?Ali ibn Abi Talib

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ʿAlī ibn Abī Tālib

born: c. 600 • Mecca, Saudi Arabia

died: January, 661 • Kufa, Iraq

Arabian religious leader

ʿAlī ibn Abī Taāib is considered the second most well-known Muslim after Muhammad (c. 570–632; see entry), the founder of the Islamic faith. ʿAli was one of the first converts (a person who changes his or her religion) to Islam, and he was a loyal follower of Muhammad, who was both his cousin and his father-in-law. A respected soldier and administrator, ʿAli became the fourth caliph, or leader, of the people of Islam in 656. Yet not all Muslims, or the faithful of Islam, accepted him. In fact, it was the disagreement over the legitimate succession to the position of caliph that caused the basic split in Islam that still exists in the early twenty-first century.

The followers of ʿAli were known as Shiʾat ʿAli, which became commonly shortened to Shiʾa. These people believe that the Muslim leader should come from the direct descendants of Muhammad. The opposite and larger branch of Islam is known as the Sunni. The Sunni do not want to accept the authority of the direct descendants of Muhammad and choose instead to follow the sunna, or practices of Muhammad himself.

"Whoever is eager for Paradise will ignore temptations; whoever fears the fire of Hell will abstain from sins; whoever practices piety will easily bear the difficulties of life; and whoever anticipates death will hasten towards good deeds."

The murder of ʿAli in 661 is one of the major events in Islamic history. Known as the Lion of God and Commander of the Faithful to both branches of Islam, ʿAli is honored by pilgrimages to his shrine in Najaf, Iraq. Muslims view ʿAli as a great man of learning. His speeches, letters, and sayings are gathered in his Nahjul Belagha ("Peak of Eloquence").

A youth in Muhammad's household

Ali was born in Mecca, part of modern-day Saudi Arabia, in about 600 ce. The Shiʾa Muslims say that his name comes from one of the ninety-nine names of God, Al-Ali, meaning the "exalted." He was the son of Abu Tālib, a member of the Banu Hashim clan. This was one of the twelve major clans of the Quraysh tribe, which was the most influential in Mecca. The Quraysh owned one of the most powerful trading businesses in central Arabia and also held custody of the Kaʾaba, the central shrine for pre-Islamic Arabs, since the fifth century. Many sacred idols, or statues to which people prayed, were housed in the Kaʾaba. The shrine was a major site of pilgrimage, or holy journey, for Arabs and thus was a great source of money for the Quraysh. Some Muslims say that ʿAli was actually born inside the Kaʾaba.

Abu Tālib was also uncle to a young businessman named Muhammad, who later became the founder of Islam. Abu Tālib had raised Muhammad after the death of the young man's parents. Now Muhammad repaid the favor, taking his cousin, ʿAli, into his household when the boy was about eight. When Muhammad later reported that he had a divine or spiritual revelation (message) from God, others doubted him, but ʿAli believed in him immediately. Some sources say that ʿAli was, in fact, the first male convert to Islam. Others give this title to Muhammad's friend, associate, and later father-in-law, Abu Bakr (573–634), who became ʿAli's primary rival for the leadership of Islam after the death of Muhammad.

ʿAli was a loyal helper to Muhammad during the years in Mecca when people first mocked and then tried to suppress the new religion of Islam. Despite the fact that Muhammad was a member of their tribe, the Quraysh were particularly hostile to Islam. Their largest objection to the new faith was that it taught that there was only one God. The Quraysh made a lot of money from pilgrims who came to worship the many deities (gods and goddesses) of Arabia, so they were not pleased with Muhammad claiming these deities were false. In 622 Muhammad learned of a plot to kill him and decided to leave Mecca and settle in Yathrib (modern-day Medina). Muhammad had to slip away in the night and ʿAli risked his own life for his cousin, sleeping in Muhammad's bed to make others think Muhammad was still there. Although ʿAli narrowly escaped the killers, he remained in Mecca until he had returned the money and property various people had left in safekeeping with Muhammad. ʿAli then made his way to Yathrib to rejoin Muhammad and his small group of followers.

