Home / All / Who Was Imam Ali (ʻA)?

Who Was Imam Ali (ʻA)?

Nevertheless, the various dimensions of thought and character of the first Imam of the Shi’a have not been understood as much as they should, and most of the sources have confined themselves to providing just a historical review of his life.

In the history and culture of the Islamic world, the name “Ali ibn Abi Talib” has always been brought next to the name of the Prophet. In most encyclopedias on Islam, he is introduced as being the cousin of the Prophet of Islam (pbuh), the first person who accepted Islam, and the first Imam of the Shi’a or the fourth Caliph of the Muslims. However, in the existing sources about Imam Ali (pbuh), few have attempted to delve more deeply into his character and the global appeal of his life and thought. One of these few notable sources in this regard is the book written by George Jordac, a Christian writer from Lebanon. Although he was Christian, he was so impressed by the thoughts and teachings of Imam Ali (pbuh) that he wrote the book “The Voice of Human Justice.”

Nevertheless, the various dimensions of thought and character of the first Imam of the Shi’a have not been understood as much as they should, and most of the sources have confined themselves to providing just a historical review of his life. The most important work that relates the words and thought of Imam Ali (pbuh) is the book “Nahjul Balaghah” (“The Peak of Eloquence”), which includes three main parts: sermons, letters, and words of wisdom. In terms of style and meaning, experts have described “The Peak of Eloquence” as being profound and extraordinary. An outstanding point about Imam Ali (pbuh), which may also be seen in Nahjul Balaghah, is that his teachings and wisdom are neither bound by time or place. This book has been translated into different languages, including English. What follows is an attempt to delve into some of the aspects of Imam Ali’s (pbuh) worldview, both theoretically and also as actualized in his social and political life.

Human beings, the center of creation

According to Imam Ali’s (pbuh) thought, human beings have a preeminent position. The position and status of human beings is so important to Imam Ali (pbuh) that unawareness and ignorance of the value of human beings for human beings is considered to be the gravest ignorance and oppression. In this regard, he has said, “For someone to be considered ignorant, it is enough if he does not recognize his/her own value.”[1] This epistemological importance has many implications in the practical realm of life. One of these implications is concerned with human rights, which is one of the most important discussions in human sciences and is a fundamental challenge in the world of politics today. The most important principle and the basis of human rights is “human dignity.” One of the most appealing dimensions of Imam Ali’s personality and thought is his belief in human dignity and how this has been demonstrated in his scientific and practical life. The origin and source of this dignity, which every human being benefits from, is God’s breathing of His Spirit into human beings.[2],[3] This theoretical dignity has been set as the foundation of nobility in Imam Ali’s way of life, and many legal and ethical principles have been developed based on this. It is on the basis of the principle of dignity, that the principle of human freedom may also be recognized. This principle involves all humanity because it originates from the divine nature of all human souls. There is no difference in this between a Muslim and a non-Muslim – or even an atheist or an irreligious person. In line with this, when the security and safety of a society that is under the rule of the Muslims is attacked by an aggressor and its citizens are harassed, Imam Ali (pbuh) makes no distinction between a Muslim and a non-Muslim citizen. He said:

I have come to know that assailants entered upon Muslim women and other women under the protection of Islam and took their ornaments from their legs, arms, necks, and ears. And those helpless women could do nothing in facing those assailants but to ask for mercy… If any Muslim dies from grief after this tragedy, he/she is not to be blamed.[4]

On the basis of this ontological principle, human beings are a creation of God and their dignity and rights should be protected. Another example concerning the importance of protecting human beings’ dignity and rights in the thought of Imam Ali (pbuh) can be observed in his letter to Malik Ashtar.[5] This letter has been translated into many of the languages of the world and has been sometimes referred to as a guidebook for fair governance. The first Shi’a Imam emphasizes in this letter that his governor should pour his kindness and love upon the citizens without feelings of sectarianism or discrimination. He should establish their full rights whether they are Muslims and his brother in religion or human beings and his like in creation. He said:

Fill your heart with mercy for the subjects, love for them and kindness toward them. Be not like a ravenous beast of prey above them, seeking to devour them. For they are of two types: either your brother in religion or your like in creation.[6]

