Ali was the only child born in the Ka‘bah, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, first young male who accepted Islam, married Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah.
Ali was the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. He ruled as the fourth caliph from 656 to 661, and was first Imam of Shia Islam from 632 to 661.
Born to Abu Talib and Fatimah bint Asad, Ali was the only child believed to have been born in the sacred sanctuary of the Ka‘bah in Mecca, the holiest place in Islam, according to many classical Islamic sources. Ali was the first young male who accepted Islam. After migrating to Medina, he married Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah. Ali took part in the early caravan raids from Mecca and later in almost all the battles fought by the nascent Muslim community. He was appointed caliph by Muhammad’s Companions (Sahaba) in 656, after Caliph Uthman ibn Affan was assassinated. Ali’s reign saw civil wars and in 661, he was attacked and assassinated by a Kharijite while praying in the Great Mosque of Kufa, dying two days later.
Ali is important to both Sunni and Shi’ite denominations, politically and spiritually. The numerous biographical sources about Ali are often biased according to sectarian lines, but they agree that he was a pious Muslim, devoted to the cause of Islam and a just ruler in accordance with the Qur’an and the Sunnah. While Sunnis consider Ali the fourth and final of the Rashidun (rightly guided) caliphs, Shi’ites regard Ali as the first Imam after Muhammad due to their interpretation of the events at Ghadir Khumm. Shias also believe that Ali and the other Shi’ite Imams (all of whom are members of the Bayṫ (Arabic: بَـيـت, Household) of Muhammad) are the rightful successors to Muhammad. This disagreement split the Ummah (Arabic: أُمَّـة, Muslim Community) into the Sunni and Shiabranches.
Ali’s father, Abu Talib, was the custodian of the Ka’bah and a sheikh (Arabic: شَـيـخ) of Banu Hashim, an important branch of the powerful Quraysh tribe. He was also an uncle of Muhammad. Ali’s mother, Fatima bint Asad, also belonged to Banu Hashim, making Ali a descendant of Ismā‘īl (Arabic: إِسـمَـاعِـيـل, Ishmael) the son of Ibrāhīm (Arabic: إِبـرَاهِـيـم, Abraham). Many sources, especially Shi’i ones, attest that Ali was born inside the Kaaba in the city of Mecca, where he stayed with his mother for three days. His mother reportedly felt the beginning of her labour pain while visiting Ka’ba and entered Ka’ba where her son was born. Some Shia sources contain miraculous descriptions of the entrance of Ali’s mother into Ka’ba. Ali’s birth in Ka’ba is regarded as a unique event proving his “high spiritual station” among Shia, while among various Sunni scholars it is considered a great, if not unique, distinction.
According to a tradition, Muhammad was the first person whom Ali saw as he took the newborn in his hands. Muhammad named him Ali, meaning “the exalted one”. Muhammad had a close relationship with Ali’s parents. When Muhammad was orphaned and later lost his grandfather Abdul Muttalib, Ali’s father took him into his house. Ali was born two or three years after Muhammad married Khadijah bint Khuwaylid. When Ali was five or six years old, a famine occurred in and around Mecca, affecting the economic conditions of Ali’s father, who had a large family to support. Muhammad took Ali into his home to raise him.
The second period of Ali’s life began in 610 when he declared Islam at the age of 10, and ended with the Hijra of Muhammad to Medina in 622. When Muhammad reported that he had received a divine revelation, Ali, then only about ten years old, believed him and professed to Islam. According to Ibn Ishaq and some other authorities, Ali was the first male to embrace Islam. Tabari adds other traditions making the similar claim of being the first Muslim in relation to Zayd ibn Harithah or Abu Bakr. Some historians and scholars believe Ali’s conversion is not worthy enough to consider him the first male Muslim because he was a child at the time. Shia doctrine asserts that in keeping with Ali’s divine mission, he accepted Islam before he took part in any pre-Islamic Meccan traditional religion rites, regarded by Muslims as polytheistic (see shirk) or paganistic. Hence the Shia say of Ali that his face is honoured, as it was never sullied by prostrations before idols. The Sunnis also use the honorific Karam Allahu Wajhahu, which means “God’s Favour upon his Face.” The reason his acceptance is often not called a conversion is because he was never an idol worshipper like the people of Mecca. He was known to have broken idols in the mould of Abraham and asked people why they worshipped something they made themselves. Ali’s grandfather, along with some members of the Bani Hashim clan, were Hanifs, or followers of a monotheistic belief system prior to the coming of Islam.
Muhammad invited people to Islam in secret for three years before he started inviting them publicly. When he was commanded to invite his closer relatives to come to Islam he gathered the Banu Hashim clan in a ceremony. According to al-Tabari, Ibn Athir and Abu al-Fida, Muhammad announced at invitational events that whoever assisted him in his invitation would become his brother, trustee and successor. Only Ali, who was thirteen or fourteen years old, stepped forward to help him. This invitation was repeated three times, but Ali was the only person who answered Muhammad. Recognizing ‘Ali’s continual and singular response to his call, Muhammad declared that Ali was his brother, inheritor and vice-regent and people must obey him. Most of the adults present were uncles of Ali and Muhammad, and Abu Lahab laughed at them and declared to Abu Talib that he must bow down to his own son, as Ali was now his Emir. This event is known as the Hadith of Warning. During the persecution of Muslims and boycott of the Banu Hashim in Mecca, Ali stood firmly in support of Muhammad.
In 622, the year of Muhammad’s migration to Yathrib (now Medina), Ali risked his life by sleeping in Muhammad’s bed to impersonate him and thwart an assassination plot so that Muhammad could escape in safety. This night is called Laylat al-Mabit. According to some ahadith, a verse was revealed about Ali concerning his sacrifice on the night of Hijra which says “And among men is he who sells his nafs (self) in exchange for the pleasure of Allah.”
