Abu Turab means Father/Owner of Soil/Dirt/Dust. Imam Ali (as) is affectionately known as Abu Turab both by Shia and non-Shia Muslims. However, the reason why he was given this epithet by the Messenger of Allah (sawa) is disputed. According to the books of the non-Shia, it was an epithet given to him after an argument between Ali (as) and Fatima (as) (may Allah save us from this belief).

Narrated Sahl bin Sa`d:
The most beloved names to `Ali was Abu Turab, and he used to be pleased when we called him by it, for none named him Abu Turab (for the first time), but the Prophet. Once `Ali got angry with (his wife) Fatima, and went out (of his house) and slept near a wall in the mosque. The Prophet (ﷺ) came searching for him, and someone said, “He is there, Lying near the wall.” The Prophet (ﷺ) came to him while his (`Ali’s) back was covered with dust. The Prophet (ﷺ) started removing the dust from his back, saying, “Get up, O Abu Turab!”
حَدَّثَنَا خَالِدُ بْنُ مَخْلَدٍ، حَدَّثَنَا سُلَيْمَانُ، قَالَ حَدَّثَنِي أَبُو حَازِمٍ، عَنْ سَهْلِ بْنِ سَعْدٍ، قَالَ إِنْ كَانَتْ أَحَبَّ أَسْمَاءِ عَلِيٍّ ـ رضى الله عنه ـ إِلَيْهِ لأَبُو تُرَابٍ، وَإِنْ كَانَ لَيَفْرَحُ أَنْ يُدْعَى بِهَا، وَمَا سَمَّاهُ أَبُو تُرَابٍ إِلاَّ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم غَاضَبَ يَوْمًا فَاطِمَةَ فَخَرَجَ فَاضْطَجَعَ إِلَى الْجِدَارِ إِلَى الْمَسْجِدِ، فَجَاءَهُ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم يَتْبَعُهُ، فَقَالَ هُوَ ذَا مُضْطَجِعٌ فِي الْجِدَارِ فَجَاءَهُ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم وَامْتَلأَ ظَهْرُهُ تُرَابًا، فَجَعَلَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم يَمْسَحُ التُّرَابَ عَنْ ظَهْرِهِ يَقُولُ ‏ “‏ اجْلِسْ يَا أَبَا تُرَابٍ ‏”‏‏.‏

Reference: Sahih al-Bukhari 6204

Link: https://sunnah.com/bukhari/78/228

A similar hadith in Bukhari can be seen here: https://sunnah.com/bukhari/79/54

In another hadith in Bukhari, it has added to the beginning:

Narrated Abu Hazim:
A man came to Sahl bin Sa`d and said, “This is so-and-so,” meaning the Governor of Medina, “He is calling `Ali bad names near the pulpit.” Sahl asked, “What is he saying?” He (i.e. the man) replied, “He calls him (i.e. `Ali) Abu Turab.” Sahl laughed and said, “By Allah, none but the Prophet (ﷺ) called him by this name and no name was dearer to `Ali than this.” So I asked Sahl to tell me more, saying, “O Abu `Abbas! How (was this name given to `Ali)?” Sahl said, “`Ali went to Fatima … (hadith continues)

Reference: Sahih al-Bukhari 3703

Link: https://sunnah.com/bukhari/62/54

This is made a bit clearer in Sahih Muslim, the author has included an earlier part where one of the offspring of Marwan bin Hakam (la), who was govener of Medina ordered for the cursing of Ali bin Abi Taleb (as):

Sahl b. Sa`d reported that a person from the offspring of Marwan was appointed as the governor of Medina. He called Sahl b. Sa`d and ordered him to abuse `Ali. Sahl refused to do that. He (the governor) said to him:
If you do not agree to it (at least) say: May Allah curse Abu Turab. Sahl said: There was no name dearer to `Ali than Abu Turab (for it was given to him by the Prophet himself) and he felt delighted when he was called by this name. He (the governor) said to him: Narrate to us the story of his being named as Abu Turab. He said: Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) came to the house of Fatima … (hadith continues)

Reference: Sahih Muslim 2409

Link: https://sunnah.com/muslim/44/59

Interestingly, this is also narrated within the reliable Shia books – primarily coming through the great muhaddith, al-Sheikh al-Sadooq, in the book `ilal al-Shara’i`:

