The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Ali ibn Abi Talib

Ali ibn Abi Talib (علي بن أبي طالب) (c. 600661) was the fourth caliph or successor of Muhammad. He was also the Prophet's cousin, and, after marrying Fatima, his son-in-law as well. He is revered by Shi'a Muslims as the rightful first caliph and the first imam, and by the majority Sunni Muslims as one of the Khulfa-e-Rashidun, the exemplary first four rightly guided caliphs.


Early life

Ali was born at Mecca where his father, Abu Talib, was an uncle of the Prophet. Ali himself was adopted by Muhammad and educated under his care.

In 622, the year of Muhammad's flight to Medina, Ali risked his life by sleeping in the Prophet's bed to impersonate him and thwart an assassination plot, so that the Prophet could flee in safety. In addition, Ali delayed his own departure from Medina to carry out Muhammad's instructions to restore all the goods and properties that had been entrusted to him as a merchant to their owners in Mecca.

From 622 to Muhammad's death in 632 C.E., Ali was one of Muhammad's trusted warriors, active in military campaigns to protect and extend the Muslim community.

Another than Ali becomes the first caliph

This is an extremely contentious topic, which is covered in greater depth in Succession to Muhammad. To put the matter briefly, Shi'a Muslims believe that Muhammad publicly announced Ali as his successor on several occasions and that power was wrongfully seized from Ali. Sunni scholars dispute this claim. They say that Muhammad told the community to settle public matters through shura, or consultation. This, they say, legitimized the accession of Abu Bakr as the first caliph.

Sunni and Shi'a agree in saying that Muhammad's death greatly agitated the Muslims of Medinah, that the Muslims of Medina (the Ansar) and the Muslims who had emigrated from Mecca (the Muhajairun ) disagreed as to the correct course to follow, that many Muslims eventually united behind Abu Bakr, that Ali was not at first prepared to recognize Abu Bakr as leader, and that he eventually did so.

Ali later became one of Abu Bakr's closest advisors, and supported the caliphates of Umar and Uthman, who followed Abu Bakr. Ali named three of his sons Abdallah, Umar, and Uthman, in tribute to the caliphs he served.

From the Sunni point of view, this acquiescence in the rule of the first three caliphs is explicable only by Ali's acceptance of shura as the proper procedure for the choosing of a leader. From the Shi'a point of view, this shows only that Ali put the interests of the community above his own.

Ali assumes the caliphate

As caliph, Abu Bakr was followed by Umar ibn al-Khattab and Uthman ibn Affan. It was not until 656, after the murder of Uthman by an angry crowd, that Ali was proclaimed caliph by the mutineers who had dispatched the previous ruler. Most sources say that while he had always desired the office, he was reluctant to succeed in the circumstances, and agreed to rule only in the hope of keeping the Muslim community together.

Some claimed that he took no steps to prevent the murder of Uthman, but even among Sunnis, this is not a widely held view. Indeed, some histories claim that Ali sent his sons Husayn and Hassan to defend Uthman, and was angered when they were unable to do so.


Almost the first act of his caliphate was the diffusing of a rebellion led by Talha and Zubair (two eminent companions of Muhammad), who were urged on by Aisha, Muhammad's widow. In the view of Shi'as, she was a bitter enemy of Ali, and one of the chief hindrances to his advancement to the caliphate. The rebel army was defeated at the Battle of Basra (also known as the Battle of the Camel); the two generals were killed, and Aisha was captured and escorted with all respect to Medina, where she was given a pension.

Soon thereafter Ali dismissed several provincial governors, some of whom were relatives of Uthman, and replaced them with companions of the Prophet (such as Salman al-Farsi ) or trusted aides (such as Malik al-Ashtar). Ali then transfered his capital from Medina to Kufa, the Muslim garrison city in what is now Iraq. The capital of the province of Syria, Damascus, was held by Mu'awiyah, the governor of Syria and a kinsman of Ali's slain predecessor.

