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Rashidun Caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib - علي بن أبي طالب.svg
Calligraphic representation of Ali's name
4th Caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate
PredecessorUthman ibn Affan
SuccessorAbolished position
Hasan ibn Ali (as caliph)
1st Shia Imam
PredecessorEstablished position
SuccessorHasan ibn Ali
Bornc. 600
Mecca, Hejaz, Arabia
Diedc. 28 January 661
(c.21 Ramadan AH 40)
(aged c.  60)
Kufa, Rashidun Caliphate (present-day Iraq)
TribeQuraysh (Banu Hashim)
FatherAbu Talib ibn Abd al-Muttalib
MotherFatimah bint Asad

ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib (Arabic: علي بن أبي طالب; c. 600 – 28 January 661 CE)[3][1][4] was a cousin, son-in-law and companion of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. He ruled as the fourth rightly guided caliph from 656 until his assassination in 661. He is a main religious person in Shia Islam as the first Shia Imam and also one of the central figures in Sunni Islam as the fourth of the "rightly guided" (rāshidūn) caliphs (name used for the first four successors to Muhammad ).[1] He was the son of Abu Talib and Fatimah bint Asad, the husband of Fatima, and the father of Hasan, Husayn, Zaynab, and Umm Kulthum.[3]

As a child, Muhammad took care of him. After Muhammad's invitation of his close relatives, Ali became one of the first believers in Islam at the age of about 9 to 11.[4] He then publicly accepted his invitation on Yawm al-Inzar[5] and Muhammad called him his brother, guardian and successor.[4] He helped Muhammad emigrate on the night of Laylat al-Mabit, by sleeping in his place.[4] After migrating to Medina and establishing a brotherhood pact between the Muslims, Muhammad chose him as his brother.[3] In Medina, he was the flag bearer in most of the wars and became famous for his bravery.[4]

The issue of his right in the post-Muhammad caliphate caused a major rift between Muslims and divided them into Shia and Sunni groups.[1] On his return from the Farewell Pilgrimage, at Ghadir Khumm, Muhammad uttered the phrase, "Whoever I am his Mawla, this Ali is his Mawla." But the meaning of Mawla was disputed by Shias and Sunnis. On this basis, the Shias believe in the establishment of the Imamate and caliphate regarding Ali, and the Sunnis interpret the word as friendship and love.[1][6] While Ali was preparing Muhammad's body for burial, a group of Muslims met at Saqifah and pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr.[7] Ali pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr, after six months, but did not take part in the wars[8] and political activity, except for the election of the third caliph Uthman. However, he advised the three caliphs in religious, judicial, and political matters whenever they wanted.[1]

After Uthman was killed, Ali was elected as the next Caliph, which coincided with the first civil wars between Muslims. Ali faced two separate opposition forces: a group led by Aisha, Talha, and Zubayr in Mecca, who wanted to convene a council to determine the caliphate; and another group led by Mu'awiya in the Levant, who demanded revenge for Uthman's blood. He defeated the first group in the Battle of the Camel; but in the end, the Battle of Siffin with Mu'awiya was militarily ineffective, and led to an arbitration which ended politically against him. Then, in the year 38 AH (658-659), he fought with the Kharijites - who considered Ali's acceptance of arbitration as heresy, and revolted against him - in Nahrawan and defeated them.[4] Ali was eventually killed in the mosque of Kufa by the sword of one of the Kharijites, Ibn Muljam Moradi, and was buried outside the city of Kufa. Later his shrine and the city of Najaf were built around his tomb.[4]

Despite the impact of religious differences on Muslim historiography, sources agree that Ali strictly observed religious duties and avoided worldly possessions. Some writers accused him of a lack of political skill and flexibility.[3] According to Wilferd Madelung, Ali did not want to involve himself in the game of political deception which deprived him of success in life, but, in the eyes of his admirers, he became an example of the piety of the primary un-corrupted Islam, as well as the chivalry of pre-Islamic Arabia.[9] Several books are dedicated to the hadiths, sermons, and prayers narrated by him, the most famous of which is Nahj al-Balagha.

Early life

According to older historical sources, Ali was born on 13th of Rajab, about the year 600 AD, in Mecca. About the birthplace of Ali ibn Abi Talib, many sources, especially Shia ones, attest that Ali was the only person who was born inside the Kaaba.[1][10][4] His father, Abu Talib ibn Abd al-Muttalib, was the leader of the Banu Hashim clan of the Quraysh tribe.[3] He was also Muhammad's uncle and raised him when his parents died. Later on, when Abu Talib became impoverished, Ali, who was five at the time, was taken home and raised by Muhammad and his wife, Khadija.[1]

Ali's mother, Fatimah bint Asad, also belonged to Banu Hashim; it is said that this made Ali a descendant of Ishmael, the firstborn son of Abraham (Ibrahim).[11]

When Ali was nine or ten, Muhammad announced that he had received a divine revelation, and Ali believed him and professed to Islam.[1][3][12] He was one of the first believers, whether the second (after Khadija) or the third (after Khadija and Abu Bakr), to be disputed by Shias and Sunnis,[8] though, according to Gleave, earliest sources seem to place Ali before Abu Bakr.[i][4]

Muhammad's call to Islam in Mecca lasted 13 years, from which 3 years was in secret. According to Tabari, by the beginning of the public call, and after the revelation of the verse: "Warn your closest relatives" (Qur'an, 26:214), Muhammad was commanded to invite his relatives to a feast. Thus he invited 40 of his close relatives from Banu Hashim clan to the feast. According to Tabari, Ali ibn al-Athir, and Abulfeda, in this feast, Muhammad asked his relatives; who is willing to assist him in the mission. Then he declared that whoever helped him, would be his brother, trustee and successor. None of the relatives gave an affirmative answer except Ali. Muhammad repeated his request for the second and third time. Still Ali was the only volunteer. After the third time, Tabari writes, Muhammad put his arm around Ali's neck and said "this is my brother, my trustee and my successor among you, so listen to him and obey", while Ali was 13 or 14 years old at the time. Thus the people got up while joking and saying to Abu Talib; "He has ordered you to listen to your son and obey him!"[5][4] During the period (610-622 AD) when Muhammad received his first revelations, Ali along with Zayd ibn Harithah, Abu Bakr and Khadijeh was one of Muhammad's loyal companions. He helped form the nucleus of the first Islamic society. During these years, he spent most of his time providing for the needs of the believers in Mecca, especially the poor, by distributing his wealth among them and helping with their daily affairs.[1]

From migration to Medina to the death of Muhammad

In the year 622, which is known as the migration year, Muhmammad's enemies were plotting to kill him, thus he asked Ali to sleep in his bed, so that he could escape to Yathrib (now Medina).[1] Ali risked his life by sleeping in Muhammad's bed to impersonate him, in a night called Laylat al-Mabit.[4][1] When the enemies entered Muhammad's house with drawn daggers, they were surprised to see Ali, however, did not harm him.[1] According to Shia scholar, Tabatabaei, the verse "And among men is he who sells his nafs (self) in exchange for the pleasure of God" (Qur'an 2:207) refers to this event.[18] Ali waited for some instructions, before he left Mecca with Muhammad's family.[j] He was 22 or 23 at the time.[1] According to Shia sources, shortly after the migration to Medina, Muhammad told Ali that God had commanded him to give his daughter, Fatima, in marriage to him.[1]

Event of Mubahala

The calligraphy of the names of ahl al-kisa and two hadiths of Muhammad on the cloth, probably belonging to Iran or Central Asia

In the year 10 AH (631–632) a Christian envoy from Najran (now in northern Yemen) came to Muhammad to argue which of the two parties erred in its doctrine concerning Jesus. After likening Jesus' miraculous birth to Adam's creation —who was born to neither a mother nor a father— and when the Christians did not accept the Islamic doctrine about Jesus, Muhammad reportedly received a revelation instructing him to call them to Mubahala, where each party should ask God to destroy the false party and their families:[20][21][22]

If anyone dispute with you in this matter [concerning Jesus] after the knowledge which has come to you, say: Come let us call our sons and your sons, our women and your women, ourselves and yourselves, then let us swear an oath and place the curse of God on those who lie.(Qur'an 3:61)[20]

In Shia perspective, in the verse of Mubahala, the phrase "our sons" would refer to Hasan and Husayn, "our women" refers to Fatima, and "ourselves" refers to Ali. Most of the Sunni narrations quoted by al-Tabari do not name the participants. Other Sunni historians mention Muhammad, Fatima, Hasan and Husayn as having participated in the Mubahala, and some agree with the Shia tradition that Ali was among them.[23][21][22] The verse "God wishes only to remove taint from you, people of the Household, and to make you utterly pure" is also attributed to this event, during which Ali, Fatima, Hasan and Husayn stood under Muhammad's cloak.[21] Thus the title, the Family of the Cloak, is related sometimes to the Event of Mubahala.[k][24]

Missions and military career

Arabic calligraphy which means "There is no brave youth except Ali and there is no sword which renders service except Zulfiqar"