Justice, the reason for politics

Ali ibn Abi Talib’s (pbuh) comprehensive view of human dignity guarantees justice in practice in any situation, for all races, and for all religions. According to him, one dimension of justice is to take into consideration natural and true rights and then to assign the job to a person that is consistent with his/her talents and competence. This principle includes everyone and no one is an exception to this, “Justice is a general law and it is a general and resourceful manager.”[7]

On this basis, Imam Ali (pbuh) regards establishing the full rights of people, especially the rights of the needy, to be one of the duties of an Islamic ruler. To him it makes no difference what position a person has in society and from what class he/she is. In any case the ruler is responsible for safeguarding the people’s rights. The weakest people are dear to him and he should protect their rights. Those in the highest positions are equally in need of a supporter to get their rights back.[8] More interestingly, in the theoretical framework of fair governance, in Imam Ali’s (pbuh) opinion, the theoretical principles and explanations are put into practice. This practical manifestation is such that the simple and ascetic life of Imam Ali (pbuh), as the most powerful person in politics and the ruler of the Islamic community, is an exemplary life.

A case in point is the complaint of the family of an ascetic person by the name of A’sem ibn Ziad to the Muslims’ Caliph, i.e. Imam Ali (pbuh). Following this complaint, Imam Ali (pbuh) asked A’sem why he was so strict with his family and why he forbade them from enjoying divine blessings and halal (legitimate) pleasures? In justifying his strict behavior, Asem referred to Imam Ali’s living conditions and said, “O Commander of the Faithful, you yourself are here in your rough clothes and with your dry, coarse food!” The response given by Ali ibn Abi Talib (pbuh) deserves contemplation, “I am different from you. I have a (official) position; you do not. I am wearing the clothes of leadership and governance. A leader and ruler has a different duty. God has made it incumbent upon fair leaders to consider the weakest classes of people as the yardstick for their personal life. They should live in the same way as the poorest people so that the difficulty of poverty and indigence does not influence that section of the society.”[9]

The socio-political justice in Imam Ali’s thoughts and practice originates, in fact, from “Tawhid” (monotheism) and can be explained in the framework of monotheistic justice. It means that all people are both the servants of God and His creation. This ontological principle makes claiming any political or social superiority meaningless. Even the ruler establishes his/her relationship with people under the very same principle. The way Imam Ali (pbuh) started his letters to his commanders is evidence of this claim and shows that the whole being of Imam Ali (pbuh), the Caliph of the Muslims, is defined by being the servant of God. It is in this framework that he has taken over management of the society, “This is an order from the servant of God, Ali, to Malik Ashtar ibn al-Harith al-Nakha’i in the agreement he is making with him to assign him to be the governor of Egypt.”

Paying attention to this principle is so important that Ali ibn Abi Talib (pbuh) introduced the reason for his accepting to be the ruler was to prevent the oppression of the oppressors. He said, “By the God Who splits the grain! If God had not made scholars duty-bound to not remain silent about the gluttony of the oppressors and the hunger of the oppressed, I would put the bridle of the camel of caliphate on their necks and leave it.”[10] This belief was demonstrated during his caliphate. He spent a large part of his time as the Caliph on taking back infringed rights and cutting the hand of the oppressors. This behavior and practice put many of the oppressors in the list of his enemies resulting in many wars. This principle can be a source of inspiration not only for politicians and rulers but also for thinkers and intellectuals that seeking justice should be made a priority in their thoughts and practice.

Animal rights

Environmental ethics in contemporary times has turned into the recurrent theme within intellectual circles. Some contemporary thinkers believe that the attitude of divine religions and religious teachings are among the basic factors that damage the environment and pose a threat to it. In an article entitled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” which was written by Lynn White (1967), he considered the Christian and Jewish traditions to be a cause of the current environmental crises. According to him, the Christian worldview and the commands of the Holy Book to have sovereignty over nature has provided the ground for an instrumental and disrespectful approach toward nature. It has motivated the development of science and technology to be in such a way that is environmentally damaging.