Ali survived the plot, but risked his life again by staying in Mecca to carry out Muhammad’s instructions: to restore to their owners all the goods and properties that had been entrusted to Muhammad for safekeeping. ‘Ali then went to Medina with his mother, Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah, and two other women.
Ali was 22 or 23 years old when he migrated to Medina. When Muhammad was creating bonds of brotherhood among his companions, he selected Ali as his brother. For the ten years that Muhammad led the community in Medina, Ali was extremely active in his service as his secretary and deputy, serving in his armies, the bearer of his banner in every battle, leading parties of warriors on raids, and carrying messages and orders. As one of Muhammad’s lieutenants, and later his son-in-law, Ali was a person of authority and standing in the Muslim community.
In 623, Muhammad told ‘Ali that God ordered him to give his daughter Fatimah Zahra to Ali in marriage. Muhammad said to Fatimah: “I have married you to the dearest of my family to me.” This family is glorified by Muhammad frequently and he declared them as his Ahl al-Bayt in events such as Mubahala and hadith like the Hadith of the Event of the Cloak. They were also glorified in the Qur’an in several cases such as “the verse of purification”.
Ali had four children born to Fatimah, the only child of Muhammad to have surviving progeny. Their two sons (Hasan and Husain) were cited by Muhammad to be his own sons, honoured numerous times in his lifetime and titled “the leaders of the youth of Jannah” (Heaven, the hereafter.)
At the beginning they were extremely poor. For several years after his marriage, Fatimah did all of the household work by herself. The shoulder on which she carried pitchers of water from the well was swollen and the hand with which she worked the handmill to grind grain was often covered with blisters. Fatimah vouched to take care of the household work, make dough, bake bread, and clean the house; in return, Ali vouched to take care of the outside work such as gathering firewood, and bringing food. Their circumstances were akin to many of the Muslims at the time and only improved following the Battle of Khaybar when the wealth of Khaybar was distributed among the poor. When the economic situations of the Muslims became better, Fatimah gained some maids but treated them like her family and performed the house duties with them.
Their marriage lasted until Fatimah’s death ten years later. Although polygamy was permitted, Ali did not marry another woman while Fatimah was alive, and his marriage to her possesses a special spiritual significance for all Muslims because it is seen as the marriage between two great figures surrounding Muhammad. After Fatimah’s death, Ali married other women and fathered many children.
With the exception of the Battle of Tabouk, Ali took part in all battles and expeditions fought for Islam. As well as being the standard-bearer in those battles, Ali led parties of warriors on raids into enemy lands.
Ali first distinguished himself as a warrior in 624 at the Battle of Badr. He defeated the Umayyad champion Walid ibn Utba as well as many other Meccan soldiers. According to Muslim traditions Ali killed between twenty and thirty-five enemies in battle, most agreeing with twenty-seven.
Ali was prominent at the Battle of Uhud, as well as many other battles where he wielded a bifurcated sword known as Zulfiqar. He had the special role of protecting Muhammad when most of the Muslim army fled from the battle of Uhud and it was said “There is no brave youth except Ali and there is no sword which renders service except Zulfiqar.” He was commander of the Muslim army in the Battle of Khaybar. Following this battle Mohammad gave Ali the name Asadullâh (Arabic: أَسَـدُ الله), which means “Lion of God”. Ali also defended Muhammad in the Battle of Hunayn in 630.
Muhammad designated ‘Ali as one of the scribes who would write down the text of the Quran, which had been revealed to Muhammad during the previous two decades. As Islam began to spread throughout Arabia, Ali helped establish the new Islamic order. He was instructed to write down the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, the peace treaty between Muhammad and the Quraysh in 628. Ali was so reliable and trustworthy that Muhammad asked him to carry the messages and declare the orders. In 630, Ali recited to a large gathering of pilgrims in Mecca a portion of the Quran that declared Muhammad and the Islamic community were no longer bound by agreements made earlier with Arab polytheists. During the Conquest of Mecca in 630, Muhammad asked Ali to guarantee that the conquest would be bloodless. He ordered Ali to break all the idols worshipped by the Banu Aus, Banu Khazraj, Tayy, and those in the Ka‘bah to purify it after its defilement by the polytheism of the pre-Islamic era. Ali was sent to Yemen one year later to spread the teachings of Islam. He was also charged with settling several disputes and putting down the uprisings of various tribes.
According to hadith collections, in 631, an Arab Christian envoy from Najran (currently in northern Yemen and partly in Saudi Arabia) 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, Muhammad called them to mubahala (conversation), where each party should bring their knowledgeable men, women and children, and ask God to curse the lying party and their followers. Muhammad, to prove to them that he was a prophet, brought his daughter Fatimah, ‘Ali and his grandchildren Hasan and Husayn. He went to the Christians and said “this is my family” and covered himself and his family with a cloak. According to Muslim sources, when one of the Christian monks saw their faces, he advised his companions to withdraw from Mubahala for the sake of their lives and families. Thus the Christian monks vanished from the Mubahala place. Allameh Tabatabaei explains in Tafsir al-Mizan that the word “Our selves” in this verse refers to Muhammad and Ali. Then he narrates that Imam Ali al-Rida, eighth Shia Imam, in discussion with Al-Ma’mun, Abbasid caliph, referred to this verse to prove the superiority of Muhammad’s progeny over the rest of the Muslim community, and considered it the proof for Ali’s right for caliphate due to God having made Ali like the self of Muhammad.
As Muhammad was returning from his last pilgrimage in 632, he made statements about Ali that are interpreted very differently by Sunnis and Shias. He halted the caravan at Ghadir Khumm, gathered the returning pilgrims for communal prayer and began to address them.
According to Encyclopedia of Islam:
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)”.
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. 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. On the basis of this hadith, Shias say that Ali later insisted that his religious authority was superior to that of Abu Bakr and Umar.
