Life – An Exalted Destiny – Aga Khan III
Imam Ali Bin Abu Talib — 1st Imam
Ali Bin Abu Talib (11-40/632-661), 1st Imam
“Ali, the son of Abu Talib and the cousin of the Prophet was born on Friday, the 13th Rajab in the 28th year of A’am al-fil (the year of elephants) or 600 A.D. inside Kaba in Mecca. He was brought up under the subtle care and affection of the Prophet. Ali himself cherished the memory of his childhood by saying: “The Prophet brought me up in his own arms and fed me with his own morsel. I followed him, wherever he went, like a baby-camel which follows its mother. Each day a new aspect of his character would beam out of his noble person and I would accept it and follow it as commanded.” Ibn Abid Hadid (d. 655/1257) quotes Ibn Abbas as relating that the Prophet and Ali loved each other intensely. The Prophet was so fond of Ali that once when Ali was a young boy, he sent him out on some errand, and Ali took long time to return; he started getting worried and prayed to God, “O’ Lord, do not let me die unless I behold Ali once again.”
Ahmad bin Hanbal writes that, “There are not as many verses and traditions in the praise of any other companion of the Prophet as there are in the praise of Ali bin Abu Talib.” Ibn Abbas says that, “There have not descended as many verses about anybody as have revealed about Ali.” On another occasion Ibn Abbas narrates, “Three hundred verses of the Koran have been revealed in favour of Ali.” Abdullah bin Ayyash bin Abu Rabiah says, “Ali’s knowledge and insight were perfect and he was the first to embrace Islam and he has the honour of being the son-in-law of the Messenger of God. He alone had perfect ability to understand the traditions. He was very brave in fighting and very generous in charity.” “The Muslim scholars unanimously concur with the fact,” says Ahmad bin Hanbal in his Masnad, “that not one of the companions of the Prophet was ever praised by God and His Prophet for his virtues and estimation as was Ali.” On one occasion when four of the Muslims complained to the Prophet concerning something that Ali had done, the Prophet was displeased and said, “What do you want from Ali? Ali is from me and I am from Ali. He is the guardian of every believer after me.” (Tirmizi, 2:298) On another occasion, the Prophet is reported to have said, “Ali is my brother, my executor and my successor. You obey him” (Tabari, 2:63).
Regarding the first man to profess faith in the prophetic mission, Ibn Hisham (1:245), Tabari (2:56) etc. write that Ali bin Abu Talib was the first male to accept Islam. While Nuruddin Ali bin Ibrahim Shafayee writes in Sirat-i Halabiya that, “Ali was like a son unto the Prophet, therefore, his faith from very start was the faith professed by the Prophet.” Masudi (d. 346/958) writes in his Muruj adh-Dhahab (2:283) that, “The general conscientious of opinion amongst the Muslim historians and theologians is that Ali was never a non-Muslim or prayed before idols, therefore, the question of his embracing Islam does not and cannot arise.”
In 614 A.D. about four years after his divine call, the Prophet summoned his close relatives. Thus, Ali prepared a banquet, a lamb and a bowl of milk for the entertainment of forty Hashimite guests. When the Prophet asked the assembly, who will assist him in his mission, no answer was returned. It was only Ali on that occasion stood up to offer his services for the cause of Islam.
During the night of the Prophet’s migration from Mecca, it was indeed a most dangerous moment for Ali, when he volunteered to sleep fearlessly in Prophet’s bed. The task was not a small undertaking for a young man, but Ali showed an unflinching fidelity. He was called upon to deputize the Prophet at the risk of his own life, for it was highly probable that the assassins, furious at being foiled of their chief objective would kill Ali in his stead. Tabari (2:163) writes that, “Ali’s willingness to sacrifice his life for the Prophet is unique in the history of mankind.”
During the 2nd year of migration, Ali’s betrothal took place with Prophet’s daughter Fatima, which had been actualized in the month of Ramzan [Ramadan], but the nuptial ceremonies were performed two months later without pomp and ostentation. Ali at the time of marriage was 21 years, 5 months and 15 days old, while Fatima was 15 years, 5 months and 15 days old.
Ali is said to have taken part in all the battles with the exception of the expedition of Tabuk. His dauntless courage, fortitude and unflinching loyalty made him the main hero of all these campaigns. It was the valour of Ali and the strength of his arms that turned the table at critical juncture in the battlefield, and it was the victories won by him that ensured the triumph of Islam over polytheism. On several occasions, he fought single-handed against overwhelming odds and emerged out victorious.