 حدثنا أحمد بن الحسن القطان قال : حدثنا أبو سعيد الحسن بن علي السكري قال : حدثنا الحسين بن حسان العبدي قال : حدثنا عبد العزيز بن مسلم عن يحيى بن عبد الله عن أبيه عن أبي هريرة قال : صلى بنا رسول الله صلى الله عليه وآله الفجر ثم قام بوجه كئيب وقمنا معه حتى صار إلى منزل فاطمة صلوات الله عليها فأبصر عليا نائما بين يدي الباب على الدقعاء فجلس النبي صلى الله عليه وآله فجعل يمسح التراب عن ظهره ويقول : قم فداك أبي وأمي يا أبا تراب ، ثم أخذ بيده ودخلا منزل فاطمة فمكثنا هنية ثم سمعنا ضحكا عاليا ، ثم خرج علينا رسول الله صلى الله عليه وآله بوجه مشرق فقلنا يا رسول الله دخلت بوجه كئيب وخرجت بخلافه ؟ فقال : كيف لا أفرح وقد أصلحت بين اثنين أحب أهل الأرض إلي وإلى أهل السماء
The Prophet (sawa) lead the morning prayers then got up, with a gloomy looking face, until he reached the house of Fatima (sa), whereupon he saw Ali (as) sleeping in front of the main house door on the dirt. The Prophet (sawa) sat next to him and began to wipe off the dust that was upon his back, saying: “Get up, may my Mother and Father be sacrificed for you, Oh Abu Turab”. He (sawa) then took him (as) by the hand and entered the house of Fatima (sa), while we remained outside when we then heard a loud laugh. Soon-after, the Messenger of Allah (sawa) came out to us with a luminous face, so we asked: “Oh Messenger of Allah (sawa), you entered with a gloomy face and came out with the opposite?” He (sawa) replied: “How can I not be happy when I have reconciled between two, who upon this Earth are most beloved to me and to the dwellers of the heavens.”

Sanad: Ahmed bin al-Hassan al-Qataan, from Abu Sa`eed al-Hassan bin Ali al-Sukri, from al-Hussain bin Hassaan al-Abdi, from Abd al-Aziz bin Muslim, from Yahya bin Abd Allah, from Abu Huraira who narrated the above hadith.

Reference: `ilal al-Shara’i`, Volume 1, Chapter 125, Hadith #1

Al-Sadooq then narrates another hadith very similar which is not related to the epithet Abu Turab, although very similar to the above hadith.1 After narrating the two hadiths, the author and transmitter of these hadiths, al-Sadooq, says:

ليس هذا الخبر عندي بمعتمد ولا هو لي بمعتقد في هذه العلة لان عليا عليه السلام وفاطمة عليها السلام ما كان ليقع بينهما كلام يحتاج رسول الله صلى الله عليه وآله إلى الاصلاح بينهما لأنه ” ع ” سيد الوصيين وهي سيدة نساء العالمين مقتديان بنبي الله صلى الله عليه وآله في حسن الخلق

“This narration is not reliable according to me, nor is it (the epithet of Abu Turab) considered for this reason, because Ali (as) and Fatima (sa) did not have any form of discussion that would require the Messenger of Allah (sawa) to reconcile between them – because he [Ali] (as) is the Master of successors, and she [Fatima] (sa) is the Master of Women of the Worlds. They succeed the Prophet of Allah (sawa) in the best of creations.”

Furthermore to this, when we analyse the chain, we find that the hadith has a very famous primary narrator – Abu Huraira (as). So this hadith, although found in the books of the Shia, has been primarily narrated by a non-Shia. There are hadiths attributed to the Imams (as) where they have stated Abu Huraira was one of three who consistently lied upon the Prophet (sawa).2 So it is a big possibilty that this was a fabrication created by Abu Huraira.