Ali undertook several missions on behalf of Muhammad. Muhammad designated him as one of the scribes who would write down the text of the Qur'an, which had been revealed to Muhammad during the previous two decades.[1] After migration to Medina, when Muhammad was creating bonds of brotherhood among his companions, he selected Ali as his brother.[3] In 628 AD, Ali was instructed to write down the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, the peace treaty between Muhammad and the Quraysh. In 630 AD, the year before the Conquest of Mecca, when Abu Bakr was leading the Hajj, Muhammad recited Surah Bara'ah Min al-Mushrikin (declaring that Muhammad and the Islamic community no longer bound by agreements made earlier with Arab polytheists.)[3][1] by Ali to the people of Mecca.[3] One year later, in 631, Ali was sent to Yemen to spread the teachings of Islam there, which is known as Expedition of Ali ibn Abi Talib.[1] Ali also was chosen to break the idols inside the Kaaba and other idols worshiped by the Aws, Khazraj and Tayy tribes.[3] He was also known for settling several disputes and putting down the uprisings of various tribes.[25][1]

Ali took part in nearly all expeditions (with the exception of the Battle of Tabouk) during the life of Muhammad, often as standard-bearer; and two times as commander, namely Expeditions of Fadak and Expedition of Yemen. Ali's bravery became legendary later. Along with Hamza, Abu Dajana, and Zubayr, he is known for his attacks on the enemy. It is said that he alone killed more than a third of the enemy in the Battle of Badr.[19] In the year 5 AH, he executed the enemies who had been sentenced to death by Muhammad, and together with Zubayr, supervised the killing of the Banu Qurayza tribe.[19] He vigorously defended Muhammad in the battles of Battle of Uhud when most of the Muslim army fled from the battle,[1] and in the Battle of Hunayn. The victory of the Muslims in the Battle of Khaybar is attributed to his courage.[3] He reportedly used the heavy gate of Khyber fort as a shield.[19][3]

Zulfiqar with, and without the shield. The Fatimid depiction of Ali's sword as carved on the Gates of Old Islamic Cairo, namely Bab al-Nasr
Ali's Sword and shield carved on Bab al-Nasr gate wall, Cairo

According to a narration, Gabriel referred to the battle of Ali and his sword of Zulfiqar, and told Muhammad, "There is no sword but the Zulfiqar, and there is no Hero but Ali".[1] Ali defeated the great Quraysh warrior, Talha ibn Abi Talha who reportedly asked for mercy by saying the phrase Karram-Allah-u Wajhahu.[l][1] According to Nasr, this prayer of goodness became one of the titles of Ali that is mostly used by Sunnis.[1]

Sherira Gaon (c. 906–c. 1006) describes in a responsum how that the head of the Jewish community in Peroz-Shapur (now al-ʾAnbār), a community numbering some 90,000, warmly welcomed Ali ibn Abi Talib when he marched with his army into the country and conquered it, and how that he received them with a friendly disposition.[26] During the Conquest of Mecca in 630, Muhammad asked Ali to guarantee that the conquest would be bloodless. He ordered Ali to purify Kaaba from idols after its defilement by the polytheism of old times.[1][3]

Ghadir Khumm

The Investiture of Ali, at Ghadir Khumm (MS Arab 161, fol. 162r, 1307/8 Ilkhanid manuscript illustration)

As Muhammad was returning from his last pilgrimage in 632 AD, he made statements about Ali that are interpreted very differently by Sunnis and Shias.[1] He halted the caravan at Ghadir Khumm, gathered the returning pilgrims for communal prayer and began to address them.[27] Taking Ali by the hand, he asked of his faithful followers whether he, Muhammad, was not closer (awlā) to the Believers than they were to themselves; the crowd cried out: "It is so, O Apostle of God!"; he then declared: "He of whom I am the mawla, of him Ali is also the mawla (man kuntu mawlāhu fa-ʿAlī mawlāhu)".[m][29]

Shias regard these statements as constituting the designation of Ali as the successor of Muhammad and as the first Imam; by contrast, Sunnis take them only as an expression of close spiritual relationship between Muhammad and Ali, and of his wish that Ali, as his cousin and son-in-law, inherit his family responsibilities upon his death, but not necessarily a designation of political authority.[4][30] According to Wilferd Madelung, Ali during his caliphate in Kufa, citing this event, emphasized the superiority of his position over the previous caliphs.[31]

Many Sufis also interpret the episode as the transfer of Muhammad's spiritual power and authority to Ali, whom they regard as the wali par excellence.[1][32] Also, in a Sunni collection of Hadith recorded by Ahmad ibn Hanbal, for example, we read:

We were with the Apostle of God in his journey and we stopped at Ghadir Khumm. We performed the obligatory prayer together and a place was swept for the Apostle under two trees and he performed the mid-day prayer. And then he took Ali by the hand and said to people: Do you not acknowledge that I have a greater claim on each of the believers than they have on themselves? And they replied Yes! And he took Ali's hand and said: Of whomsoever I am Lord [Mawla], then Ali is also his Lord. O God! be thou the supporter of whoever support Ali and the enemy of whoever oppose him. And Umar met him [Ali] after this and said to him: congratulations, O son of Abu Talib! Now morning and evening [i.e. forever] you are the master of every believing man and woman.[n][33]

According to Wain, there have been doubts regarding the veracity of the tradition due to evidence that Ali may not have been present during the sermon, instead being in Yemen at the time—a view held by the historian Ibn Kathir.[34]

Life under Rashidun Caliphs

The next phase of Ali's life started in 632, after the death of Muhammad, and lasted until the assassination of Uthman ibn Affan, the third caliph, in 656. During those 24 years, Ali took no part in battle or conquest.[3]

Succession to Muhammad

Ambigram depicting Muhammad (right) and Ali (left) written in a single word. The 180-degree inverted form shows both words.

While Ali was preparing Muhammad's body for burial and performing his funeral rites, a small group of approximately fourteen Muslims[35] met at Saqifah. There, Umar pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr, who subsequently assumed political power. The gathering at Saqifah was disputed by some of Muhammad's companions, who held that Ali had been designated his successor by Muhammad himself.[12][7] Nevertheless, the issue of succession to Muhammad caused the Muslims to split into two groups, Sunni and Shia. Sunnis assert that even though Muhammad never appointed a successor, Abu Bakr was elected first caliph by the Muslim community. The Sunnis recognize the first four caliphs as Muhammad's rightful successors. Shias believe that Muhammad explicitly named Ali as his successor at Ghadir Khumm and Muslim leadership belonged to him by dint of divine order.[12] According to Laura Veccia Vaglieri, whether Ali hoped he could take the position of Caliphate after Muhammad, is doubtful, since he made no effort to take control of community, in spite of being advised by al-Abbas and Abu Sufyan to do so.[36] Madelung, on the other hand, believes that Ali himself was firmly convinced of his legitimacy for the caliphate based on his close kinship with Muhammad, his knowledge of Islam, and his merits in serving its cause. Ali told Abu Bakr, madelung writes, that his delay in pledging allegiance (bay'ah) to him was based on his belief in his own claim to the caliphate. Ali did not change his mind, Madelung says, when he finally pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr and then to Umar and to Uthman, but had done so, for the sake of the unity of Islam, at a time when it was clear that the Muslims had turned away from him. If the Muslim community, Madelung continues, or a small segment of it, favored him, he would no longer consider the caliphate just as his "right", but also as his "duty".[37] According to Chirri, Ali believed that he could fulfill the role of Imam without fighting.[38]

Regarding the succession of Ali, historians and scholars of Islamic history have generally either accepted the view of the Sunnis or considered the truth of the matter undetectable. One of the historians who has distanced himself from this common belief is Wilferd Madelung.[39] In the Encyclopedia of Islam, Madelung considers the main Shia claims, to be Ali's own view, because Ali considered himself the most worthy person for the caliphate, compared to other companions, and blamed the Muslim community for turning away from him, but, at the same time, he praised the caliphate of Abu Bakr and Umar, and condemned the destruction of their character.[40] Madelung believes that, since in the Arab customs of the time, especially the Quraysh, hereditary succession was common, and since the Qur'an emphasized the importance of blood ties between the early prophets, especially the Ahl al-Bayt, and since the Ansar supported Ali's caliphate, Abu Bakr knew that forming a council would lead to the election of Ali, so he led the situation in a manner that insured his own election.[41] Vaglieri, On the other hand, believes that Arabs traditionally chose their leaders from among the elders, and Ali was a little over thirty years old at the time, and did not have the necessary credibility to succeed Muhammad, according to Arab traditions. Vaglieri believes that the Shias, by inventing or interpreting the words attributed to Muhammad in the light of their beliefs, insist that the Prophet intended to choose Ali as his successor, while there is no doubt that at the time of his last illness, Muhammad did not mention this desire.[8] Some sources name the Hadith of the pen and paper, as the last words of Muhammad, which is interpreted differently by Shias and Sunnis.[42]

