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The word with long ā in the second system , is the plural of sharīf "noble", from sharafa "to be highborn", but ašhraf (أشرف), with short a, is the elative of sharīf meaning "very noble", "nobler", "noblest".
Like the Sadah (plural of Sayyid), Ashraf often take their names from ancestry from Muhammad, Fatima and Ali and have in many Muslim societies Ashraf evolved into an honorific denoting "master" or "gentry". More precisely, the Ashraf are descendants of Ali's elder son, Hassan, and the Sadah those of Ali's younger son Hussain.
During the Abbasid period, the term was applied to all Ahl al-Bayt, basically Muhammad's own family, including, for example, the descendants of Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya, of Ali's second wife and of the Hashemites. During the Fatimid Dynasty, the use of the term was restricted to the descendants of Hasan and Husayn only. This restriction remained in force even after Egypt became Sunni again under the Ayyubids.
Also, the Ashraf tribes exist along countries including Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia. There are 2 to 3 sub-categories of them also, which usually have Sharif in their middle or surname. They are originally from Yemen and have in the recent generations migrated to Somalia due to its wealth and profitable businesses at the time, before the civil war broke out.
Many tribes couldn't distinguish between Ashraf and Sadah. Sadah, Ashraf and Sayyid became a Sharif's title. The distinction between Hassani Ashraf and Hussaini Ashraf is not known. As late as the beginning of the nineteenth century, Sayyid had no meaning other than Sharif. Abdurrahman al-Gabarti felt compelled to explain that a certain As-Sayyid Ali Al-Qhabtan was a Mamluk and not a Sharif, as might have been mistakenly inferred from his title. The title in this case, meaning a Mamluk master, originated from the Maghribi usage of "Sidi", which was equivalent in meaning to Emir or Shaikh.
In modern usage, Sayyid has lost its religious significance and means simply "Mister".
Well aware of their distinguished descent, the Ashraf tribes kept genealogical records and were socially acknowledged as a religious elite. Inevitably, doubts arose concerning the descent of many claimants to the title. Al-Gabarti once commented of one person: "He is one of the Ashraf of true genealogy. Sayyid Muhammad Murtada verified his genealogy."
One concept during record keeping was the term of Najeeb al-Tarfayn or "Noble on both sides". This was applied to those Ashraf who have both Imams Hassan and Hussain in Patrilineal and Matrilineal lineages. Although this concept has been debated on by many Sunni and Shia scholars however it has generally been agreed that Prophet Muhammad had stated in a Hadeeth that his true descendant Al Mahdi would be a Najeeb AlTarfayn who would deliver the Muslims of the last age out of their misery from the clutches of the Dajjal or AntiChrist. Such Ashraf carry the titles "Sayyid AlShareef", "Sayyidayn", "Shareefayn" or "Sheikh Assayyid" before their names. They also kept two white colored daggers as opposed to a single white one by other Ashraf denoting their superior nobility among the Ashraf.
Usage in South Asia
In South Asia, ashraf designates a major social-status group within the greater Muslim community, namely all Muslims of foreign ancestry. This includes Sayyids and Shaikhs, as well as other Muslims of "foreign" ancestry, such as Mughals.
- Bearman, P. J.; Bianquis, Th.; Bosworth, C. E.; van Donzel, E.; Heinrichs, W. P., eds. (2013). "ashrāf". Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, Glossary and Index of Terms. Brill Online.
- Bearman, P. J.; Bianquis, Th.; Bosworth, C. E.; van Donzel, E.; Heinrichs, W. P., eds. (2013). "Sharīf". Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online.