City of Brass

City of Brass


Who is Ali (as), the universal hero of Islam?

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

This is a guest post by Hussein Rashid.

Thinking about the beginning of Ramadan. Thinking about the beginning of the Qur’an. Thinking about the line of Imams.

Everything has a beginning. The Qur’an begins with the fatihah. There is a tradition that the entirety of the knowledge of the Qur’an can be found in the fatihah; the entire fatihah is contained in the first line, bismillah ir-rahman ir-rahim, everything in that phrase is found in bismillah; all of that knowledge is found in the first letter, beh – a boat-shaped letter with a dot underneath; all of the knowledge of the beh is found in the dot, and that dot is Hazrat Ali. The fatihah begins our prayers; it begins our interaction with revelation. All of that is encompassed in a dot. That dot is Hazrat Ali. The first dot of the Qur’an, the meaning of the Qur’an, the beginning of the line of Imams, Hazrat Ali AS. Who is the king of men? Who is the Lion of God? Who is the hero without peer? Who is Hazrat Ali?

I am not here to give the biography of a great man. I am not here to give a history lesson. I am here to talk of the importance of Hazrat Ali to us as Muslims.

Who is the Ali, the universal hero of Islam? The last of those who are known as the Rightly Guided Caliphs, the greatness of Imam Ali is best represented by story of Khaybar. The story begins that Prophet Muhammad SAW laid seige to the fort of Khaybar, but the walls were so well-fortified that the army could not break through. The Angel Gabriel came to the Prophet Muhammad and told him to recite the nad-e ali:

Call Ali call Ali call Ali
Call Ali, the manifestation of marvels
He will be your helper in difficulty
Every anxiety and sorrow will end
Through your friendship. O Ali, O Ali, O Ali

And Hazrat Ali came to the Prophet’s aid, in an act of heroism commemorated in the lines of a qawwali:

The walls shake; the doors quake. Now all of Khaybar trembles hearing the name of Al?.

Dhulfiqar sculpture in Najaf, Iraq

Ali came and tore down the gate of the fort, and the army of the Prophet crossed over and successfully ended the siege. Ali, of course, was a valiant fighter within in the fort and when victory was achieved, the Angel Gabriel appeared to Prophet Muhammad again and said to him:

There is no hero but Ali; there is no sword but Dhu’lfiqar

In this one story, how much do we learn about the value of Hazrat Ali in the Muslim tradition? We learn that the Angel Gabriel taught the Prophet a prayer for help and support, and that help and support comes through Imam Ali. One of the most popular stories of the Prophet Muhammad’s battles has as it’s hero Imam Ali. A fort shakes at the mention of the Imam’s name, because even at this point in the early Islamic period, the power and chivalry of Ali ibn Abi Talib was legendary. And that exceptional position was affirmed by the Angel Gabriel once more when he said “there is no hero but Ali; there is no sword but Dhu’lfiqar.”

What does it mean for one of God’s angels to say there is no hero but Ali? Is heroism simply limited to valor on the battlefield? Is heroism being a soldier? Clearly Hazrat Ali’s military exploits are an important part of his heroic reputation. However, there is a story told by Jalal ud-Din Rumi that shows there is more to being a hero than killing.

The story begins on the battlefield. Imam Ali was battling a non-Muslim in one-to-one combat. The Imam disarmed his enemy and was getting ready to kill him, when his enemy spat on him. Hazrat Ali sheathed his sword. When his enemy asked him why, the Imam replied that in war he was fighting for God, but once he was spat upon, he became angry and was fighting for himself, and that was not the way of Islam. His enemy converted immediately.

What do we learn from this story? Part of what makes Imam Ali hero is his control; control of his anger; control of his faith; control of his nafs – his lower self. There is, emerging from these narratives, a sense of ethical living, a key point I believe as to what makes Hazrat Ali a hero and a figure of such central importance to us.

He is the first of the Imams. The beginning of the line of divinely appointed leaders of the Muslim community.

Prophet Muhammad, the undisputed head of the Muslim community during his life, said at Ghadir-e Khumm:

He whose mowla I am, Ali is his mowla

Now, this declaration is universally recognized – it mentioned in the Qur’an:

Oh Apostle, deliver what has been revealed to you from your Lord
And if you do not do so, then you have not delivered His message
Allah will protect you from the people. (5:67)

The word mowla is a word rich with meaning: master and friend. This relationship that the mu’min (believer) has with the Imam is to be the same as the Muslim community at the time had with the Prophet Muhammad: the head of the community; friend; confidante; support; guide; etc..

