Amir al Momenin (Imam of believers), Imam Ali (pbuh)
(Shia view: Successor of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Sunni view: Fourth rightly guided Caliph)
Ali Ibn Abi Talib (PBUH) (Arabic: علي بن أبي طالب) was the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Imam Ali (PBUH) was also the first man who accepted Islam. Sunnis consider Imam Ali the fourth and final Caliph , but Shia believes Imam Ali (PBUH) is the first Imam after Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and consider him and his descendants the rightful successors to Prophet Muhammad, all of whom are members of the Ahl Al-Bayt. This disagreement split the Ummah (Muslim community) into the Sunni and Shia branches.
Many sources, especially Shia ones, record that Imam Ali (PBUH) was the only person born in the sacred sanctuary of the Kaba in Mecca, the holiest place in Islam that was built by the prophet Abraham (PBUH) and his son Ishmael. His father was Abu Talib and his mother was Fatima bent Asad, but he was raised in the house of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), who himself was raised by Abu Talib, Muhammad’s uncle and Ali’s father. When Prophet Muhammad reported receiving a divine revelation, Ali (PBUH) was the first male to accept his message and first to convert to Islam at the age of 10, dedicating his life to the cause of Islam.
Imam Ali (PBUH) migrated to Medina shortly after Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) did. It was there that Prophet Muhammad told Ali (PBUH) that Allah had ordered him to give his daughter, Lady Fatimah (PBUH), to Ali (PBUH) in marriage. For the ten years that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) led the community in Medina, Ali (PBUH) was extremely active in his service, leading parties of warriors in battles, and carrying messages and orders. Imam Ali (PBUH) took part in the early caravan raids from Mecca and later in almost all the battles fought by the nascent Muslim community. He encountered defiance and civil war during his reign. In 661, Imam Ali (PBUH) was attacked one morning while praying in the Great mosque of Kufah, and martyred two days later.
In Muslim culture, Ali (PBUH) is respected for his courage, knowledge, belief, honesty, unbending devotion to Islam, deep loyalty to Prophet Muhammad, equal treatment of all Muslims and generosity in forgiving his defeated enemies. Imam Ali (PBUH) retains his stature as an authority on Quranic exegesis, Islamic jurisprudence and religious thought. Imam Ali’s influence has been important throughout Islamic history.
Imam Ali’s father, Abu Talib was the custodian of the Kaba and a sheikh (patriarch) of the Banu Hashim, an important branch of the powerful Quraysh tribe. He was also the uncle of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Imam Ali’s mother, Fatima bent Asad, also belonged to Banu Hashim, that it makes Ali (PBUH) a descendant of Isma`il (Ishmael), the son of Abraham (PBUH). Many sources, especially Shia ones, attest that Ali (PBUH) was born inside of Kaba in the city of Mecca, where he stayed with his mother for three days. According to a Hadith, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was the first person whom Ali saw as he took the newborn in his hands and named him Ali, meaning “the exalted one”. The prophet (PBUH) had a close relationship with Ali’s parents. When Muhammad (PBUH) was orphaned and later lost his grandfather Abdul Muttalib, Ali’s father took him into his house. Ali (PBUH) was born two or three years after Prophet Muhammad’s marriage. When Ali (PBUH) was five or six years old, a famine occurred in and around Mecca and affected the economic conditions of Ali’s father, who had a large family to support, thus, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) took Ali (PBUH) into his home to raise him.
Acceptance of Islam
The second period of Imam Ali’s life begins in 610 when he declared Islam at age 10. When Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) reported that he had received a divine revelation, Ali (PBUH), was only about 10 years old and believed him and professed to Islam. According to Ibn Ishaq and some other authorities, Ali (PBUH) was the first male to embrace Islam. Some historians and scholars believe Ali’s conversion is not worthy enough to consider him the first male Muslim because he was a child at the time. Hence, Shia doctrine asserts that in keeping with Imam Ali’s divine mission, he accepted Islam before he took part in any pre-Islamic Meccan traditional religion rites, or polytheistic or paganistic rites . Shia believes Ali (PBUH) never sullied by prostrations before idols. He was never an idol worshipper like the people of Mecca. He was known to have broken idols in the mold of Abraham (PBUH) and asked people why they worshipped something they made themselves.