Caliphate of Abu Bakr

At the beginning of Abu Bakr's caliphate, there was a controversy about Muhammad's endowment to his daughter, especially the oasis of Fadak, between Fatima and Ali on one side and Abu Bakr on the other side. Fatima asked Abu Bakr to turn over their property, the lands of Fadak and Khaybar, but Abu Bakr refused and told her that "The Messenger of God has said: We do not have heirs, whatever we leave is alms." Fatima became angry and stopped speaking to Abu Bakr, and continued assuming that attitude until she died.[43] According to a narration by ibn Sa'd, Ali countered Abu Bakr by quoting some verses of the Qur'an, according which "Solomon became David's heir" (Qur'an 27:16) and "Zachariah said [in his prayer: give me a next-of-kin] who will inherit from me and inherit from the family of Jacob". (Qur'an 19:6).[o][44] According to some sources, Ali did not give his oath of allegiance to Abu Bakr until some time after the death of his wife, Fatima, in the year 633.[3] According to Tabari, a group of Abu Bakr's opponents, including Zubayr ibn al-Awwam]], gathered at Fatima's house. To make them come out and swear allegiance to Abu Bakr, Umar threatened to set the house on fire and pulled them out.[45] While al-Baladhuri states that the altercation never became violent and ended with Ali's compliance,[46] some traditions add that Umar and his supporters forcibly entered the house, resulting in Fatima's miscarriage of their unborn son Muhsin.[47] Professor Coeli Fitzpatrick surmises that the story of the altercation reflects the political agendas of the period and should therefore be treated with caution.[48]

Ali lived an isolated life during Abu Bakr's period and was mainly engaged in religious affairs, devoting himself to studying and teaching the Quran. He also advised Abu Bakr and Umar on government matters.[1] According to Ismail Poonawala, the first historically compiled Quran is attributed to Ali. Ali's knowledge of the Quran and Sunnah would help the previous caliphs in religious matters.[3][49] The order of Qur'an, compiled be Ali, reportedly differed from that which was gathered later during the Uthmanic era. This book was rejected by several people when he showed it to them. Despite this, Ali made no resistance against the standardised mus'haf.[50]

Caliphate of Umar

Ali retired from public life during Caliphate of Abu Bakr and Umar, however, he accepted their rule and even gave his daughter, Umm Kulthum in marriage to Umar. He also was consulted in matters of state.[1] According to Vaglieri, however, while it is probable that Umar asked Ali's advice on legal issues, due to his great knowledge of Qur'an and Sunnah, it is not certain whether his advice was accepted on political matters. As an example, al-Baladhuri mentions Ali's view on Diwani revenue, which was opposite to that of Umar. Since, Ali believed the whole income should be distributed, without holding anything in stock. During the Caliphate of Umar (and Uthman) Ali held no position, except, according to Tabari, the lieutenancy of Madina, during Umar's journey to Syria and Palestine.[51] During the caliphate of Umar, Ali claimed Fatima's paternal inheritance again; But Umar's answer was the same as Abu Bakr's. However, Umar agreed to return some of the property of Medina (which was considered part of Fatima's inheritance) to the sons of Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib, who represented Banu Hashim; But the property of Fadak and Khybar remained as state property and was not returned to Banu Hashim.[52]

Election of the third caliph

The election of Uthman, from Balami's Tarikhnama

Ali was one of the electoral council to choose the third caliph which was appointed by Umar. Although Ali was one of the two major candidates, the council was inclined against him. Sa'd ibn Abi Waqqas and Abdur Rahman ibn Awf, who were cousins, were naturally inclined to support Uthman, who was Abdur Rahman's brother-in-law. In addition, Umar gave the deciding vote to Abdur Rahman, who offered the caliphate to Ali on the condition that he should rule in accordance with the Qur'an, the Sunnah ( the example set by Muhammad), and the precedents established by the first two caliphs. Ali rejected the third condition while Uthman accepted it. According to ibn Abi al-Hadid's Comments on the Peak of Eloquence, Ali insisted on his prominence there, but most of the electors supported Uthman and Ali was reluctantly urged to accept him.[53]

According to Madelung, Ali could not have hoped to become the caliph after Umar, on the basis of his kinship with Muhammad; Because the Quraysh did not support the accumulation of prophethood and caliphate in one clan. He believes that it was not "Abu Bakr's and Umar's coup" at Saqifah which prevented Ali from becoming caliph, but it stems from the deep jealousy of the Quraysh toward Ali. Therefore, Madelung says, Ali's only chance to participate in the affairs of the Muslims could be his full participation in the council, which was founded by Umar. Ibn Abbas narrates that Umar once told him that Ali was in fact the most worthy person to succeed Muhammad, but we were afraid of him for two reasons. When ibn Abbas eagerly asks Umar about these reasons, Umar replied that the first is his youth and the second is Ali's great interest in the Banu Hashim family. In his address, Umar refers to his belief in the formation of the council as the basis for appointing a caliph, and in practice, from now on, denounces any appointment of a caliph without consultation. Thus, by doing so, the caliphate could not be monopolized by certain clan and belonged to all the Quraysh.[54]

Caliphate of Uthman

Map of the First Fitna; green territory under Ali's control; pink territory under Mu'awiya's control.

There is controversy among historians about the relationship between Ali and Uthman.[55] According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr Ali recognized Uthman as the caliph, but had taken a neutral position among his supporters and opponents.[1] Robert M. Gleave believes that Ali was at least spiritually at the forefront of Uthman's opponents; Ali, along with Talha and Zubayr, were among the critics of Uthman; and Ali stated that Uthman had deviated from the Sunnah of the Prophet,[4] especially on the question of religious law which should be meted out in several cases, such as those of Ubayd Allah ibn Umar and Walid ibn Uqba(accused of drinking).[51][55][4] Ali also opposed Uthman for changing the prayer ritual, and for declaring that he would take whatever he needed from the fey'. Ali also endeavored to protect companions such as ibn Mas'ud,[55] Abu Dharr al-Ghifari (who was exiled from Medina, due to his preaches against the misdeeds of the powerful),[51][4] and Ammar ibn Yasir[3] from maltreatment by the caliph. According to Madelung, when people revolted against Uthman in some cities and regions and moved to Medina, Uthman asked Ali to speak with them and convince them to return to their cities. Uthman, committing himself to follow Ali's advice from now on, Madelung writes, gave him full authority to negotiate with the insurgents as he wished. According to this report, Ali reminded Uthman that he had talked to him about this before, but he preferred to listen to Marwan ibn Hakam and the Umayyads instead. Uthman accordingly promised that from now on, he would turn away from them and listen to Ali; and ordered other Ansar and Muhajirun to join Ali. He also asked Ammar to join the group, but he rejected the offer.[56] Accordiing to Poonawala Ali had a restraining influence on Uthman at this time without directly opposing him. He conveyed criticisms of the Companions to Uthman, and negotiated on behalf of Uthman with the opposition who had come to Medina; which seems to have caused suspicion between Ali and Uthman's relatives. Later, when the rebels besieged Uthman's house, Ali tried to mitigate the severity of the siege by his insistence that Uthman should be allowed water.[3] When Uthman was in danger of being attacked, Ali sent his sons to protect his house. When Uthman was killed by the insurgents, Ali blamed his sons for inadequate protection of Uthman's house.[1] According to Vaglieri, the rebels asked Ali to be their head, and although he refused and should be excluded from the bloody conclusion of their act, but, Vaglieri says, there are reasons that Ali was in agreement with rebels that Uthman should abdicate.[51] According to Madelung "there is no evidence that Ali entertained close relations with them at this time or directed their actions. But he was certainly aware of them."[57] It is reported from Tabari that Ali tried to detach himself from the besiegers of the house of Uthman and their partisans, as soon as circumstances allowed him.[51] Madelung relates that, years later, Marwan told Zayn al-Abidin, the grandson of Ali, that "No one [among the Islamic nobility] was more temperate toward our master than your master."[58]



Allegiance is given to Ali, electing him as caliph, following the murder of Uthman (from a 16th-century Turkish manuscript)

When Uthman was killed in 656 CE by rebels from Egypt, Kufa and Basra, the potential candidates for caliphate were Ali and Talha. The Umayyads had fled Medina, and the Egyptians, prominent Muhajirun, and Ansar had gained control of the city. Among the Egyptians, Talha enjoyed some support. However, the Basrians and Kufis, who had heeded Ali's opposition to the use of violence, and most of the Ansar openly supported Ali's caliphate, and finally got the upper hand. In particular, Malik al-Ashtar, the leader of the Kufis, seems to have played a key role in facilitating the caliphate of Ali.[37] According to Poonawala, before the assassination of Uthman, the Basri and Kufi rebels were in favor of Talha and Zubayr, respectively. After the assassination of Uthman, however, both groups turned to Ali.[59]

The caliphate was offered to Ali and he accepted the position after a few days.[3] According to Madelung, many of Muhammad's companions expressed the wish to pledge allegiance to him after the assassination of Uthman. At first, Ali declined.[60] Aslan attributes Ali's initial refusal to the polarization of the Muslim community, with the rebels and their supporters calling for the restoration of the caliphate to its early years and the powerful Banu Umayyad clan demanding the punishment of the rebels for Uthman's death.[61] Later, Ali said that any pledge should be made publicly in the mosque. Malik al-Ashtar might had been the first to pledge allegiance to Ali.[62] It seems that Ali personally did not pressure anyone for a pledge. In particular, Sa'ad ibn Abi Waqqas, Abdullah ibn Umar and Usama ibn Zayd refused to acknowledge the authority of Ali.[63] Talha and Zubayr likely gave their pledges though they both later broke their oaths, claiming that they had pledged their allegiance to Ali under public pressure.[64] There is, however, less evidence for violence than in Abu Bakr's election, according to Madelung.[65]