Further than that, there is a big chance the narrator that al-Sadooq (ra) took from for both hadiths was also from the non-Shia (i.e. the Sunni’s), which may have influenced the hadith. Many have claimed that  Ahmed bin al-Hassan al-Qataan was from the `Aammah (i.e. main body of Muslims, the ‘Ahlul-Sunnah’). Sayed al-Kho’i says in his Mu`jim Rijal al-Hadith:

ولا يبعد في أن يكون الرجل من العامة ، كما استظهر بعضهم

“It is not far-fetched that he is from the men of the `Aammah, as others have made apparent.”3

al-Sadooq (ra) goes on to narrate a hadith that he says he depends on over the others in relation to the epithet Abu Turab:

لكني اعتمد في ذلك على ما حدثني به أحمد بن الحسن القطان قال : حدثنا أبو العباس أحمد بن يحيى بن زكريا قال : حدثنا بكر بن عبد الله بن حبيب قال : حدثنا تميم بن بهلول ، عن أبيه قال : حدثنا أبو الحسن العبدي ، عن سليمان بن مهران عن عباية ابن ربعي قال : قلت لعبد الله بن عباس ، لم كنى رسول الله صلى الله عليه وآله عليا عليه السلام أبا تراب ؟ قال لأنه صاحب الأرض وحجة الله على أهلها بعده وبه بقاؤها واليه سكونها ولقد سمعت رسول الله صلى الله عليه وآله يقول : إنه إذا كان يوم القيامة ورأي الكافر ما أعد الله تبارك وتعالى لشيعة علي من الثواب والزلفى والكرامة قال يا ليتني كنت ترابا – يعني من شيعة علي – وذلك قول الله عز وجل : ويقول الكافر يا ليتني كنت ترابا .
[al-Sadooq says:] But, what is reliable with regards to that, is what was narrated to me … from `Aabaayah bin Raba`i, who said:
I asked Abdullah bin `Abbas, why did the Messenger of Allah (sawa) give the epithet of Abu Turab to Ali (as)? He said: “Because he is the Master of the earth, and Proof of Allah (swt) over its inhabitants after him [the Prophet (sawa)], and its tranquillity is due to him. I heard the the Messenger of Allah (sawa) saying: ‘When it will be the Day of Judgement, and the disbeliever would see what Allah (swt) has Prepared for the Shia of Ali (as), from the rewards and the nearness, and the prestige, he would say “Oh woe upon me! I wish I were dust!”, i.e., from the Shia of Ali (as) and that is in the Words of Allah Mighty and Majestic {and the unbeliever shall say: Oh woe upon me! I wish I were dust!’} (78:40).'”

Sanad: Ahmed bin al-Hassan al-Qataan, from Abu Al-Abbas Ahmad bin Yahya Bin Zakariyya, from Bakr bin Abdullah bin Habeeb, from Tameem bin Bahlool, from his father, from Abu Al-Hassan Al-`Abdi, from Sulaiman bin Mahran, from `Aabaayah bin Raba`i who said the above hadith

Reference: `ilal al-Shara’i`, Volume 1, Chapter 125, Hadith #3

Note: This hadith is also narrated to al-Sadooq (ra) via Ahmed bin al-Hassan al-Qataan.

al-`Allaamah al-Majlisi says in his commentary of this hadith:

يمكن أن يكون ذكر الآية لبيان وجه آخر لتسميته عليه السلام بأبي تراب ، لان شيعته لكثرة تذللهم له وانقيادهم لأوامره سموا ترابا كما في الآية الكريمة ، و لكونه عليه السلام صاحبهم وقائدهم ومالك أمورهم سمي أبا تراب ، ويحتمل أن يكون استشهادا لتسميته عليه السلام بأبي تراب ، أو لأنه وصف به على جهة المدح لا على ما يزعمه النواصب لعنهم الله حيث كانوا يصفونه عليه السلام به استخفافا

It is possible that the remembrance of this ayah is another perspective to the reason that he [Ali] (as) was named Abu Turab, because his Shia, due to their lowliness before him, and their submissive obedience to his orders, were named Turab (dust), just like in the noble ayah. Also, the fact that he (as) is their companion, and their leader, and the ruler of their affairs, he was named Aba Turab (Father of Dust). It is also possible that it is [simply] a testimony to the naming of him (as) of Abu Turab, in that it is attributed to him from a praiseworthy perspective, unlike how the nawasib (those who harbour enmity towards the ahlulbayt (as)), may Allah curse them, have attributed to him with belittlement (found in the other hadiths we mentioned).4

Finally, there is one more hadith mentioned by al-Sadooq in `ilal in relation to this epithet, which seems to suggest that the reasons the epithet was given is different to what the people attribute it to:

