Dr Akbar Ahmed
“I AM the City of Knowledge and Ali is its Gate.” This saying is attributed to the Prophet of Islam (peace and blessings upon him). It not only immortalises Ali but also captures his defining characteristic. Ali — called Hazrat Ali as a mark of respect – was the quintessential scholar. But he was also a warrior, the fourth Caliph of Islam and a close cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet of Islam. So eminent is his position in the history of Islam that the Shia sect of the religion derives their identity and passion from their devotion to Ali and his family.
When scholars discuss the causes of the spectacular success of early Islam, they look for historical causes. Some suggest the sword in one hand and the Quran in the other as an explanation. Others point to the already decaying situation of the Roman and Persian empires. But it was really the extraordinary commitment and valour of those around the Prophet Muhammed in the early years who ensured the early success of early Islam. Among them, few shone as bright as Ali ibn Abi Talib.
That is why a good biography of Ali is welcome. Professor Hassan Abbas in The Prophet’s Heir: The Life of Ali ibn Abi Talib (Yale University Press, 2021) has provided one this year. The book is a passionate labour of love. The author dedicates it to his father Ghulam Abbas, “who inspired me to pursue knowledge and seek the truth.” And what better subject to discover knowledge and truth than the life of Ali.
It is the greatness of the USA that it welcomes immigrants like Abbas; it is the tragedy of Pakistan that it so carelessly loses them. Abbas belongs to the elite police cadre of the Pakistan civil services. Abbas is Distinguished Professor of International Relations at the Near East South Asia Strategic Studies Centre (NESA), National Defense University in Washington DC. He serves as a senior advisor at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. Few if any Pakistani scholars have attained Professor Abbas’s heights. His books, articles and appearances in the media testify to his rich contributions. He has even appeared on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, making him, with Malala Yousufzai and President Musharraf, one of the very few Pakistanis to be so invited.
The story of Ali in Abbas’ biography begins with his birth in the Kaaba itself. The signs are auspicious. The Kaaba is said to have miraculously opened to allow the pregnant mother to enter and give birth. The Prophet himself took Ali in his arms as the mother emerged from the Kaaba with the infant and named him Ali. As a child, Ali recalls his adoration of his cousin, Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam: “I used to follow him (Muhammad) like a young camel following in the footprints of his mother.”
Ali’s life is full of drama. It is also one of great triumphs and heart-rending tragedy. During the lifetime of the Prophet, he was constantly by his side, ever loyal and ever faithful. It was widely believed that Ali would be the successor or Caliph after the Prophet’s death and many believe he was not due to a conspiracy against Ali. He did become Caliph, the fourth of the Rashidun or the Enlightened Caliphs. He was finally assassinated which set a tragic precedent; his sons Hassan and Hussain were also killed. But his line from his wife Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet, has continued to provide descendants who provide spiritual guidance to the community of Muslims everywhere. These descendants are especially revered in those sections of society who call themselves the Shia.
Many stories are told of Ali’s courage and wisdom. His book Nahj al Balagha contains gems of wisdom and should be widely read. There is a famous story of Ali being sent forth in the midst of battle to fight the champion from the opposing army, as was the custom in those days. After intense hand-to-hand combat, Ali manages to get the better of his opponent and knocks him to the ground. In an instant, Ali raises his sword when his opponent spits on him. Suddenly Ali throws down his sword and walks away leaving both armies mystified as to his motives. Later he explained. “Earlier I would have killed him for my faith. Now I would have killed him because of my anger.”
In the end, Ali was killed by a poisoned sword. While the killer was preparing for the murder, Ali was warned. How can I arrest him for a crime he hasn’t committed yet, Ali asked? He was the Caliph of Islam and he had to maintain the highest standards of moral behaviour.
Gallant to the end, Ali was inspired by the sayings and behavior of the Prophet. A soft heart is the best heart, he learned from the Prophet. Even on his deathbed, in agony because of the assassin’s poisoned blade, he asked his sons to loosen the rope around the wrist of the assailant and provide him water to drink. With his dying breath, he forgave his killer.
Some of the greatest Muslim poets and mystics have written glowing verses in paise of Ali. Rumi wrote:
“I am a lover of Ali,
in my spiritual trance, my very being cries out Ali Ali …
He is my lawgiver,
my true guide and inspiration.”
Rumi also wrote:
“Learn how to act sincerely from Ali
God’s lion, free from all impurity.”
Mirza Ghalib called Ali the
“Epicenter of the Prophet’s progeny and pivot of faith is Ali.”
And Allama Iqbal wrote:
“The first Muslim, the King of Men, Ali
The treasure of faith, in the world of love, Ali
In the affection of his progeny, I live –
Like a jewel, I sparkle [in his love]”
Ali is today revered by Muslims, Shia, and Sunni, all over the world. Many, many young men are called Ali in his honor. Both my son-in-law and my nephew, for example, are named Ali.
The sweep of this book is spectacular. It was conceived at the time Abbas visited Medina, the city of the Prophet, and it takes him to the centers of Islamic learning both in the west and the east. The author thanks a long list of scholars, institutions, and finally, but most importantly, his wife and daughter. In particular, he singles out his wife Benish for her commitment and support.
The book is happily not bowed down by academic debates, eschatological polemics, and theological arguments. It is written in an accessible style. It is meant to be read widely and not only by scholars.
For Muslims, this book is a must, for non-Muslims, it is essential reading in order to understand the correct history and true spirit of Islam. For the young reader everywhere it is an introduction to a real-life superhero.
Professor Akbar Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC and author of, most recently, The Flying Man: Philosophers of the Golden Age of Islam.