After declaration of Islam
For three years, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) invited people to Islam in secret, and then he started inviting publicly. According to the Quran, When he was commanded to invite his closer relatives to come to Islam he gathered the Banu Hashim clan in a ceremony. According to Al-Tabari, Ibn Athir and Abu al-Fida, Muhammad (PBUH) announced at invitational events that whoever assisted him in his invitation would become his brother, trustee and successor. Only Ali (PBUH), who was thirteen or fourteen years old, stepped forward to help him. This invitation was repeated three times, but Ali was the only person who answered the Prophet (PBUH). Upon Ali’s constant and only answer to his call, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) declared that Ali was his brother, inheritor and successor and people must obey him. Most of the adults present were uncles of Ali (PBUH) and Muhammad (PBUH), along with Abu Lahab laughed at them and declared to Abu Talib that he must bow down to his own son, as Ali (PBUH) was now his Emir, This event is known as the “Hadith of Warning”. During the persecution of Muslims and boycott of the Banu Hashim in Mecca, Imam Ali (PBUH) stood firmly in support of the Prophet.
Migration to Medina
In 622, the year of the Prophet’s migration to Yathrib (now Medina), Ali (PBUH) risked his life by sleeping in Prophet Muhammad’s bed to impersonate him and thwart an assassination plot so that the Prophet (PBUH) could escape in safety. This night is called “Laylat al-Mabit”. According to some Hadith, a verse was revealed about Imam Ali (PBUH) concerning his sacrifice on the night of Hijra which says “And among men is he who sells his Nafs (self) in exchange for the pleasure of Allah.”
«وَ مِنَ النَّاسِ مَنْ یشْرِی نَفْسَهُ ابْتِغاءَ مَرْضاتِ اللَّهِ وَ اللَّهُ رَؤُفٌ بِالْعِبادِ»
Surah Al Baqarah, verse 207
Ali (PBUH) survived the plot, but risked his life again by staying in Mecca to carry out the Prophet’s instructions: to restore to their owners all the goods and properties that had been entrusted to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) for safekeeping. Ali (PBUH) then went to Medina with his mother, the Prophet’s daughter, Lady Fatimah (PBUH) and two other women.
In 623, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) told Ali (PBUH) that Allah ordered him to give his daughter Lady Fatimah Zahra to Ali (PBUH) in marriage. The Prophet said to Lady Fatimah (PBUH): “I marry you to the dearest of my family to me.” This family was glorified by Muhammad (PBUH) frequently and he declared them as his Ahl Al-Bayt in events such as “Mubahala” and Hadith like the Hadith of the Event of the Cloak. They were also glorified in the Quran in several cases such as “the verse of purification” (Surah Ahzab, verse 33).
Ali (PBUH) and Lady Fatimah (PBUH), who was the only child of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to have surviving progeny, had four children. Their two sons, Hassan and Hussain (PBUT), were cited by the Prophet to be his own sons, honored numerous times in his lifetime and titled “the leaders of the youth of Jannah” (Heaven, the hereafter.)
At the beginning they were extremely poor. For several years after his marriage, Lady Fatimah (PBUH) did all of the household work by herself. The shoulder on which she carried pitchers of water from the well was swollen and the hand with which she worked the hand mill to grind corn was often covered with blisters. Fatimah (PBUH) vouched to take care of the household work, make dough, bake bread, and clean the house; in return, Ali (PBUH) vouched to take care of the outside work such as gathering firewood, and bringing food. Their circumstances were akin to many of the Muslims at the time and only improved following the Battle of Khyber when the wealth of Khyber was distributed among the poor. When the economic situations of the Muslims became better, Lady Fatimah gained some maids but treated them like her family and performed the house duties with them.