Another part 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 neither took part in any battle or conquest, nor did he assume any executive position. He withdrew from political affairs, especially after the death of his wife, Fatimah Zahra. He used his time to serve his family and worked as a farmer. Ali dug a lot of wells and planted gardens near Medina and endowed them for public use. These wells are known today as Abar Ali(“Ali’s wells”).
Ali compiled a complete version of the Quran, mus’haf, six months after the death of Muhammad. The volume was completed and carried by camel to show to other people of Medina. The order of this mus’haf 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 standardised mus’haf.
After uniting the Arabian tribes into a single Muslim religious polity in the last years of his life, Muhammad’s death in 632 signalled disagreement over who would succeed him as leader of the Muslim community. While Ali and the rest of Muhammad’s close family were washing his body for burial, at a gathering attended by a small group of Muslims at Saqifah, a close companion of Muhammad named Abu Bakr was nominated for the leadership of the community. Others added their support and Abu Bakr was made the first caliph. The choice of Abu Bakr was disputed by some of Muhammad’s companions, who held that Ali had been designated his successor by Muhammad himself.
Later when Fatimah and Ali sought aid from the Companions in the matter of his right to the caliphate, they answered ‘O daughter of the Messenger of God! We have given our allegiance to Abu Bakr. If Ali had come to us before this, we would certainly not have abandoned him’. Ali said, ‘Was it fitting that we should wrangle over the caliphate even before the Prophet was buried?’
Following his election to the caliphate, Abu Bakr and Umar with a few other companions headed to Fatimah’s house to force Ali and his supporters who had gathered there to give their allegiance to Abu Bakr. Then, it is alleged that Umar threatened to set the house on fire unless they came out and swore allegiance to Abu Bakr. Fatimah, in support of her husband, started a commotion and threatened to “uncover her hair”, at which Abu Bakr relented and withdrew. Ali is reported to have repeatedly said that had there been forty men with him he would have resisted. Ali did not actively assert his own right because he did not want to throw the nascent Muslim community into strife. Other sources say that Ali accepted the selection of Umar as caliph and even gave one of his daughters, Umm Kulthūm, to him in marriage.
This contentious issue caused Muslims to later 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 recognise 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 which had been determined by divine order.
According to Wilferd Madelung, Ali himself was firmly convinced of his legitimacy for caliphate based on his close kinship with Muhammad, his intimate association and his knowledge of Islam and his merits in serving its cause. He told Abu Bakr that his delay in pledging allegiance (bay’ah) as caliph was based on his belief of his own prior title. Ali did not change his mind 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. Ali also believed that he could fulfill his role of Imam’ate without this fighting.
At the beginning of Abu Bakr’s Caliphate, there was a controversy about Muhammad’s endowment to his daughter, especially Fadak, between Fatimah and Ali on one side and Abu Bakr on the other side. Fatimah asked Abu Bakr to turn over their property, the lands of Fadakand Khaybar. But Abu Bakr refused and told her that prophets did not have any legacy and that Fadak belonged to the Muslim community. Abu Bakr said to her, “Allah’s Apostle said, we do not have heirs, whatever we leave is Sadaqa.” Together with Umm Ayman, Ali testified to the fact that Muhammad granted it to Fatimah Zahra, when Abu Bakr requested her to summon witnesses for her claim. Fatimah became angry and stopped speaking to Abu Bakr, and continued assuming that attitude until she died.
‘Aishah also said that “When Allah’s Apostle died, his wives intended to send ‘Uthman to Abu Bakr asking him for their share of the inheritance.” Then ‘Aisha said to them, “Didn’t Allah’s Apostle say, ‘Our (Apostles’) property is not to be inherited, and whatever we leave is to be spent in charity?'”.
According to some sources, ‘Ali did not give his oath of allegiance to Abu Bakr until some time after the death of his wife, Fatimah in the year 633. ‘Ali participated in the funeral of Abu Bakr.
He pledged allegiance to the second caliph ‘Umar ibn Khattab and helped him as a trusted advisor. ‘Umar particularly relied upon Ali as the chief judge of Medina. He also advised Umar to set Hijra as the beginning of the Islamic calendar. ‘Umar used ‘Ali’s suggestions in political issues as well as religious ones.
‘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’s arrangement was against him. Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas and Abdur Rahman bin Awf, who were cousins, were naturally inclined to support Uthman, who was Abdur Rahman’s brother-in-law. In addition, Umar gave the casting vote to Abdur Rahman. Abdur Rahman offered the caliphate to Ali on the condition that he should rule in accordance with the Quran, 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.
‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan expressed generosity toward his kin, Banu Abd-Shams, who seemed to dominate him, and his supposed arrogant mistreatment toward several of the earliest companions such as Abu Dharr al-Ghifari, Abd-Allah ibn Mas’ud and Ammar ibn Yasir provoked outrage among some groups of people. Dissatisfaction and resistance openly arose since 650–651 throughout most of the empire. The dissatisfaction with his rule and the governments appointed by him was not restricted to the provinces outside Arabia. When Uthman’s kin, especially Marwan, gained control over him, the noble companions, including most of the members of elector council, turned against him or at least withdrew their support, putting pressure on the caliph to mend his ways and reduce the influence of his assertive kin.
At this time, ‘Ali had acted as a restraining influence on Uthman without directly opposing him. On several occasions Ali disagreed with Uthman in the application of the Hudud; he had publicly shown sympathy for Abu Dharr al-Ghifari and had spoken strongly in the defence of Ammar ibn Yasir. He conveyed to Uthman the criticisms of other Companions and acted on Uthman’s behalf as negotiator with the provincial opposition who had come to Medina; because of this some mistrust between Ali and Uthman’s family seems to have arisen. Finally, he tried to mitigate the severity of the siege by his insistence that Uthman should be allowed water.