It has been suggested that the assassination of Uthman created an atmosphere of tumult and panic.[66] This atmosphere might have compelled Ali into accepting the caliphate to prevent further chaos.[67] According to Caetani, this chain of events also indicates that the leading companions of Muhammad did not have an a priori agreement about the succession of Uthman.[66] It has also been proposed that the support of the Ansar and the disarray of the Umayyad clan contributed more to the election of Ali than the prestige of his alliance and family ties with Muhammad.[68] According to Madelung, the reign of Ali bore the marks of a counter-caliphate, because he was not elected by a council and did not enjoy the support of the majority of the powerful Quraysh tribe.[37] On the other hand, according to Shaban, nearly every underprivileged group rallied around Ali.[69] According to Vaglieri, the nomination of Ali by the rebels exposed him to the accusations of complicity, despite his efforts to distance himself from Uthman's murder.[70] Though he condemned Uthman's murder, Ali likely regarded the resistance movement as a front for the just demands of the poor and the disenfranchised.[71]

Ruling style

Coin minted under Ali's Caliphate in Bishapur, 36 AH/656CE

It has been suggested that, by virtue of his kinship with Muhammad and his profound knowledge of Islam's roots, Ali laid claim to the religious authority to interpret the Quran and Sunnah to meet the needs of a rapidly-changing caliphate.[72]

Ali opposed a centralized control over provincial revenues, favoring an equal distribution of the taxes and booty amongst Muslims, following the precedent of Muhammad.[73] This practice, according to Poonawala, might be an indication of Ali's policy to give equal value to all Muslims who served Islam, a policy which later garnered him considerable support among the traditional tribal leaders.[74] According to Shaban, Ali's policies earned him the strong support of the underprivileged groups, including the Ansar, who were subordinated after Muhammad by the Quraysh leadership, and the Qurra or Quranic reciters who sought pious Islamic leadership. The successful formation of this diverse coalition is attributed to Ali's charisma by Shaban.[75] In a notable incident, it has been reported that Ali rejected the request by his brother, Aqil, for public funds and instead offered to pay Aqil from his personal estate.[76]

According to Heck, Ali also forbade Muslim fighters from looting and instead distributed the taxes as salaries among the warriors, in equal proportions. This might have been the first subject of the dispute between Ali and the group that later constituted the Kharijites.[77] Since the majority of Ali's subjects were nomads and peasants, he was concerned with agriculture. In particular, he instructed his top general, Malik al-Ashtar, to pay more attention to land development than short-term taxation.[78]

Battle of the Camel

Aisha battling the fourth caliph Ali in the Battle of the Camel

According to Vaglieri, although Aisha had supported opposition against Uthman, she had gone on pilgrimage to Mecca when they killed Uthman. On her way back to Medina, when she learned about this, and specially on hearing that the new Caliph was Ali, she returned to Mecca and engaged in an active propaganda against Ali. Later on Talha and Zubayr joined her and together they marched towards Iraq to gain more supporters.[70] They wanted Ali to punish the rioters who had killed Uthman.[79] The rebels maintained that Uthman had been justly killed, for not governing according to the Quran and Sunnah; hence, no vengeance was to be invoked.[3][80][81] According to Vaglieri, since these three leaders (Aisha, Talha, Zubayr) were in part responsible for the fate of Uthman, their reason for rising is not clear. However, Vaglieri believes, "social and economic motives, inspired by fear of the possible influence of the extremists on Ali", seem to offer a more convincing explanation.[70] Poonawala believes that Talha and Zubayr, who had previously been frustrated with their political aspirations, became even more frustrated when they faced Ali's opposition to handing over to them the governorship of Basra and Kufa. When the two heard that their supporters had gathered in Mecca, they asked Ali to allow them to leave Medina for Umrah. After that, the two broke their allegiance to Ali and blamed him for killing Uthman and asked him to prosecute the killers.[3]

After Talha and Zubayr failed to mobilize supporters in the Hijaz, they set out for Basra with several hundred soldiers, hoping to find the forces and resources needed to mobilize Iraqi supporters.[p][8][3] Ali pursued them with an army, but did not reach them.[3] The rebels captured Basra,[4] killed many people,[3] attacked the bayt al-mal, and forced Uthman ibn Hunaif, Ali's appointed governor, to leave Basra.[82] Ali preferred to enlist the support of Kufa instead of marching to Basra.[82] Abu Musa Ashaari, the governor of Kufa, had pledged allegiance to Ali before the Battle of camel, but when the war escalated, took a neutral stance,[83] and called on the people of Kufa to do the same.[82][84] Ali's supporters expelled him from Kufa,[83] and joined 6 to 12 thousand people to Ali's army.[82][85] They were the main part of Ali's force in the coming battles.[q][87] Troops encamped close to Basra. The talks lasted for many days. The two parties agreed on a peace agreement, however, according to Vaglieri, the rebels did not like the conclusion of the treaty. A brawl provoked, which expanded into a battle.[70] The Battle of the Camel started in 656, where Ali emerged victorious.[88] Aisha was not harmed;[82] Ali treated her with respect and sent her to Medina under his care.[8] He also spared Aisha's army and released them after taking allegiance.[r][82] He prevented his troops from seizing their property as spoils of war, also prevented women and children from being enslaved, which led the extremists of his corps to accuse him of apostasy.[s][82][89] Talha was wounded by Marwan ibn Hakam (according to many sources) and died.[82] Ali managed to persuade Zubair to leave the battle by reminding him of Muhammad's words about himself. Some people from the tribe of Banu Tamim pursued him and killed him conspiratorially.[82] Ali entered Basra and distributed the money he found in the treasury equally among his supporters. [t][3]

Battle of Siffin

Combat between the forces of Ali and Mu'awiya during the Battle of Siffin, from the Tarikhnama

Immediately after Battle of the Camel, Ali turned to the Levant, where Mu'awiya was the governor. He was appointed during the rein of Umar and was established there during the time of Uthman. Ali wrote a letter to him but he delayed responding, During which he prepared for battle with Ali.[4] Mu'awiya insisted on Levant autonomy under his rule and refused to pay homage to Ali on the pretext that his contingent had not participated in the election. Ali then moved his armies north and the two sides encamped at Siffin for more than one hundred days, most of the time being spent in negotiations which was on vain. Skirmishes between the parties led to the Battle of Siffin in 657 AD.[3][90]

A week of combat was followed by a violent battle known as laylat al-harir (the night of clamour). Mu'awiya's army was on the point of being routed when Amr ibn al-As advised Mu'awiya to have his soldiers hoist mus'haf[u] on their spearheads in order to cause disagreement and confusion in Ali's army.[3][90][91] This gesture implied that two sides should put down their swords and settle their dispute referring to Qur'an.[70][92] Ali warned his troops that Mu'awiya and Amr were not men of religion and Qur'an and that it was a deception, but many of Qurra[v] could not refuse the call to the Qur'an, some of them even threatened Ali that if he continued the war, they would hand him over to the enemy. Ali was forced to accept a ceasefire and consequently the arbitration of the Qur'an, according which each side were to "choose a representative to arbitrate the conflict in accordance with the Book of God".[96][91] The subject about which the arbiters were to decide was not specified at first, except that they should work things out (yusliha bayna 'l-umma).[97][98] According to Julius Wellhausen, the two armies agreed to settle the matter of who should be caliph by arbitration.[99] The question as to whether the arbiter who had to face Amr ibn al-As (Mu'awiya's arbiter) would represent Ali or the Kufans, caused a further split in Ali's army.[100][3] Ali's choice was ibn Abbas or Malik al-Ashtar, but Ash'ath ibn Qays and the Qurra rejected Ali's nominees and insisted on Abu Musa Ash'ari who had previously prevented the people of Kufa from helping Ali.[3] Ali was forced again to accept Abu Musa.[101][102] The arbitrators were to meet seven months later at a place halfway between Syria and Iraq.[103][99] The matters to be examined was not specified, but it was decided that the arbitrators would make decisions based on the interests of the Ummah, so as not to cause division and war among them; and that any opinion contrary to the Qur'an would be invalid.[3][104]

According to Vaglieri, whether Uthman's murder should be regarded as an act of justice or not, was among the issues to be determined. Since if the murder was unjust, then Mu'awiya would have the right to revenge, which, according to Vaglieri, "involve, for Ali, the loss of the caliphate."[103] Madelung also believe that not only was the condition of the arbitration against Ali, but the very acceptance of the arbitration was a political defeat for him. On the one hand, the arbitration weakened the belief of Ali's followers to the legitimacy of their position and caused a rift in Ali's army, and on the other hand, it assured the Levanties that Mu'awiya's deceptive claims were based on the Qur'an. This was, according to Madelung, a moral victory for Mu'awiya, since while both Ali and Mu'awiya knew that the arbitration would fail in the end, Mu'awiya, who was losing the war, got the opportunity to strengthen his position in the Levant and propagandize against Ali.[105]