Their marriage lasted until Lady Fatimah’s martyrdom ten years later. Although polygamy was permitted, Ali (PBUH) did not marry another woman while Fatimah (PBUH) was alive, and his marriage to her possesses a special spiritual significance for all Muslims because it is seen as the marriage between two great figures surrounding the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (PBUH).
Military career of Ali
With the exception of the Battle of Tabouk, Ali (PBUH) took part in all battles and expeditions fought for Islam. As well as being the standard-bearer in those battles, Ali (PBUH) led parties of warriors on raids into enemies.
Ali (PBUH) first distinguished himself as a warrior in 624 at the Battle of Badr. He defeated the Umayyad champion Walid Ibn Utba . According to Muslim traditions Ali (PBUH) killed between twenty and thirty-five enemies in battle, most agreeing with twenty-seven.
Imam Ali (PBUH) was prominent at the Battle of Uhud, as well as many other battles where he wielded his famous sword known as “Zulfiqar”. He had the special role of protecting Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) when most of the Muslim army fled from the battle of Uhud and it was said “There is no brave youth except Ali and there is no sword which renders service except Zulfiqar.” He was commander of the Muslims army in the Battle of Khyber. Following this battle the Prophet gave Ali (PBUH) the name “Asadullah”, which in Arabic means “Lion of Allah”. Ali (PBUH) also defended the Prophet in the Battle of Hunayn in 630.
Missions for Islam
Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) designated Ali (PBUH) as one of the scribes who would write down the text of the holy Quran, which had been revealed to the Prophet during the previous two decades. As Islam began to spread throughout Arabia, Ali (PBUH) helped establishing the new Islamic order. He was instructed to write down the “Treaty of Hudaybiyah”, the peace treaty between Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the Quraysh tribe in 628. Ali (PBUH) was so reliable and trustworthy that the Prophet asked him to carry the messages and declare the orders. In 630, Ali (PBUH) recited to a large gathering of pilgrims in Mecca a portion of the Quran that declared Prophet Muhammad and the Islamic community were no longer bound by agreements made earlier with Arab polytheists. During the Conquest of Mecca in 630, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) asked Ali (PBUH) to guarantee that the conquest would be bloodless. He ordered Ali (PBUH) to break all the idols worshipped by the Banu Aus, Banu Khazraj, and those in the Kaba to purify it after its defilement by the polytheism of the pre-Islamic era. Ali (PBUH) was sent to Yemen one year later to spread the teachings of Islam. He was also charged with settling several disputes and putting down the uprisings of various tribes.
According to Hadith collections, in 631 an Arab Christian envoy from Najran (currently in northern Yemen and partly in Saudi Arabia) came to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to argue which of the two parties erred in its doctrine concerning Jesus (PBUH). After likening Jesus’ miraculous birth to Adam’s creation, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) called them to “Mubahala” (conversation), where each party should bring their knowledgeable men, women and children, and ask God to curse the lying party and their followers. Prophet Muhammad, to prove to them that he was a prophet, brought his daughter Lady Fatimah, Ali and his grandchildren Hassan and Hussain (PBUT). He went to the Christians and said “this is my family” and covered himself and his family under the shade of a cloak. According to Muslims sources, when one of the Christian monks saw their faces, he advised his companions to withdraw from Mubahala for the sake of their lives and families. Thus the Christian monks vanished from the Mubahala place. Allameh Tabatabaii explains in Tafsir Al-Mizan that the word “Our selves” in this verse refers to Prophet Muhammad and Ali (PBUT). Then he narrates that Imam Ridha (PBUH), eighth Shia Imam, in discussion with Ma’mun, Abbasid caliph, referred to this verse to prove the superiority of Prophet Muhammad’s progeny over the rest of the Muslim community, and considered it the proof for Imam Ali’s right for caliphate due to Allah having made Ali (PBUH) like the self of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
Refer to “Shia, Sunni, differences”, “what is Islam?”.