There is controversy among historians about the relationship between Ali and Uthman. Although pledging allegiance to Uthman, Ali disagreed with some of his policies. In particular, he clashed with Uthman on the question of religious law. He insisted that religious punishment had to be done in several cases such as Ubayd Allah ibn Umar and Walid ibn Uqba. In 650 during pilgrimage, he confronted Uthman with reproaches for his change of the prayer ritual. When Uthman declared that he would take whatever he needed from the fey’, Ali exclaimed that in that case the caliph would be prevented by force. Ali endeavoured to protect companions from maltreatment by the caliph such as Ibn Mas’ud. Therefore, some historians consider Ali one of the leading members of Uthman’s opposition, if not the main one. But Wilferd Madelung rejects their judgment due to the fact that Ali did not have the Quraysh’s support to be elected as a caliph. According to him, there is even no evidence that Ali had close relations with rebels who supported his caliphate or directed their actions. Some other sources say Ali had acted as a restraining influence on Uthman without directly opposing him. However, Madelung narrates 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.
Ali was caliph between 656 and 661, during one of the most turbulent periods in Muslim history, which also coincided with the First Fitnah. Since the conflicts in which Ali was involved were perpetuated in polemical sectarian historiography, biographical material is often biased. But the sources agree that he was a profoundly religious man, devoted to the cause of Islam and the rule of justice in accordance with the Qur’an and the Sunnah; he engaged in war against erring Muslims as a matter of religious duty. The sources abound in notices on his austerity, rigorous observance of religious duties, and detachment from worldly goods. Thus some authors have pointed out that he lacked political skill and flexibility.
Uthman’s assassination meant that rebels had to select a new caliph. This met with difficulties since the rebels were divided into several groups comprising the Muhajirun, Ansar, Egyptians, Kufans and Basrites. There were three candidates: Ali, Talhah and Al-Zubayr. First the rebels approached Ali, requesting him to accept being the fourth caliph. Some of Muhammad’s companions tried to persuade Ali to accept the office, but he turned down the offer, suggesting to be a counsellor instead of a chief. Talhah, Zubayr and other companions also refused the rebels’ offer of the caliphate. Therefore, the rebels warned the inhabitants of Medina to select a caliph within one day, or they would apply drastic action. In order to resolve the deadlock, the Muslims gathered in Al-Masjid an-Nabawi (Arabic: الـمَـسـجـد الـنَّـبـوي, “The Masjid of the Prophet”) on June 18, 656, to appoint the caliph. Initially, ‘Ali refused to accept it, simply because his most vigorous supporters were rebels. However, when some notable companions of Muhammad, in addition to the residents of Medina, urged him to accept the offer, he finally agreed. According to Abu Mekhnaf’s narration, Talhah was the first prominent companion who gave his pledge to ‘Ali, but other narrations claimed otherwise, stating they were forced to give their pledge. Also, Talhah and Az-Zubayr later claimed they supported him reluctantly. Regardless, Ali refuted these claims, insisting they recognised him as caliph voluntarily. Wilferd Madelung believes that force did not urge people to give their pledge and they pledged publicly in the mosque. While the overwhelming majority of Medina’s population as well as many of the rebels gave their pledge, some important figures or tribes did not do so. The Umayyads, kinsmen of Uthman, fled to the Levant, or remained in their houses, later refusing ‘Ali’s legitimacy. Sa’ad ibn Abi Waqqas was absent and ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Umar abstained from offering his allegiance, but both of them assured ‘Ali that they would not act against him.
Ali thus inherited the Rashidun caliphate — which extended from Egypt in the west to the Iranian highlands in the east—while the situation in the Hejaz and the other provinces on the eve of his election was unsettled. Soon after Ali became caliph, he dismissed provincial governors who had been appointed by Uthman, replacing them with trusted aides. He acted against the counsel of Mughira ibn Shu’ba and Ibn ‘Abbas, who had advised him to proceed with his governing cautiously. Madelung says Ali was deeply convinced of his right and his religious mission, unwilling to compromise his principles for the sake of political expediency, and ready to fight against overwhelming odds. Muawiyah I, the kinsman of Uthman and governor of the Levant, refused to submit to Ali’s orders; he was the only governor to do so.
When he was appointed caliph, Ali stated to the citizens of Medina that Muslim polity had come to be plagued by dissension and discord; he desired to purge Islam of any evil. He advised the populace to behave as true Muslims, warning that he would tolerate no sedition and those who were found guilty of subversive activities would be dealt with harshly.
A’ishah, Talhah, Al-Zubayr and the Umayyads, especially Muawiyah I and Marwan I, wanted ‘Ali to punish the rioters who had killed Uthman. They encamped close to Basra. The talks lasted for many days and the subsequent heated exchange and protests during the parley turned from words to blows, leading to loss of life on both sides. In the confusion the Battle of the Camel started in 656, where Ali emerged victorious. However some historians believe that they used this issue to seek their political ambitions because they found Ali’s caliphate against their own benefit. On the other hand, the rebels maintained that Uthman had been justly killed, for not governing according to Quran and Sunnah, hence no vengeance was to be invoked. Historians disagree on Ali’s position. Some say the caliphate was a gift of the rebels and Ali did not have enough force to control or punish them, while others say Ali accepted the rebels’ argument or at least did not consider Uthman a just ruler.
Under such circumstances, a schism took place which led to the first civil war in Muslim history. Some Muslims, known as Uthmanis, considered Uthman a rightful and just caliph till the end, who had been unlawfully killed. Some others, who are known as party of Ali, believed Uthman had fallen into error, he had forfeited the caliphate and been lawfully executed for his refusal to mend his ways or step down; thus Ali was the just and true Imam and his opponents are infidels. This was not the position of Ali himself. This civil war created permanent divisions within the Muslim community regarding who had the legitimate right to occupy the caliphate. The First Fitna, 656–661, followed the assassination of Uthman, continued during the caliphate of Ali, and was ended by Muawiyah’s assumption of the caliphate. This civil war (often called the Fitna) is regretted as the end of the early unity of the Islamic ummah (nation).
