An Englishman Reflects on the Nature of Imam Ali

By Barnaby Rogerson
Special to Simerg

At the very moment of Muhammad’s death the two traditions of Islam each branch out with their own rival stories. The Sunni believe that the Prophet died resting on the lap of Aisha. The Shia believe that he expired leaning against the shoulder of Ali. This contradiction is emblematic of the whole schism within Islam but it is also not unusual in the Arabic tradition, where it was a common practice for a historian to tell at least two or three variant tales about any decisive event, and then leave the reader to make their own decision – with the pious disclaimer “That the truth is only known to God.”

In this case it is possible to believe both accounts. On the morning of Muhammad’s death, Ali and Aisha may have put aside their mutual hostility as they both silently supported the man they both loved. Later their partisan supporters concentrated on telling only the narrative account that featured just one of them.

Whether Ali was with the Prophet at the hour of his death or not, he was undoubtedly a true intimate in the last days of Muhammad as he had been throughout his life. It was Ali, with his great-uncle Abbas, who was there to support the fever-ridden body of Muhammad as he was moved from the room of his wife Maimuna to be nursed in Aisha’s hut. It was also on Ali’s shoulder that the Prophet lent when a few days later he made his last visit to the mosque and where the Prophet instructed Abu Bakr to lead the prayers in his place. When Muhammad breathed his last, it was Ali who immediately took responsibility of the washing of the dead and the burial preparations. No one could ever doubt the devotion with which Ali held Muhammad and the many bonds that connected them: Ali was the Prophet’s cousin, the Prophet’s son-in-law, the Prophet’s first male believer, the father of the Prophet’s only male grandchildren, the Prophet’s most intimate disciple and the first heroic warrior champion of Islam (alongside his great-uncle Hamza). Ali had also served the Prophet as an army commander, missionary, diplomat and administrative secretary. It is said that while he prepared the Prophet’s body for the grave that his grief poured out into spontaneous verse:

May my parents be sacrificed on you, Messenger of God
For with your death things have come to an end
Which could not have ended with the death of any other person.
The chain of prophet-hood has been snapped.
News of the unseen have ceased,
Revelations from the Almighty have been severed
You gave a message of hope to the people
You showed them the right path
You established a new order
You are the saviour of humankind
You established equality among the people
You ushered in a revolution
You were our guide when alive
You will guide us even after death
If you had not ordered patience in the hour of grief
I would have shed blood from my eyes
The entire world is now dark without you
Your passing is a loss beyond measure
But we will resign ourselves to the will of God
From God you came and to God you have returned,
May your soul rest in peace close to your creator

Until Muhammad’s death there had never been a time when Ali’s life had not been filled by the presence of the Prophet. They were first cousins for Ali’s father was the elder brother of Muhammad’s father Abdullah though the bonds between the two families was so close that they almost constituted a single unit. For Ali’s father, Abu Talib had acted as a father to Muhammad after the successive deaths of father, mother and grandfather had left the young boy a parentless orphan. From the age of eight Muhammad was entirely dependent on Abu Talib for food, shelter and his education. As the leading sheikh of the clan, Abu Talib’s protection remained upon Muhammad as he became a man, and a merchant. Later when he became a Prophet, it was only Abu Talib’s continual protection that preserved his nephew’s life and those of his followers. Muhammad’s cousins from this family would become like his brothers and sisters: Talib was about the same age, Aqil a little younger, as was the only girl of the family Fakhita (with whom the teenage Muhammad fell in love), while Jafar was the darling of the family. Ali was an after-thought, born half a generation after the rest of his siblings. By the time of Ali’s birth, Muhammad would have been 29 years old and had already been married to Khadijah for four years. Legends would later collect around Ali’s birth story. How his mother was performing a ritual circulation around Mecca’s holy Kaaba shrine when the birth pains came upon her – and so was forced to use the shelter of God’s own temple to give birth to Ali. Another tale records how the infant Ali could not open his eyes – until he was seated in the lap of his cousin Muhammad whose face was the first that he saw.

When Ali was a boy he moved over from his father’s house to Muhammad’s. He was aged either 5, 8 or 11 according to the various prime sources, so an exact chronology for Ali’s life remains elusive, even if there is little doubt about the ordering of events. Some chroniclers record that this was to relieve Ali’s father Abu Talib, then reportedly suffering from a bad run of business, from the pressure of feeding another mouth. It is difficult to really give full credit to this and it may well be a slur against the business efficiency of the Hashim clan that was added by their dynastic rivals at a later date. Certainly Abu Talib, the leader of the Beni Hashim clan, remained one of the most respected sheikhs in Mecca until the day of his death – and if he wanted for anything as simple as food Muhammad and his wealthy and famously generous wife Khadijah would have been honoured to provide anything that was required. As would the rest of his clan. Ali may have moved to his cousin’s house to partly assuage the grief that lay on Muhammad’s house, for though all his four daughters survived, all three of Muhammad and Khadijah’s sons had by then died. There may be an even simpler explanation: the young Ali might have preferred to spend his time in a house filled with cousins of his own age rather than the adult siblings that occupied his father’s house. The two houses were not in any case very far apart, which would have allowed him to happily ricochet between both houses at will. There was a pleasing symmetry about the arrangement, for just as Muhammad had learned the caravan trade by working an apprenticeship for his uncle Abu Talib, now it was Muhammad’s turn to teach Abu Talib’s son.