Life after Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)
Another part of Imam Ali’s life started in 632 after the demise of the Prophet and lasted until Othman Ibn Affan was assassinated, the third caliph of Sunnis in 656. During those 24 years, Imam Ali (PBUH) neither took part in any battle or conquest, nor did he assume any executive position. He withdrew from political affairs, especially after the martyrdom of his wife, Lady Fatimah Zahra (PBUH). He used his time to serve his family and worked as a farmer. Ali (PBUH) dug a lot of wells and planted gardens near Medina and endowed them for public use. These wells are known today as Aabaar Ali (“Ali’s wells”).
Imam Ali (PBUH) compiled a complete version of the Quran, Six months after the demise of the Prophet (PBUH). It was included Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)’s interpretations and it was sorted by the revelation time of each verse. The volume was completed and carried by camel to show to other people of Medina. However, this book was rejected by several people such as Othman. Afterward, Othman changed the order of verses and compiled another version of Quran; also he omitted Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)’s interpretations. Both Qurans of Imam Ali (PBUH) and Othman are the same by the number of verses but different in ordering. The Quran of Imam Ali (PBUH) remained in the progeny of Prophet Muhammad and it will be manifested by 12th Imam (Imam Mahdi) (PBUH) when he comes. (To know more about 12th Imam, refer to “Imam Mahdi (PBUH)”, “Imamate”)
Election as Caliph
Imam Ali (PBUH) was caliph between 656 and 661, during one of the most turbulent periods in Muslims history, which also coincided with the First sedition.
Othman’s assassination meant that rebels had to select a new caliph. This met with difficulties since the rebels were divided into several groups comprising the Muhajirun, Ansar, Egyptians, Kufans. There were three candidates: Ali (PBUH), Talhah and Zubayr. First, the rebels approached Ali (PBUH), requesting him to accept being the caliph. Some of Prophet Muhammad’s companions tried to persuade Ali (PBUH) in accepting the office, but he turned down the offer.
Talhah, Zubayr and other companions also refused the rebels’ offer of the caliphate. Therefore, the rebels warned the inhabitants of Medina to select a caliph within one day, or they would apply drastic action. In order to resolve the deadlock, the Muslims gathered in the Mosque of the Prophet on June 18, 656 to appoint the caliph. Initially Ali (PBUH) refused to accept, however, when some notable companions of Prophet Muhammad, in addition to the residents of Medina, urged him to accept the offer, he finally agreed. According to Abu Mekhnaf’s narration, Talhah was the first prominent companion who gave his pledge to Imam Ali (PBUH), but, Talhah and Zubayr later claimed they supported him reluctantly.
While the overwhelming majority of Medina’s population as well as many of the rebels gave their pledge, some important figures or tribes did not do so. The Umayyad, kinsmen of Othman, fled to the Levant or remained in their houses, later refusing Imam Ali’s legitimacy. Sa’ad Ibn Abi Waqqas was absent and Abdullah Ibn Omar abstained from offering his allegiance, but both of them assured Imam Ali (PBUH) that they would not act against him.
Reign as Caliph
Imam Ali (PBUH) inherited the Rashidin Caliphate (Abu Bakr, Omar, and Othman)—which extended from Egypt in the west to the Iranian highlands in the east—while the situation in the Hejaz and the other provinces on the eve of his election was unsettled. Soon after Imam Ali (PBUH) became caliph, he dismissed provincial governors who had been appointed by Othman, replacing them with trusted aides. Muawiyah, the kinsman of Othman and governor of the Levant, refused to submit to Imam Ali’s orders; he was the only governor to do so.
When he was appointed caliph, Imam Ali (PBUH) stated to the citizens of Medina that Muslim polity had come to be plagued by dissension and discord; he desired to purge Islam of any evil. He advised the populace to behave as true Muslims, warning that he would tolerate no sedition and those who were found guilty of subversive activities would be dealt with harshly. Ali (PBUH) recovered the land granted by Othman and swore to recover anything that elites had acquired before his election. Imam Ali opposed the centralization of capital control over provincial revenues, favoring an equal distribution of taxes and booty amongst the Muslim citizens; he distributed the entire revenue of the treasury among them. Imam Ali (PBUH) refrained from nepotism, including with his brother Aqeel Ibn Abu Talib. This was an indication to Muslims of his policy of offering equality to Muslims who served Islam in its early years and to the Muslims who played a role in the later conquests.
