˓Ali ibn Talib, born in Mecca about 600 c.e., was the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad, father of the Prophet's grandsons Hasan and Husayn, and fourth caliph (656–661) of the Muslim umma (community of believers).
At a very young age, ˓Ali was adopted by Muhammad, who brought him up like his own son. When Muhammad received the divine revelation, ˓Ali was still a very young boy. He was the first male to accept Islam, and to dedicate all his life to the cause of Islam. ˓Ali's courage became legendary because he led several important missions.
At the Prophet's death, the community split into two major groups contending for political succession. During a gathering of the ansar (helpers), Abu Bakr was elected first caliph. A group led by ˓Ali and his supporters (Zubayr, Talha, Miqdad, Salman al-Farsi, and Abu Dharr Ghifari, among others) held that ˓Ali was the legitimate heir of the Prophet. To preserve the unity of the Muslim umma, ˓Ali is said to have kept a low profile and concentrated his efforts on religious matters. The first version of the Qur˒an was attributed to him by some of his contemporaries. In the period preceding his caliphate, ˓Ali, known for his learning in Qur˒an and sunna, had given advice on secular and spiritual matters. On several occasions, he disagreed with Uthman (the third caliph) and criticized him on the application of certain Islamic principles.
Following Uthman's murder, the ansar invited ˓Ali to accept the caliphate and he agreed only after a long hesitation. All through his brief governing period, ˓Ali faced strong opposition. First he was opposed by ˓A˒isha, Muhammad's wife, but the strongest opposition came from Mu awiya, who had his stronghold in Syria. Two companions of the Prophet, Talha and Zubayr, already frustrated in their political ambitions, were further disappointed by ˓Ali, in their efforts to secure for themselves the governorships of Basra and Kufa. Thus they broke with him and asked to bring Uthman's murderers to trial. ˓Ali appointed ˓Abd Allah b. ˓Abbas governor of Basra, and went to Kufa in order to gain support against Mu˓awiya. He formed a diverse coalition, comprised of men like ˓Ammar b. Yasir, Qays b. Sa˓d b. ˓Ubada, Malik Ashtar, and Ash˓at b. Qays Kindi.
˓Ali opened negotiations with Mu˓awiya, hoping to gain his allegiance. Mu˓awiya insisted on Syrian autonomy under his own leadership. Thus he mobilized his Syrian supporters and refused to pay homage to ˓Ali, on the pretext that his people had not participated in his election. After a few months of confrontation, ˓Amr b. ˓As advised Mu˓awiya to have his soldiers raise parchments inscribed with verses of the Qur˒an on their spearheads; the goal was to bring about the cessation of hostilities between the people of Iraq, who formed the bulk of ˓Ali's army, and the people of Syria. ˓Ali saw through the stratagem, but only a minority wanted to pursue the fight. Hence he ended the fight and sent Ash˓at b. Qays to find out Mu˓awiya's intentions. Mu˓awiya suggested that each side should choose an arbiter; together, the two men would reach a decision based on the Qur˒an. This decision would then be binding on both parties. ˓Amr b. ˓As, the Syrian representative, and Abu Musa Ash˓ari, the Iraqi representative, met to draft an agreement, but in the meantime ˓Ali's coalition began to collapse. The arbiters and other eminent persons met at Adruh in January 659 to discuss the selection of the new caliph. Both parties agreed to the choice of ˓Ali and Mu˓awiya and were willing to submit the selection of the new caliph to an electorate body (shura). In the public declaration that followed, Abu Musa kept his part of the agreement, but ˓Amr b. ˓As deposed ˓Ali and declared Mu˓awiya caliph.
Meanwhile, Mu˓awiya had followed an aggressive course of action by making incursions into the heart of Iraq and Arabia. By the end of 660 ˓Ali, who was regarded as caliph only by a diminishing number of partisans, lost control of Egypt and Hijaz. He was struck with a poisoned sword by a Kharijite named ˓Abd-al-Rahman b. Muljam while praying in a mosque at Kufa. ˓Ali died at the age of sixty-three and was buried near Kufa in late January 661. ˓Ali's death brought to an end the era of Rashidun, the four "rightly-guided" caliphs. The Sunnis believe that the order of merit corresponds to the chronological historical order of succession of the four first caliphs (Abu Bakr, ˓Umar, ˓Uthman, and ˓Ali). The Shi˓ites preferred ˓Ali over the first three caliphs; they never accepted Mu˓awiya or any later caliphs, and took the name shi˓at ˓Ali, or ˓Ali's Party.