During the conquest of Mecca, the Prophet entered Kaba and removed 360 idols. The Meccans looked on aghast while the Prophet, with a stroke of stick held in hand, smashed the idols, which lay in the lower cavities of the walls. To break those idols, which were placed higher up, out of reach of either hand or stick, the Prophet solicited the help of Ali. Ibn Sa’d (3:13) and other compilers of hadiths, like Tirmizi (2:299) and Ibn Majah (p. 12) write that the Prophet said, “Ascend on my shoulders and then shatter with this stick all the idols which are placed up above.” Ali placed his feet on the shoulders of the Prophet and completed the great purge. He cast down all the idols, relics of the age of ignorance, also climbed to the top of the Kaba and pulled Hubal from its place and threw it down.
The succession to the Prophet is the key question in Shi’ite Islam, and a principal factor separating them from the Sunnis. The Prophet left Mecca on 14th Zilhaja, 10 after performance of pilgrimage. His caravan reached a little before noon to Ghadir al-Khum on 18th Zilhaja, 10/March 16, 632. Here, the Prophet declared Ali bin Abu Talib as his successor after receiving the Koranic revelation (5:67).
There was an assembly hall (saqeefa), about 6 miles from Medina, belonging to Banu Sa’d, where the Arabs used to discuss their mutual problems. Upon the death of the Prophet, the Ansars and Muhajirs of Medina, numbering about 300 to 325, had assembled at Saqeefa Banu Sa’d to choose their leader. There was not a single man from Banu Hashim. Abu Bakr and Umar bin Khattab also joined during the time when the people were about to take an oath of allegiance from Abu Ubaidah as their caliph. The proceeding stopped and a hot argument started among them. Historian Tabari (3:198) writes, “The Ansars or some were arguing that they would never take oath from anybody except Ali”. When the swords were about to unshield, Umar bin Khattab asked Abu Bakr to raise his hand, and took oath of allegiance, then Abu Ubaidah and the rest of people followed it.
Abu Bakr was thus elected at the age of 60 years. During his period, whatever initial support there may have been for Ali’s candidature melted away in the face of Ali’s own refusal to advance the temporal claim. Ali reverted to leading a quiet life, almost confined to the four walls of his house. He had no choice but to reconcile himself with the existing order, since he had considered that any action would lead to the destruction of infant Islam. His compromise with the political order can be well asserted from the fact that he did not demonstrate any sort of opposition and continued to live in Medina. Abu Bakr died in 13/634 after ruling for 2 years, 3 months and 10 days. He nominated Umar, whose age at that time was 52 years, ruled for 10 years, 6 months and 4 days; and died in 23/644. The third caliph Uthman was selected at the age of 70 years, who was assassinated in 35/656 after ruling for 11 years, 11 months and 14 days. Wardi writes in Wu’az al-Salatin (p. 217) that, “It was the Umayyad who engineered the murder of Uthman, with Muawiya instigating the murder and Marwan working out the death.” Immediately after the murder of Uthman, a crowd rushed to Ali in the mosque, urging him to accept the caliphate. Eventually, Ali consented and became the fourth caliph. This implies that the temporal and spiritual powers once again joined together about 24 years, 8 month and 28 days after the death of the Prophet.
Ali bin Abu Talib was placed in a difficult time, and the dice of fate appears to have been loaded against him. The period of four caliphs were subdivided into four distinct periods. It falls to the lot of Ali that he should pilot the bark of Islam in times of the most dangerous internecine dissensions. To maintain a proper hold of state administration under such conditions was a difficult as to keep a boat steady on stormy waters. Nevertheless, Ali displayed a high example of affection and sympathy for brother-Muslims, which is without parallel.
During Uthman’s caliphate, all the important governorships of the Muslim states were in the possession of the unworthy members of the Umayyad family. Ali dismissed them in the state, but Muawiya the governor of Syria revolted, demanding “revenge for the blood of Uthman.” Ali announced that the names of the assassins should be reported, so that they could be executed. He had also started enquiries, but the only witness to the assassination was Uthman’s widow, Naila, who deposed that two persons whose names she did not know had killed Uthman.