Animals are the most important ecosystem, whose rights have attracted the attention of those concerned with environmental protection. Imam Ali (pbuh), directly opposite to the beliefs of Lynn White and other theoreticians and activists who take a similar approach in this regard, places a high emphasis on respecting animal rights based on his religious thought. His respect for animal rights can be seen in its most detailed form in the orders he gives to his officials. For example, he emphasizes that the female camel should not be milked so much that no milk is left for its baby such that the baby may be harmed.[11]

This attention to animals is such that he believes justice should be for animals as well. He said, “Be just between the camel you ride upon and other camels. Allow the tired camel to rest, and ride slowly on the camel that is a bit hurt or has difficulty moving.”[12] In another example, the first Shi’a Imam stresses that his officials must entrust their animals to a benevolent, kind, righteous, trustworthy person so that he will not annoy or hurt the animals.[13] Imam Ali (pbuh) even respected animals’ feelings and considered caring about their feelings to be vital. IN this regard, he stated:

Do not slaughter a sheep in front of another sheep, or a camel in front of another camel while it is watching the animal being slaughtered.” In addition, he believed that respecting animals is very important. When his officials went to collect taxes from some people who gave sheep and camels for their tax, he advised them, “If they gave sheep and camels (for their tax), do not enter among their animals without their permission, because most of the animals are theirs. When you want to walk into the area of the animals, do not walk like arrogant people or people of authority. Do not startle or scare the animals.[14]

Imam Ali (pbuh) and our time

What has been mentioned so far is only a small part of Imam Ali’s (pbuh) character and personality. All the characteristics and features that “human beings respect, whether they believe in Islam, are the followers of any other religion, or they disbelieve in any religion, can be all found in the personage of Ali ibn Abi Talib.”[15]  Many centuries have passed since his time and human beings are still afflicted by many problems and cruelties: from the spiritual and  intellectual capabilities and talents of teenagers and the youth being wasted due to seductive, abusive cultures, turning women into instruments for material pleasures, and training men in such a way that they practice this objectifying and commodifying view of women; to the innocent children in front of their parents being easily killed, thousands of children being deprived of their parents due to drone attacks to civilian areas, and black families sleeping hungry in the continent that is filled with gold, precious stones, and metals. Under such conditions where the world is full of humanitarian slogans and at the same time is afflicted by these aforementioned crises, it seems necessary and effective to ponder over and pay serious attention to the thoughts and the “practical” managerial model of Imam Ali (pbuh).



[1] Nahjul Balaghah, Sermon no. 102.

[2] Nahjul Balaghah, Sermon no. 1.

[3] In the Islamic viewpoint and Imam Ali’s (pbuh) way of thinking, the “breathing of the Divine Spirit into human beings” and “God’s being closer to human beings than their jugular vein” [Holy Qur’an, 50:16] does not mean human being’s companionship with God. And it does not mean that God and human beings are of the same kind. God is always the Absolute Creator and human beings are His creation. That is why Imam Ali (pbuh) states in the beginning of his first sermon in “The Path of Eloquence” in his description of God, “He Whom the height of intellectual courage cannot appreciate, and to the depth of Whom the deep thinkers cannot reach…”

[4] Nahjul Balaghah, Sermon no. 27.

[5] Malik Ashtar was one of Imam Ali’s (as) most loyal companions. He was appointed by him to be the governor in Egypt.

[6] Nahjul Balaghah, Letter no. 53.

[7] Nahjul Balaghah, Words of Wisdom no. 437.

[8] Nahjul Balaghah, Sermon no. 37.

[9] Nahjul Balaghah, Sermon no. 209.

[10] Nahjul Balaghah, sermon no. 3.

[11] Letter no. 25.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Taken from statements made by Sayyid Ali Khamenei in meeting with different groups on the occasion of Eid al-Ghadir; September 2016.

Source: Khamenei.ir

About Ali Teymoori

Check Also

Qāḍī ʿAbd al-Jabbār’s Theory of Justice: Its Implications for Public Law and Contemporary Political Governance in Islam

By focusing on the concepts of "rationality" and "human will," which hold paramount importance in Qāḍī ʿAbd al-Jabbār al-Muʿtazilī's theory, this article aims to provide a legal and positive interpretation of the elements of his....

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Google Analytics Alternative