violent attack on the house of Fatima, daughter of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The attack reportedly took place shortly after Muhammad’s death in 11 AH (632 CE) and was instigated by Muhammad’s successor Abu Bakr and led by Umar, an aide to Abu Bakr. The purpose of the attack was to arrest Fatima’s husband Ali, who had refused to acknowledge the authority of Abu Bakr. It is alleged that her injuries during the raid directly caused the young Fatima’s miscarriage and death within six months of Muhammad.

The above allegations are brought forward by the Shia and categorically rejected by the Sunni, the two largest branches of Islam. On the one hand, Shia historians list some early Sunni sources that corroborate these allegations, and point out that sensitive information has been censored by Sunni scholars who were concerned with the righteous presentation of Muhammad’s companions. On the other hand, it is unimaginable for Sunnis that Muhammad’s companions would engage in violence against Muhammad’s family. In turn, Sunni Islam holds that Fatima died from grief after Muhammad’s death and that her child died in infancy of natural causes.

Following her will, Abu Bakr was excluded from the private funeral of Fatima, and she was buried secretly at night. Fatima has been compared to Mary, the mother of Jesus, especially in Shia Islam. In view of Fatima’s place in Islam, these allegations are highly controversial, with beliefs primarily split along sectarian lines between Sunni and Shia denominations.

Historical background

See also: Succession to Muhammad and Saqifa


In the immediate aftermath of Muhammad’s death in 11/632, the Ansar (natives of Medina) gathered in the Saqifa (lit. ’courtyard’) of the Sa’ida clan. The conventional wisdom is that they met to decide on a new leader for the Muslim community among themselves. For Madelung, however, the absence of the Muhajirun (migrants from Mecca) from this meeting suggests that the Ansar gathered to re-establish the control of the Ansar over their city Medina, under the belief that the Muhajirun would mostly return to Mecca after Muhammad’s death.

Abu Bakr and Umar, both companions of Muhammad, hastened to the gathering upon learning about it. After a heated session, in which a chief of the Ansar was likely beaten into submission by Umar, those gathered at Saqifa agreed on Abu Bakr as the new head of the community.

Opposition to Saqifa

The Saqifa event is said to have excluded Muhammad’s family, who were preparing to bury him, and most of the Muhajirun. To protest the appointment of Abu Bakr, al-Baladhuri (d. 892) reports that the Banu Hashim (Muhammad’s clan) and some of his companions gathered at Fatima’s house. Among them were Muhammad’s uncle Abbas and his companion Zubayr, according to Madelung. The protesters, including Fatima, held that her husband Ali was the rightful successor to Muhammad, possibly referring to Muhammad’s announcement at Ghadir Khumm. Ali is believed to have explained this position to Abu Bakr.

Threats against Ali

After the Saqifa affair, Abu Bakr reportedly tasked his ally Umar with securing Ali’s pledge of allegiance. As noted by Sunni historian al-Tabari (d. 923), the latter led an armed mob to Ali’s residence and threatened to set the house on fire if Ali and his supporters would not pledge their allegiance to Abu Bakr. Al-Tabari writes that Umar shouted, “By God, either you come out to render the oath of allegiance [to Abu Bakr], or I will set the house on fire.” The scene soon grew violent, and Zubayr was disarmed and carried away. Al-Tabari writes that Zubayr had come out of the house with his sword drawn but tripped on something and was then attacked.

The mob, however, retreated without Ali’s pledge after Fatima pleaded with them, as reported in al-Imama wa al-siyasa. Alternatively, al-Baladhuri states that Ali capitulated and pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr immediately after Umar’s threat. In contrast, the canonical Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim relate that Ali pledged to Abu Bakr after Fatima died. Soufi comments that all but one of the traditions cited by al-Tabari and al-Baladhuri do not have chains of transmission that reach back to the time of the conflict.

Boycott of Ali

Madelung believes that Abu Bakr later placed a boycott on Ali and, more broadly, on the Banu Hashim to abandon their support for Ali. As a result, prominent men ceased to speak to Ali, according to a Sunni hadith attributed to Aisha. Hazleton similarly writes that Ali prayed alone even in the mosque. Jafri adds that those who initially supported Ali gradually turned and pledged their allegiance to Abu Bakr. It appears that only his wife Fatima and their four small children remained on his side, writes Hazleton, in line with a statement to this effect attributed to Ali in Nahj al-balagha.

Umar’s reputation

Umar has been noted for his severity and misogyny, especially in Shia sources. “Umar’s toughness” (shidda) is cited in a Sunni tradition by Aisha as the reason Umar was excluded from a supposed attempt at reconciliation between Ali and Abu Bakr. Kelen describes an incident of Umar’s violence against his sister when she professed Islam (before Umar).

The location of Fatima's house in the Prophet's Mosque in Medina, present-day Saudi Arabia

The location of Fatima’s house in the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, present-day Saudi Arabia

Shia narrative

It is uncertain what followed the above altercation at Fatima’s house. Shia sources allege that Fatima suffered injuries and miscarriage during a raid on her house led by Umar. In particular, Shia alleges that Fatima miscarried her son Muhsin, whose name had been chosen by Muhammad before his death, according to Abbas.

