Did Imam Ali name his son Abu Bakr?

Arguably one of the most contentious issues in Sunni-Shia discourse today concerns the honorific titles of three of the children of Imam Ali, Imam al-Hasan, and Imam al-Hussain (asws). According to a number of historians, both Shia and Sunni, each of the first three Imams had a child who bore the Kunya ‘Abu Bakr’. According to Sunnis, this is clear indication that such naming can not be sheer coincidence (this part we do not necessarily disagree with), and it was a statement by the Aimmah of the love and devotion they had for Abu Bakr, and an answer to any claims of the merit and superiority of Ali ibn Abi Talib over him, or of his claims of the rightful successor of the Prophet Muhammed (saw). As human beings who hopefully ensure our beliefs are based upon sound reasoning, as well as an acceptance of evidence over desires, it is necessary to dissect and examine this issue as objectively as is possible.

We hope our dear readers will find that rather than strengthening the Sunni position, the revelation of the three among the children of the Aimmah all having this Kunya, all being present in Medina, at the same time, being roughly similar of age, under the Ummayad control and in particular of  Marwan b. al-Hakkam and his peculiar interest in naming, actually far better supports a Shia narrative , and is inline with the best evidence we have and a balanced and holistic assessment of the geopolitical climate.  We would like to stress that this article is not designed to abuse and disparage the revered companions of other Muslim groups. This is an academic assessment of the evidence, and so care will be taken when discussing extremely highly revered and much loved personalities, even if we differ concerning them. This is in line with the command given to us by the Messenger of Allah (saw), his purified progeny, and the reliable among the scholars of our day ; dialogue should open minds and be inline with a rational assessment of the impact of our words and abusing revered figures, maligning them, is not inline with this. 


We will break down this work into the following sections:

1. Part one: Could the argument from commonality suffice?

2. Part two: The importance of examining the socio-political and cultural context.

3. The ages of Abu Bakr b. Ali , Abu Bakr b. al-Hassan , Abu Bakr b. al-Hussain and their residence.

4. The role of the Ummayads and the particular interest Marwan b. al-Hakam, the deputy of Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufiyan in Medina during the first part of his rule.

5. A holistic assessment and summary.


Part one: Could the argument from commonality suffice?

It has been argued that the Kunya ‘Abu Bakr’ was common, and so the Aimmah naming their children after this common nickname is nothing to be alarmed over. However, the fact is Abu Bakr is the only known Muslim companion who bore this Kunya. It was far from common and only truly gained prominence after his death. There are several possibilities (we will list two main ones) here which are not mutually exclusive:

  1. Abu Bakr was a famous and powerful leader of the Muslims. After his death, many named their children with his honorific title in homage of him.
  2. The Kunya ‘Abu Bakr’ means ‘Father of the young camel’. Just as often occurs in our day and age,when a celebrity or famous figure comes into prominence, or gives their child a certain name, we find that name becomes popular in its own right rather than necessarily a direct tribute to the famous figure who bore that name. It is not inconceivable that the Kunya ‘Father of the young camel’ became popular in a land which heavily relied on and where camels were so ubiquitous as a nick name. 

Nevertheless, we do not believe this to be the strongest position. Even if one were to discount the possibility of it becoming a popular honorific title as stipulated in point two in its own right, there are still other possibilities as to why not one, but three of the Imams resorted to giving their children this honorific title. The most obvious is dissimulation, or Taqqiyah, which will be briefly discussed here but expounded upon in the section pertaining to brutal Ummayad rule. We know of the difficulties faced by Ali ibn Abi Talib, but Hasan ibn Ali and Hussain ibn Ali effectively raised children predominantly in a hostile Ummayad Caliphate, where the staunch hater of the Hashimites, Marwan b. al-Hakkam was governor of in Medina, to where the Imams and their families migrated back after leaving Kufa. We will discuss reliable evidences showing Ummayad propaganda against the Hashimites and in particular the lineage of Ali ibn Abi Talib in a further section inshAllah.

However, although we have listed this as a possibility, we do not think it is the strongest explanation. We also wish to here note that Ali ibn Abi Talib, Hasan ibn Ali , and Hussain ibn Ali gave their children names. Kunyas were not something they necessarily immediately gave to them, and many a time a Kunya can be given as the child grows up, or even when a child is in his or her maturity. One can even possess more than one Kunya. It may also be possible that these were given to them by others.


Part two: The importance of examining the socio-political and cultural context.