Several places are mentioned as ˓Ali's shrine. But most Shi˓ite scholars are in agreement that ˓Ali was buried in Ghari, west of Kufa, at the site of present-day Najaf. These scholars explained the discrepancies among the various reports by maintaining that ˓Ali himself requested to be buried in a secret place so as to prevent his enemies from desecrating his grave. Under the Safavid Empire, his grave became the focus of much devoted attention, exemplified in the pilgrimage made by Shah Isma˓il I (d. 1524) to Najaf and Karbala. Today a gold-plated dome rises above ˓Ali's tomb. The interior is decorated with polished silver, mirror work, and ornamental tiles. A silver tomb rises over the grave itself, and the courtyard has two minarets. The recitation of special prayers over ˓Ali's grave is considered particularly beneficial in view of ˓Ali's role as intercessor on the Day of Judgment. Sunni polemicists have often accused the Shi˓ites of preferring pilgrimages to the tombs of ˓Ali and other imams over the pilgrimage to Mecca.
It is important to note that ˓Ali's position became important to different groups of Muslims starting from the early period. For the Shi˓a, he is said to have participated in the Prophet's ascension (mi˓raj) to heaven and acquired several honorific titles. The ˓Alya˒iyya believed in the divinity of Muhammad and ˓Ali, and gave preference in divine matters to ˓Ali. Among Sufis he is renowned as a great Sufi saint for his piety and poverty as well as the possessor of esoteric knowledge. The early Shi˓ite traditions regarded ˓Ali as the most judicious of the Companions and the Prophet nicknamed him Abu Turab (Father of Dust) because he saw him sleeping in the courtyard of the mosque. Some sources agree that ˓Ali was a profoundly religious man, devoted to the cause of Islam and the rule of justice in accordance with the Qur˒an and the sunna.
One of the basic differences between Shi˓ism and Sunnism concerns the question of the respective roles of ˓Ali (and the other imams) on the one hand, and Muhammad on the other. Shi˓ism shares with Sunnism the belief that Muhammad, as seal of the prophets, was the last to have received revelation (wahy). Classical Shi˓ite doctrine holds that ˓Ali and the other imams were the recipients of inspiration (ilham). But it is only the legislative prophecy that has come to an end, that is, the previous prophets such as Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, the last of the legislative prophets, introduced a new religious law while abrogating the previous one; the guidance of humanity must continue under the walaya (Institution of the Friends of God) of an esoteric prophecy (Nubuwa batiniyya). Thus ˓Ali, the first imam, is designated as the foundation (asas) of the imamate. He is the possessor of a divine light (nur) passed on from Muhammad to him, and later from him on to the other imams. The Sunnis believe that the Prophet did not explicitly name his successor after his death; the Shi˓ites, on the contrary, hold that he explicitly named his successor ˓Ali at Ghadir Khumm, an oasis between Mecca and Medina.
According to the Shi˓a, a passage in the Qur˒an (2:118) shows that the imamate is a divine institution; the possessor thereof must be from the seed of Ibrahim: "And when his Lord tested Abraham with certain words, and he fulfilled them. He said, 'Behold, I make you a leader [imam] for the people.' Said he, 'And of my seed?'" Even the Sunnis hold that the true caliph can only be one of the Quraysh tribe, but based on this verse the Shi˓a maintain that the divinely appointed leader must himself be impeccable (ma˓sum). The primeval creation of ˓Ali is therefore a principle of the Shi˓ite faith. According to them, as expressed by Muhammad Baqir Majlisi (d. 1698), Muhammad explicitly designated (nass jali) ˓Ali as his successor by God's command:
When the ceremonies of the pilgrimage were completed, the Prophet, attended by ˓Ali and the Muslims, left Mecca for Medina. On reaching Ghadir Khumm, he [the Prophet] halted, although that place had never before been a halting place for caravans. The reason for the halt was that verses of the Qur˒an had come upon him, commanding him to establish ˓Ali in the Caliphate. Before this he had received similar messages, but had not been instructed explicitly as to the time for ˓Ali's appointment. He had delayed because of opposition that might occur. But if the crowd of pilgrims had gone beyond Ghadir Khumm they would have separated and the different tribes would have gone in various directions. This is why Muhammad ordered them to assemble here, for he had things to say to ˓Ali which he wanted all to hear. The message that came from the Most High was this: "O Apostle, declare all that has been sent down to thee from thy Lord. No part of it is to be withheld. God will protect you against men, for he does not guide the unbelievers" (5:71). Because of this positive command to appoint ˓Ali as his successor, and perceiving that God would not countenance further delay, he and his company dismounted in this unusual stopping place. The day was hot and he told them to stand under shelter of some thorn trees . . . when the crowd had all gathered, Muhammad walked up on to the platform of saddles and called ˓Ali to stand at his right. After a prayer of thanks he spoke to the people, informing them that he had been forewarned of his death, and saying, "I have been summoned to the Gate of God, and I shall soon depart to God, to be concealed from you, and bidding farewell to this world. I am leaving you the Book of God [Qur˒an], and if you follow this you will not go astray. And I am leaving you also the members of household [ahl al-bayt], who are not to be separated from the Book of God until they meet me at the drinking fountain of Kawthar." He then called out, "Am I not, more precious to you than your own lives?" They said "Yes." Then it was that he took ˓Ali's hands and raised them so high that he showed the whites of his armpits, and said, "Whoever has me as his master (mawla) has ˓Ali as his master. Be friend to his friend, O Lord, and be an enemy to his enemies. Help those who assist him and frustrate those who oppose him." (Donaldson, p. 5)