Ali appointed ‘Abd Allah ibn al’-Abbas governor of Basra and moved his capital to Kufa, the Muslim garrison city in Iraq. Following the Roman-Persian Wars and the Byzantine–Sasanian wars that lasted for hundreds of years, there were deep rooted differences between Iraq, formally under the Persian Sassanid Empire and Syria formally under the Byzantine Empire. The Iraqis wanted the capital of the newly established Islamic State to be in Kufa so as to bring revenues into their area and oppose Syria. They convinced Ali to come to Kufa and establish the capital in Kufa, in Iraq.
Later Muawiyah I, the governor of Levant and the cousin of Uthman, refused Ali’s demands for allegiance. Ali opened negotiations hoping to regain his allegiance, but Muawiyah insisted on Levant autonomy under his rule. Muawiyah replied by mobilising his Levantine supporters and refusing to pay homage to Ali on the pretext that his contingent had not participated in his election. Ali then moved his armies north and the two armies encamped themselves at Siffin for more than one hundred days, most of the time being spent in negotiations. Although Ali exchanged several letters with Muawiyah, he was unable to dismiss the latter, nor persuade him to pledge allegiance. Skirmishes between the parties led to the Battle of Siffin in 657.
After a week of combat was followed by a violent battle known as laylat al-harir (the night of clamour), Muawiyah’s army was on the point of being routed when Amr ibn al-Aasadvised Muawiyah to have his soldiers hoist mus’haf (either parchments inscribed with verses of the Quran, or complete copies of it) on their spearheads in order to cause disagreement and confusion in Ali’s army. Ali saw through the stratagem, but only a minority wanted to pursue the fight. The two armies finally agreed to settle the matter of who should be caliph by arbitration. The refusal of the largest bloc in Ali’s army to fight was the decisive factor in his acceptance of the arbitration. The question as to whether the arbiter would represent Ali or the Kufans caused a further split in Ali’s army. Ash’ath ibn Qays and some others rejected Ali’s nominees, ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Abbas and Malik al-Ashtar, and insisted on Abu Musa Ash’ari, for his neutrality. Finally, Ali was urged to accept Abu Musa. Amr ibn al-As was appointed by Muawiyah as an arbitrator. Seven months later the two arbitrators met at Adhruh about 10 miles north west of Maan in Jordan in February 658. Amr ibn al-As convinced Abu Musa Ash’ari that both Ali and Muawiyah should step down and a new caliph be elected. Ali and his supporters were stunned by the decision which had lowered the caliph to the status of the rebellious Muawiyah. Ali was therefore outwitted by Muawiyah and Amr ibn al-As. When the arbitrators assembled at Daumet-ul-Jandal, a series of daily meetings were arranged for them to discuss the matters in hand. When the time arrived for taking a decision about the caliphate, Amr bin al-A’as convinced Abu Musa al-Ashari into entertaining the opinion that they should deprive both Ali and Muawiya of the caliphate, and give to the Muslims the right to elect the caliph. Abu Musa al-Ashari also decided to act accordingly. According to Poonawala, it seems that the arbiters and other eminent persons, with the exclusion of Ali’s representatives, met in January 659 to discuss the selection of the new caliph. Amr supported Muawiyah, 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 Muawiyah 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 Muawiya as caliph.
Ali refused to accept the verdict of him stepping down and for an election to be held and found himself technically in breach of his pledge to abide by the arbitration. Ali protested, stating 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 the Ansar, the remnants of the Qurra led by Malik Ashtar, and a few of their clansmen remained loyal. This put Ali in a weak position even amongst his own supporters. The arbitration resulted in the dissolution of ‘Ali’s coalition, and some have opined that this was Muawiyah’s intention.
The most vociferous opponents in Ali’s camp were the very same people who had forced Ali into the ceasefire. They broke away from Ali’s force, rallying under the slogan “arbitration belongs to God alone.” This group came to be known as the Kharijites (“those who leave”). They considered everyone to be their enemy. In 659 Ali’s forces and the Kharijites met in the Battle of Nahrawan. The Qurra then became known as the Kharijites. The Kharijites then started killing Ali’s supporters and other Muslims. They considered anyone who was not part of their group as an unbeliever. Although ‘Ali won the battle by a huge margin, the constant conflict had begun to affect his standing. While dealing with the Iraqis, ‘Ali found it hard to build a disciplined army and effective state institutions. He also spent a lot of time fighting the Kharijites. As a result, ‘Ali found it hard to expand the state on its eastern front.
At about the same time, unrest was brewing in Egypt. The governor of Egypt, Qais, was recalled, and Ali had him replaced with Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr (the brother of Aisha and the son of Islam’s first caliph Abu Bakr). Muawiyah allowed ‘Amr ibn al-‘As to conquer Egypt and ‘Amr did so successfully. Amr had first taken Egypt eighteen years earlier from the Romans but had been dismissed by Uthman. Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr had no popular support in Egypt and managed to get together 2000 men but they dispersed without a fight.
In the following years, Muawiyah’s army occupied many cities of Iraq, which Ali’s governors could not prevent, and people did not support him to fight with them. Muawiyah overpowered Egypt, Hijaz, Yemen and other areas. In the last year of Ali’s caliphate, the mood in Kufa and Basra changed in his favour as the people became disillusioned with Muawiyah’s reign and policies. However, the people’s attitude toward Ali differed deeply. Just a small minority of them believed that Ali was the best Muslim after Muhammad and the only one entitled to rule them, while the majority supported him due to their distrust and opposition to Muawiyah.
Ali is said to have vowed and forewarned of an uncompromising campaign against financial corruption and unfair privileges in the ranks of the caliphate after he was pressed by the public to succeed the caliphate following the death of Uthman. Shias argue that his determination in pushing these reforms despite their unpopularity with the elite have been the cause of hostilities from the rich and the privileged former companions of the Prophet. In a famous letter to one of his governors, Malik Ashtar, he articulates his pro-poor anti-elitist approach:
Remember that displeasure and disapproval of common men, have-nots and depressed persons more than overbalances the approval of important persons and displeasure of a few big will be excused by the Lord if the general public and masses of your subjects are happy with you. The common men, the poor, apparently less important sections of your subjects are the pillars of Islam….be more friendly with them and secure their confidence and sympathy”.
