Ali (‘Alī Ibn Abī Tālib)
ALI (‘ALĪ IBN ABĪ TĀLIB)
Son-in-law of Muḥammad; b. Mecca, c. a.d. 600; d. Kūfa, Jan. 24, 661. ‘Alī was taken into his cousin Muḥammad's household at 10, and became one of the first converts to Islam from paganism. He joined the hegira to Medina a.d. 622, was married to the Prophet's daughter Fāṭima, and fathered the Prophet's only surviving grandsons, al–Ḥasan and al–Ḥusayn. Muḥammad's unexpected death in 632 was the first great crisis of Islam. Political, judicial, and religious head of the new Islamic state, Muḥammad left no sons and apparently had appointed no successor. While ‘Alī and his kin prepared the body for burial, a group of the Prophet's companions elected Abū Bakr, father of Muḥammad's favorite wife, Ā 'isha, as successor to the Prophet. ‘Alī kept aloof, but the choice was ratified by the people of Medina. Abū Bakr (d. 634) appointed 'Umar, once an enemy, later Father-in-law to Muḥammad, as his own successor; and under their leadership Egypt, the Fertile Crescent, and Persia were taken by Arab armies. 'Umar was assassinated in 644 and the electoral conclave of the six most prominent companions of the Prophet passed over ‘Alī in favor of 'Uthmān ibn ‘Affān, an early convert of the aristocratic Banū Umayya family, who had led the Meccan 'A opposition to the Prophet. In 656 'Uthmān, in the face of general discontent with his caliphate, was blockaded in Medina and murdered when he refused to abdicate.
‘Alī, then acclaimed caliph, defeated his opponents who accused him of illegal election and collusion with the murderers, and made his capital in Kūfa. Mu’āwiya, Governor of Syria, claiming vengeance for his cousin 'Uthmān, maneuvered ‘Alī into a position in which he felt constrained to negotiate. At this, some of ‘Alī's party withdrew allegiance, accusing him of forsaking Islam by negotiating on what should be religious principle. ‘Alī was forced to take up arms against these "Seceders," (Khārijites) and in revenge was assassinated by one of them in 661. A mosque called Meshed ‘Alī was afterward erected to his memory near the spot.
From ‘Alī's reign came a major sectarian rift in Islamic theology. The "Partisans" (Shī’a ) of ‘Alī formed the chief division of Islam opposed to the "Traditionalist" (Sunnī ) majority (see shī'ites; sunnites). After his death, his followers did not accept Mu’āwiya's claim to the caliphate. They insisted that ‘Alī and his heirs were divinely appointed imĀms, leaders of the Muslim community.
While first an Arab political faction, the Shī’a came to differ markedly from the Sunnīs in metaphysics and doctrine; they have seen the imāms as infallible and impeccable, and at times even as emanations of the Godhead. The Shī’a have subdivided repeatedly over the claims of descendants of ‘Alī, and have formed new sects and versions of the doctrine, ranging from the Zaydīs of Yemen, who simply hold that some descendant of ‘Alī should rule, to the Nu[symbol omitted]ayrīs of North Syria, for whom ‘Alī is a member of a Gnostic divine trinity. The Sunnīs hold that he was one of the pious first caliphs, who came legally to power in a troubled time and died a tragic death. The polemic has led to much forged documentation.
Bibliography: l. veccia vaglieri, Encyclopedia of Islam, ed. b. lewis et al. (2d ed. Leiden 1954—) 1:381–386. Annali dell'Islam, comp. l. caetani, 10 v. (Milan 1905–26) v.9 and 10.
[j. a. williams]