Advent of Kharijites

During the formation of the arbitration agreement, the coalition of Ali's supporters began to disintegrate. The issue of resorting to Sunnah must have been the most important reason for Qurra's opposition. They agreed to the agreement because it was an invitation to Qur'an and peace; but the terms of the agreement had not yet been determined; there was no term according which Ali would no longer be considered the commander of the faithful;[w][3] however, the expansion of the arbitrators' authority from the Qur'an to sunnah, which was ambiguous, jeopardized the credibility of the Qur'an, Qurra argued.[x] Therefore, to their view, the arbitration was considered equivalent to individuals' ruling in the matter of religion.[3][109] Their slogan therefore was "The decision belongs to God alone" (La hukma illa li'llah).[110] Ali's response to this was that it was "words of truth by which falsehood is intended"[y][112][113] Kharijites asked Ali to resume the fight against Mu'awiya, and when he refused, they rejected to recognize him as the commander of faithful,[114] and turned against him.[115] Hence, the very same people who had forced Ali into the ceasefire, broke away from him, and became known as the Kharijites[z][117][118] They asserted that according to Qur'an,[aa][119] the rebel (Mu'awiya), should be fought and overcome; and since there is such an explicit verdict in Qur'an, leaving the case to judgment of human was a sin. They camped at a place near Kufa, called Harura, and proclaimed their repentance.[120] Because they themselves first forced Ali to ceasefire which led to arbitration.[95] Ali made a visit to the camp and managed to reconcile with them. When He returned to Kufa, he explicitly stated that he will abide by the terms of the Siffin treaty. On hearing this, the Kharijites became angry, secretly met with each other and asked themselves whether staying in a land ruled by injustice was compatible with the duties of the servants of God. Those who considered it necessary to leave that land, secretly fled and asked their like-minded people in Basra to do the same, and gathered in Nahrawan.[121] The reason for the opposition of some of them, according to Fred Donner, may have been the fear that Ali would compromise with Mu'awiya and, after that, they would be called to account for their rebellion against Uthman.[122] Martin Hinds believes that Kharijites' protest was a religious protest in form, but in fact it had socio-economic intentions.[ab][124]


The first meeting of the arbitrators took place during the month of Ramadan[3] or Shawwal 37 AH (February or March 658 AD) in the neutral zone, Dumat al-Jandal.[125] In this meeting they decided that the deeds Uthman was accused of was not tyrannical; that he was killed unjustly; and that Mu'awiya had the right to revenge. This was, according to Madelung, a political compromise that was not based on a judicial inquiry;[ac][127] and according to Martin Hinds "was no more than an irrelevant sequel to a successful divisive manoeuvre by Mu'awiya".[128] However it was desirable for Amr al-As because it could prevent neutral people from joining Ali.[129] Ali refused to accept this state of affairs and found himself technically in breach of his pledge to abide by the arbitration.[130][131][132] Ali protested that it was contrary to the Qur'an and the Sunnah and hence not binding. Then he tried to organise a new army, but only Ansar, the remnants of the Qurra led by Malik Ashtar, and a few of their clansmen remained loyal.[3] This put Ali in a weak position even amongst his own supporters.[130] The arbitration resulted in the dissolution of Ali's coalition, and some have opined that this was Mu'awiya's intention.[3][133] Still Ali assembled his forces and mobilized them toward Syria to engage in war with Mu'awiya again,[134] however, on reaching to al-Anbar, he realized that he should move toward al-Nahrawan, to handle Kharejits' riot first.[119]

The second arbitration meeting probably took place in Muharram of 38 AH (June or July, 658 AD)[125] or Sha'ban of that year (January, 659 AD).[3] Since Ali no longer considered Abu Musa as his representative, and did not appoint anyone in replace, he did not participate in the second arbitration. But, the religious leaders of Medina, who did not participate in the first arbitration, tried to resolve the crisis of the Caliphate in this way.[96] The two sides met in January of 659 to discuss the selection of the new caliph. Amr ibn al-As supported Mu'awiya, while Abu Musa preferred his son-in-law, Abdullah ibn Umar, but the latter refused to stand for election in default of unanimity. Abu Musa then proposed, and Amr agreed, to depose both Ali and Mu'awiya and submit the selection of the new caliph to a Shura. In the public declaration that followed, Abu Musa observed his part of the agreement, but Amr declared Ali deposed and confirmed Mu'awiya as caliph.[3][135][136] This caused Abu Musa to get angry and leave the arbitration.[137] According to Vaglieri, this was judged in later time, as a treacherous trick and disloyal act.[138]

Battle of Nahrawan

The Nahrawan Canal ran parallel to the east bank of the Tigris.

After the first arbitration, when Ali learned that Mu'awiya let people to pledge allegiance to him,[139] he tried to gather a new army, and enlist Kharijites too, by assertion that he is going, as Kharijites wished, to fight against Mu'awiya. Kharijites, however, insisted that Ali should first repent of the infidelity[134] which, in their view, he had committed by accepting arbitration. Ali angrily refused.[119][140] At this time, only the Ansar, the remnants of the Qurra led by Malik al-Ashtar, and a small number of men from their tribes remained loyal to Ali. He left Kufa with his new army to overthrow Mu'awiya.[3] While Ali was on his way to Levant, the Kharijites killed people with whom they disagreed. Therefore, Ali's army, especially al-Ash'ath ibn Qays, asked him to deal with the Kharijites first, because they felt insecure about their relatives and property. Thus, Ali first went to Nahrawan to interact with the opposition. Ali asked Kharigites to hand over the killers, but they asserted that they killed together; and that it was permissible to shed the blood of Ali's followers (Shias).[141][134]

Ali and some of his companions asked the Kharijites to renounce enmity and war, but they refused. Ali then handed over the flag of amnesty to Abu Ayyub al-Ansari and announced that whoever goes to that flag, and whoever leaves Nahrawan, and has not committed a murder, is safe. Thus, hundreds of Kharijites separated from their army, except for 1500 or 1800 (or 2800)[142] out of about 4000. Finally, Ali waited for the Kharijites to start the battle, and then attacked the remnants of their army with an army of about fourteen thousand men. It took place in 658 AD. Between 7 and 13 members of Ali's army were killed, while almost all Kharijites who drew their swords were killed and wounded.[143]

Although it was reasonable and necessary, according to Madelung, to fight the bloodthirsty insurgents who openly threatened to kill others, but they were previously among the companions of Ali, and like Ali, were the most sincere believers in the Qur'an; and, according to Madelung, could have been among Ali's most ardent allies in opposing deviations from the Qur'an; but Ali could not confess his disbelief at their request or consider other Muslims infidels; or to ignore the murders they committed. After the battle, Ali intended to march directly to Levant,[144] but Nahrawan killing, being condemned by many, also the escape of Ali's soldiers, forced him to return to Kufa and not to be able to march toward Mu'awiya.[3] The wounded were taken to Kufa by Ali's troops to be cared for by their relatives.[142]

The final years of Ali's caliphate

Following the Battle of Nahrawan, Ali's support weakened and he was compelled to abandon his second Syria campaign and return to Kufa.[145] In addition to the demoralizing effect of the Battle of Nahrawan, another contributing factor might have been Ali's refusal to grant financial favors to the tribal chiefs, which left them vulnerable to bribery; Muawiya wrote to many of them, offering money and promises, in return for undermining Ali's war efforts.[146] With the collapse of Ali's broad military coalition, Egypt fell in 658 to Muawiya, who killed Ali's governor and installed Amr ibn al-As.[147] Muawiya also began to dispatch military detachments to terrorize the civilian population, killing those who did not recognize Muawiya as caliph and looting their properties.[148] These units, which were ordered to evade Ali's forces, targeted the areas along the Euphrates, the vicinity of Kufa, and most successfully, Hejaz and Yemen.[149] Ali could not mount a timely response to these assaults.[150] In the case of the raid led by Busr ibn Abi Artat in 661, the Kufans eventually responded to Ali's calls for jihad and routed Muawiya's forces only after the latter had reached Yemen.[151] Ali was also faced with armed uprisings by the remnants of the Kharijites, as well as opposition in eastern provinces.[152] However, as the extent of the rampage by Muawiya's forces became known to the public, it appears that Ali finally found sufficient support for a renewed offensive against Muawiya, set to commence in late winter 661.[153] These plans were abandoned after Ali's assassination.[154]

Death and burial

The Great Mosque of Kufa, where Ali was fatally assassinated

Ali was assassinated at the age of 62 or 63 by a Kharijite, ibn Muljam, who wanted revenge for the Battle of Nahrawan.[155][142] Another report indicates that Ibn Muljam, along with two other Karijites, decided to assassinate Ali, Mu'awiya, and Amr ibn al-As simultaneously in order to rid Islam of the three men, who, in their view, were responsible for the civil war, but only succeeded in killing Ali.[155] The date of his death has been reported differently. According to Shaykh al-Mufid, he was wounded on the 19th of Ramadan 40 AH (26 January 661 AD) and died two days later.[156] Ali barred his sons from retaliating against the Kharijites, instead stipulating that, if he survived, Ibn Muljam would be pardoned whereas if he died, Ibn Muljam should be given only one equal hit, regardless of whether or not he died from the hit.[157] Ali's eldest son, Hasan, followed these instructions and Ibn Muljam was executed in retaliation.[158] According to some accounts, Ali had long known about his fate, either by his own premonition or through Muhammad, who had told Ali that his beard would be stained with the blood of his head. It is emphasized mainly in Shia sources that Ali, despite being aware of his fate at the hands of Ibn Muljam, did not take any action against him because, in Ali's words, "Would you kill one who has not yet killed me?"[156]

Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf, Iraq where Shia Muslims believe Ali is buried
Hazrat Ali Mazar also called Rawz-e-Sharif, in Mazari Sharif, Afghanistan – where Sunni Muslims believe Ali is buried

According to Shaykh al-Mufid, Ali did not want his grave to be exhumed and profaned by his enemies. He thus asked to be buried secretly. It was revealed later during the Abbasid caliphate by Ja'far al-Sadiq that the grave was some miles from Kufa, where a sanctuary arose later and the city Najaf was built around it.[159][160] Under the Safavid Empire, his grave became the focus of much devoted attention, exemplified in the pilgrimage made by Shah Ismail I to Najaf and Karbala.[161]


After Ali's death, Kufi Muslims pledged their allegiance to his eldest son, Hasan, as Ali on many occasions had stated that only People of the House of Muhammad were entitled to lead the Muslim community.[162] At this time, Mu'awiya held both the Levant and Egypt, and had earlier declared himself caliph. He marched his army into Iraq, the seat of Hasan's caliphate. War ensued during which Mu'awiya gradually subverted the generals and commanders of Hasan's army until his army rebelled against him. Hasan was forced to cede the caliphate to Mu'awiya, according to the Hasan–Muawiya treaty, and the latter founded the Umayyad dynasty.[163] During their reign, the Umayyads kept Ali's family and his supporters, the Shia, under heavy pressure. Regular public cursing of Ali in the congregational prayers remained a vital institution until Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz abolished it sixty years later.[58][164] According to Madelung, during this period, "Umayyad highhandedness, misrule and repression were gradually to turn the minority of Ali's admirers into a majority. In the memory of later generations Ali became the ideal Commander of the Faithful."[165]

Wives and children

Ali had fourteen sons and nineteen daughters from nine wives and several concubines, among them Hasan, Husayn and Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah played a historical role, and only five of them left descendants.[138] Ali had four children from Muhammad's youngest daughter, Fatima: Hasan, Husayn, Zaynab[1] and Umm Kulthum. His other well-known sons were Abbas, born to Umm al-Banin, and Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah,[166][167] from a freed slave girl named Khawlah bint Ja'far.[4]

Ali's descendants from Fatima are known as Sharif or Sayyid. They are revered by Shias and Sunnis as the only surviving generation of Muhammad.[1] Ali had no other wives while Fatima was alive. Hasan was the eldest son of Ali and Fatima, and was the second Shia Imam. He also assumed the role of caliph for several months after Ali's death. In the year AH 50 he died after being poisoned by a member of his own household who, according to historians, had been motivated by Mu'awiya.[168] Husayn was the second son of Ali and Fatima, and the third Shia Imam. He rebelled against Mu'awiya's son, Yazid, in 680 AD and was killed in the battle of Karbala with his companions. In this battle, in addition to Husayn, six other sons of Ali were killed, four of whom were the sons of Umm ul-Banin. Also, Hasan's three sons and Husayn's two children were killed in the battle.[169][170]

Ali's dynasty considered the leadership of the Muslims to be limited to the Ahl al-Bayt and carried out several uprisings against rulers at different times. The most important of these uprisings are the battle of Karbala, the uprising of Mukhtar al-Thaqafi by Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah,the uprising of Zayd ibn Ali and the uprising of Yahya ibn Zayd against the Umayyads. Later, Ali's family also revolted against the Abbasids, the most important of which were the uprising of Shahid Fakh and the uprising of Muhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiyya. While none of these uprisings were successful, the Idrisians, Fatimids, and Alawites of Tabarestan were finally able to form the first governments of the Ali family.[171]


The works attributed to Ali, first delivered to his followers in the form of sermons and speeches, then were written by his companions. There were also supplications such as Du'a Kumayl which were taught to his companions.[4]

Nahj al-Balagha

Folio from an old Nahj al-Balagha

In the 10th century AD, a Shia scholar named Sharif Razi compiled a large number of sermons, letters, and short speeches of Ali on various topics in a book called Nahj al-Balagha, which became one of the most popular and influential books in the Islamic world. However, this book was almost completely ignored in Western research until the 20th century. Although some Western scholars doubt its authenticity, it has never been questioned by most Muslims. Nahj al-Balagha continues to be a religious, inspirational and literary source among Shias and Sunnis.[1] This book has a prominent position in Arabic literature. It is also considered an important intellectual, political work in Islam.[1] According to Gleave, Nahj al-Balagha's third sermon, Shaqshaqiya Sermon, in which Ali reveals his claim to Caliphate and his superiority over Abu bakr, Umar and Uthman, is the most controversial section of the book. Also Letter of Ali ibn Abi Talib to Malik al-Ashtar, in which Ali "outlines his conception of legitimate and righteous rule", is an important part of this book and got much attention.[4] Hossein Modarressi refers to Madarek-e Nahj al-Balagha by Reza Ostadi which contains documents that links the words in Nahj al-Balagha to Ali.[172]

Ghurar al-Hikam wa Durar al-Kalim

Ghurar al-Hikam wa Durar al-Kalim (Exalted aphorisms and Pearls of Speech) was compiled by Abd al-Wahid Amidi, who, according to Gleave, was either a Shafi'i jurist or a Twelver. This book consists of over ten thousand short sayings of Ali.[173][4] These pietistic and ethical statements, are taken from different works, including Nahj al-Balagha and Mi'a kalima ("100 sayings" of Ali) by al-Jahiz.[4]

Mus'haf of Ali

A manuscript of the Mushaf of Ali, a Qur'an that is believed to be written by Ali ibn Abi Talib. This page is the first verses of surah al-Buruj, 85:1–3.

Mus'haf of Ali is said to be a copy of the Qur'an compiled by Ali, as one of the first compilers of the Qur'an. He arranged the chapters of the Qur'an in the order of the date of revelation. It is also narrated that this Mus'haf also included interpretive materials such as Naskh of verses. Shia sources write that after Muhammad's death, Ali presented this Mus'haf to a government group collecting the Qur'an, but was opposed by the Companions and forced to return the Qur'an to his home.[174] Groups of Shias throughout history have believed in the major differences between this Qur'an and the present Qur'an. But they have been opposed by a large number of Shia clerics and Qur'an scholars.[175][176] Ali was also one of the main reciters of the Qur'an, and a recitation of him has survived, which, according to some authors of the Quranic recitation books, is the same as the recitation of Hafs transmitted by Asim.[174]

Book of Ali

According to many narrations from the second century AH, the Book of Ali is a collection of Muhammad's sayings collected by Ali. It is narrated that Ali wrote these sayings in Muhammad's presence, on a piece of leather as he heard them from him. Another narration says that the jurist of Mecca was aware of this book in the early second century and was sure that it was written by Ali. As for the content of the book, it is said that it contained everything that people needed; such as halal and haram rulings and even the blood money of scratches. Contents regarding Jafr is also reported.[177]

Other works

Du'a Kumayl is a supplication by Ali, which he taught it to his companion, Kumayl ibn Ziyad. This supplication is still used by Muslims as a supplicatory prayer.[ad][4] A Dīwān (a collection of poetry) is also attributed to him.[4][3] According to Robert M Gleave, some secondary sources, attribute some other works to Ali such as Ṣaḥīfat al-farāʾiḍ (a short piece on inheritance law) and Kitāb al-zakāt (on alms tax) on legal matters, as well as a Tafsir. These works are not extant nowadays. Ali's other attributed works are compiled in Kitab al-Kafi by Muhammad ibn Ya'qub al-Kulayni and many works of Al-Shaykh al-Saduq.[4]

The Book of Al-Diyat, which is an instruction on how to calculate the diyat, is given in full in books such as Man La Yahduruhu al-Faqih. Musnad Ali is a collection of hadiths from Muhammad, the first narrator of which was Ali. It is also mentioned in Sunni narrations such as Musnad Ahmad ibn Hanbal. Later, some people collected Ali's hadiths and called it Musnad Ali. In early sources, there are various reports as to whether Ali wrote poetry or not. Numerous authors have attributed a collection of poems to Ali, but many of these poems are composed by others. Ali's method of judgment has also been considered by his companions and has been compiled by them.[177]


Ali's appearance is described as being bald, heavy built, short legged, with broad shoulders, a hairy body, a long white beard; and affected by a form of eye inflammation. In manner, it is said that he was rough, brusque, and unsociable.[8]

In the writings of later writers, Vaglieri asserts, Ali has been a subject of controversy, since the conflicts in which he was involved, were perpetuated in polemical sectarian historiography, biographical and history materials, and is often biased.[138] Vaglieri names Lammens's writings as an example of hostile judgment towards Ali's behavior, and Caetani's as a milder one, however neither Lammens nor Caetani, Vaglieri says, took into consideration Ali's religiosity; and its impact on his policy. According to Vaglieri, much has been said about Ali's "austerity, his rigorous observance of religious rites", and there is no reason to think that all these details are invented or exaggerated, because all his deeds were dominated by this religious spirit. To make some examples, she writes:[138]

After his victory at "the Camel", he tried to relieve the distresses of the vanquished by preventing the enslavement of their women and children, in face of the protests of a group of his partisans; when battles ended, he showed his grief, wept for the dead, and even prayed over his enemies. Even the apparent ambiguity of his attitude towards the Harurites can be explained by his fear of disobeying God; though persuaded by them that the arbitration was a sin, he recognized also that to infringe the convention of Siffin was equally a sin, and in this painful dilemma chose to allow the arbitration to proceed.[138]

Vaglieri continue to write that Ali's "obedience to the divine Law was the keynote of his conduct, but his ideas were governed by an excessive rigorism" and that is maybe why his enemies described him as Mahdud (narrow-minded).[138] Some others accused him of lack of political skill and flexibility.[3] According to Madelung, Ali stood firmly by his principles and would not compromise them for political self-gain;[179] he did not want to involve himself in the game of political deception which although deprived him of success in life, but, in the eyes of his admirers, he became an example of the piety of the primary un-corrupted Islam, as well as the chivalry of pre-Islamic Arabia.[9] According to Leone Caetani, the "half-divine aureole which soon encircled the figure of Ali", aside from his closeness to the prophet Muhammad, was a result of his own impression on the people of his time. According to Vaglieri, the quality which caused this impression was a "programme of social and economic reforms"(based on his religious spirit) which Ali supported it by his own authority.[180] It is reported from al-Baladhuri that Ali wished to distribute the Sawad, (like what he did about Bayt al-mal), which is viewed as Ali's only act of extremism, by Vaglieri.[51]

Names and titles

18th century mirror writing in Ottoman calligraphy. Depicts the phrase 'Ali is the vicegerent of God' in both directions.