حدثني الحسين بن يحيى بن ضريس ، عن معاوية بن صالح بن ضريس البجلي قال : حدثنا أبو عوانة قال : حدثنا محمد بن يزيد وهشام الزراعي قال : حدثني عبد الله بن ميمون الطهوي قال : حدثنا ليث ، عن مجاهد ، عن ابن عمر قال بينا أنا مع النبي صلى الله عليه وآله في نخيل المدينة وهو يطلب عليا عليه السلام إذا إنتهى إلى حايط فاطلع فيه فنظر إلى علي ” ع ” وهو يعمل في الأرض وقد اغبار ، فقال ما ألوم الناس إن يكنوك أبا تراب ، فلقد رأيت عليا تمعر وجهه وتغير لونه واشتد ذلك عليه فقال النبي صلى الله عليه وآله ألا أرضيك يا علي قال : نعم يا رسول الله فأخذ بيده فقال : أنت أخي ووزيري وخليفتي في أهلي تقضى ديني وتبرئ ذمتي ، من أحبك في حياة مني فقد قضى له بالجنة ، ومن أحبك في حياة منك بعدى ختم الله له بالأمن ، والايمان ، ومن أحبك بعدك ولم يرك ختم الله له بالأمن والايمان وآمنه يوم الفزع الأكبر ، ومن مات وهو يبغضك يا علي مات ميتة جاهلية يحاسبه الله عز وجل بما عمل في الاسلام
ibn `Umar said: While I was with the Prophet (sawa) among the palm trees of Medina, and he was looking for Ali, when he ended up to a garden. He noticed Ali therein working on the ground, and he was covered in dust. So he (sawa) said: “What blame can I place on the people if they were to give you the epithet ‘Abu Turab‘.”
At that point I saw Ali’s face turn red and change colour and it increased upon him, so the Prophet (sawa) said: “Should i please you, Oh Ali?” He (as) replied: “Yes Oh Rasool Allah.” So he (sawa) grabbed him by his hand and said: “You are my brother, and my Vizier, and my Caliph among my family. You will fulfill my debts, and my responsibilities. The one who loves you during my lifetime, I shall judge the Paradise for him, and the one who loves you after my lifetime, Allah would Seal the security, and the faith for him. And the one who loves you after you, and he has not seen you, Allah would Seal the security and the faith for him, and Give him security on the Day of the great terror. And the one who dies and he has hated you, Oh Ali, died the death of ignorance (Jahaliyyah). Allah Mighty and Majestic would only Reckon the one with what he had done during al-Islam.

Sanad: al-Husayn bin Yahya bin Dhareys, from Muawiya bin Salih bin Dhareys al-Bajali, from abu Awana, from Muhammad bin Yazeed and Hashim al-Zarai’e, from Abdullah bin Maymoun al-Tahouwi, from Layth, from Mujahid, from Ibn `Umar who said the above hadith

Reference: `ilal al-Shara’i`, Volume 1, Chapter 125, Hadith #4

in regards to this hadith and the part where it says: “Ali’s face turn red and change colour and it increased upon him”, al-Sayed Ja`far al-`Amili said:

 أن اشتداد ذلك على أمير المؤمنين « عليه السلام » ، إنما هو لعلمه : بأن الذين سيقولون عنه ذلك إنما يريدون تنقصه وتصغير شأنه بكلامهم هذا ، وتحريفاً منهم لمقصد رسول الله « صلى الله عليه وآله » من إطلاق هذا اللقب عليه . لأنه « صلى الله عليه وآله » قال ذلك له على غير المعنى الذي أرادوه . والله أعلم بحقيقة الحال

The increasing (of the change of colour) upon Ameer al-Mu’mineen (as), was because it was within his knowledge that (some of) those who will call him this (Abu Turab) say it with the intention of belittling him and decrease his grandeur with these words of theirs. They manipulate the true meaning that the Messenger of Allah (sawa) intended with this nickname given to him, because he (sawa) said this to him [Ali] with a different meaning to what they have intended, and Allah is all-Knowing in the realities of situations.5

Conclusion

Although there are contradictory hadiths found, all of which have issues with the chain of narrators, we know for a fact that Ali (as) was named Abu Turab. History testifies to this, and is something well established and found in a plethora of hadiths from all factions within Islam. As for the reason, we are left to reconcile between the contradictory hadiths.

If we bring all the hadiths together, the only reconciliation between all of them is that Imam Ali (as) was given the epithet of Abu Turab for one reason, but the people manipulated it to be something else.