Kitab Sulaym ibn Qays

Authenticity of the book

Perhaps the earliest and most detailed Shia account of Umar’s raid appears in the Kitab Sulaym ibn Qays (lit. ’book of Sulaym ibn Qays’). The attribution of this collection of Shia hadiths to Sulaym, who might have been a close companion of Ali, is often rejected by Sunnis. On the other hand, when asked about it, the fifth Imam, Muhammad al-Baqir (d. 114/732), is said to have confirmed the authenticity of the book. Nevertheless, there is no consensus among Shia theologians about the reliability of the whole book. After analyzing the text, Modarresi is of the view that the core of the text has been preserved and dates back to before 138 AH, while some parts of the book might be more recent, such as its prediction of black banners arriving from the East before the collapse of the Umayyads. At the same time, such instances of anachronism have been viewed by the Shia as prophesies on the part of the prophet and the Shia Imams, notes Khetia.


Much of the post-Saqifa account in the Kitab Sulaym ibn Qays is similar to (Sunni) historical sources, but the book also contains explicit details of an alleged raid led by an impatient Umar on Fatima’s house after multiple failed attempts to subdue Ali. The account is narrated on the authority of Salman (d.c. 32/653), a close companion of both the prophet and Ali. In the final standoff, according to this account, Fatima refused the mob entry into the house, after which an enraged Umar ignored Fatima’s pleas and set the door on fire, pushing his way into the house. Upon Fatima’s resistance, the account describes that Umar physically assaulted her with a sheathed sword. The mob soon overpowered Ali and dragged him away, striking Fatima again as she tried to prevent it. The account states that Fatima still carried the bruises from this raid when she died soon after.

Soufi notes that a slightly different version of the book also contains a reference to Fatima’s miscarriage, while another condensed version only mentions Umar’s role in the event. In all versions, it is Ali or Fatima who argue with Abu Bakr and Umar about the rights of the Ahl al-Bayt.

Kitab al-Kafi

Kitab al-Kafi is a canonical collection of Twelver hadiths compiled by al-Kulayni (d. 329/941). The book contains a tradition ascribed to the seventh Imam, Musa al-Kazim (d. 183/799), which describes Fatima as a (female) martyr (shahida). This hadith is narrated on the authority of a brother of al-Kazim with the name of Ali ibn Ja’far al-Sadiq, who is regarded as a prolific and trustworthy narrator and a mainstream Shia. As a result, this tradition is viewed as authoritative and authentic in Twelver scholarly circles.

Kamil al-ziyarat

Kamil al-ziyarat was compiled by al-Qummi (d. 368/977), a distinguished Twelver traditionist. The book includes a hadith ascribed to the sixth Imam, Ja’far al-Sadiq (d. 148/765), in which the prophet was informed during the Isra about the violent deaths of his family at the hands of Muslims. For his daughter Fatima, the report mentions her miscarriage and death because of her injuries during a raid on her house. This tradition is reported on the authority of Hammad ibn Uthman, a well-known companion of al-Sadiq and a mainstream Shia. As a result, this tradition is again viewed as authentic in Twelver hadith circles.

According to Khetia, this book contains the earliest reference to Fatima’s miscarriage during Umar’s raid. Alternatively, Soufi notes that a slightly different version of the Kitab Sulaym ibn Qays already refers to Fatima’s miscarriage during the attack. Aside from these works, multiple sources record a fifth child of Fatima, named Muhsin, though Sunni sources maintain that he died in infancy.

Tarikh al-Ya’qubi

Al-Ya’qubi (d. 284/897) describes a raid on Fatima’s house led by Abu Bakr and Umar, writing that Ali came out with a sword but was overpowered. The mob then entered the house but left after Fatima threatened to cry to God for help. He also cites Abu Bakr’s regret on his deathbed for breaking into Fatima’s house. Al-Ya’qubi lists Muhsin among the children of Fatima without alluding to miscarriage.

Kitab al-Irshad

This work was compiled by al-Mufid (d. 413/1022), another prominent Twelver theologian. Therein, al-Mufid only mentions the Shia belief in the miscarriage of Muhsin without referring to Umar or listing any traditions to support this belief. Considering that al-Mufid writes about violence against Fatima elsewhere, Khetia suspects that he refrained in his Kitab al-Irshad from controversial topics to render the book accessible to most Twelvers without provoking the anger of Sunnis.

Dala’il al-imama

In his Dala’il al-imama, Ibn Rustam (4/11 century) includes a tradition from Ja’far al-Sadiq on the authority of Abu Basir, a prolific transmitter of hadith and a close companion of the sixth Imam. The rest of the chain of transmission includes some of the most prominent Shia authorities, and this hadith is thus viewed as reliable. The content of the hadith is very similar to the account found in the Kitab Sulaym ibn Qays, except that it adds that Fatima lost Muhsin when she was struck by a client of Umar, named Qunfudh, rather than Umar himself.