For a mu’min, the center of existence is Hazrat Ali, as the first bearer of the n?r Allah, and his descendants as the continuous carriers of that light. Prophet Muhammad said that he would leave behind two weighty things: the Qur’an and his family, and that by following both we would never go astray. What is it should we follow? Let me turn to another story.

Prophet Muhammad clearly gave guidance to the community that Ali should lead them, yet Abu Bakr became the first caliph. After Prophet Muhammad’s death, Hazrat Ali initially refused to recognize the temporal leadership Abu Bakr, but he eventually did. Why did he do so? He never relinquished his claim to secular leadership, but he recognized that challenging Abu Bakr would tear the community apart. Think about how the Qur’an talks about the Imams:

O believers! Obey God and the Prophet and the holders of authority (4:59)

And We have vested everything in the manifest Imam (36:12)

We are to obey the holders of authority from amongst us, but knowledge of everything is with the Imam. I would argue that the truest authority is the one granted by God, and the Imams are those authorities, although they have often guided us to obey temporal authority when there is no conflict with our faith. In that way, Imam Ali was hero who put the needs of the nascent Muslim community ahead of his absolute right to lead the community. Patience as virtue. The ethical message continues to develop.

Think also of the tradition of the Prophet:

I am the City of Knowledge and Ali is the gate.

The intellect – aql – and knowledge – ilm – are complementary parts of a larger ethic – the ethic of education. Hazrat Ali once said that all containers are filled when things are placed in them except the container of knowledge which expands. He standardized Arabic grammar so that the Qur’an could be understood by everyone. His sayings and writings, preserved in Nahj ul-Balagha – are full of teachings that are applicable today as when he wrote them. In one of his letters he advises one of his governors that his role is treat every one equally and justly; to make sure no one is in unnecessary need.

For Hazrat Ali, this was not just guidance that he dispensed. He lived the life he instructed others to follow. One day he met a woman carrying water from the river to her house and he asked her why she was carrying such a heavy load. She answered, not knowing who he was, that her husband had died fighting in the army of Imam Ali and her children were too young to help around the house. He carried the water for her from that day onwards. He chopped her wood and took care of her children. He never told her that he was Ali ibn Abi Talib, and she never knew for many years until someone asked her why Ali was doing her chores.

The great Persian poet, Nasr Khusraw says:

The springtime of a friend of Ali is always full fo the efflorescence of Ali.
None deserves eminence and praise among the people except he who befriends Ali.
The heart of every Shi’i is protected from Satan in the fortress of Ali.
As Ali is from the Prophet’s family, the true Shi’i belongs to the family of Ali.
A hundred years of praise is not equal to even one in a thousand praises of Ali.
Courage, knowledge, abstinence, generosity: these are the qualities I revere in Ali.
Therefore, my back is bent with gratitude under the weight of the favours of Ali.
My under and outer garments are faith and knowledge, just as they were for Ali.
If you want to understand his status, reflect upon the role and the deeds of Ali:
he was a lion, the battlefield his meadow, and Gabriel was the spearman of Ali.
Ali’s cave is of knowledge, not stone, for stone does not befit the glory of Ali.
The clouds of ta’wil do not shed their droplets except on the trees and the seed-fields of Ali.
Ali had no desire for gold or silver; faith and knowledge were the choice of Ali.
There was not fault in him nor blemish in the tongue, hands and garments of Ali.
Husayn and Hasan, the Prophet’s reminders, were none other than the reminders of Ali.
Truly no one can be saved from the fire unless he comes under the protection of Ali.

As we begin the first night of Ramadan, I think of the first promise we made to God. We bear witness that God is our Lord (7:172). From God’s desire to lead us, he left us nubuwwah and then Imamah. To be the mu’min, the one with faith, means following the guidance of the Qur’an, the Prophet, and the Imams. To me, that ethical message, particularly of service, rings the loudest. This Ramadan is a chance for me to dedicate myself to that vision as articulated by Imam Ali, and carried forward by his descendants.

Hussein Rashid, Ph.D. is currently a Visiting Professor at the Virginia Theological Seminary and Associate Editor of Religion Dispatches Magazine. His personal website is at HusseinRashid.com and blogs at Islamicate and Talk Islam.



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