‘Ali recovered the land granted by ‘Uthman and swore to recover anything that elites had acquired before his election. Ali opposed the centralisation of capital control over provincial revenues, favouring an equal distribution of taxes and booty amongst the Muslim citizens; he distributed the entire revenue of the treasury among them. ‘Ali refrained from nepotism, including with his brother ‘Aqeel ibn Abu Talib. This was an indication to Muslims of his policy of offering equality to Muslims who served Islam in its early years and to the Muslims who played a role in the later conquests.
Ali succeeded in forming a broad coalition, especially after the Battle of the Camel. His policy of equal distribution of taxes and booty gained the support of Muhammad’s companions, especially the Ansar who were subordinated by the Quraysh leadership after Muhammad, the traditional tribal leaders, and the Qurra or Qur’anic reciters that sought pious Islamic leadership. The successful formation of this diverse coalition seems to be due to Ali’s charismatic character. This diverse coalition became known as Shi’a Ali, meaning “party” or “faction of Ali”. However, according to Shia, as well as non-Shia reports, the majority of those who supported ‘Ali after his election as caliph, were shia politically, not religiously. Although at this time there were many who were counted as political Shia, few of them believed Ali’s religious leadership.
His policies and ideas of governing are manifested in the letter he sent to Malik al-Ashtar after appointing him governor of Egypt. This instruction, which has historically been viewed as the ideal constitution for Islamic governance alongside the Constitution of Medina, involved detailed description of duties and rights of the ruler and various functionaries of the state and the main classes of society at that time. Ali wrote in his instructions to Malik al-Ashtar:
Infuse your heart with mercy, love and kindness for your subjects. Be not in face of them a voracious animal, counting them as easy prey, for they are of two kinds: either they are your brothers in faith or in creation. Error catches them unaware, deficiencies overcome them, (evil deeds) are committed by them intentionally and by mistake. So grant them your pardon and your forgiveness to the same extent that you hope God will grant you His pardon and His forgiveness. For you are above them, and he who appointed you is above you, and God is above him who appointed you. God has sought from you the fulfillment of their requirements and He is trying you with them.
Since the majority of ‘Ali’s subjects were nomads and peasants, he was concerned with agriculture. He instructed to Malik to give more attention to development of the land than to the collection of the tax, because tax can only be obtained by the development of the land and whoever demands tax without developing the land ruins the country and destroys the people.
On 19 Ramadan 40 AH, which would correspond to 27 January 661, while praying in the Great Mosque of Kufa, Ali was attacked by the Kharijite Abd-al-Rahman ibn Muljam. He was wounded by ibn Muljam’s poison-coated sword while prostrating in the Fajr prayer. ‘Ali ordered his sons not to attack 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). ‘Ali died two days later on 29 January 661 (21 Ramadan 40 A.H). Al-Hasan fulfilled Qisas and gave equal punishment to ibn Muljam upon Ali’s death.
After Ali’s death, Kufi Muslims pledged allegiance to his eldest son Hasan without dispute, as Ali on many occasions had declared that just People of the House of Muhammad were entitled to rule the Muslim community. At this time, Muawiyah held both the Levant and Egypt and, as commander of the largest force in the Muslim Empire, had declared himself caliph and marched his army into Iraq, the seat of Hasan’s caliphate.
War ensued during which Muawiyah gradually subverted the generals and commanders of Hasan’s army with large sums of money and deceiving promises until the army rebelled against him. Finally, Hasan was forced to make peace and to yield the caliphate to Muawiyah. In this way Muawiyah captured the Islamic caliphate and tuned it to a secular kingdom (Sultanate). Umayyad caliphate later became a centralised monarchy by Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan.
Umayyads placed the severest pressure upon Ali’s family and his Shia, in every way possible. Regular public cursing of Imam Ali in the congregational prayers remained a vital institution which was not abolished until 60 years later by Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz.
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. In face of the fake Umayyad claim to legitimate sovereignty in Islam as God’s Vice-regents on earth, and in view of Umayyad treachery, arbitrary and divisive government, and vindictive retribution, they came to appreciate his [Ali’s] honesty, his unbending devotion to the reign of Islam, his deep personal loyalties, his equal treatment of all his supporters, and his generosity in forgiving his defeated enemies.
According to Al-Shaykh Al-Mufid, Ali did not want his grave to be desecrated by his enemies and consequently asked his friends and family to bury him secretly. This secret gravesite was revealed later during the Abbasid caliphate by Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, his descendant and the sixth Shia Imam. Most Shias accept that Ali is buried at the Tomb of Imam Ali in the Imam Ali Mosque at what is now the city of Najaf, which grew around the mosque and shrine called Masjid Ali.
However another story, usually maintained by some Afghans, notes that his body was taken and buried in the Afghan city of Mazar-E-Sharifat the famous Blue Mosque or Rawze-e-Sharif.
Ali is respected not only as a warrior and leader, but as a writer and religious authority. A numerous range of disciplines from theology and exegesis to calligraphy and numerology, from law and mysticism to Arabic grammar and rhetoric are regarded as having been first adumbrated by Ali.
According to a hadith which is narrated by Shia and Sufis, Muhammad told about him “I’m the city of knowledge and Ali is its gate …” Muslims regard Ali as a major authority on Islam. Ali himself gives this testimony:
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 muhkamand the mutashabih (the fixed and the ambiguous), the particular and the general …
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. 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.
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. 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.
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 through his having studied the texts of al-Jafr and al-Jamia.