Sunni narrative

The allegations of violence are categorically rejected by Sunnis, who also maintain that Muhsin died in infancy of natural causes. Nevertheless, these allegations have found some support in Sunni historical sources: In his al-Saqifa wa Fadak, al-Jawhari (d. 935) includes a tradition to the effect that Umar and his men first threatened to set Fatima’s house on fire. Then they entered the house, despite her pleas, and forced Ali and his supporters out of the house. The remainder of the account in al-Imama wa al-siyasa describes that Ali was pulled out of his house by force and threatened with death, according to Khetia. Mu’awiya (r. 661–680) is known to have alluded to the violent arrest of Ali in a letter to him before the Battle of Siffin.

Modern views

Madelung is uncertain about the use of force. Still, he notes that there is evidence (in Sunni sources) that Fatima’s house was searched. According to Madelung, Ali later repeatedly said that he would have resisted (Abu Bakr) had there been forty men with him. Alternatively, Buehler suggests that the allegations of violence should be treated with caution as they reflect the political agendas of the time. In contrast, Veccia Vaglieri is of the view that the Shia allegations are based on facts, even if they have been exaggerated. Abbas writes that some well-regarded Sunni sources mention Umar’s raid and Fatima’s injuries.


Khetia believes that there are known instances where sensitive information has been censored by Sunni authors, such as the prominent jurist Abu Ubayd al-Salam (d. 837), who was possibly concerned with the righteous representation of Muhammad’s companions. Similar allegations have emerged against al-Tabari and al-Mas’udi (d. 956), though the latter has also been accused of Shia tendencies. Along these lines, Lucas and Soufi both note the Sunni tendency to minimize and neutralize the conflicts among companions after Muhammad, particularly about the Saqifa affair, while these conflicts might have been amplified in Shia records.

Abu Bakr’s regret

Both al-Tabari and al-Mas’udi note that Abu Bakr regretted the events after Saqifa on his deathbed. In particular, al-Tabari states that Abu Bakr wished he had “never opened Fatima’s house to anything, even though they had locked it as a gesture of defiance.” This appears to have been a sensitive admission that has been censored by the Sunni author Abu Ubayd al-Salam in his Kitab al-amwal. Abu Bakr’s regret is also cited by the Shia al-Ya’qubi (d. 897-8).

Death of Fatima

Fatima died in 11/632, within six months of Muhammad’s death. She was about eighteen or twenty-seven at that time according to Shia and Sunni sources, respectively. The Sunni view is that Fatima died from grief after Muhammad’s death. Shia Islam, however, holds that Fatima’s injuries during the raid by Umar directly caused her miscarriage and death shortly after.

Some sources report that Fatima never reconciled with Abu Bakr and Umar, partly based on a tradition to this effect in the canonical Sunni collection Sahih al-Bukhari. There are also some accounts that Abu Bakr and Umar visited Fatima on her deathbed to apologize, which Madelung considers self-incriminatory. As reported in al-Imama wa al-siyasa, Fatima reminded the two visitors of Muhammad’s words, “Fatima is part of me, and whoever angers her has angered me.” The dying Fatima then told the two that they had indeed angered her and that she would soon take her complaint to God and His prophet, Muhammad. There are also Sunni reports that Fatima reconciled with Abu Bakr and Umar, though Madelung suggests that they were invented to address the negative implications of Fatima’s anger.

Following her will, Ali buried Fatima secretly at night. As noted by al-Tabari, her dying wish was that Abu Bakr should not attend the funeral, and this request was fulfilled by Ali. Her exact burial place in Medina remains uncertain.

Reaction of Ali

Sunni sources are nearly unanimous that Ali pledged his allegiance to Abu Bakr after Fatima’s death. When it became clear that Muslims did not broadly support his cause, Ali is said to have relinquished his claims to the caliphate for the sake of the unity of a nascent Islam, which faced internal and external threats, according to Mavani. In particular, Jafri notes that Ali turned down proposals to forcefully pursue the caliphate, including an offer from Abu Sufyan. In reference to Abu Bakr’s caliphate, Madelung writes that a poem later began to circulate among the Banu Hashim ending with, “Surely, we have been cheated in the most monstrous way.” Ali forbade the poet to recite it, adding that the welfare of Islam was dearer to him than anything else.

In sharp contrast with Muhammad’s lifetime, Ali is believed to have retired from public life during the caliphates of Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman. Anthony describes this change in Ali’s attitude as a silent censure of the first three caliphs. While he reportedly advised Abu Bakr and Umar on government and religious matters, the mutual distrust and hostility of Ali with Abu Bakr and Umar is well-documented, though largely downplayed or ignored in Sunni sources. Their differences were epitomized during the proceedings of the electoral council in 644 when Ali refused to be bound by the precedence of the first two caliphs.

A common Sunni argument is that Ali would have never continued his relations with Umar had the latter organized a raid on Ali’s home. A typical Shia response is that Ali gave up his rights and exercised restraint for the sake of a nascent Islam, according to Abbas.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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