Mu'awiyah raised an army and marched against Ali, demanding vengeance for the death of Uthman. A prolonged battle took place in July 657 in the plain of Siffin (Suffein), near the Euphrates; the battle seemed to be turning in favor of Ali, when a number of the opposing army, fixing copies of the Qur'an to the points of their spears, exclaimed that "the matter ought to be settled by reference to this book, which forbids Muslims to shed each other's blood."

At this point, the soldiers of Ali refused to fight any longer, and demanded that the issue be referred to arbitration. Abu Musa Asha'ri was appointed advocate for Ali, and `Amr-ibn-al-As, a veteran diplomat, was for Mu'awiyah. It is claimed that `Amr persuaded Abu Musa that it would be for the advantage of Islam that neither candidate should reign, and asked him to give his decision first. Abu Musa having proclaimed that he deposed both Ali and Mu'awiyah, `Amr declared that he also deposed Ali, but invested Mu'awiyah with the caliphate. This decision greatly injured the cause of Ali, which was still further weakened by the loss of Egypt.


According to tradition, three Muslim zealots (purists later termed Kharijites) had agreed to assassinate Ali, Mu'awiyah and `Amr, as the authors of disastrous feuds among the faithful. The assassins sent against Mu'awiyan and `Amr failed; the only assassin who succeeded was the one who attacked Ali.

Ali was stabbed in the back by a poisoned sword while he was performing morning prayers. Before he died, he is said to have ordered that his assassin, Abdur Rahman bin Muljam al Sarimi, be killed quickly and humanely, rather than tortured. Ali died in Kufa in 661 C.E.

A splendid mosque called Mashad Ali was afterwards erected near the city at Najaf, the place of his burial (although some believe he is buried at Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan).


Ali had eight wives after Fatima's death, and in all, it is said, thirty-three children. His oldest son by Fatima, Hassan, is said by the Shi'a to have succeeded Ali as the second imam; according to the Shi'a, Hassan should have become the second caliph. Hassan, however, did not publicly advance his claims to the caliphate. Muawiyah I grasped temporal power and established the Umayyad dynasty of caliphs. Ali's other son by Fatima, Husayn, later led a gallant but failed rebellion against the Umayyads. He is revered by Shi'a as the third imam. Both Hassan and Husayn left descendents, and their lineages have continued to this day.

Ali's descendants by Fatima are known as sharifs, sayyeds, or sayyids. These are honorific titles in Arabic, sharif meaning 'noble' and sayyed/sayyid meaning 'lord' or 'sir'. As Muhammad's only descendents, they are respected by both Sunni and Shi'a, though the Shi'a place much more emphasis and value on the distinction. In the Kingdom of Jordan, the King of Jordan is also respectfully addressed as Sharif -- a reference to the Jordanian royal family's Hashemite heritage.


Ali is greatly respected by all Muslims, both Sunni and Shi'a. The Shi'a in particular venerate him as second only to the prophet. They also celebrate the anniversaries of his birth and death; the Shia version of the Muslim confession of faith, the adhan, also includes an explicit reference to Ali. Ali is usually described as a bold, noble and generous man, "the last and worthiest of the first generation Muslims, who imbibed his religious enthusiasm from companionship with the prophet himself, and who followed to the last the simplicity of his example." (See also Caliphate.)

British historian and orientalist Thomas Carlyle calls him "noble-minded...full of affection and fiery daring. Something chivalrous in him; brave as a lion; yet with a grace, a truth and affection worthy of Christian knighthood" in his book On Heroes And Hero Worship And The Heroic In History.

In the eyes of the later Muslims he was remarkable for learning and wisdom, and there are extant collections of proverbs and verses which bear his name: the Sentences of Ali. The most famous collection of Ali's speeches and letters is the Nahj al Balagha meaning "The peak of eloquence".

Etymological note: Shi'a, in Arabic, means "party of, or partisans of." Shi'a is actually an abbreviation of Shi'at Ali, meaning "the partisans of Ali [and his descendants]."

Preceded by:
Uthman ibn Affan
Caliphs Succeeded by:
Mu'awiyah I
Preceded by:
Shia Imams Succeeded by:

See also

External links

Last updated: 09-03-2005 18:37:12