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ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib

By:
Abdulaziz Sachedina
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib

ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib (c.597–660), was the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muḥammad, the fourth caliph of the Sunnī Muslims, and the first imam of all the Shīʿīs. ʿAlī was ten or eleven years old when he embraced Islam and is considered to be the first Muslim after Khadījah, Muḥammadʾs wife. He grew up in Muḥammad's household, and during the night of Muḥammad's emigration (the Hijrah) from Mecca to Medina in 622, he occupied the Prophetʾs bed, facilitating the latter's escape. He then joined the Prophet after restoring to their owners the objects that Muḥammad was holding in trust. Some months later he married Muḥammad's daughter Fāṭimah; of their marriage were born two sons, Ḥasan and Ḥusayn, and two daughters, Zaynab and Umm Kulthūm, the latter two known for their roles in the Battle of Karbala See KARBALA. During the Prophet's lifetime, ʿAlī participated in almost all the expeditions, except that of Tabūk, during which he had the command at Medina. ʿAlī's bravery as the standard-bearer and sometimes as the commander in these expeditions has become legendary.

After Muḥammad's death in 632, a dispute arose between ʿAlī and other associates of the Prophet on the question of succession. It was this dispute that divided the Muslims into two major factions: the Shīʿah (partisans of ʿAlī), those sympathetic to ʿAlī's claim that he was appointed by the Prophet as his successor during his farewell pilgrimage; and the Sunnī, those who denied ʿAlī's claim and acknowledged the caliphate of Abū Bakr, ʿUmar, and ʿUthmān in succession and placed ʿAlī as the fourth caliph, following ʿUthmān's assassination in 656.

The period of ʿAlī's rule was marked with political crisis and civil strife. ʿAlī had inherited events which he could not avoid as a caliph, and under the pressure of circumstances he had to submit to these events and the constraints of his partisans. In the month of Ramadān in 660, a member of the Khawārij (a sect that had seceded from ʿAlī in the battle against the Umayyad governor of Syria, Muʿāwiyah, in 656) struck ʿAlī a fatal blow with a sword while he was in prostration in the mosque of Kufa. ʿAlī was buried in Najaf. His mausoleum was built there, and Najaf has become an important site for the Shīʿī pilgrimage and a center for Twelver Shīʿī learning See NAJAF.

The personality of ʿAlī is difficult to assess, because so much controversial tradition has grown up around him. Although his stature as a distinguished judge, a pious believer, and an ardent warrior for Islam is accepted by Muslim scholars, the idea of ʿAlī alongside God and the Prophet as the center of religious belief—which the Shīʿīs developed after ʿAlī's death—is rejected by the Sunnīs. Even among subdivisions of the Shīʿīs there has been much conflict on the status of ʿAlī as an object of personal piety. The deification of ʿAlī by extremist Shīʿīs, such as the ʿAlawīs of present-day Syria, stands at one end of the spectrum; the most moderate views about him are those held by the major Shīʿī school of thought, the Twelvers (Ithnā ʿAsharīyah) See AKHBāRīYAH; ʿALAWīYAH; and ITHNā ʿASHARīYAH. In the Shīʿī and Sūfī hagiographical literature, in which ʿAlī's profoundly religious spirit is emphasized, he is raised to the status of the walī (friend) of God and is regarded as the saint in whom the divine light resided. His wilāyah (in the sense of “friendship” as well as “stewardship”) is esteemed as the foundation of faith on which the spiritual edifice of the Shīʿīs was built. Faith, as reflected in piety, was conceived in terms of personal devotion to ʿAlī and what he symbolized See WALī and WILāYAH.

In Iran, the only modern nation-state that promulgates Twelver Shiism as its official religion (and to some extent in Iraq, where Shīʿīs constitute a majority) the figure of ʿAlī provides the downtrodden with a model of political activism that can be used to redress social and political injustices. Political discourse, sermons, letters, and wise sayings ascribed to ʿAlī and compiled in the eleventh-century collection, Nahj al-balāghah (path of eloquence), with detailed commentaries by Sunnī and Shīʿī scholars, have served as the ideological groundwork for the establishment of Islamic government.

One of the most important Islamic celebrations in the Shīʿī calendar is the Festival of Ghadīr on 18 Dhū al-Ḥijjah—the day of wilāyah (succession, i.e., ʿAlī's appointment by the Prophet as his successor). This festival is given even more importance than ʿĪd al-Aḍḥā (the Festival of Sacrifice), commemorating the ḥajj. See also IMAM, and SHīʿī ISLAM, subentry onHISTORICAL OVERVIEW.

Bibliography

  • Ḥusayn, Ṭāhā. al-Fitnah al-kubrā (The Great Trial). Vol. 1, ʿUthman. Vol. 2, ʿAlī wa-banūn (ʿAlī and His Sons). Cairo, 1947–1956. Find it in your Library
  • Lakhani, M. Ali, ed. The Sacred Foundations of Justice in Islam: The Teachings of ʿAli ibn Abi Talib. Bloomington, Ind., and North Vancouver, B.C., 2006. Find it in your Library
  • Moojan, Momen. An Introduction to Shiʿi Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shiʿism. New Haven, Conn., 1987. Find it in your Library
  • Shah-Kazemi, Reza. Justice and Remembrance: Introducing the Spirituality of Imam Ali. London, 2007. Find it in your Library
  • Vaglieri, Laura Veccia. “ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2d ed., vol. 1, pp. 381–386. Leiden, 1960–. Valuable revisionist outline of ʿAlī's biography. Find it in your Library
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