It is absolutely essential to consider the socio-political and cultural context of the time period wherein the children of the Aimmah were given their respective titles. One can not judge by modern day standards, whereby Sunni-Shia polemics have crystallised so much so that it is already assumed without any further research that Ali ibn Abi Talib, Hasan ibn Ali, and Hussain ibn Ali gave their children the Kunya ‘Abu Bakr’ and this was out of love for him and a mark of his superiority (among Sunnis). This sort of approach lacks intellectual rigour, honesty, and is merely confirmation bias. A sincere seeker of the truth should exert some effort in digging deeper, and allowing the evidence to lead them.

Why , one may ask, does examining the context of the time period matter? For one, all three children of the Aimmah were of similar ages, and all resided in Medina during an era of severe and harsh Ummayad propaganda against Ali ibn Abi Talib and his children. Furthermore, honorific titles may have become popular in their own right, and given within the context of a nation totally reliant on camels as discussed earlier, which is far more likely in the earlier years before Shia-Sunni polemics began to really crystallise. It is important to have this all in mind as we will expound and show exactly how it relates to the discussion with clear evidence in the later sections.


Part three: The ages of Abu Bakr b. Ali , Abu Bakr b. al-Hassan , Abu Bakr b. al-Hussain and where they lived

Abu Bakr b. Ali b. Abi Talib

We know from books of history written by both Shias and Sunnis that Abu Bakr b. Ali was born not too long before the death of his father, Ali ibn Abi Talib. His real name is likely to have been Muhammed al-Asghar, and he was called al-Asghar because he was the younger of the two ‘Muhammads’ and among the youngest of the offspring of Ali ibn Abi Talib.  

Shaykh al-Mufeed notes: Muhammad al-Asghar, whose secondary name was Abu Bakr, and Ubaidullah, both had been martyred alongside their brother Hussain (as) in Taff, their mother is Laila daughter of Masoud al-Darimiyyah.” [al-Irshad, vol. 1, p. 354]

Abu Bakr b. al-Hasan b. Ali

“From the supporters of Hussein (as) who died with him from bani Hashim are the  sons of Ameer al-Mu’mineen (as) 1- Abu Bakr bin `Ali 2- `Umar bin `Ali (…) 10-`Uthman bin `Ali. The children of al-Hassan (as) (…) 12- Abu Bakr bin al-Hassan” [A`iyan al-Shia – Sayyed Muhsin al-Ameen – 1/610]  

Abu Bakr b. al-Hussain b. Ali

“al-Hussein was buried in Karbala in `Iraq and he was fifty seven, with him was killed six from his father’s children (…) and from his own children three, they are: `Ali al-Akbar, `Abdullah a boy, and Abu Bakr the children of Hussein bin `Ali.”[al-Tanbeeh wal-Ishraf – al-Mas`oudi – p263:]

“The children of al-Hussein (as): When al-Hussein (as) was killed in karbala, Abu Bakr bin al-Hussein was also killed along side him. Shot by an arrow that hit him, the one who shot him was Harmalah al-Kahiliy. His mother is Umm Walad …” [Sharh al-Akhbar – al-Qadi al-Nu`man al-Maghribi – (footnotes & commentary by Muhaqqiq al-Jalali) 3/177-195] 

“Abu Bakr bin al-Hussein bin `Ali bin abi Talib (as), his mother is Umm Walad and she is not known. al-Mada’ini mentions through our Isnad,from abi Mikhnaf from Suleiman bin abi Rashid: `Abdullah al-Ghanawi killed him. In the Hadith of `Amro bin Shamir from Jabir from abi Ja`far: `Uqbah al-Ghanawi killed him. ” [Maqatil al-Talibeen – abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani – p57]

Important points

  1. Abu Bakr b. Ali was known as al-Asghar, and his actual name was Muhammed. He would have been very young at the time of the death of his father, Ali ibn Abi Talib. 
  2. Imam al-Hassan and Imam al-Hussain were of similar age, and both had a child with the Kunya ‘Abu Bakr’.
  3. All three of the children of the Aimmah were of the age whereby they could fight at Kerbala and so may have been of similar ages. Ali ibn Abi Talib (as) having a son rather late in  his life means that even if Imam al-Hassan and Hussein had children, they may have been of a similar age. We find at times, uncles being the same age or not much older than cousins – at times even younger. This is important to note because we do not want our readers assuming one of the children were in their late forties, while another was a child. While they may have variation in age between them, neither would have likely been beyond adolescence during the time of Marwan b.al-Hakkams governorship in Medina, and the rule of the Ummayads. We argue it is simpler to attach honorific titles when individuals are still young or in their early youth.

Thus, after the martyrdom of their father and the peace treaty, Imam al-Hassan and Imam al-Hussain returned to Medina. Again, it is here perhaps, where their children would have all grown up further and so they would have grown up in a Medina now under Ummayad governorship of none other than Marwan b. al-Hakkam. 