This sura concluded the revelation: "This day I have perfected your religion for you, and have filled up the measure of my favors upon you, and it is my pleasure that Islam be your religion" (5:5). The event of Ghadir Khumm is not denied by Sunnis but interpreted differently by them. For the Sunnis, Muhammad wanted only to honor ˓Ali. They understood the term mawla in the sense of friend, whereas the Shi a recognized ˓Ali as their master; the spiritual authority of ˓Ali was passed afterward to his direct descendants, the rightful guides (imams). The successor of the Prophet, for the Sunnis, is his khalifa (caliph), the guardian of religious law (shari˓a), while for the Shi˓ites, the successor is the inheritor (wasi) of his esoteric knowledge and the interpreter, par excellence, of the Qur˒an. Since Muhammad was the last Prophet who closed the prophetic cycle, the Shi˓a believe that humanity still needs spiritual guidance: the cycle of imamate must succeed the cycle of prophecy. Another tradition gives us some insight into the key role of ˓Ali, based on the status of Aaron: "O people, know that what Aaron was to Moses, ˓Ali is to me, except that there shall be no prophet after me." (Poonawala and Kohlberg, p. 842). The imamate is a cardinal principle of Shi˓ite faith. It is only through the imam that true knowledge can be obtained. ˓Ali, as the Wasi, assisted Muhammad in his task. The Prophet received the revelation (tanzil) and established the religious law (shari˓a), while ˓Ali, the repository of the Prophet's knowledge, provided its spiritual exegesis (ta˒wil). Thus the imamate, the heart of Shi˓ism, is closely tied to ˓Ali's spiritual mission. For Sunnis, the imamate is necessary because of the revelation and is considered a law among the laws of religion. For them, the imamate is not part of the principles of religion and belief, whereas for Shi˓ites, the imamate is a rational necessity and an obliged grace (lutf wajib).
From the beginning, Shi˓ite Islam has emphasized the importance of human intellect placed in the service of faith. The origins of the encouragement given to intellect goes back to ˓Ali the commander of the faithful (amir al-mu˒minin). According to a saying attributed to him, there is an intimate bond between intellect and faith: "Intellect [˓aql] in the heart is like a lamp in the center of the house" (Amir-Moezzi, p. 48). The heart's eye of the faithful can see the divine light (nur) when there is no longer anyone between God and him; it is when God showed Himself to him, since ˓aql is the interior guide (imam) of the believer.
In early Sufi circles, ˓Ali was especially renowned for his piety and poverty. He is said to have dressed simply. His biographies abound in statements about his austerity, rigorous observance of religious duties, and detachment from worldly goods. He is also described as the most knowledgeable of the Companions, in terms of both theological questions and matters of positive law. Abu al-Qasim al-Junayd (d.910) considered ˓Ali as his "master in the roots and branches [of religious knowledge] and in perseverance in the face of hardship" (Poonawala and Kohlberg, p. 846). With the growth of Sufi doctrine in the tenth and eleventh centuries, increasing emphasis was placed on ˓Ali's possession of a knowledge imparted directly by God (˓ilm laduni). Most of the Sufis believe that each shaykh or pir (sage) inherited his knowledge directly from ˓Ali. The investment of the cloak as a symbol of the transmission of spiritual powers is closely associated to ˓Ali: the two precious things shown to Muhammad during the mystical ascent (mi˓raj) were spiritual poverty and a cloak that he had placed on ˓Ali and his family (Fatima, Hasan, and Husayn).
Sufi orders flourished particularly in Central Asia and Persia; Muslim scholars became imbued with Shi˓ite speculative theology and Sufism. One of the earliest representatives of this trend was ˓Ali b. Mitham Bahrani (d. 1281), who saw in ˓Ali the original shaykh and founder of the mystical tradition. For them ˓Ali's mission is seen as the hidden and secret aspect of prophecy. This underlying idea is based on the Khutbat albayan: "I am the Sign of the All-Powerful. I am the Gnosis of mysteries. I am the companion of the radiance of the divine Majesty. I am the First and the Last, the Manifest and the Hidden. I am the Face of God. I am the mirror of God, the supreme Pen, the Tabula secreta. I am he who in the Gospel is called Elijah. I am he who is in possession of the secret of God's Messenger" (Corbin, p. 49). Or this next one: "I carried Noah in the ark, I am Jonah's companion in the belly of the fish. I am Khadir, who taught Moses, I am the Teacher of David and Solomon, I am Dhu al-Qarnayn" (Poonawala and Kohlberg, p. 847). According to another tradition (Amir-Moezzi, p. 30), Muhammad and ˓Ali were created from the same divine light (nur) and remained united in the world of the spirits; only in this world did they separate into individual entities so that mankind might be shown the difference between Prophet and Wali. It is only through him that God may be known.
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