In the Islamic tradition, various names and titles have been attributed to Ali, some of which express his personal characteristics and some of which are taken from certain episodes of his life. Some of these titles are: Abu al-Hasan (the father of Hasan, his oldest son), Abu Turab (Father of the Soil), Murtaza (One Who Is Chosen and Contented), Asadullah (Lion of God), Haydar (Lion), and especially among the Shias: Amir al-Mu'minin (prince of the faithful) and Mawla al-Mottaqin (Master of the God-fearing). For example, the title Abu Turab recalls the moment when Muhammad entered a mosque and saw Ali lying asleep where it was full of dirt, and Muhammad told him, O Abu Turab, get up.[1] According to Vaglieri this title might have been given to him by his enemies, and fictitious narrations have emerged in the following centuries to give this title an honorable appearance.[8] Twelvers consider the title of Amir al-Mu'minin to be unique to Ali.[181]

In Muslim culture

Ali's influence has been important throughout Islamic history.[1] He retains his stature as an authority on Quranic exegesis, Islamic jurisprudence and is central to mystical traditions in Islam such as Sufism,[182] also fulfills a high political and spiritual position in Shia and Sunni thought.[ae][4] According to Nasr, except for Muhammad, there is no one in Islamic history about whom as much has been written in Islamic languages as Ali.[1] In Muslim culture, Madelung writes, Ali is respected for his courage, knowledge, belief, honesty, unbending devotion to Islam, deep loyalty to Muhammad, equal treatment of all Muslims and generosity in forgiving his defeated enemies.[182] Ali's position as an orator is not disputed, however, the same cannot be said of his poetic art. Still, Vaglieri, names a Dīwān and prose works, attributed to him, which may be authentic.[138]

In Qur'an and Hadiths

There are verses in Qur'an that both Shia and Sunni commentators interpret as referring to Ali, among them are The verse of Mawadda[183][184] The verse of purification,[185][184][186][187] verse of Mubahala, and also Quran 2:269, in which Ali is honoured with unique wisdom.[185][184][188] There are many Hadiths praising Ali's qualities, among which the following are accepted authentic by both Shias and Sunnis:[189] "There is no youth braver than Ali"; "No-one but a believer loves Ali, and no-one but a hypocrite (Munafiq) hates Ali"; "I am from Ali, and Ali is from me"; "The truth circulates with him (Ali) wherever he goes"; "I am the City of Knowledge and Ali is its Gate (Bab).[af][21] According to a narration recorded in both Shia and Sunni collections, when the surah, al-Bara'ah was revealed, Muhammad sent Abu Bakr to read it to the people of Mecca. Then Muhammad sent Ali after him to bring him back. Later on, the surah was given to Ali to read it to people. When was questioned, Muhammad said: "Gabriel came to me and said: Do not let it [the reading of the Sura] be performed by anyone other than yourself or someone from you [i.e. your family] on your behalf."[21]

In Islamic philosophy and mysticism

According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Ali is credited with having established Islamic theology, and his quotations contain the first rational proofs among Muslims of the Unity of God.[191] Ibn Abi al-Hadid has quoted

As for theosophy and dealing with matters of divinity, it was not an Arab art. Nothing of the sort had been circulated among their distinguished figures or those of lower ranks. This art was the exclusive preserve of Greece, whose sages were its only expounders. The first one among Arabs to deal with it was Ali.[192]

In later Islamic philosophy, especially in the teachings of Mulla Sadra and his followers, like Allameh Tabatabaei, Ali's sayings and sermons were increasingly regarded as central sources of metaphysical knowledge, or divine philosophy. Members of Sadra's school regard Ali as the supreme metaphysician of Islam.[1] According to Henry Corbin, the Nahj al-Balagha may be regarded as one of the most important sources of doctrines professed by Shia thinkers, especially after 1500. Its influence can be sensed in the logical co-ordination of terms, the deduction of correct conclusions, and the creation of certain technical terms in Arabic which entered the literary and philosophical language independently of the translation into Arabic of Greek texts.[193]

In addition, some hidden or occult sciences such as jafr, Islamic numerology, and the science of the symbolic significance of the letters of the Arabic alphabet, are said to have been established by Ali[1] through his having studied the texts of al-Jafr and al-Jamia.

Sunni view

The name of Ali with Islamic calligraphy in Hagia Sophia, (present-day Turkey)

According to Gleave, since Ali was one of Rightly-Guided Caliphs, and one of Muhammad's close companions, he has a high position in Sunni thought. However, this was not the case from the beginning. The title Rightly-Guided for Ali, was considered legitimate by the Sunni doctrine, only after Ahmad ibn Hanbal accepted Ali as one of the Rashidun caliphs. Later on Sunni authors regularly reported Ali's legal, theological, and historical views in their works, among them some sought to use Ali's sayings to disprove Shi'i position, or depict him as a supporter of Sunni doctrine.[4]

Among Sunnis, Ali has the same position as the other three caliphs; however, according to Sunni doctrine of sābiqa (according which, greater religious authority is given on the basis of the chronological order of the caliphs), Ali is in a lower position than the other Rashidun Caliphs. The most troubling element of this view, is the apparent elevation of Ali's position in Muhammad's sayings, such as "I am from Ali and Ali is from me", and "Whoever counts me as his patron (mawla), then Ali is also his patron", which accordingly been interpreted so that solve the problem.[ag] Some Sunni writers, on the other hand, acknowledge the preeminence of Ali's knowledge in the Sharia, and his importance in the hadiths of the Prophet, however, do not consider these as a reason to determine Ali's political designation by the Prophet.[4]

Shia view

In Shia belief, Ali holds a high position, and the belief in his legitimacy in leading the Muslims is the definite belief of the Shias. His statements are a reference for Shia legal system, and most importantly, Shias believe that Ali was superior to the rest of the companions and was appointed by Muhammad as his successor. Ali's piety and morality initiated a kind of mysticism among the Shias that brought them close to the Sunni Sufis.[4] Among the shias Imamate of Ali is one of the principles of the religion, according which, although Ali was not the recipient of a divine revelation, he had a close relationship with God, through which God guides him, and the Imam in turn guides the people. His words and deeds are a guide and model for the community to follow; as a result it is a source of sharia law.[194][195]

Musta'lis consider Ali's position superior to that of an Imam. Both Twelvers and Isma'ilis believe in infallibility, the knowledge of the unseen, and the intercession of Ali.[4] A large volume of Shiite religious literature in various languages such as Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and Turkish is dedicated to Ali.[49]

Shia extremists, known as Ghulat, believed that Ali had access to God's will; for example, the Nuṣayrīs believed that Ali appears as an incarnation of God, some of them (Khaṭṭābiyya), considered Ali higher than Muhammad.[ah][4]


Almost all Sufi orders trace their lineage to Muhammad through Ali, an exception being Naqshbandi, which go through Abu Bakr. Even in this order, there is Ja'far al-Sadiq, the great great grandson of Ali.[1] According to Gleave, even Naqshbandi include him into their spiritual hierarchy by depicting how Muhammad taught him special ritual principle of Sufi practice, through which, believers may reach certain stages on the Sufi path.[4]

Sufis believe that Ali inherited from Muhammad the saintly power, wilayah, that makes the spiritual journey to God possible.[1] Ali's position as a prominent narrator of Muhammad's esoteric knowledge, made him popular among Sufi writers. Ali is therefor, considered as an ascetic follower of Muhammad, by Sufis, as well as Sunnis and Shias. Sufis believe that Muhammad taught Ali the occult science and Jafr.[4][1]


There are many reports about Ali's life in historical texts; as Islamic historians have been devoted the largest volume of material, after Muhammad, to his life.[1] Since the character of Ali is of religious, political, jurisprudential and spiritual importance to Muslims (both Shia and Sunni), his life has been analyzed and interpreted in various ways, and existing historical documents have been influenced by sectarian considerations.[4]