Part four :The role of the Ummayads and the particular interest Marwan b. al-Hakam, the deputy of Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufiyan in Medina during the first part of his rule.


Part one: A hostile Ummayad rule

It should be common knowledge – though many of our Sunni brothers and sisters are not as aware, that during the time of the Ummayads, there was vehement and open hatred against Ali ibn Abi Talib. He would be cursed on the very pulpit of the Messenger of Allah (saw) in Medina. We would like to briefly cite a few sources in order to demonstrate this including the hatred of Marwan b. al-Hakkam , a central figure and possible source of the titles given to the children of Ali ibn Abi Talib.

“ “When Marwan was a governor of Mu’awiya in Madina, he would curse Ali every Friday from the pulpit (Minbar). Hasan bin Ali then said to him: “Allah then cursed your father by the tongue of His messenger when you were in his ‘Sulub’ (loins) and has said that the curse of Allah be upon Hakam and his progeny.”

Reference: Imam Ibn Kathir, in his Badaya wa Al Nahayah writes [Volume 8, Page 235]

“I came to Um Salama and she said to me: “How come Allah’s Messenger is being cursed among you?’. I replied: “We seek refuge from allah or praise Allah or some similar words. She said: “I heard Allah’s Messenger [saw] saying , ‘whoever curses Ali, has cursed me’”

Reference: Musnad Ahmad, [Vol 6, Page 323] Declared Sahih by Shaykh Shoib Al-Arnaut

 “The statement of M’uawiyah to S’ad bin Abi Waqqas “What prevents you from cursing Abu Turab” indicates that the first generation of Bani Ummaya would abuse and belittle Ali.

Reference : Qurtubi in his famed work Al-Mufhem, Volume 20, page 25, whilst commenting on the tradition under discussion


Part two: The keen interest Marwan ibn al-Hakkam took with regards to names

Our research has led us to find some rather revealing information concerning how much interest Marwan b. al-Hakkam , importantly the governor of Medina during time the children of Imam Ali, Hassan and Hussain were residing in Medina took a peculiar interest in the names of the children of Ali and his sons. Indeed, his son Abd al-Malik b. Marwan seems to have carried on this interest. Marwan b. al-Hakkam was the fourth Ummayad Caliph, and a major instigator at the civil wars (notably the battle of Jamal which was the first) whereby he sided with Aisha, the wife of the Prophet, against Ali ibn Abi Talib.

Tabari reports in his Tarikh: “It was reported that he was born the night `Ali b. Abi Talib, the Commander of the Faithful, was killed, in Ramadan 40/February 661. He therefore was given both the name and the kunyah of [`Ali b. Abi Talib], that is, Abu al-Hasan. `Abd al-Malik b. Marwan said to him: “By God, I shall not tolerate it that you would use both the name and the kunyah [of `Ali b. Abi Talib].” So he changed his kunyah and made it Abu Muhammad.

Here is what it states in the foot-notes: 

l-Tabari, Ta’rikh, II, 1592. The matter of genealogy and family relations within the Quraysh was of crucial importance in Umayyad propaganda, which is reflected in the stance taken by `Abd al-Malik; see Sharon, “The Umayyads”.

Worthy of note, this was the attitude of the Ummayads before Marwan b. al-Hakkam himself was shortly made the governor of Medina. Indeed, we find a rather interesting exchange between Ali b. Hussain (as) and Marwan b. al-Hakkam who by then was the governor of Medina, in Kitab al-Kafi [V6, C19, H10303]: 

“Mu’awiyah appointed Marwan ibn al-Hakam as his agent in al-Madinah and ordered him to pay a certain salary to the young people of Quraysh which he did. Ali ibn al-Husayn, (as) has  said, ‘I went to him and he asked, ‘What is your name?’ I replied, ‘It is Ali ibn al-Husayn.’ He then asked, ‘What is the name of your brother?’ I replied, ‘It is Ali.’ He said, ‘Ali and Ali. Is it that your father does not want to leave any of his children without naming them all Ali?’ He paid me a certain amount. I returned to my father and informed him of what had happened. He (the Imam) said, ‘Woe is upon the son of al-Zarqa’, the leather- treating man. Even if one hundred sons will be born to me I will not give anyone of them any other name except Ali.'”

 It is clearly demonstrated here , as well as acknowledged by non-Muslim historians that the Banu Ummayah gave importance to name and genealogy. We can see here in the attitude demonstrate by the son of Marwan b.al-Hakkam and Marwan himself.  Notice how much of a keen interest he takes here in the names of the children of Ali b. Abi Talib. Names are a way to promote ones lineage and family relations and loyalties, and as has been cited, were crucial in Ummayad propaganda.