Ali was also a great scholar of Arabic literature and pioneered in the field of Arabic grammar and rhetoric. Numerous short sayings of Ali have become part of general Islamic culture and are quoted as aphorisms and proverbs in daily life. They have also become the basis of literary works or have been integrated into poetic verse in many languages. Already in the 8th century, literary authorities such as ‘Abd al-Hamid ibn Yahya al-‘Amiri pointed to the unparalleled eloquence of Ali’s sermons and sayings, as did al-Jahiz in the following century. Even staffs in the Divan of Umayyad recited Ali’s sermons to improve their eloquence. The most famous selection of Ali’s utterances and writings has been gathered in a book called Nahj al-Balagha (Peak of Eloquence) by a 10th-century Shia scholar, Al-Sharif al-Radi, who selected them for their singular rhetorical beauty.
Of note among sermons quoted in the book, is the undotted sermon as well as the sermon without Aleph. According to narrations, some companions of the Muhammad had gathered somewhere discussing the role of letters in speaking. They concluded that Aleph had the greatest contribution in speaking and that dotted letters were also important. Meanwhile, Ali read two long impromptu sermons, one without using Aleph letter and the other without dotted letters, containing deep and eloquent concepts, according to Langroudi, a Shia author. George Jordac, a Christian author, said that sermons without Aleph and dot had to be regarded as literary masterpiece.
Ali is revered for the deep sympathy and support he shown for the poor and orphans, and the egalitarian policies he pursued during his caliphate with aim of achieving social justice. He is quoted as saying:
If God grants wealth and prosperity to any person, he should show kindness to his deserving kith and kin, should provide for the poor, should come the assistance of those are oppressed with calamities, misfortunes and reverses, should help the poor and have-nots and should assist honest people to liquidate their loans…
The compilation of sermons, lectures and quotations attributed to Ali are compiled in the form of several books.
- Nahj al-Balagha (Peak of Eloquence) contains eloquent sermons, letters and quotations attributed to Ali which is compiled by ash-Sharif ar-Radi (d. 1015). Reza Shah Kazemi states: “Despite ongoing questions about the authenticity of the text, recent scholarship suggests that most of the material in it can in fact be attributed to Ali” and in support of this he makes reference to an article by Mokhtar Jebli. This book has a prominent position in Arabic literature. It is also considered an important intellectual, political and religious work in Islam. The Urdu translator of Nahjul Balagha Syed Zeeshan Haider Jawadi has compiled a list of 61 books and name of their writers from 204 to 488 AH, and provided the sources in which compilation work of Sharif Razi can be traced out. Masadir Nahj al-Balagha wa asaniduh, written by al-Sayyid ‘Abd al-Zahra’ al-Husayni al-Khatib, introduces some of these sources. Also, Nahj al-sa’adah fi mustadrak Nahj al-balaghah by Muhammad Baqir al-Mahmudi represents all of Ali’s extant speeches, sermons, decrees, epistles, prayers, and sayings that have been collected. It includes the Nahj al-balagha and other discourses which were not incorporated by ash-Sharif ar-Radi or were not available to him. Apparently, except for some of the aphorisms, the original sources of all the contents of the Nahj al-balagha have been determined. There are several Comments on the Peak of Eloquence by Sunnis and Shias such as Comments of Ibn Abi al-Hadid and comments of Muhammad Abduh.
- Supplications (Du’a), translated by William Chittick.
- Ghurar al-Hikam wa Durar al-Kalim (Exalted aphorisms and Pearls of Speech) which is compiled by Abd al-Wahid Amidi (d. 1116) consists of over ten thousand short sayings of Ali.
- Divan-i Ali ibn Abu Talib (poems which are attributed to Ali ibn Abu Talib).
Ali initially married Fatimah, who was his most beloved wife. After she died, he got married again. He had four children with Fatimah, Hasan ibn Ali, Husayn ibn Ali, Zaynab bint Ali and Umm Kulthum bint Ali. His other well-known sons were al-Abbas ibn Ali, born to Fatima binte Hizam (Um al-Banin), and Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah. Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah was Ali’s son from another wife from Hanifa clan of central Arabia named Khawlah bint Ja’far.
Hasan, born in 625, was the second Shia Imam and he also occupied the outward function of caliph for about six months. In the year 50 A.H., he was poisoned and killed by a member of his own household who, as has been accounted by historians, had been motivated by Mu’awiyah.
Husayn, born in 626, was the third Shia Imam. He lived under severe conditions of suppression and persecution by Mu’awiyah. On the tenth day of Muharram, of the year 680, he lined up before the army of the caliph with his small band of followers and nearly all of them were killed in the Battle of Karbala. The anniversary of his death is called the Day of Ashura and it is a day of mourning and religious observance for Shia Muslims. In this battle some of Ali’s other sons were killed. Al-Tabari has mentioned their names in his history: Al-Abbas ibn Ali, the holder of Husayn’s standard, Ja’far, Abdallah and Uthman, the four sons born to Fatima binte Hizam; Muhammad and Abu Bakr. The death of the last one is doubtful.
Some historians have added the names of Ali’s other sons who were killed at Karbala, including Ibrahim, Umar and Abdallah ibn al-Asqar.
His daughter Zaynab—who was in Karbala—was captured by Yazid’s army and later played a great role in revealing what happened to Husayn and his followers.
Ali’s descendants by Fatimah are known as sharifs, sayeds or sayyids. These are honorific titles in Arabic, sharif meaning ‘noble’ and sayed or sayyid meaning ‘lord’ or ‘sir’. As Muhammad’s only descendants, they are respected by both Sunni and Shia.
Except for Muhammad, there is no one in Islamic history about whom as much has been written in Islamic languages as Ali. In Muslim culture, 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, and therefore is central to mystical traditions in Islam such as Sufism. Ali retains his stature as an authority on Quranic exegesis, Islamic jurisprudence and religious thought. Ali holds a high position in almost all Sufi orders which trace their lineage through him to Muhammad. Ali’s influence has been important throughout Islamic history. Sunni and Shia scholars agree that the verse of Wilayah was narrated in honour of Ali, but there are differing interpretations of wilayah and the Imamate. The Sunni scholars believe that the verse is about Ali but does not recognise him as an Imam while, in the Shia Muslim view, Ali had been chosen by God as successor of Muhammad.