After Ali had taken over as caliph, exactly what he had anticipated took place. Muawiya exercised the motives of old enmity towards Ali. The charge of Uthman’s murder was trumpeted up against Ali and afforded Muawiya’s excuse enough to unfurl the standard of revolt against him. Muawiya incited the Syrians against Ali to a feverish pitch by indoctrinating them with a belief in the false charge against Ali.
Ali had hardly breathed a sigh of relief when he was confronted with the series of military expeditions against the fronts of A’isha, Muawiya and Kharijis, i.e., battle of Camel, Siffin and Nahrawan, which are described elsewhere.
Ali’s stay in Basra was not long after the battle of Camel. Having appointed Abdullah bin Abbas as the governor, Ali repaired to Kufa in 36/657 and made it the seat of his government and the capital.
Many of the Kharijis, after the battle of Nahrawan, had gone to Mecca, where they had frequent political meetings in the holy sanctuary, devising plans to avenge their relatives who had fallen in Nahrawan. Abdur Rahman bin Muljam agreed to kill Ali. He went to the cathedral mosque of Kufa just before the break of dawn, where he took up his position in the narrow passage leading to the mosque and waited for Ali to enter. The moment Ali set foot in the mosque, while it was still dark, the assassin attacked with the sword, but missed. When Ali was in prostration, Abdur Rahman struck Ali the point of his poisoned sword and fled away. Shortly afterwards the congregation began to assemble in the mosque for the dawn prayers, and there they found Ali lying wounded on his prayer mat. Abdur Rahman was soon arrested, but no antidote could be found for the poison and Ali’s condition rapidly deteriorated, and died on 21st Ramzan, 40/January 29, 661 at the age of 63 years, and bequeathed the office of Imamate to his son Hussain. The period of Ali’s caliphate lasted for 4 years and 9 months, and the period of his Imamate since the death of the Prophet was for 29 years.
His first wife was Fatima, the only daughter of the Prophet, during whose lifetime, he did not marry any other lady. By Fatima, he had three sons, Hasan, Hussain and Mohsin, who died in infancy; and two daughters, Zainab and Umm Kulsum. By his wife, Umm Banin bint Hizam, Ali had four sons, viz. Abbas, Jafar, Abdullah and Uthman. By Layla bint Masud, he had Ubaidullah and Abu Bakr. By Asma bint Umyas, he had Yahya and Muhammad Asghar. By Umm Habiba bint Rabia, he had one son, Umar and a daughter, Ruqaiya. By Amama bint Abil Aas, he had a son, named Muhammad al-Awasat. By Khawla bint Jafar bin Qais al-Hanafiya, he had Muhammad Akbar, who was known as Muhammad ibn Hanafiya. By Umm Sa’id bint Urwa bin Masud, he had Ummul Hasan and Ramla.
Despite his engagements in the civil wars, Ali however made many reformations in the state. He was the first to realize land revenue from peasants. He exempted taxes on horse-trade to promote its trade. He included forests as a source of revenue for the first time, and necessary tax was imposed on it. He reserved a specific part in poor-rate for the poor. He codified Islamic laws for the judges, and set up courts in every province. Ali was the first to make metalled roads in the state, and constructed many forts, notably Astkhar fort. He reorganized the army and erected military posts everywhere. He was the first to build a strong bridge on river Euphrates. Ali’s period is also acclaimed for the promotion of education, and he was the first to patronize education and as a result, about 2000 students in Kufa got free scholarship.
By putting together the evidence from a variety of sources, one sees that Ali bin Abu Talib attempted to start the Islamic coins during his caliphate, which could not be continued due to the then political cataclysm in the Islamic state. Maurice Lombard writes in The Golden Age of Islam (Netherlands, 1975, p. 110) that, “The Caliph Ali was the first to attempt a reform, at Basra in 660, by introducing a Muslim dhiram with the inscriptions in Kufic script, but this attempt failed.”
It is difficult to design a portrait of the qualities and merits of Ali bin Abu Talib, for he was a paragon of virtues and fount of knowledge. He was indeed a living encyclopaedia of learning. The Sufis traced their esoteric chains back to Ali. Abu Nasr Abdullah Sarraj writes in Kitab al-Luma fi’t-Tasawwuf (ed. Nicholson, London, 1914, p.129) that when Junaid Baghdadi (d. 298/910) was asked about Ali’s knowledge in esoteric field, he said, “Had Ali been less engaged in wars, he might have contributed greatly to our knowledge of esoteric things for he was one who had been vouchsafed ilm al-ladunni (divine knowledge).”
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