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`ALI IBN ABI TALIB (c. 597-66o), the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad, the fourth caliph of the Sunni Muslims, and the first imam of all the Shi’s. `Ali was ten or eleven years old when he embraced Islam and is considered to be the first Muslim after Khadijah, Muhammad’s wife. He grew up in Muhammad’s household, and during the night of Muhammad’s emigration (the Hijrah) from Mecca to Medina in 622, he occupied the Prophet’s bed, facilitating the latter’s escape. Following this event, he joined the Prophet after restoring to their owners the objects that Muhammad was holding as trust. Some months later he married Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah, and of their marriage were born two sons, Hasan and Husayn, and two daughters, Zaynab and Umm Kulthum, the latter two known through their roles in the Battle of Karbala [seeKarbala]. During the Prophet’s lifetime, `All participated in almost all the expeditions, except that of Tabuk, during which he had the command at Medina. The description of `Ali’s bravery as the standard-bearer and sometimes as the commander in these expeditions has become legendary.

After Muhammad’s death in 632, a dispute arose between `Ali and other associates of the Prophet on the question of succession. It was this dispute that divided the Muslims into two major factions: the Shi’ah (partisans of `Ali), those sympathetic to `Ali’s claim as having been specifically appointed by the Prophet as his successor during his farewell pilgrimage; and the Sunni, those who denied `Ali’s claim and acknowledged the caliphate of Abu Bakr, `Umar, and `Uthman in succession and placed `Ali as the fourth caliph, following `Uthman’s assassination in 656. The period of `Ali’s rule was marked with political crisis and civil strife. `Ali had inherited events which he could not avert as a caliph, and under the pressure of circumstances he had to submit to these events and the constraints of his partisans. In the month of Ramadan in 66o, a member of the Khawarij (a sect that had seceded from ‘Ali in the battle against the Umayyad governor of Syria, Mu`awiyah, in 656) struck `Ali with a sword while he was in prostration in the mosque of Kufa. He died about two days later. `Ali’s burial place was at a spot some miles from Kufa, Najaf, where his mausoleum subsequently arose and which has become an important site for the Shit pilgrimage and a center for Twelver Shi’i learning. [See Najaf.]

The personality of `Ali is difficult to assess, since so much controversial and tendentious material has grown up around his person. Although his stature as a distinguished judge, a pious believer, and an ardent warrior for Islam is accepted by Muslim biographers, historians, and jurists, the idea of `Ali alongside God and the Prophet as the pivot around which religious belief revolves, which the Shi’is developed after `Ali’s death, is rejected altogether by the Sunnis. Even among subdivisions of the Shi’is there has been much conflict on the status of `Ali in personal piety. The deification of `Ali by extremist Shicis, such as the `Alawiyun of present day Syria, stands at one end of the spectrum; whereas the most moderate views about him are those held by the major Shi’i school of thought, the Twelvers (Ithna `Asharlyah). [See `Alawiyah; Ithna `Ashariyah.] In the Shi’i and Sufi hagiographical literature, where `Ali’s profoundly religious spirit is emphasized, he is raised to the status of the wali (“friend”) of God and is regarded as the saint in whom the divine light resided. His wilayah (in the meaning of “friendship” as well as “stewardship”) is esteemed as the fundamental requirement of faith on which the entire spiritual edifice of the Shi’ah was built. Faith was conceived in terms of personal devotion to `Ali and what he symbolized, as far as Islamic piety was concerned. [See Wali; Wilayah. ]

In the context of Iran(and to some extentIraq, where Shi’is constitute a majority), the only modern nationstate that promulgates Twelver Shiism as its official religion, the figure of ‘Ali provides the downtrodden with the paradigm for a political activism that can be used to redress social and political injustices. In this connection, political discourse, sermons, letters, and wise sayings ascribed to `Ali and compiled in the eleventh-century collection, Nahj al-balaghah (The Peak of Eloquence), with detailed commentaries by Sunni and Shi’i scholars, have served as the ideological groundwork for the establishment of Islamic government.

One of the most important Islamic celebrations in the Shi’s calendar is the Festival of Ghadir on 18 Dhu al-Hijjah-the day of wilayah (‘Ali’s appointment by the Prophet as his successor). This festival is given even more importance than the Festival of Sacrifice commemorating the event of hajj in the Islamic world.

[See also Imam; Shi’i Islam, historical overview article.]


Husayn, Taha. Al-Fitnah al-Kubrd, vol. i, `Uthman; vol. z, ‘Ali wabanuh.Cairo, 1947-1956.

Vaglieri, Laura Veccia. “‘Ali b. Abi Talib.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 1, pp. 381-386.Leiden, 1960-. Valuable revisionist outline of `Ali’s biography.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/ali-ibn-abi-talib/

  • writerPosted On: October 7, 2012
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