Building a religion

ʿAli and the others who had followed Muhammad to Yathrib had little money, and at first they lived on the charity of new converts to Islam. They eventually began working as laborers and raiding the trade caravans sent from Mecca. This angered the Quraysh, who raised an army to fight ʿAli and his forces. The Battle of Badr was fought in 624, and it was the first time ʿAli was identified as a warrior. Leading a smaller force with less equipment, ʿAli managed to defeat the army from Mecca. This victory became known throughout the region and helped to spread the word and fame of Islam. Muhammad publicly praised his younger cousin, and ʿAli was also honored with a marriage to Muhammad's daughter, Fatima. ʿAli and Fatima had many children, but only four survived to adulthood. Their two sons were Hasan and Husayn (also spelled Husein), and their daughters were called Zaynab and Umm Kulthum. ʿAli grew even closer to Muhammad with the birth of these children.

Until Muhammad's death in 632, ʿAli was his constant advisor, aide, and faithful lieutenant. He served in the many military campaigns that spread the power of Islam. He also became an important official in the theocracy, or government ruled by religious authority, that Muhammad established in Yathrib. By 630 Mecca had fallen to the forces of Muhammad and ʿAli, and all of Arabia was brought under the control of the Islamic state. According to legend, it was ʿAli who smashed the idols of the pre-Islamic deities at the Kaʾaba.

When Muhammad died many Muslims assumed that ʿAli would take over leadership of the community and the religion. Some even said that Muhammad named ʿAli his successor just before he died. While ʿAli and Muhammad's family were busy preparing the body for burial, however, ʿAli learned that Abu Bakr had been chosen by the inner circle of the community to be the next leader. ʿAli had not even been told that this meeting was taking place. Abu Bakr took the title kbalifatu r-rasul, or "deputy of the messenger." The "messenger" in this case was Muhammad, the prophet or messenger of God. In English this title has become "caliph."

ʿAli was disappointed, and not only because of the loss of the leadership position. There was also the matter of an inheritance from Muhammad. By the time of his death, Muhammad owned a great deal of property. Abu Bakr now said that this property belonged to the full community of Islam. Some money was given to the wives of Muhammad, including Aʾisha, who was Abu Bakr's daughter, but ʿAli and Fatima were denied any inheritance. Still ʿAli did not fight the election of Abu Bakr. He wanted there to be harmony within Islam and knew that a battle for succession would be bad for the religion.


Little actual information is known about Fatima bint Muhammad (or Fatima Zahra). She was the daughter of Muhammad and his first wife, Khadija (c. 555–619). Born in about 605, Fatima married ʿAli when she was seventeen and had four children with him. Her one son, Husayn (c. 626–680) had a strong impact on Islam.

Fatima, however, was more than the daughter, wife, and mother of famous Muslim men. She is viewed as a holy woman in Islam, and is sometimes referred to as the patron saint of fertility. Fatima is called al-Azhar (the Brilliant or Shining One) and is regarded as the female ideal in Islam. Muslims often appeal to Fatima as a mediator between themselves and God. As a source of blessing, her hand is often used as a symbol for protection.

During her life Fatima was very close to her father Muhammad. Although the exact day of her death is not known, historians agree that she died in 633, about six months after Muhammad's death. The later Fatimid Dynasty (909–1171) of North Africa and the Middle East claimed to be descended from Fatima.

The supporters of ʿAli, who formed a large part of the community in Yathrib, did not accept Abu Bakr at first. They were called Rafidis, or "refusers." This disagreement over the succession would later lead to the major division in Islam between the Shi a, followers of ʿAli, and the Sunni. Meanwhile, ʿAli spent the next several years doing religious work. He arranged the words of Muhammad chronologically, or in order of oldest to most recent, which became the content of the Muslim holy book, the Qurʾan. ʿAli was a scholar not only of the Qur¾an, but also of the Hadith, which contained the sayings and deeds of Muhammad. Because of this, he became a consultant to the caliphs in religious and legal matters.

The fourth caliph

ʿAli was passed over twice more for the leadership of Islam. After the death of Abu Bakr in 634, Umar (581–684), a former advisor to Muhammad, was chosen as the second caliph. Under Umar, Islam became an imperial power, and military conquests extended the empire out of Arabia and into Syria, Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), and Egypt. ʿAli again did not object to this choice, and even gave his daughter Umm Kulthum to Umar in marriage. Umar ruled for ten years before he was murdered in 644 by a slave. Umar was succeeded by Uthman (574–656), a member of the powerful Umayyad clan, one of the dominant families of the Quraysh tribe.