What shows Imam Ali’s policies and ideas of governing, is his instruction to Malik Ashtar, when appointed by him as governor of Egypt. This instruction, which is considered by many Muslims and even non-Muslims as the ideal constitution for Islamic governance, involved detailed description of duties and rights of the ruler and various functionaries of the state and the main classes of society at that time.
Imam Ali (PBUH) wrote in his instruction to Malik Ashtar:
“Infuse your heart with mercy, love and kindness for your subjects. Be not in face of them a voracious animal, counting them as easy prey, for they are of two kinds: either they are your brothers in religion or your equals in creation. Error catches them unaware, deficiencies overcome them, (evil deeds) are committed by them intentionally and by mistake. So grant them your pardon and your forgiveness to the same extent that you hope Allah will grant you His pardon and His forgiveness. For, you are above them, and he who appointed you is above you, and Allah is above him who appointed you. Allah has sought from you the fulfillment of their requirements and He is trying you with them.”
Since the majority of Ali’s subjects were nomads and peasants, he was concerned with agriculture. He instructed to Malik to give more attention to development of the land than to the collection of the tax, because tax can only be obtained by the development of the land and whoever demands tax without developing the land ruins the country and destroys the people.
On the 19th of Ramadan 40 AH, which would correspond to January 25/26, 661 CE, while praying in the Great Mosque of Kufa, Imam Ali (PBUH) was attacked by the Abd Al-Rahman Ibn Muljam. He was wounded by Ibn Muljam’s poison-coated sword while prostrating in the Morning Prayer. Imam Ali (PBUH) ordered his sons not to attack Ibn Muljam, if he survived; Ibn Muljam would be pardoned whereas if he died, Ibn Muljam should be given only one equal hit.
Imam Ali (PBUH) died a few days later on January 31, 661 CE (21 Ramadan 40 A.H). Hassan fulfilled Qisas(equal punishment) and gave equal punishment to Ibn Muljam upon Imam Ali’s martyrdom.
Ali (PBUH) did not want his grave to be desecrated by his enemies and consequently asked his friends and family to bury him secretly. This secret gravesite was revealed later during the Abbasid caliphate by Imam Ja’far Sadiq, his descendant and the sixth Shia Imam. Imam Ali (PBUH) is buried at the Tomb of Imam Ali (PBUH) in the Imam Ali (PBUH) Mosque at what is now the city of Najaf, which grew around the shrine.
After Imam Ali (PBUH)
After Imam Ali’s martyrdom, Kufi Muslims pledged allegiance to his eldest son Imam Hassan (PBUH) without dispute, as Imam Ali (PBUH) on many occasions had declared that just Progeny of Prophet Muhammad (Ahl Al-Bayt) were entitled to rule the Muslim community. At this time, Muawiyah held both the Levant and Egypt and, as commander of the largest force in the Muslim Empire, had declared himself as caliph and marched his army into Iraq, the seat of Hassan’s caliphate. (To know more, refer to “Imam Hassan” ,“Imamate”)
Except for the Prophet (PBUH), there is no one in Islamic history about who as much has been written in Islamic languages as Ali (PBUH). In Muslim culture, Ali (PBUH) is respected for his courage, knowledge, belief, honesty, unbending devotion to Islam, deep loyalty to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), equal treatment of all Muslims and generosity in forgiving his defeated enemies, and therefore is central to mystical traditions in Islam such as Sufism. Imam Ali (PBUH) retains his stature as an authority on Quranic exegesis, jurisprudence and religious thought. Imam Ali’s influence has been important throughout Islamic history.