This was probably the time when Ali was taught to read and write – skills available only to a wealthy minority of Meccans. There are also stories of how the young Ali was an intimate and very early witness to his cousin’s private piety for he would bring out supplies of food and water to the caves where Muhammad prayed and meditated in the many years before he became a Prophet. Ali’s exposure to the detailed workings of the caravan trade would however have been fairly minimal. When Muhammad’s first revelation came upon him, in 610 AD, Ali was still a young boy. Five years later, in 615 AD, when Muhammad was instructed by his angelic messenger to become a full time preacher – the time when Muhammad presumably surrendered his last direct involvement in the Meccan caravan trade, Ali would have been about 13 years of age.

This was to have an enormous bearing on Ali’s future prestige as a leader among his contemporaries. No one could doubt his ancestry, but what he did lack was a manhood spent in the Arabia-wide caravan trade, of finding out the necessary ways of surviving within this highly competitive merchantile world, of bargaining in the markets, of dealing with nomad guides, the hiring of camels, the purchase of fodder not to mention the customs officials in the Yemen, in Persian-controlled Iraq, in the Byzantine culture of Syria, in Abyssinia and the harbours of the Red Sea. He would never grow into manhood with an innate understanding that the world was governed as much by coin as by faith, that even the most noble warlord had his price in silver bullion and that envy, jealousy and treachery were more common human traits than compassion, honesty and a righteous passion. Ali’s nature was created in an exceptional household, which equipped him with many precious spiritual attributes, but it did not make of him a natural politician who understood the venality that underpinned human motivation.

Of faith Ali had an abundance. Even as an awkward fifteen year old teenager he was not ashamed to make a public testimony of support for Muhammad’s teachings. And this was after all the high dignitaries of his Hashim clan (that included his father and his powerful uncles, such as the sardonic worldy-wise Abu Lahab and the tough hero-huntsman Hamza) had sat through dinner and listened to Muhammad preaching with not so much as a single voice raised in support. Ali’s older brother, Jafar would later convert and become such a key figure within the small community of Muslims that he would be given the task of leading the refugees who took shelter in the Christian Kingdom of Abyssinia in 616. For those who remained in Mecca, the trade boycott placed over the Muslims and the Beni Hashim clan that continued to protect them was a time of great trial. Muhammad’s wife Khadijah’s great fortune was entirely dissipated at this time, and we also know that Abu Bakr’s dropped from 50,000 to 6,000 dirhams. The year 619 with the death of both Abu Talib and Khadijah, must have been as testing a time for the 19 year old Ali as it was for his revered master. Ali lost both father and adopted mother, the Prophet lost his adopted father and wife. The verse that Ali is considered to have composed for this occasion still survives:

My eyes well with tears
I weep for the chief of the Bateha valley
Whose name was Abu Talib:
And they weep for that flower of womanhood
Whose name was Khadijah;
The woman first to accept Islam;
And first to pray.
Both Abu Talib and Khadijah were pure souls.
Their passing away has created a great void.
At the pain of their separation
I spend the whole night in weeping.
They succoured the Holy Prophet.
They were a source of strength to Islam.
After them the world has been plunged into darkness.
From God they came and to God they have returned;
May their souls rest in peace.

Date posted: Thursday, May 29, 2012.

Copyright: Barnaby Rogerson. 2012.

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Barnaby Rogerson

About the writer: Over the last fifteen years Barnaby Rogerson has contributed travel articles, book reviews and historical essays on various North African and Islamic themes to several magazines and newspapers including Conde Nast Traveller, Geographical, The Guardian, Independent, Vanity Fair, Harpers & Queen and the Times Literary Supplement (TLS). He has set up www.barnabyrogerson.com as a store house of travel stories and historical anecdotes brought back from numerous Middle Eastern and African countries. Mr. Rogerson also works at Eland Books, www.travelbooks.co.uk, which is home to over a hundred different classic travel books. Mr. Barnaby Rogerson is the author of highly acclimed historical narratives A History of North Africa, The Prophet Muhammad, and The Heirs of the Prophet. His latest work is The Last Crusaders, a story of the conflict between the Ottoman Empire and the Last Crusader Kings of Christendom.

Rogerson’s other essays on this website:
Hazrat Hasan: Ahead of His Time and Perhaps Would Be If He Were With Us Today
A Christian Envoy at the Ghadir Khumm Campsite
“Birds Began It All”

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For a varied selection on Hazrat Ali’s life and works, please click Readings for the Birth Anniversary of Hazrat Ali (a.s.): Kalam-i Mawla, Nahj al-Balaghah for Young People, and more @Simerg.

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2 thoughts on “An Englishman Reflects on the Nature of Imam Ali

  1. Very well illustrated, this snapshot from Hadhrat ‘Ali’s life. I knew very little of what has been related and appreciate the point of view and the interest this scholar has taken in the realities of the historical situation, attempting to understand the forces at work that made Ali who he was. I always wondered why the stories from the sunna and the shi’a did not corroborate and he offers one explanation here. As to the political astuteness of ‘Ali, it may be a matter of opinion. He stood by his principles and he won many a battle. I feel he was not primarily a politician. Even Sultan Mohamed Shah (peace) said that the Shi’a leadership did not want to get involved in politics. Ali may have laid the foundation of dealing with political strife for the future. He is reported to have said, “1. During civil disturbance adopt such an attitude that people do not attach any importance to you – they neither burden you with complicated affairs, nor try to derive any advantage out of you.” (Nahj – Translated by Askari Jafri Eleventh Revised Edition – Islamic Seminary Publication, ISBN 0-941724-18-2)

  2. The writer has narrated the situation and quoted very nicely the historical incidents. But I don’t agree with his statment that the political understanding of Ali was not up to the level because of his home environment and upbringing. I don’t think politics means crookedness, lying, fraud or being cunning – because they are not within the ethic of the three Abrahimic faiths. I think that was the requirement of the time and Hazrat Ali did not see his role as indulging in petty political issues of the time.

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