It is certain that if the Prophet (sawa) gave this name to Ali (as), then it was meant in praise of him. The only hadith which suggests this is the one which speaks about the disbelievers saying on the Day of Judgement: “Oh woe upon me! I wish I were dust!”, meaning from the Shia of Ali (as), in hadith #3 of `ilal narrated by Sheikh al-Sadooq.

However, the enemies of Ali (as) changed the story to have it tied in with an imaginary argument between Ali (as) and Fatima (as), which is highlighted by the statement of the Prophet (sawa): “What blame can I place on the people if they were to give you the epithet ‘Abu Turab‘” (Hadith #4 in `ilal). Because Ali (as) was always covered in dust from working hard or prolonged prostration etc., it was made easy for the enemies of Ali (as) to concoct the fabrication that he (as) was given this name simply because he was always covered in dust.

Allah (swt), the all-Knowing, all-Wise, knows best.

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Footnotes

1.

حدثنا أحمد بن الحسن القطان قال : حدثنا الحسن بن علي بن الحسين السكري قال حدثنا عثمان بن عمران قال : حدثنا عبيد الله بن موسى عن عبد العزيز عن حبيب بن أبي ثابت قال : كان بين علي وفاطمة عليهما السلام كلام فدخل رسول الله صلى الله عليه وآله والقى له مثال فأضطجع عليه فجاءت فاطمة عليها السلام فاضطجعت من جانب وجاء علي عليه السلام فأضطجع من جانب فأخذ رسول الله صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم يده فوضعها على سرته وأخذ يد فاطمة فوضعها على سرته فلم يزل حتى أصلح بينهما ثم خرج فقيل له يا رسول الله دخلت وأنت على حال وخرجت ونحن نرى البشرى في وجهك ؟ قال : ما يمنعني وقد أصلحت بين اثنين أحب من على وجه الأرض إلي

There was discussion between Ali (as) and Fatima (sa), when the Messenger of Allah (sawa) who was given a place of rest, so he laid down on it. Therein Fatima (sa) laid down on one side, and Ali (as) came and laid down on another side. The Messenger of Allah (sawa) took his [Ali’s (as)] hand and placed it on his stomach, and then took Fatima’s (sa) hand and placed it on his stomach – and did not change this until he reconciled between them. He [the Prophet (sawa)] then left and it was said to him “Oh Messenger of Allah (sawa) you entered while you were in one state and left while we see glad tidings upon your face?” He replied: “What would prevent me [from being happy] while I have reconciled between two who are more beloved to me than anyone on the face of this Earth.”

Sanad: Ahmed bin al-Hassan al-Qataan, from al-Hassan bin Ali bin al-Hussain al-Sukri, from Uthman bin `Amraan, from Udayd Allah bin Musa, from Abd al-Aziz, from Habeeb bin Abi Thaabit who narrated the above hadith.

Reference: `ilal al-Shara’i`, Volume 1, Chapter 125, Hadith #2

2.

 حدثنا محمد بن إبراهيم بن إسحاق الطالقاني رضي الله عنه قال : حدثنا عبد العزيز بن يحيى قال : حدثني محمد بن زكريا قال : حدثنا جعفر بن محمد بن عمارة ، عن أبيه قال : سمعت جعفر بن محمد عليهما السلام يقول : ثلاثة كانوا يكذبون على رسول الله أبو هريرة ، وأنس بن مالك ، وامرأة

I heard Ja`far bin Muhammad [al-Sadiq] (as) say: Three people used to lie upon the Messenger of Allah (sawa) [i.e. attribute falsehood to him]: Abu Huraira, Anas bin Malik, and a particular woman.

Sanad: Muhammad bin Ibrahim bin Ishaaq al-Taaqaani, from Abd al-Aziz bin Yahya, from Muhammad bin Zakariyya, from Ja`far bin Muhammad bin `Ammaarah, from his Father who narrated the above hadith.
Reference: al-Khisal, Page 190, Hadith #263

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3. Mu`jim Rijal al-Hadith, Volume 2, Page 93, #511.

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4. al-Majlisi, Bihar al-Anwar, Volume 35, Page 51

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5. al-Sayed Ja`far al-`Amili, al-Saheeh min Seerat Imam Ali (as), Volume 2, Page 254
Link: ablibrary