Shia regards Imam Ali (PBUH) as the most important figure after Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). According to them, the Prophet suggested on various occasions during his lifetime that Ali (PBUH) should be the leader of Muslims after his demise. This is supported by numerous Hadiths which have been narrated by Sunnis and Shias, including Hadith of the pond of Khum, Hadith of the two weighty things, Hadith of the pen and paper, Hadith of the Cloak, Hadith of position, Hadith of the invitation of the close families, and Hadith of the Twelve Successors.
Imam Ali (PBUH) as the successor of the Messenger of Allah, not only ruled over the community in justice, but also interpreted the Sharia Law (Islamic laws) and its esoteric meaning. Hence he was regarded as being free from error and sin (infallible), and appointed by Allah by divine decree (nass) through Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). It is believed in Twelver that “Aql” (divine wisdom), was the source of the souls of the Prophets and Imams and gave them esoteric knowledge called “Hikmah” (wisdom, philosophy) (حکمت) and that their sufferings were a means of divine grace to their devotees. Although the Imam was not the recipient of a divine revelation, he had a close relationship with Allah, through which Allah guides him, and the Imam in turn guides the people. His words are a guide and model for the community to follow; as a result it is a source of sharia law.
Shia pilgrims usually go to Shrine of Imam Ali (PBUH) in Najaf for Ziyarat (pilgrimage), pray there and read “Ziyarat Amin Allah” or other Ziyaratnamehs (special pray for a divine Prophet or an Imam). Under the Safavid Empire, his grave became the focus of much devoted attention, exemplified in the pilgrimage made by Shah Ismail to Najaf and Karbala.
Sunni Muslims regard Imam Ali (PBUH) with great respect as one of the Ahl Al-Bayt and the last of the Rashidin caliphs, as well as one of the most influential and respected leaders in Islam. Also, he is one of the Al-Asharatu Mubashsharun, the Ten Companions of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) whom the Prophet of Islam promised Paradise. But they don’t believe in Imam Ali’s right being successor of the Prophet (PBUH).
Non-Muslim quotations about Imam Ali (PBUH)
Edward Gibbon (British 18th century historian):
“The zeal and virtue of Ali were never outstripped by any recent proselyte. He united the qualifications of a poet, a soldier, and a saint; his wisdom still breathes in a collection of moral and religious sayings; and every antagonist, in the combats of the tongue or of the sword, was subdued by his eloquence and velour. From the first hour of his mission to the last rites of his funeral, the apostle was never forsaken by a generous friend, whom he delighted to name his brother, his vicegerent, and the faithful Aaron of a second Moses.”
Washington Irving (American author and essayist):
“He was of the noblest branch of the noble race of Quraysh. He possessed the three qualities most prized by Arabs: courage, eloquence, and munificence. His intrepid spirit had gained him from the prophet the appellation of The Lion of God; specimens of his eloquence remain in some verses and sayings preserved among the Arabs; and his munificence was manifested in sharing among others, every Friday, what remained in the treasury. Of his magnanimity, we have given repeated instances; his noble scorn of everything false and mean, and the absence in his conduct of everything like selfish intrigue.”
Thomas Carlyle (Scottish historian, critic, and sociological writer):
“As for this young Ali, one cannot but like him. A noble-minded creature, as he shows himself, now and always afterwards; full of affection, of fiery daring. Something chivalrous in him; brave as a lion; yet with a grace, a truth and affection worthy of Christian knighthood.”
Sir William Muir (Scottish scholar and statesman):
“Endowed with a clear intellect, warm in affection, and confiding in friendship, he was from the boyhood devoted heart and soul to the Prophet. Simple, quiet, and Non-ambitious, when in after days he obtained the rule of half of the Moslem world, it was rather thrust upon him than sought.”
Simon Ockley (British Orientalist and Professor of Arabic at the University of Cambridge):
“One thing particularly deserving to be noticed is that his mother was delivered of him at Mecca, in the very temple itself; which never happened to anyone else.”
Khalil Gibran (poet):
“In my view, ʿAli was the first Arab to have contact with and converse with the universal soul. He died a martyr of his greatness; he died while prayer was between his two lips. The Arabs did not realize his value until appeared among their Persian neighbors some who knew the difference between gems and gravels.”