The primary sources for scholarship on the life of Ali are the Qur'an and ahadith, as well as other texts of early Islamic history. The extensive secondary sources include, in addition to works by Sunni and Shia Muslims, writings by Christian Arabs, Hindus, and other non-Muslims from the Middle East and Asia and a few works by modern western scholars. However, many of the early Islamic sources are coloured to some extent by a positive or negative bias towards Ali.[1]

There had been a common tendency among the earlier western scholars to consider narrations and reports gathered in later periods as fabrications, due to their tendency towards later Sunni and Shia partisan positions. This led these scholars to regard certain reported events as inauthentic or irrelevant. For example, Leone Caetani considered the attribution of historical reports to Ibn Abbas and Aisha as mostly fictitious while proffering accounts reported without isnad by the early compilers of history like Ibn Ishaq. Wilferd Madelung has rejected the stance of indiscriminately dismissing everything not included in "early sources" and in this approach tendentiousness alone is no evidence for late origin. According to him, Caetani's approach is inconsistent. Madelung and some later historians do not reject the narrations which have been compiled in later periods and try to judge them in the context of history and on the basis of their compatibility with the events and figures.[199]

Until the rise of the Abbasid Caliphate, few books were written and most of the reports had been oral. The most notable work prior to this period is The Book of Sulaym ibn Qays, written by Sulaym ibn Qays, a companion of Ali who lived before the Abbasids.[200] When paper was introduced to Muslim society, numerous monographs were written between 750 and 950. According to Robinson, at least twenty-one separate monographs have been composed on the Battle of Siffin. Abi Mikhnaf is one of the most renowned writers of this period who tried to gather all of the reports. Ninth- and tenth-century historians collected, selected and arranged the available narrations. However, most of these monographs do not exist any more except for a few which have been used in later works such as History of the Prophets and Kings by Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (d.923).[201]

See also


  1. ^ English: Prince of the Faithful
  2. ^ English: Gate to the City of Knowledge
  3. ^ English: One Who Is Chosen and Contented
  4. ^ English: Master of the God-Fearing
  5. ^ English: Lion
  6. ^ English: Lion of God
  7. ^ English: Father of the Dust
  8. ^ English: Father of Hasan
  9. ^ Tabari narrates different narrations, each introduce one of Ali, Abu Bakr, or Zayd ibn Harithah as the first male who accepted Islam. He leave the final decision to the reader.[13] According to W. Montgomery Watt, some sources (Ibn Sa'd, The Book of the Major Classes, History of the Prophets and Kings) consider Abu Bakr as the first male to accept Islam, however they hold the same opinion about Ali.[14] According to Muslim historians like ibn Ishaq[15] and ibn Hazm[16] and scholars like W. Montgomery Watt[17] Ali was the first male to profess to Islam. Seyyed Hossein Nasr[1] and John Esposito[17] consider him the second Muslim, after Khadija, to accept Islam.[1]
  10. ^ He stayed to carry out his instructions and to restore to their owners all the goods and properties that had been entrusted to Muhammad for safekeeping,[19]
  11. ^ see L. Massignon, La Mubahala de Médine et l’hyperdulie de Fatima, Paris, 1935; idem, “Mubāhala,” EI1, supplement, p. 150
  12. ^ Meaning "May God illuminate his face with nobility"[1]
  13. ^ See also [28]
  14. ^ See also Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, Vol.4, p. 281; similar Tradition can be found in the same work: Vol. 1 pp. 84, 118, 119, 152, 331; Vol. 4, pp. 367,370, 372; Vol. 5, pp. 347, 366, 419 and in many other works such as Ibn Maja, Sunan, Vol. I, Bab 11, p. 43, No. 116
  15. ^ The word "We" in Muhammad's saying, and "heir" in the above-mentioned verses have different interpretations in Sunni works. For more information see: (Madelung 1997, p. 361)
  16. ^ According to Vaglieri, ALi had no choice but to prevent them from occupying Iraq, because Levant obeyed Mu'awiya and there was chaos in Egypt as well; Thus, with the loss of Iraq, its dependent eastern provinces, including Iran, were virtually lost.[8]
  17. ^ That may explain Ali's choice of Kufa as his permanent capital.[86]
  18. ^ Regarding the allegiance of Marwan and some others from Aisha's troop, there are various reports.Some historians have said that Ali forgave them without taking allegiance.[82][89]
  19. ^ Ali also prevented the seizure of the property of the war victims. He only permitted the property that was found on the battlefield. They asked Ali; how it was lawful to shed the blood of these people, but their property is forbidden. Later the Khawarij raised this issue as one of the reasons for Ali's apostasy.[82][89]
  20. ^ This meant that he treated the old Muslims who had served Islam from the first days and the new Muslims who were involved in the conquests, equally.[8] He formed a broad coalition that added two new groups to his supporters. Qura, whose last hope was to regain their influence in Ali, and the leaders of the traditional tribes, who were fascinated by his equality in the distribution of spoils.[3]
  21. ^ Either parchments inscribed with verses of the Quran, or complete copies of it.
  22. ^ They were Qur'an readers who later on became known as Khawarij, although some of them like Malik al-Ashtar and Hujr became Shia leaders.[93] Brünnow (in his Inaugural dissertation on the Kharijites Strasbourg 1884) believes that such a change within the same group is impossible, and comes to the conclusion that Kharijites could not be the same as Qurra. Qurra stopped the war but kharijites protested against arbitration.[94] According to Wellhausen, on the other hand, the old tradition does not just say in general that the Khawarij originated from the circle of Qur'an readers, but also identifies certain names. Mis'ar ibn Fadaki al-Tamimi and Zayd ibn Husayn al-Tai with other readers forced Ali to get along with the Syrians and threatened him with the fate of Uthman if he did not comply with the request to recognize the Book of God as an arbitrator — but these two men subsequently became the most rabid Khawarij.[95]
  23. ^ According to Hinds, Kharijites "were acting in the belief that Mu'awiya meant a peace in which 'Ali would be recognized as amir al-mu'minin by both Syrians and 'Iraqis".[106]
  24. ^ The second issue was that Ali's position was slighted in the document that was set during the course of arbitration, by not recognizing him as the commander of faithful.[107][108]
  25. ^ Because those who called it out meant by it 'La imrata', while it was his belief that an amir (ruler) was essential.[111]
  26. ^ literally ‘‘those who went out’’ or more figuratively ‘‘those who rebelled.’’[116]
  27. ^ "If two parties of the Believers fight with one another, make peace between them, but if one rebels against the other, then fight against that one which rebels, until it returns to obedience to God..."(Qur'an 8:9)[119]
  28. ^ See Martin Hinds, ‘‘Kufan Political Alignments and Their Background in the MidSeventh Century a.d.,’’ International Journal of Middle East Studies 2 (1971): 346–67; and ‘‘The Siffin Arbitration Agreement,’’ Journal of Semitic Studies 1 (1972): 93–129.[123]
  29. ^ The verdict that Uthman was innocent became one of the Sunni religious beliefs.[126]
  30. ^ See also Supplications (Du'a), translated by William Chittick.[178]
  31. ^ Only in a period after the Battle of Siffin did the Khawarij have less respect for him.[4]
  32. ^ It is narrated from Ali that "Not a single verse of the Quran descended upon (was revealed to) the Messenger of God which he did not proceed to dictate to me and make me recite. I would write it with my own hand, and he would instruct me as to its tafsir (the literal explanation) and the ta'wil (the spiritual exegesis), the nasikh (the verse which abrogates) and the mansukh (the abrogated verse), the muhkam and the mutashabih (the fixed and the ambiguous), the particular and the general ..."[190]
  33. ^ see mawla and Event of Ghadir Khumm.
  34. ^ Nowadays, Alawites and Bektashis are viewed with suspicion by Shias and Sunnis. The Ahl al-Haq Kurds also hold a similar views mixed with reincarnation about Ali.[4] Saba'iyya, the followers of Abdullah ibn Saba', who praised Ali beyond measures, were another Ghulat sect, which, according to Vaglieri, Ali dissociated himself from them.[51] Also, there is Ali-Illahism, a syncretic religion, which centres on the belief that there have been successive incarnations of their Deity throughout history, and reserves particular reverence for Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad, who is considered one such incarnation.[196] These groups have, according to traditionalist Muslims, left Islam due to their exaggeration of a human being's praiseworthy traits.[197] Studies carried out by Aryeh Kofsky and Meir M.Bar Asher support the claim that the Alawites do not deify Ali but rather identify him as the unique wasii, meaning a "guard of Islam" chosen by God.[198] Ali is recorded in some traditions as having forbidden those who sought to worship him in his own lifetime.[197]


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Further reading

External links

Shia biography


Cadet branch of the Quraysh
Born: c. 600 Died: c. 28 January 661
Sunni Islam titles
Preceded by Caliph of Islam
4th Rashidun

Succeeded by
Shia Islam titles
Preceded byas Final prophet Twelver Imam
Zaidi Imam
Kaysanite Imam
Batini Isma'ili Imam

Succeeded byas Imam
in Musta'li Isma'ilism

Nizari Isma'ili Imam
Succeeded byas Mustawda
Succeeded byas Imam
Political offices
Preceded by — TITULAR —
Successor to Muhammad
Election to Caliphate
Preceded by Rashidun Caliph
Succeeded by
Tribal titles
Preceded by Chief of Banu Hashim
Succeeded by