During his twelve years in power, Uthman replaced many of the generals and governors appointed by the earlier caliphs. He appointed members of the Umayyad clan to these positions. This earned the new caliph many enemies. It appeared to some critics that he was re-establishing the power of the nobles, the high-ranking families that Muhammad had originally fought against. Uthman was killed by Muslim troops in 656.

After Uthman's death the Muslims of Yathrib chose ʿAli to become the fourth caliph. He was at first reluctant to take the position, knowing that he would inherit the problems created by the three earlier caliphs. He also did not wish to be seen as profiting from the death of Uthman. Finally he accepted the leadership. ʿAli immediately angered the Quraysh nobility with his attempts to bring Islam back to the traditions created by Muhammad. He sought to base his rule on the Islamic ideals of equality and social justice. As a first step, he replaced many of those Uthman put in office with his own advisors. These were people from all levels of Arab and Muslim society, not just the higher classes, which displeased the Quraysh. Additionally, the murder of Uthman had caused great anger and a desire for revenge in the Muslim world. Uthman, like ʿAli, had been a son-in-law of Muhammad and an early convert to Islam. All these issues helped spark a five-year civil war among Muslims, called the First Civil War (656–661), or fitnah, which means "trial" in Arabic.

ʿAli had to battle various Muslim groups during his entire rule. The first of these was an army led by a group of Quraysh nobles, one of whom was Muhammad's widow, Aʾisha. ʿAli's troops defeated these warriors at the Battle of the Camel at Basra, Iraq (so named because Aʾisha rode a camel into battle). The male leaders were killed, and Aʾisha was escorted back to Yathrib. After the battle ʿAli moved his capital from Yathrib south to Kufa, in modern-day Iraq.

A new threat to ʿAli arose in Syria, which was ruled by Muawiya (c. 602–680), a relative of Uthman. Uthman's murder gave Muawiya the opportunity to challenge the rule of ʿAli. The two forces clashed at the Battle of Siffin in Syria in 657. ʿAli's forces were winning when the Syrian troops placed copies of the Qurʾan on the points of their spears and asked for arbitration (an agreement to be reached by a neutral party). ʿAli accepted this arbitration. In doing so he angered some of his followers, who became known as the Kharijites, an Arabic word meaning "those who split apart." These purists did not want any compromise with Muawiya.

While negotiations were underway, both ʿAli and Muawiya removed their troops to their own lands. In 658 ʿAli had to fight his former supporters, the Kharijites, and he killed most of them. Nothing was decided by all this bloodshed, and Muawiya continued to claim he was the rightful caliph. By 660 ʿAli had lost control of Egypt and of the northwestern region of Arabia known as the Hejaz, where both Mecca and Yathrib were located.

ʿAli's rule ended violently While performing morning prayers at a mosque (Muslim house of worship) in Kufa, he was stabbed by a poisoned sword and died two days later. His killer was a Kharijite. The supporters of ʿAli in Kufa said that ʿAli's son Hasan should become the next caliph, but Muawiya also wanted the position. In the end, Hasan made an agreement with Muawiya and retired to Yathrib. Muawiya became the fifth caliph, moving the capital to Damascus and establishing the first dynasty, or rule by one family, in Islam. The Umayyads ruled from 661 to 750 and reinstated the power of the old pre-Islamic nobles.

With ʿAli's death, the first phase of the history of the Muslim people came to a close. The first four caliphs are called the Rashidun, or "rightly guided," by Muslims because they were true to the principles of their religion in the way they governed. Afterwards, the rule of the Islamic community became similar to a hereditary monarchy, or a kingdom in which rule is passed from father to son.

ʿAli's short reign did not accomplish the re-unification of Islam that he wanted. In fact, his greatest legacy was the split in Islam between the Shiʾa and the Sunnis. Although it began as a political disagreement over the succession of caliphs, this split later became religious when the Shiites claimed ʿAli was the first imam, or leader with divinely inspired powers. In the end, however, ʿAli is remembered by both Shiite and Sunni Muslims as a fair religious leader, a warrior, and a writer. The Mashad ʿAli mosque was built in ʿAli's honor at nearby Najaf, on the spot where he is supposedly buried.

For More Information


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Atkins, Corinne. "The Shrine of Islam's Tragic Divisions." History Today (November 2003): 6.


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