One figure who has occupied a central role in the history of Islam almost from its beginnings is Ali. Like the 3 caliphs before him, Ali left an imprint on the faith that can be seen until the present day, which is why I am focusing on him as the fourth in our series on central figures. While Ali himself was not controversial and is held in high esteem by all Muslims, he is central to the question of succession after the Prophet’s death and the eventual Sunni/Shia division that resulted.
Ali was the son of Abu Talib, the uncle of the Prophet Muhammad, and Fatima bint Asad. Abu Talib was the sheikh of the Banu Hashim clan in the Quraysh tribe and the custodian of the Kaba. The Prophet Muhammad was very close to Ali’s family from an early age. The Prophet’s father Abdullah died before he was born and his mother Amina died when he was six. Abdul Mutallib, the Prophet’s grandfather, took him in but died shortly after. Abu Talib, then, took in the Prophet and later pledged his protection when the Prophet Muhammad began preaching Islam.
Ali was one of the early followers of Islam, becoming a Muslim as a child. His support and dedication to the Prophet Muhammad and Islam were clear from the outset. For example, in a meeting with the leaders of Quraysh, the Prophet told his fellow clansmen about the new faith and asked who would support him. Ali, even though a young boy, stood up and pledged his support. Sometimes his loyalty to the Prophet meant risking his own life. The most famous example was when the Meccans decided to assassinate the Prophet Muhammad after Abu Talib’s death. The Muslims had already began the hijra, or migration to Medina, and the Prophet Muhammad and Abu Bakr were the last to leave. Ali, who the Prophet knew the Meccans would not harm, slept in the Prophet’s bed waiting for the assassins. Moreover, he put himself in more danger by secretly returning property entrusted to the Prophet back to its owners before leaving Mecca.
Ali was known also for his courage on the battlefield. He was a distinguished warrior who participated in major battles. The Prophet Muhammad gave him the title Asadullah, the Lion of God, for his service to Islam. A famous story that is often related about Ali is that during a battle he was about to kill an enemy combatant. When he was about to strike him, the man spit at him so Ali left him. When asked why he did not kill him, Ali replied that if he had killed him that moment his motivation would have been a personal vendetta and not for God.
Like Uthman, Ali was also the son-in-law of the Prophet. He married Fatima and with her had 4 children. Their two sons Hasan and Husayn later also play an important role in the Shia worldview. It is documented that Ali and Fatima lived very humble lives, many times not having food. Even when Ali became the caliph, he continued to live a very austere lifestyle.
As mentioned in earlier posts, the Sunni/Shia division that eventually emerged stems from the question of succession after the Prophet Muhammad’s death. Those who became Shia believe that the Prophet designated Ali as his political successor and that leadership in general should remain within the Prophet’s family, ahl al-bayt, which for them includes Ali, Fatima, and their children. Those who became Sunni believe that the Prophet did not designate anyone to succeed him and that he left it to the community to choose its leader.
Ali does eventually become the fourth caliph of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, according to the Sunnis, and the first Imam, according to the Shia. During his tenure from 656-661, he faced immense challenges that included more than one civil war, which eventually cost him the caliphate. While the Muslim community was still reeling from the assassination of Uthman, one of Ali’s first decisions was to dismiss the provincial governors appointed by Uthman, believing that some were in fact corrupt. Muawiya, the nephew and governor of Syria, refused to step down and rejected Ali’s caliphate because he did not pursue Uthman’s murderers. This resulted in military action and the two sides, Muawiya’s and Ali’s, met at the Battle of Siffin in 657. Initially, Ali was winning but Muawiya had his forces put Qur’ans on their spears calling for arbitration, which Ali agreed to. The arbitration made Muawiya the new leader.
Like Umar and Uthman, Ali was assassinated. He was stabbed in Kufa, Iraq, while he was praying and died two days later. His assassin was among the Kharijites, a group that initially supported Ali but rejected his agreement to arbitration.
Despite the differences between Sunnis and Shia, both groups have great respect for Ali. He is remembered by all Muslims for his humility, courage, belief, loyalty, dedication, and wisdom.
Have you heard of Ali? What is your impression of him? Why do you think he is relevant today? Please share your comments below.