Part three: Is there any evidence Marwan b. al-Hakkam would want to extoll Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman above Ali?

Now that we have demonstrated the level of hatred held by the Banu Ummayah, and in particular men like Marwan b. al-Hakkam , given enormous positions of leadership over a city like Medina, as well as the keen interest he and other members of the Banu Ummayah had taken with regards to honorific titles and names, is there any evidence we have that would indicate he or the Banu Ummayah contingent would have any real motive in extolling the first three Caliphs over Ali ibn Abi Talib? Indeed there exists a tradition which manifests exactly that. 

 “The Prophet (ﷺ) said: The Caliphate of Prophecy will last thirty years; then Allah will give the Kingdom of His Kingdom to anyone He wills.Sa’id told that Safinah said to him: Calculate Abu Bakr’s caliphate as two years, ‘Umar’s as ten, ‘Uthman’s as twelve and ‘Ali so and so. Sa’id said: I said to Safinah: They conceive that ‘Ali was not a caliph. He replied: The buttocks of Marwan told a lie.”


Reference: Sunan Abi Dawud 4646 Book 42, Hadith 51 graded Hasan-Saheeh by Al-Albani.

As can be clearly seen in the tradition, the Ummayads had no real problem with Abu Bakr, Umar, and certainly not with one of their own clan, Uthman. They strongly disliked Ali ibn Abi Talib, and so would extol and glorify the first three Caliphs often at his expense. If virtues of Ali ibn Abi Talib shone, then virtues would be forged for others , to keep him from being above the rest and bring him down to a more level playing field. What better way to spite Ali ibn Abi Talib, and his sons and grandsons than to give them honorific titles of those the Ummayads wanted to extol and promote over him? 


Part five :A holistic assessment and summary.

 It should now be clear to any seeker of the truth that applying twenty first century cultural attitudes, particularly when Shia-Sunni polemics have long crystallised, and neglecting the political, religious, social and cultural factors of seventh century Arabia will lead one to projecting their own beliefs and engaging in confirmation bias, without truly digging a little deeper and seeing the situation for what it may really have been. It should be evident that there are many strong possibilities, supported by evidence, as to the Kunya  ‘Abu Bakr’ being attached to the children of Ali , Hasan and Hussain, all of similar ages, all residing in Medina , coincidentally under brutal Ummayad rule and the governorship of Marwan b. al-Hakkam, on whom we have evidence took a keen interest in naming. We would like to clearly list the major possibilities, from the ones we believe are most likely:

First possibility: A brutal Ummayad rule , which took a keen interest in naming and genealogy , and a further interest in extolling and inventing merits of the first three Caliphs at the expense of Ali b Abi Talib seem to be strong candidates for the source of honorific titles given to the three children of the Aimmah. For one, the three children resided in Medina under Marwan b. al-Hakkam as we have just mentioned, and there is evidence both he and his son took a keen interest against the mention and naming of Ali ibn abi Talib, and were involved in changing honorific titles. At a time when Ali ibn Abi Talib was widely cursed and reviled, this level of propaganda should not be surprising to anybody.

Second possibility: Once more the brutal Ummayad rule, particularly in the form of Marwan b. al-Hakkam may have prompted the Aimmah to give some of the children honorific titles whereby they may not be harassed. This may have been a means whereby the Aimmah tried to safeguard some of their children and perhaps even themselves.  

Third possibility: We know that the Imams had many wives, and children that often went into double digits. The honorific titles could have come from a source other than the Imams themselves, from relatives, to associates , or those who know the children. They may have been given the Kunya ‘Abu Bakr’ by others while growing up,  out of honour of the first Caliph, or because it became more popular in its own right as we have discussed earlier. It may be that the Imams gave their children one Kunya, but they were given another which they were better known by for a variety of possible reasons. The wives of the Aimmah , nor their relatives, or associates were all automatically Shias in the way we understand today. It may well have been a number among them had a variety of leanings – or developed them at some point. 

With so many strong reasons as to why Imam Ali, Hasan and Hussain each had one child with the Kunya ‘ Abu Bakr’, it does not befit any seeker of the truth to project their own sectarian biases into an issue like this. Rather we ask every  reader to embrace objective reasoning and evidence. One does not need to become a Shia or Sunni if they accept or reject the article , for we want our beliefs to be based on what is clear, rather than unclear issues such as naming. One can not accept or reject Aqeedah on such a basis. If we seek truth, we must look at the fundamentals and base our beliefs on them. If you choose to abandon or even re-think your preconceived ideas on this particular topic, it does not necessitate you become a Shia – but you will move to a position that is more inline with the evidence and a fair and intellectually honest assessment.