There are many verses interpreted by Shi’a scholars as referring to Ali or other Shi’a Imams. Responding to this question that why the names of the Imams are not mentioned in Quran expressly Muhammad al-Baqir answers: “Allah revealed Salat to his Prophet but never said of three or four Rakats, revealed Zakat but did not mention to its details, revealed Hajj but did not count its Tawaf and the Prophet interpreted their details. Allah revealed this verse and Prophet said this verse is about Ali, Hasan, Husayn and other the twelve Imams.” According to Ali one quarter of Qur’anic verses are stating the station of Imams. Momen has listed many of these verses in his An Introduction to Shi’i Islam. However, there are few verses that some Sunni commentators interpret as referring to Ali, among which are The verse of Wilayah (Quran, 5:55) that Sunni and Shiite scholars believe refers to the incident where Ali gave his ring to a beggar who asked for alms while performing ritual prayers in the mosque. The verse of Mawadda (Quran, 42:23) is another verse which Shiite scholar along with Sunni ones like Al-Baydawi and Al-Zamakhshari and Fakhr ad-Din ar-Razi believe that the phrase Kinship refers to Ali, Fatimah and their sons, Hasan and Husayn.
The verse of purification (Quran, 33:33) is also among the verses both Sunni and Shiite conjoined the name of Ali with it along with some other names. The aforementioned verse of Mubahala, and also the verse 2:269 in which Ali is honoured with unique wisdom by both Shiite and Sunni commentators are other verses of this kind.
According to this view, Ali as the successor of Muhammad not only ruled over the community in justice, but also interpreted the Sharia Law and its esoteric meaning. Hence he was regarded as being free from error and sin (infallible), and appointed by God by divine decree (nass) through Muhammad. It is believed in Twelver and Ismaili Shī’ah Islam that ‘aql, divine wisdom, was the source of the souls of the Prophets and Imams and gave them esoteric knowledge called ḥikmah and that their sufferings were a means of divine grace to their devotees. Although the Imam 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.
Shia pilgrims usually go to Mashad Ali in Najaf for Ziyarat, pray there and read “Ziyarat Amin Allah” or other Ziyaratnamehs. 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.
Sunnis view Ali as the fourth caliph. Ali is also known as one of the greatest warrior champions of Islam Examples include taking on the Quraish champion at the Battle of the Trench when nobody else dared. After multiple failed attempts of breaking the fort in the Battle of Khaybar, Ali was summoned, miraculously healed and conquered the fort.
Almost all Sufi orders trace their lineage to Muhammad through Ali, an exception being Naqshbandi, who go through Abu Bakr. Even in this order, there is Ja’far al-Sadiq, the great great grandson of Ali. Sufis believe that Ali inherited from Muhammad the saintly power wilayah that makes the spiritual journey to God possible.
Eminent Sufis such as Ali Hujwiri claim that the tradition began with Ali and Junayd of Baghdad regarded Ali as the Sheikh of the principles and practices of Sufism.
Sufis recite Manqabat Ali in the praise of Ali.
‘Ali is known by various titles, some given due to his personal qualities and others due to events in his life:
- Al-Murtaza (Arabic: الـمُـرتـضى, “The Chosen One”)
- Amir al-Mu’minin (Arabic: أَمـيـر الـمُـؤمـنـيـن, “Commander of the Faithful Ones”)
- Bab-e Madinatul-‘Ilm (Arabic: بَـابِ مَـديـنـةُ الـعِـلـم, “Door of City of the Knowledge”)
- Abu Turab (Arabic: أَبـو تُـراب, “Father of the Soil”)
- Asadullah (Arabic: أَسَـدُ الله, “Lion of God”)
- Haydar (Arabic: حَـيـدر, “Braveheart” or “Lion”)
- Walad al-Ka’ba (Arabic: ولد الکعبه, “The baby of Ka’ba”)
Ali is recorded in some traditions as having forbidden those who sought to worship him in his own lifetime.
Some groups such as the Alawites (Arabic: علوية Alawīyyah) are claimed to believe that Ali was God incarnate. They are described as ghulat (Arabic: غُلاة, “exaggerators”) by the majority of Islamic scholars. These groups have, according to traditionalist Muslims, left Islam due to their exaggeration of a human being’s praiseworthy traits.
In Ali-Illahism, a syncretic religion 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.
The Druze, a syncretic religion, believe that God was incarnated in human beings, especially Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah a descendant of Ali.
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 Shī’a 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.
There had been a common tendency among the earlier western scholars against these narrations and reports gathered in later periods due to their tendency towards later Sunni and Shī’a partisan positions; such scholars regarding them as later fabrications. This leads them to regard certain reported events as inauthentic or irrelevant. 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.
Until the rise of the Abbasid Caliphate, few books were written and most of the reports had been oral. The most notable work previous to this period is The Book of Sulaym ibn Qays, written by Sulaym ibn Qays, a companion of Ali who lived before the Abbasid. 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. 9th and 10th 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).
Shia of Iraq actively participated in writing monographs but most of those works have been lost. On the other hand, in the 8th and 9th century Ali’s descendants such as Muhammad al Baqir and Jafar as Sadiq narrated his quotations and reports which have been gathered in Shia hadith books. The later Shia works written after the 10th century are about biographies of The Fourteen Infallibles and Twelve Imams. The earliest surviving work and one of the most important works in this field is Kitab al-Irshad by Shaykh Mufid (d. 1022). The author has dedicated the first part of his book to a detailed account of Ali. There are also some books known as Manāqib which describe Ali’s character from a religious viewpoint. Such works also constitute a kind of historiography.